Under the Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke, illustrated by London Ladd
Told in free verse, this picture book is the story of how the first contraband camp formed during the Civil War. It all started with three runaway slaves who escaped across a river to a Union-held fort. Though the Confederate Army tried to demand their return, the general at the fort declared them “contraband of war” and offered them protection and a place to live. The three were quickly joined by a flood of people crossing the line into Union territory and they began to build a home for themselves near the fort. The freedom tree is the Emancipation Oak which stood witness to the events that unfolded, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which set all of the residents of the camp free.
VanHecke’s verse is loose and beautiful. She captures the danger the slaves faced in crossing the Confederate line, the risks they took asking for shelter, and the clever solution found by the general. She offers an author’s note in prose to give more historical context to the camp and the Emancipation Oak.
Ladd’s illustrations are lush and detailed. His paintings capture the hope of emancipation, the darkness of escape by water and night, and the beauty of the oak. The illustrations clearly honor the first three men who escaped to the fort, showing them as they wait for the judgment of whether they must return to slavery or not.
A little-known part of the history of the Civil War, this book in verse pays homage to the courage of the men who created the contraband camp. Appropriate for ages 6-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.
Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth
Join Koo, a panda, on an exploration of the seasons through haiku poems. The book begins with fall and haikus about fall leaves, wind, and rain. Winter comes next with poetry about snow and ice. Spring is bridged into with a glimpse of crocuses and then grass, insects, and birds. Summer arrives with fireflies, flowers and water. In 26 poems, this is a lovely celebration of the small things that make each season special.
Muth has created haikus that are beautifully written. They capture small moments in time and also point to the larger importance of these moments. They continue Muth’s Buddhist focus in his picture books, offering children a way to see these times of mindfulness as important and worthy of exploration.
Muth’s watercolor illustrations have a wonderful spirit to them. The palette changes colors as the seasons change with spring bouncing in green especially after the white cold of winter. He captures the seasons so well that your attitude changes with each season as well.
A stellar collection of haiku, this book will invite young readers to see nature and seasons in a fresh new way. Appropriate for ages 5-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
There are just over thirty poems in this collection and as promised in the title, all of them are very short. These short poems though each have power and perfection in just a few words, offering insight into the way that language can be edited and played with to make it speak much more than the few words on the page. Readers will find poems that are well-known mixed with others that are delightful new surprises. Through it all, there is a feeling of joy that comes from the page and from the words as well as a pleasure of traveling the seasons through poetry.
Thanks to the brevity of all of these poems, this is a very child-friendly book to introduce children to poetry. Their condensed format also gives them a lot of power and bang per word, which makes them easy to discuss with children. Readers will also want to try their hands at creating short poems and are sure to quickly realize that while they read easily, they are very difficult to create. That makes this book all the more impressive with its high level of quality of poem and a perfect level of accessibility for youth.
Sweet’s illustrations frame the poems into one cohesive unit. They celebrate the small things, like these poems and their themes, looking at leaves, butterflies, fog and lots of other bits of nature. Her work is playful and yet not too light, bringing depth into each image.
A beautiful collection of short poems, this belongs in every library and would make a perfect way to start every day with a poem. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Goodnight Songs by Margaret Wise Brown
A new collection of previously unpublished poems from the master Margaret Wise Brown are illustrated here by twelve different illustrators. According to the introduction by Amy Gary, the editor of the Margaret Wise Brown Estate, these poems were part of a trunk of unpublished manuscripts that Margaret’s sister had in her barn. They reflect the interest that Margaret developed towards the end of her life in creating music for children. The book is accompanied by a music CD that brings the poems into song. This book is just as enjoyable as a song book or a poetry book, make sure to try it out both ways!
Brown’s poems are simple and lovely. Some of them read like nursery rhymes with plenty of repetition of phrase and style. Others are a bit looser but still musical even as words. She created small worlds in each song, offering lovely gems of moments in each one. I have a handful of top favorites from the book: “The Mouse’s Prayer” which is a beautiful wintry poem, “Wooden Town” that evokes a childhood joy of creating a little world of blocks, and “The Secret Song” which is a question and answer poem that is quiet and lonely.
The twelve illustrators make up some of the top illustrators in today’s picture books. There is a great pleasure in turning the page and seeing an entirely different feel with the next poem. Some are bright and sunny, others deep colored like the night, and still others filled with snow. The styles reflect each of the illustrators and as a whole the book works extremely well, giving each poem a distinct note of its own on the page.
A top pick for children’s poetry, these songs are a dazzling collection from a very talented writer. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
May the Stars Drip Down by Jeremy Chatelain, illustrated by Nikki McClure
Quiet and lovely, this is a picture book version of the lullaby by indie rock band Cub Country. That song is haunting and beautiful with its slow pace. This book is much the same. The lyrics to the song read as a poem on the page, one that takes a child on a journey of dreams before returning back home again. It is a book designed for reading at bedtime in the same soothing pace as the song.
McClure’s cut paper art adds to the beauty of the book. Done entirely in blues and whites, the book invites children to twilight and darkness. Throughout the book the night is celebrated in its beauty, from the moon on the sea to the the owl winging past. There is a sense both in the poem and the art that you are seeing into the secrets of the evening.
A gorgeous new version of a song, this book is ideal for bedtime reading and dreaming. Appropriate for ages 2-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books.
Little Poems for Tiny Ears by Lin Oliver, illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Celebrate the wonder of babyhood and toddlerhood with this collection of poems ideal for the youngest listeners. These poems document the small moments of a child’s early years, seeing these little things as exactly what they are: the foundation of the future. So each moment is given a gravity by the poems but they are also entirely playful and fun. There are poems about body parts like noses and tongues, poems about peekaboo and high chairs, poems about naps, others about baths. Each is short, clever and just right for sharing aloud.
DePaola has illustrated the poems with his signature style, depicting children of all colors and nationalities. His illustrations embrace the gentleness of the entire book with their soft and bright colors and clear demonstrations of love.
Get this on the shelves right next to Mother Goose, because what you have here is a new classic set of poetry for the little ones. Appropriate for ages 1-3.
Reviewed from library copy.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
A celebrated poet and author of books for children and teens, Nelson tells the story of growing up in the Civil Rights era and her connection to poetry. In fifty poems, several of which have been previously published, Nelson reveals her growing up from age 4 through 14 during the 1950s and 1960s. The poems show her progression from child to a self-aware teen who is directly impacted by the changes in civil rights. Nelson also touches on the Cold War and feminism along with race in these poems. Each poem here is a gem, carefully crafted and firmly placed in its setting in the book. Beautiful.
In her author’s note, Nelson mentions that she prefers not to see the character in the book as herself but rather as “The Speaker.” The first person perspective though will leave readers assuming that this is Nelson’s personal story and journey and it’s difficult to change that perception after reading the entire book. Perhaps even more than the historical period it is The Speaker’s love of poetry and writing that makes the connection to Nelson as that person ring so true. It is that love of poetry and words that makes each poem so beautiful, but also makes the narrator come alive.
Beautiful and worth rereading and revisiting, this collection of poems that forms a story is deep and worth submerging yourself in. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems by J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
This collaboration between two masters of children’s poetry will transport you to new and different places. Filled with cars that are amazing and wild, the humor-filled poems will delight. Visit the times of the dinosaurs, underwater driving, cars made of paper or shoes. Even cars made from bathtubs and bugs. The poetry flows fast and furious, a perfect pace for young car enthusiasts who may be surprised at how much they enjoy poems.
Lewis and Florian write with a single hand here, the poems flowing naturally from one to the other, the styles of each forming one cohesive whole. They use humor to great effect both in the titles of the poems and throughout, delighting with puns and word play. The poems are also very brief, perfect for young readers to enjoy or even memorize.
The art by Holmes plays up the humor in the poems. His busy active style has lots of motion and zany combinations. The dinosaur car looks like it could reach right off the page and grab you, the ocean page will have you floating along merrily, and the blueprint style of the contents page sets the tone early.
Perfect poems to share aloud with a class, this one may get lost in poetry collections but marketed correctly should zoom off of library shelves. Beep beep!
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Taken from Rylant’s previous book of poetry, God Went to Beauty School, this smaller collection is completely disarming and dazzling. Repackaged for a younger audience, this book celebrates God in a wonderfully homely and down-to-earth way that manages at the same time to make Him/Her all the more wondrous. In a series of poems, God goes to beauty school because he loves hands so much. She goes for a ride in a boat for the first time and gets an entirely new perspective on water. He goes to the doctor. She tries out a desk job for awhile. He visits India. She writes a book. They are small moments, small things to do, but in the end they are all profound and beautiful.
As someone who is trying to slow down and enjoy the small things in life, this book truly speaks to me. It is about God himself doing exactly the same thing. Rylant injects each of the poems with a lovely quiet humor and a softness that enriches each moment. Her poems are completely relatable, understandable by elementary children but also deep enough to be appreciated by adults.
Frazee was the ideal person to illustrate this book. With her soft colors and natural humor, Frazee captures these moments in God’s day. Each is beautifully set up, but also simple and honest. They are singular but also create a lovely whole.
Smart, funny and above all kind and radiant, this book will make a great holiday gift for all ages as well as a wonderful way to start talking about spirituality. Appropriate for all ages.
Reviewed from library copy.
Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes
Gabby has always been a daydreamer, but when her parents started fighting and then separated, she started retreating into her daydreams more and more. Now Gabby lives with just her mother, who is not a daydreaming type at all. So the two of them clash. Gabby also gets in trouble at school due to her dreamy ways and not paying attention to what is happening in class. But along the way, readers will see that Gabby is much more than a daydreamer, she is a poet. Eventually, her mother will come to terms with her way of thinking and she will find that she has a teacher who not only supports Gabby’s daydreaming but makes it part of his curriculum.
Grimes writes in short free verse, some of the poems only a handful of lines long. Yet because these are poems written by a master poet, they each speak truth. There are poems that talk about moving and autumn, others that celebrate family members, and at the heart of the book are the many poems that celebrate dreaming, lingering and Gabby herself. Grimes was clearly the sort of child who also daydreamed, since she captures it so well.
I deeply appreciate that this book does not “fix” Gabby’s daydreaming. Instead it is the adults who adopt a new attitude towards her once they realize that she is thinking and processing and writing in her head. Gabby is expected to change some of her behaviors in class and is supported in doing this by a very engaged and kind teacher who promises that she will have time to dream and to record those dreams she has. Gabby is the sort of heroine that one loves immediately, and she is also one that readers will cheer to see succeeding on her own terms.
Beautiful and strong poems support a world where imagination and creativity is accepted and poets survive their childhood intact. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.