Tag Archive: poetry


Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess

Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (InfoSoup)

This picture book biography of the great poet E. E. Cummings is exceptional. Focusing on Cummings’ early years primarily, the book invites young readers to view their own world with wonder and to try to put it into words. As a young boy Cummings was already creating poetry, starting at age three. His mother wrote down his poems for him as he recited them aloud. His imagination extended to art as well, but his real love was words which he approached very playfully, often creating his own words or mashing ones together into new ones. The book emphasizes the hard work that Cummings put into his craft, including spending lots of quiet time observing the world around him for inspiration. After graduating from Harvard, Cummings headed to New York City where he found new inspiration all around him. He served in World War I and published his first books soon after the war ended. His poems were both loved and controversial as he toyed with form and words. Filled with Cummings’ poems as examples, this picture book is a joy to read.

Burgess does a great job with his prose which introduces the young Cummings and his early poems and then follows him as he grows older and his poems grow with him. I appreciate that the book was not attempted to be written using Cummings’ unique style. Rather it is a book that pays homage to the art, the inspiration and the man himself. Spending so much time on Cummings’ youth makes the book much more appealing to young readers who will find inspiration both in Cummings’ age when he began to write and in his poems simplicity.

The art by Di Giacomo is filled with textures and patterns. Words dance across the page, playful and light. They often break free of the lines of prose, merging to be part of the art itself. Words float up on breezes, lengthen with hot summer days, and zing with the style of New York City.

A fabulous biographical picture book, this book is a great introduction to E.E. Cummings and his work. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.

sweep up the sun

Sweep Up the Sun by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder (InfoSoup)

The pair who created Step Gently Out return with another gorgeous book connecting young readers to nature. This picture book focuses on birds and flight, using the metaphor to encourage young people to “fly” themselves and spread their own wings in life. The poem at the heart of the book is simple and lovely, creating a sense of wonder and opportunity. The photographs dynamically capture eleven species of birds in flight and in their natural habitats. There are wide-mouthed babies in the nest and incredible pictures of birds in full flight, like the one on the cover. This is a book that inspires both in words and images.

Frost is a gifted poet who has written novels in verse for older readers as well as picture books for younger readers. Her words here create a positive feeling of strength for the reader, showing them what is possible. At the same time, her poem is also beautifully written, creating imagery that is tangible and that will make sense for children. One of my favorites is that wings are “stitching earth to sky with invisible thread.”

Lieder’s photographs are simply stunning. He has captured birds in poses that are dramatic and amazing, leaving plenty of dappled light and green on the page for the poetry to shine next to his images. I found myself leaning into the book to look even more closely at the structure of wing and feather on the page.

I hope there will be more collaboration between these two since their first two books are so noteworthy. This vibrant picture book will be at home equally in units on birds and poetry. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

poem in your pocket

A Poem in Your Pocket by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

The third in the Mr. Tiffin’s Classroom series, this book focuses on Elinor, a girl who just wants everything to be perfect.  Unfortunately though, poetry and perfection really don’t work together no matter whether you are talking haikus, concrete poems or rhyming stanzas.  A poet is going to be visiting their school and Elinor desperately wants to impress her with her poetry.  But as the time goes by, the pressure builds and Elinor becomes less and less able to write poetry.  When she finally does start writing, she’s not happy with any of the poems she has written.  Can the kind teacher Mr. Tiffin find a way to let Elinor know that it’s OK to make mistakes?  Maybe this is a job for a poet!

This is a wonderful addition to an already strong series.  McNamara “perfectly” captures the trap of perfectionism for students and the pressure that it builds in a person.  Tying it to poetry was inspired, something that doesn’t work with tension or pressure but instead relies on inspiration and creativity.  Elementary students will see themselves in both Elinor and her classmates who are more relaxed about the entire thing.  Watch for the poem that ties to How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin? for fans of the series. 

Karas’ illustrations continue in his signature style that is playful and friendly.  His drawings add to the accessibility of the entire book and the series as a whole. 

A winning addition to a popular series, this third book will delight during poetry units and may inspire a more relaxed approach to writing too.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.

Four Merry Christmas Books

It’s a great year for Christmas books, and I have four top choices for your holiday reading pleasure:

first christmas

The First Christmas by Jan Pienkowski

With text from the King James version of the Bible, this picture book tells the nativity story with stateliness and words that will be familiar to many.  The great joy of the book is the silhouette illustrations by Pienkowski who has created images that glow on the page.  She combines her black silhouettes with colors that shift and seem to be lit from behind.  Her detailed cut paper art is awe-inspiring and adds just the right touch of wonder to the story of the birth of Jesus.  Recommended for all ages. 

Reviewed from e-galley received from Knopf Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

manger

Manger selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Helen Cann

On Christmas Eve at midnight the animals are given the gift of being able to speak.  The poems in this book tell what each of the animals would say during the nativity about what they witnessed and how they contributed.  Hopkins has compiled a collections of poems from a dozen poets.  The collection ranges in styles and lengths but is also cohesive and the differences in the poems creates a variety that adds freshness. 

Cann’s illustrations are lovely with rich colors and fine details.  They show the animals clearly and also the wonder of the nativity on each page whether they are fish, fowl or mammal.  The poems range from very serious approaches to ones that are gently humorous but they are all done with great respect and honor the reason Christmas exists.  Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans.

santa clauses

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Santa tells his own story of Christmas in these 25 short haiku poems that offer a glimpse into what goes into making Christmas happen.  From the joy of snow to the seasonal chores like fixing Christmas lights, readers will see their own holiday preparations in Santa’s world too.  But there are also things that are just in Santa’s world like the many letters from children, hard-working elves, reading stories to the reindeer and finally flying off to deliver presents. 

These poems are cleverly done, often showing the beauty of the winter season just as much as they are celebrating the Christmas holiday.  The mix of natural beauty with Christmas makes the book rich and a holiday treat to share.  The illustrations too show the wonder of nature on the page alongside the bustle of the holiday season.  It is the quiet snowy scenes and the small special moments that make the strongest impressions both in poem and art.  Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

12 days of christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The traditional holiday carol is told in a warm new rendition with illustrations that are traditional but also very funny.  The carol is unaltered in this picture book that shows what happens as the various gifts arrive.  Though in the first pages it seems to be a book that will stack and pile the huge number of gifts on each page, this book is more subtle about things and therefore more successful.  Instead it is a delightful mix of diversity, different cultures and the joy of the season.  It turns out this is a modern and fresh take on the carol sure to spread joy.  Appropriate for ages 4-9.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Doubleday Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood.  Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City.  There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family.  But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood.  She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse.  When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life.  Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.

Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory.  Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth.  There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family.  There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too.  It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.

One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel.  Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone.  As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.

Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

destiny rewritten

Destiny, Rewritten by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

From even before she was born, it had been decided that Emily’s destiny was to be a poet.  Named after Emily Dickinson when her mother was inspired at a bookstore, Emily’s entire 11-year life has been documented in the margins of a first edition copy of Dickinson’s poems.  When Emily discovers that her mother wrote her father’s name in the margin of one of the poems, she rushes to read the book but a mishap sends it off to be donated to Goodwill.  This begins a search of several used book stores for the book and it quickly becomes apparent that destinies will not be rushed and that there is no way to force them.  But along the way, new friends are made, great books to read are found, and destiny is eventually changed.

Fitzmaurice writes with a wonderful mix of light tone and richness.  She carefully builds her story, creating additional storylines that serve as different strings in the story that are tied together by the end.  Another source of the richness is the way she describes things in the story.  Chapter 4 begins with “So I headed down the hall that Saturday morning with a hopeful feeling that came only on days I was opening a new box of Cheerios…”  This is such a universal image and universal feeling.  The Cheerios play into more of the story along with the prizes in their box.

Emily is an engaging character who struggles with learning patience and the frustration of being so close to the truth and then unable to grasp it.  She comes off as a multidimensional person, again thanks to the richness of the world that Fitzmaurice paints for the reader.  The secondary characters are also well drawn and solidly written.  It is a pleasure to also see poems by Dickinson and her life tied so closely to the lives of modern-day children and families.

Fresh and joyful, this is a novel where storylines click into place like a puzzle.  It will delight children who enjoy reading.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.

highway rat

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

The creators of The Gruffalo return for an uproarious version of a beloved poem.  Beware, for the Highway Rat is coming and he’s out to steal everyone’s snacks.  He rides along with food dropping out of his saddlebags, accosting poor travelers at sword point, demanding their goodies.  He steals clover from a rabbit who has nothing else, a leaf from some ants, even hay from his own horse.  Eventually though, the Highway Rat meets his match in a juicy-looking duck who directs him into a cave where the echo seems to promise food.  Then the Highway Rat rides no more.

I love a good riff on a traditional poem, and this one is very clever.  Those familiar with The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes will particularly enjoy the play Donaldson makes with its form.  She incorporates familiar phrasing like “And the Highway Rat went riding – riding –riding – riding along the highway.”  Somehow her other words which are quite different from the poem have a similar rhythm and evoke the poem effortlessly.

Scheffler’s illustrations have a wonderful bold quality to them.  The Highway Rat is truly a bad guy and his naughtiness is clearly shown in his actions and his aspect.  His googly-eyed horse is a pleasure, almost always making eye-contact with the reader and sharing the joke of this evil rat riding on his back.  The rich colors of the landscape add a depth to the illustrations that is very welcome.

The tale of an evil highwayman (or rat) makes for a great read.  Add in strong illustrations and the play on a well-known poem, and you have picture book magic.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

lightning dreamer

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.

martin on the moon

Martin on the Moon by Martine Audet, illustrated by Luc Melanson

Martin has just started school, but as he sits in class, his mind continues to wander.  His teacher reminds him of his cat due to her hair color.  Then he daydreams about the trip he and his mother took to the river and thinks about the water there.  He tries to pay attention, since it is the first day of school, but then his teacher reminds him of a seagull with the way she is moving her arms.  Martin remembers a time when he was out drawing and got to see a bolt of lightning in the sky.  When he shared that it looked like someone coloring outside the lines, his mother wanted to use the image in a poem. Martin then starts thinking about poems and kisses, until his teacher asks him who he’s blowing kisses to. 

Nominated for the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse in its original French, this book works well translated into English.  The poetic language, the imagery and the creativity of young Martin all work together to create a beautiful unity.  This is a striking example of a picture book whose strength comes from its writing rather than its illustrations.  The writing is powerful, visual and uses imagery that children will easily relate to.  Tying in poetry itself to the story makes it all the more concrete.

Melanson’s illustrations have a soft texture and use a successful mix of vibrant and softer colors.  The illustrations don’t offer much detail, instead being more about color and texture than finer touches. 

Poetic and lovely, this picture book would work well in a unit on imagery or poetry.  I’d also get it into the hands of any young daydreamer.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

forgive me i meant to do it

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

Based on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” poem, these poems borrow the form and the apology but build upon it with a wild array of situations.  In each poem, an apology is offered, but all of them are done conditionally and many are completely insincere.  There is an apology for eating all of the ice cream and replacing it with anchovies.  There is an apology for turning a bully into a fly and having a swatter ready to go.  Then there are many apologies based on fairy tales or songs that children will enjoy seeing from a new and inventive perspective.  This is a book to pick up and read out of order, unless of course you stumble upon one of the apologies the author has included that might make you reconsider that approach! 

I’m always on the look out for funny poems to share with children, since I’ve found that Prelutsky and Silverstein make a great ice breaker when talking with groups.  Even the jaded upper elementary class can be caught off guard by a charmer of a poem, especially one that elicits guffaws and merriment.  I can see these very short poems being shared in groupings as part of a class visit.  Perhaps interspersed with information about the library and its offerings.

The entire work is very funny, though some of the poems work better than others.  The illustrations hearken to Silverstein’s work with the ink drawings done without additional color.  They have a wonderful frenetic energy to them and also a delight at the situations. 

This will be a welcome addition in elementary classrooms that are working with poetry.  It also makes for a great giggly bedtime read.  Appropriate for ages 7-10. 

Reviewed from library copy.

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