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.
I Am the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
In this book that combines verse and photography, children from around the world are celebrated. The images and verse both speak to the wide diversity of people and cultures that make up our world. At the same time, the universal aspects of children from all cultures are celebrated too, including their strength and spirit. The combination of a simple and powerful poem and dynamic photographs make for a book that is just as vibrant as its subjects.
Smith is a Coretta Scott King Award winner and his photographs here speak to his skill. He captures children mid-motion and often in full smile. His photos are combined with a poem that is simple but also strong, offering subtle rhyme and incorporating enough culture-specific words that a glossary is offered at the end.
Beautiful, warm and inclusive, this title is a celebration of children across the globe. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Moods are matched with colors in this jazzy picture book. Jamie is having a really great day, feeling purple and just being. But when his brothers kick him off the couch, his mood turns stormy gray. As he draws, his mood turns green and easy. Then his older brothers make fun of his drawing and Jamie’s mood turns black. Basketball gives him a swishing orange mood and running home almost late has him racing red. Family dinner is lemon pie yellow and washing up brings on tides of bluesy feelings. The day ends with that same cold plum purple mood as it began with. What color is your mood?
Brown’s poetry has a jazz beat and lots of metaphors that make it dance in your mind. Children will immediately recognize the moods and easily relate the colors to them. From the teasing of older brothers to the pleasure of making art, Jamie’s moods are universal. Brown’s writing begs to be read aloud, written so that it tumbles off the tongue.
Evan’s illustrations have a jaunty vibe that matches that of the poem. The art is digital collage created with oil paints and graphite. The illustrations have a great depth of color, something that makes this book all the more vibrant. They also have a wonderful texture from the paint and from swirls in the color.
This is a positive way to look at complex emotions and would make a great book to start a discussion about feelings and moods. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
Follow Follow by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josee Masse
This is the second book of reverso poems by Singer, following her amazing Mirror Mirror. In a form she invented, Singer tells the stories of fairy tales using a poem and then reversing the lines and changing the punctuation to tell the other side of the story. The result are brain teasing poems that illuminate the darkness inherent in the tales themselves. This group of poems includes stories that may not be familiar to readers, so the index of stories at the end of the book will be welcome.
As with her first book, some of the reversos work better than others. Here my favorites are The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and The Tortoise and the Hare. All of the poems have a wonderful cleverness and wit to them, making them all infinitely readable and a great deal of fun. This is a celebration of poetry, fairy tales and word play all wrapped into one delight.
Masse’s illustrations are done on wood, giving them a wonderful texture that is reminiscent of tapestries and medieval images. Her use of jewel tones evokes that period even more. All of the images are also double-sided, showing both sides of the poem in one united image.
Perfect for fans of fairy tales, this clever and delicious book will have them seeking out the unfamiliar tales to read them in full. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
Stardines: Swim High across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Carin Berger
This poetry book takes the wit of Prelutsky and combines it with equally amazing illustrations. Prelutsky tells of unusual creatures in his poems here. He writes of creatures who are a mix of animal and inanimate objects. For example, there are the Slobsters who are very messy lobsters who love being crude and dirty. There are Plandas who are pandas that sit around and make elaborate plans but never do anything. Tattlesnakes are snakes who are nosy and always tattling on others. This menagerie of incredible creatures will be enjoyed by children who love puns and humor.
Prelutsky excels at creating poetry that both of interest to children but will also make them stretch their vocabulary a bit. He throws in words like “slovenly,” “pretension” and even “lachrymose.” Thanks to his rhythm and rhymes, these words slide by almost effortlessly and usually the definition can be figured out in the context. He also has woven puns and humor into all of the poems, nicely creating creatures that speak more to the human condition than to the animal.
It is Berger’s art that really makes this book an incredible read. Thanks to her dioramas that show the creatures in collages and boxes, the book is a true exploration of the intriguing. She has deftly incorporated pins and labels that make the illustrations look like lab specimens, but without hampering all of the action in the images by pinning down the animals themselves.
Thrilling illustrations and superb children’s poetry create a poetry book that is wild, funny and a delight to read. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Greenwillow Books.
The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle, award-winning author of verse novels, continues her stories of Cuba. In this book, she explores the life of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula, who becomes a revolutionary Cuban poet. Raised to be married off to save the family financially, Tula even as a young girl relates more closely with slaves and the books she is reading than with girls of her own age and her own social standing. As she reads more and more, sheltered by both her younger brother and the nuns at the convent, Tula starts to explore revolutionary ideas about freedom for slaves and for women. In a country that is not free, Tula herself is not free either and is forced to confront an arranged marriage, the brutality of slavery, and find her own voice.
Engle writes verse novels with such a beauty that they are impossible to put down. Seemingly light confections of verse, they are actually strong, often angry and always powerful. Here, Engle captures the way that girls are asked to sacrifice themselves for their families, the importance of education for young women, and the loss of self. She doesn’t shy away from issues of slavery either. At it’s heart though, this novel is about the power of words to free people, whether that is Tula herself, her brother or a family slave and friend.
Highly recommended, this is another dazzling and compelling novel from a master poet. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So
These poems celebrate heroes who have fought for civil rights. Each poem focuses on one person, tells their story in imagery and strength. Seventeen men and women are on the pages here, people from around the world and from the American Civil Rights Movement. These are heroes who fought for justice and for equality. Their stories and these poems are filled with courage, vision and a sense of doing what is right. They will serve as inspiration for future generations who will have their own civil rights struggles to face.
Lewis has created poems that are both art but also informational. He offers critical details in understanding what these heroes have been through and what they have accomplished. At the same time, he reaches the heart of the person through his poetry too, showing the humanity about them as well.
The art in this book of poems was done by five illustrators. The images range from the bright colors of Chinatown to the darkness of murder in Mississippi. In every image though, readers see a leader who radiates courage. The different art styles come together to form a tapestry of that courage.
Strong and powerful, this book of poetry deserves to be shared widely and these names known and understood. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald
This true story of a young Jewish girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris is told in verse. Odette’s father is sent to a Nazi work camp and her mother works hard to protect Odette. As the Jews in Paris are steadily more badly treated, Odette has to wear a yellow star on her clothing and is unwelcome in many places in the city. Even at school, Odette is bullied for being Jewish. When their apartment is raided in the middle of the night, Odette and her mother hide in their landlady’s cupboard. After that, Odette is sent to the country to live. There she learns to pretend to be Christian so that she isn’t discovered. When her mother is forced to flee Paris, the two of them move together to live in the French countryside as peasants, but Nazis and bigotry are never far behind. Odette learns that sometimes secrets are vital to survival and just as hard to stop keeping as they are to keep.
Macdonald writes in her author’s note about the inspiration for creating a children’s book that tells the story of the real Odette. It is interesting to learn about the transition from straight nonfiction to a verse novel. I’m so pleased that the end result was this novel in free verse, because Macdonald writes verse with a wonderful eye to both the story she is telling and the poetry itself. She truly creates the scenes of Paris and the French countryside in her poems, making each place special and amazing.
Perhaps most amazing is Odette herself, a protagonist living in a brutal and complicated time, forced to lie to stay alive. Odette has to learn to deal with the fear she lives in every day, something that no one should have to get used to. There was the fear of slipping and telling the secrets she held but also the fear that someone could figure out they were Jewish without any slip from Odette. Macdonald creates quite a dramatic series of events that point out that Odette was terrified for very good reason.
Beautiful verse combined with a true story of a young girl World War II France makes this a very successful book that cuts right to the heart and lays all its secrets bare. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Bloomsbury.
Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng
Told in virtuoso verse, this is the true story of the life of Dave, an enslaved potter who lived in the years before and after Emancipation. Dave was an artist, most likely making over a thousand pieces of pottery in his lifetime of work of which only 170 survive today. He inscribed some of his pieces with either his own name, his master’s name and also poetry that he wrote, brief verses that offer a glimpse into his world. The amount of bravery that small act took is monumental, since Dave faced potential death because he was demonstrating his ability to read and write in a time when it was forbidden for slaves in South Carolina to do so. Dave serves both as an example of the injustice and brutality of slavery and also as a remarkable example of the artistry and strength of human beings.
Cheng tells Dave’s story in very short poems. They are not all in Dave’s voice, sometimes instead being in the voice of his owners, his wife, or his children. Cheng does not soften the harshness of slavery, offering poems that speak directly to the separation of families through selling them apart and the brutality of the punishments inflicted. I would not call it unflinching, because one can sense Cheng flinching alongside the reader as she captures the moment but also makes it completely human and important.
Cheng also did the woodcuts that accompany the poetry. They are a harmonious combination with the subject matter thanks to their rough edges and hand-hewn feel. Done only in black and white, they share the same powerful message as the poems.
This powerful book informs middle grade readers about a man who could have been one of the many lost faces of slavery but who through art and bravery had a voice. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books.