Thursday, April 16, 2009

April is National Poetry Month

Ah poetry.

Many people seem to think that they should hate poetry or, at the very least, refuse to understand it. Poetry, at least when I was a kid, is not cool. I suppose that explains why so much poetry aimed at kids tries too hard to be cool.

However, there is a lot of great stuff for children and young adults just waiting for you to discover it. The two most popular authors these days are two of the most humorous. Shel Silverstein will be enjoyed for years and years to come. Where the Sidewalk Ends is read, re-read, and quoted by students and teachers alike, but my favorite, because of my love of Spoonerisms, is Runny Babbit. I know that it drives some people crazy to have to decipher the flipped words (Runny Babbit is, of course, Bunny Rabbit) but the stories in the poems are funny by themselves and the flipping of sounds just makes them that much more hilarious. Silverstein's simple line drawings are a bonus in all of his books.

The nation's children's poet laureate is Jack Prelutsky who has more poetry books with a wider range of topics than anyone else I can think of at this moment--99 9/10% of them hilarious. He clearly loves writing poetry and enjoys children of all ages. You should dabble in his work yourself to find your favorites from Uggs to Ogres. I will tell you that my favorite poem of his to read aloud is "The Sneezy Snoozer" because the "Sneezy Snoozer snoozes where the Sneezy Snoozer chooses." That one is in The Baby Uggs are Hatching.

It is easy to think that there are no other children's authors besides Silverstein and Prelutsky. To do so means that you will miss myriad great poems full of laughs and tears and sighs of recognition.

My sister-in-law who is a former teacher introduced me to Antarctic Antics : A Book of Penguin Poems by Judy Sierra many years ago. The illustrations by two of my favorite artists Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey are perfect compliments for these goofy poems full of facts about penguins. While everyone enjoys guessing the answers to the "Predator Riddles" it is "Regurgitate" that gets the crowd laughing. You will never forget how penguin babies are fed after this little rhyme that begins "It's been one whole hour since I ate./ Why is my dinner always late?" and ends "Cough it up, Dad! Regurgitate!"

With a title like Please Bury Me in the Library it was impossible for me to resist a peek into this collection by J. Patrick Lewis--an entire book of poems about books and libraries. Hidden here are some words of profound wisdom. In "Great, Good, Bad" is the best definition of what makes some books better than others. Lewis succinctly puts what we all already know into six short lines, ending with "A bad book owes to many trees/ A forest of apologies." Isn't that the truth? His definition of a classic is also right on target.

A certain young girl, now in high school, used to be drawn to Haiku! Gesundheit by Ross Venokur as if by a magnet. It would not surprise me to find that five years later she still has some of them memorized and giggles when she recites them. The tendency is to think of haiku is rather serious and difficult to decipher poems. Cast that thought away and enjoy the fully illustrated gems in this collection. There is good advice: "When brushing your hair,/ it is best to use a comb,/not a lawn mower." There are those that always makes kids laugh: "Flying over town,/ Beth saw a boy she hated / and spit on his head." There is a final summation of what haiku should be: "Haiku poetry. / Poetry or poet-tree? / Words where buds should be."

To learn about the many forms of poetry, take a look at A Kick in the Head : An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms selected by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka. From common forms like limericks and ballads to the much less familiar triolet and pantoum, every poem in this book is high quality and fun to read. A glossary of terms tells you just what to look for in each poem.

Janeczko is a poet who knows how to share his love of poetry. You will find him behind many many collections and included in many others. Don't miss A Poke in the I : A Collection of Concrete Poems. Concrete poems are impossible to reproduce here because they are words and pictures in one poem. These means that some are difficult to read aloud and all require that the reader and listener see the poem. They range from Chris Raschka's "Cat Chair" which, appropriately enough for an artist, is only one word in a lush illustration to "Swan and Shadow" by John Hollander which shows a swan and its shadow created entirely from the words of the poem which perfectly describes the subject.

For a book that is entirely a concrete story, check out Meow Ruff : A Story in Concrete Poetry by Joyce Sidman. There are many levels to this seemingly simple story of a dog and a cat. Be sure to read the grass and the table and the clouds, trees, and raindrops. Every illustration except the animals is a concrete poem. The animals speak in their own poetry from the tense beginning to the happy ending.

For strange poems, bizarre poems, that require thought, you need look no farther than F E G : Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch. The title poem "F*E*G looks like gibberish "Abie's seedy effigy/ Eight chide Jake: a lemon". But is it? Read it out loud and you will discover its secret--or most of its secret. Why does it end the way it does? The book is flush with poems that play with words, like the many meanings for the word "flush". Sometimes it is a bit deep for me and other times it is perfect.

No list of children's poetry would be complete with mention of Douglas Florian who introduces the animal world through poetry. For example, Insectlopedia is filled with factual information about insects of all sorts, but each comes with a twist. Ticks are "Not gigan-tic./ Not roman-tic" and not many other things but they are "strictly parasi-tic." We wonder if the father giant water bug who lugs his kids on his back ever gets anything for Father's Day. Did daddy longlegs get such long legs "From spiderobic/Exercise?"

Joyce Sidman also writes about nature in the award winning Song of the Waterboatman and Other Pond Poems and its sequel Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. They are beautiful, imaginative, and amazingly illustrated as well as being chock full of information. Read them. But then explore some of the other things Sidman has to offer. The World According to Dog : Poems and Teen Voices is a collection of poems that will tug at your heart and make you laugh--especially if you are a dog lover. Don't forget Meow Ruff, mentioned above. My favorite Sidman to date has to This is Just to Say : Poem of Apology and Forgiveness which presents itself as a collection of apology poems by children in an imagined sixth grade class. Those poems make up the first half of the book. Some are very funny and some are heart wrenchingly sad. Thomas apologizes for swiping a doughnut or two from the teacher's lounge. Kyle and Reuben both have apologies to make about a dodge ball game gone wrong. Carmen apologizes to the teacher for criticizing her fashion sense or lack thereof. There are apologies to parents for missed opportunities and for missing them. There are apologies to pets who died and siblings who want to die of embarrassment. The responses that make up the second half of the book are as real as the apologies. All were inspired, of course, by a famous poem by William Carlos Williams called "This is Just to Say" in which he apologies for eating the plums that someone else was probably saving, admitting as he apologizes that he enjoyed every delicious bite.

There are authors who seem to think it is a good idea to combine poetry and a novel in one succinct book. When this is done well, it is amazing. Done poorly, it is a torture to read and will drive legions of readers away from poetry for a life time. For a taste of the good take a look at two of the best authors for middle grade readers. Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is so simple and so satisfying. It will take a short time to read but will stay with you for a long, long time. It is the story of a boy who adamantly does NOT like poetry but his teacher requires that he write some every day. Gradually he pours out his life story and learns to express why he loves a special dog. Hate That Cat follows the same boy and his teacher the next year. It was not as satisfying and I have had more than one student refuse to read because nobody could or should ever hate a cat.

Karen Hesse is a master of this form, adding historical fiction to the mix for a triple whammy effect. Out of the Dust is the most moving description of life during the Dust Bowl that I have ever read. By the second poem the reader forgets that this is in free verse and is swept up in the story, egged on by the beauty of the words. Witness is an even greater undertaking because it is told in many voices, each ringing true and clear. The time is 1924. The place is small town Vermont. The Ku Klux Klan is trying to establish roots in the town. Hear the voices of the people who think this is just what the town needs and those who fear that the coming of the Klan will shatter their lives.

No comments: