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Poetry, Please

By Karen Hildebrand
 | Mar 28, 2016

The power of poetry goes beyond  beautiful and/or emotional responses to life. It offers opportunities for language development for readers of all ages. Better readers and writers are built through hearing and reading rhyming words. Poetry offers multiple perspectives on themes, objects, or life situations, and the pure pleasure of hearing it is not to be overlooked. Listening to it read aloud is an important classroom activity for children and teens and its word play, descriptive metaphorical language, imagery, and more create a lasting impact.

Ages 4–8

Among a Thousand Fireflies. Helen Frost. Ill. Rick Lieder. 2016. Candlewick.

one thousand firefliesThe gentle poetry of Helen Frost, coupled with the beautiful photography of Rick Lieder, makes for a natural winner in this book of science, poetry, and photography. Step Gently Out (2012)and Sweep Up the Sun (2015) launched their set of books devoted to explaining phenomenon in the natural world. In this latest volume, a female firefly steps onto a flower and begins her series of flashes. As other flashes appear in the dark, it seems she is searching for one particular flash. As the endnote explains, “Each kind of firefly has its own pattern of flashes.” This female firefly is indeed waiting for a certain male firefly to match her flashing pattern. Through the night photography and simple lyrical language of Among a Thousand Fireflies, young readers will observe the fireflies in the dark as they find each other. This is a beautiful book on every level.

Every Day Birds. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Ill. Dylan Metrano. 2016. Orchard/Scholastic.

every day birdsAmy Ludwig VanDerwater introduces young children to 20 North American birds through simple poetry. Each bird is introduced on a page with its name in bold capital letters; a portrait, composed with cut colored and textured papers; and a few words describing its physical characteristics, behavior or habitat. Each grouping of four birds creates a verse. For example, “Eagle soars above the land. / Oriole hangs her nest. / Owl swoops soundlessly late at night. / Robin puffs his chest.” The birds included are species that children can easily spot in their backyards or a park or at the seashore. A four-page glossary with pictures adds further information about each bird for young bird watchers.

Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks. Skila Brown. Ill. Bob Kolar. 2016. Candlewick.

slickety quickOpening with the great white shark, Brown goes on to present lesser known species of sharks, 14 in all, in poems written in different forms. Some poems are written as concrete poems such as the one about the nurse shark in which the first line of poetry is shaped like a frown across the face of the shark; or the verse about the  cookie-cutter shark, which is written in a swirl to look like a cookie.  Kolar’s digitally created illustrations always maintain the feel of underwater movement, sometimes catching the sharks from above while at other times showing them hugging the ocean bottom. Other fish float in and out of each picture, sometimes providing dinner and at other times representing just neighborly sharing of ocean space. Additional information about each shark appears on the double spreads in a smaller type. Young readers will be left with a great deal of knowledge about sharks in their ocean habitat, presented in poetry and artwork.

Ages 9–11

Kooky Crumbs: Poems in Praise of Dizzy Days. J. Patrick Lewis. Ill. Mary Uhles. 2016. Kane Miller.

kooky crumbsThe whimsical pastel-colored waves on the endpapers sail the reader into the silly pages of poetry waiting inside this book. Former Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis has created a collection of dizzy poems celebrating often unheard-of holidays throughout the year. The introduction says, “No matter the day, no matter the month, no matter the year, there’s always something to celebrate!” So true! Rhyming couplets, concrete poems, and limericks are just a few of the forms of poetry found within. Fun illustrations add to the frivolity of these crazy poetic celebrations. The National Weatherperson’s Day poem, “Weather Is for the Verbs,” for example, is a list poem that begins “Wind whines, / Fog blinds, / Rain thrums, / Hail drums, / Ice crumbs, / Sleep whips, / Snow grips, / Frost nips— / Weather persons, / ‘Winter worsens.’” Other poems celebrate Inventor’s Day, Pancake Day, National Hat Day, World Telecommunications Day, National Zipper Day, Change a Light Day, National Sportsmanship Day, and many more. These zany poems can be used as starting points for having young children suggest other dizzy holidays and write poems to celebrate them.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Laura Shovan. 2016. Wendy Lamb/Random House.

the last fifth gradeDebut author Laura Shovan has created a novel in verse centering on the closing of Emerson Elementary. Ms. Hill, their teacher, asks her 18 fifth-grade students to write a poem each day for their journals to express how they are feeling about being split up and sent to different schools once Emerson has been bulldozed to make way for a shopping area. She will be the only one to read the journals, and at the end of the year they will be placed in a time capsule. As the 18 youthful voices emerge in the poems, we see what a diverse class Ms. Hill has. The students write about their personal lives with situations like an aging grandfather, a father leaving home, immigration to this country, and friends that are pushy. Shovan has captured the voices of fifth graders as they express their thoughts through writing acrostic, concrete, haiku, or free verse poetry. The author has added a detailed appendix of the different poetic forms used by the students.

Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems. Bob Raczka. 2016. Roaring Brook.

wet cementThis lively group of 21 poems has no illustrations because the poems are the illustrations. Cleverly grouped topics and words create a visual experience that is fun for readers but may be a little frustrating. For example, in “Crossword,” readers have to read up and down and across to get the rhythm of the poem, and in “Hopscotch,” it may take them time to realize they have to read from bottom to top. Students (and adults) will have fun not only figuring out these very clever concrete poems but also taking another minute to appreciate the cleverness of the construction of the concrete poems, the wordplay, and the use of light and dark. Readers will get into the spirit of this book from the cover, on to the table-shaped table of contents, through all 21 poems, to the circular copyright notation. The last poem, “poeTRY”, says it all when reaching out to young poets to express their ideas by creating concrete poetry: “Poetry is taking away the words you don’t need / poetry is taking away words you don’t need / poetry is words you need /poetry is words / try.”

Ages 12–14

Free Verse. Sarah Dooley. 2016. Putnam/Penguin.

free verseSeventh-grade Sasha has lost everything she loves in the small coal mining town of Caboose, WV. Her mother left the family years ago, her father was killed in a mining accident, and now her caregiver brother, Michael, has been killed in a fire. Sasha is sent to live with a kind foster mother, Phyllis. Sasha’s anger builds and sometimes her emotions vent into violent outbursts, which she cannot control or even remember. She begins to spend time with Mikey, the kid next door, who she later discovers is related to her. Learning to become a friend leads her to join the school poetry club. This membership opens an entire new world to Sasha in which she learns the power of poetry, particularly haiku. It’s short, it’s sharp, and it can express exactly how Sasha is feeling. Haiku gives her the outlet she needs to talk about her life, her feelings, and her losses. Author Sarah Dooley has intermixed a story about a girl who hurts with the poems the girl writes. As her poetry collection grows and Sasha discovers more forms of poetry, she is on the path to recovery and opens up to possibilities for her future.

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph. Roxane Orgill. Ill. Francis Vallejo. 2016. Candlewick.

jazz dayZero in on the subtitle, “The Making of a Famous Photograph.” In 1958, Esquire magazine agreed to support graphic designer Art Kane when he came up with the idea to take a photograph of all the jazz greats he could bring together at one time. This was no easy task. Jazz musicians work late into the night. The appointed time for taking the photograph was 10:00 a.m. Aug. 12 at 126th Street in Harlem. Although jazz artists might be expected to be on the road or still sleeping in, more than 50 musicians showed up for the photo session. Art Kane had his work cut out for him. Organizing this group of outgoing performers was like herding cats. They were all greeting each other and catching up on their lives. Deep and friendly conversations were going on and the chatter was noisy. After four or five hours, Kane got them lined up for what was to become the famous photo “Harlem 1958.”Roxane Orgill’s poems about that day feature many of the jazz greats in the photo but also other things that were happening such as children gathering to watch the photo shoot and other people in the neighborhood coming out to see all these famous musicians gathered in one spot. The collection of poetry about this day, of course, leads to the pièce de résistance, a foldout page that reveals the actual photograph. Back matter includes an author’s note on the backstory, short biographies of the musicians, source notes, and an extensive bibliography.

Ages 15+

American Ace. Marilyn Nelson. 2016. Dial/Penguin.

american aceAward-winning poet and historian Marilyn Nelson brings another piece of history to the poetry arena. Written in free verse, the story of the true identity of Connor Bianchini’s grandfather comes to light upon the death of his beloved Italian-American Nonna Lucia. Connor’s father, Tony, always believed he was Irish-Italian based on family stories. When his mother dies, leaving him a letter, a ring, and pilot’s wings, Tony learns that his biological father was African American. Though Tony is devastated by this news, 16-year-old Connor is fascinated and devotes his honors history research paper to finding out about this newly found grandfather. His research leads him to Wilberforce University, the oldest historically black college and university in the U.S., where he learns that his grandfather had been part of the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. When Tony suffers a stroke and is hospitalized, Connor and his father spend time together delving into the research and begin to feel a sense of great pride in their heritage.

Karen Hildebrand is a retired school librarian active in ILA and NCTE. She is part of the Teacher Fellowship program at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., serves as the Education Curriculum Chair of the Delaware County Historical Society in Ohio, and recently served on the Notable Trade Books in the Social Studies committee. She currently serves as the chair of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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