The poetry petting zoo
Along with April showers comes National Poetry Month! This month's selections are akin to a poetry petting zoo: Kids can get up close and personal with poems that represent everything from sound and meaning to simple rhymes to haiku. Each selection emphasizes the way words interact with each other and can be used as developmental tools.
I Heard a Little Baa, written by Elizabeth MacLeod and illustrated by Louise Phillips, is composed of nine vignettes in which sounds are explored. For example, the sound eeeeek is represented by the following rhyme: I heard a little squeak; I searched around the house. First I saw two shiny eyes, And then I saw a . . . Well, you get the picture. Very young children will find this book loads of fun, not only because the author has a great sense of humor but because each vignette has a page pull-out. The animal making the sound is hidden, and children must uncover it to find out what makes the sound. The book's bright, fun illustrations and interactive qualities practically guarantee that this small book will get a lot of use.
Similarly, Farmer Brown Goes Round and Round also explores the sounds of animals and is a personal favorite. Meant for children in the 2-5 age range, very old children (like me, for instance) will also delight in the adventures of Farmer Brown and his rowdy charges as they are thrown into a tornado. The ensuing mayhem causes his cows to oink, the pigs to moo, and his sheep to cluck. When Farmer Brown tries to shout, What's wrong with you?, the words come out, COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO! He soon finds himself taking orders from the rooster who is, ahem, demanding, to say the least. Luckily, another tornado comes to town, and that's the salvation of Farmer Brown. Teri Sloat's writing is so exuberant that children won't stop laughing. And the illustrations are superb! Nadine Bernard Westcott's characters are quirky, expressive, and unforgettable. This book is a testament to fluidity and sound.
A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes is the largest of this month's featured books, which is good because children will certainly use it for years. The book is broken into sections. Welcome, Little Baby is composed of rhymes about babies. Kady McDonald Denton has done a good job of compiling globally representative rhymes, and she includes illustrations that reflect the diversity of our world's children.
Toddler Time, the second section, contains old favorites reminiscent of parents' own childhoods, with rhymes such as Rub-a-dub-dub and Humpty Dumpty. Denton also provides a particularly useful index of titles and first lines. This book is designed to accompany your child throughout his youth, and becomes a valued friend in the process. F
ollowing the theme of diversity, I Call It Sky is different in tone than the other poetry books featured this month. Here is a contemplative book that will introduce children to new ways of considering our natural surroundings. I Call It Sky explains to kids not only how the weather is produced, but how it affects human beings. For example, Will C. Howell has gracefully captured how rain is made: Sometimes wet air gathers in big black bunches of clouds. When the clouds get too heavy, they squeeze out rain. Howell then moves from the literal to the figurative by emphasizing that every child experiences weather, thereby pointing young readers to a more global view of the world. John Ward has captured the expansive nature of the book's subject with his broad and generous illustrations. Each grouping of pages represents whichever weather pattern is being discussed: fog looks and feels foggy; breeze looks and feels refreshing. Essentially, if your child has had questions like, Why does it rain? or What is fog? you'll find this book useful.
Isn't My Name Magical: Sister and Brother Poems written by James Berry and illustrated by Shelly Hechenberger, explores the world of Dreena and Delroy, the sister and brother poetry-writing characters. Children will read poems with titles that are (thankfully) beyond cute: Dreena's Notebook That Makes People Laugh and Delroy the Skateboard Roller, for example. Soon we learn that Dreena and Delroy live with their schoolteacher mother and train-conductor father, and enjoy a typical sister and brother relationship. Their poetry is anything but typical, however. The insightful verse makes this book a special treat for any young reader. James Berry and Shelly Hechenberger capture the essentials of personification and provide a glimpse of the beauty in normal lives while depicting those lives with vivid and robust coloration.
Cool Melons--Turn to Frogs: The Life and Poems of Issa may be the most beautifully crafted of all of these books. A combination of story and haiku translations, illustrations, and calligraphy, Cool Melons offers children a glimpse into the life of Kobayashi Yataro, otherwise known as Issa a poet American children may know little about. This resplendent story captures the joys and sorrows of Issa's life, including the loss of his mother, his seven-year walk around the Japanese countryside, the reunion with his father, the loss of his daughter, and the uniting thread of it all his love of and respect for nature. Throughout his life, Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku, several of which Gollub includes. To further add to the book's loveliness and significance, Kazuko G. Stone, a native of Japan, has created exquisite illustrations that effortlessly weave into the text. Additionally, every haiku included in the book is also written in Japanese calligraphy, creating a sophisticated story and an equally elegant presentation. If there is another book on the market which so successfully combines narrative, poetry, and art, I've not found it. Issa, I think, would be proud.
Finally, King Honor Book The Other Side: Shorter Poems is, within this grouping of books, a title best suited for older children. Angela Johnson writes clear, concise poetry about growing up in Shorter, Alabama, and includes a cast of characters both specific and universal. In her preface, Johnson says, "My poetry doesn't sing the song of the sonnets/but then I sing a different kind of music." Those words accurately foretell the experience young readers will have with these full-bodied and sassy poems. Following a clear narrative, the journey begins when Johnson's grandmother writes, "They're pullin' Shorter down." We soon discover that the small town has been steadily sold off to a large company who has plans to move out the remaining residents and move in a race track. The ensuing poems reveal that, like most people, Johnson has a complex relationship with her hometown. She writes: "You'd have to be/crazy/to want to live/your life in/a place like Shorter, Alabama . . . /You'd have to be crazy/to want/to wake/up every morning to sweet/magnolia and moist red/dirt . . . "Johnson offers contradiction and implication of loving and hating, wanting and despising, themes relevant to adolescents. The Other Side is a work of honesty, depicting a generosity of spirit. Children deserve poetry that's a fact. Gone are the days of poetry that is too complex and inaccessible for kids. In are the days of fun and exciting poetry. Thank goodness.
Crystal Williams is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Cornell University.