5 Best Poetry Books in 2020

Here are my favorite five poetry books from 2020. I found it more difficult to enjoy poetry on a screen. There’s something about poetry on the paper page that really connects for me, so I read less of it this year than previous years.

Cast Away Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye (9780062907691)

“A strong collection that is provocative and tenacious.”

Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye (9780063013452)

“Perhaps Nye’s greatest quality is her refusal to speak down to children or to simplify her poetry for them. She asks them to stretch to understand them, but not in confusing ways or using esoteric language. “

In the Woods by David Elliott

In the Woods by David Elliott, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey (9780763697839)

“Elliott chains his poems together leading readers steadily through seasonal changes as each animal appears on the pages.”

A Place Inside of Me by Zetta Elliott

A Place Inside of Me by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon (9780374307417)

“Elliott’s poetry is marvelous, using imagery that children will understand to express all of these complex emotions, laying them clear and bare.”

Whoo-Ku Haiku by Maria Gianferrari

Whoo-Ku Haiku by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Jonathan Voss (9780399548420)

“Through her series of haiku poems, Gianferrari creates moments that build on one another into a full story of the first months of egg laying and owlets growing up.”

Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes

Cover image for Legacy

Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes (9781681199443)

In this companion book to One Last Word, Grimes explores the legacy of Black women writers from the Harlem Renaissance. Grimes has selected poems from these little-known female poets that speak to themes of heritage, nature and activism. Each of the poems in this collection is accompanied by a poem from Grimes that uses the “Golden Shovel” technique of taking a line from the Harlem Renaissance poem and using that line as the last words in each line of Grimes’ poems. In addition, each pair of poems is also matched with a work of art from female Black illustrators, creating an exciting and energizing grouping with every turn of the page.

Once again Grimes amazes with a poetry collection. Grimes has an astute eye for selecting poems for her collections that young readers will enjoy, understand and connect with. When she then creates her magic of using those poems as inspiration for her own, she demonstrates such poetic skill in both the poem construction but also in managing to pay tribute to what the poem is about and translate that into modern day poems for young readers.

Reading this collection is like finding one treasure after another. New poets are discovered. The art is beautiful, clearly inspired by the pair of poems that it is matched with. This collections serves to show Black poets and artists speaking in their own rich voices, offering a look at the women who paved the way for today.

Another astounding collection from Grimes that belongs in every library serving children. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

2021 NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry

The National Council of Teachers of English have announced the recipients of the 2021 Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry. The books selected are for ages 3-13 and represent the best of the year for children’s poetry and verse novels, in two separate lists. The poetry books defined broadly, including picture books written in verse. Here are the recipients:

2021 NOTABLE BOOKS IN POETRY

Amphibian Acrobats by Leslie Bulion, illustrated by Robert Meganck

Black Is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom. Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Michele
Wood

By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, the Father of Gospel Music. Carole Boston Weatherford.
Illus. by Bryan Collier

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time. Naomi Shihab Nye.

Construction People. Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illus. by Ellen Shi.

Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z. Irene Latham and
Charles Waters. Illus. by Mehrdokht Amini

Follow the Recipe: Poems about Imagination, Celebration, and Cake. Marilyn Singer. Illus. by
Marjorie Priceman

Green on Green. Dianne White. Illus. by Felicita Sala

I Wish. Toon Tellegen. Illus. by Ingrid Godon. Trans. by David Colmer

I’m Feeling Blue, Too! Marjorie Maddox. Illus. by Philip Huber

In the Woods. David Elliott. Illus. by Rob Dunlavey

Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War. Marίa José Ferrada. Illus. by Ana Penyas

A New Green Day. Antoinette Portis

No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History. Ed. by Lindsay H. Metcalf,
Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley. Illus. by Jeanette Bradley

On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring. Buffy Silverman

On the Horizon. Lois Lowry. Illus. by Kenard Pak

A Place Inside of Me. Zetta Elliott. Illus. by Noa Denmon

Snow Birds. Kirsten Hall. Illus. by Jenni Desmond.

Summer Feet. Sheree Fitch. Illus. by Carolyn Fisher

This Poem Is a Nest. Irene Latham. Illus. by Johanna Wright

When You Breathe. Diana Farid. Illus. by Billy Renkl

Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice. Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Olivia
Gatwood. Illus. by Theodore Taylor III

The World Below the Brine. Walt Whitman. Illus. by James Christopher Carroll

Write! Write! Write! Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Illus. by Ryan O’Rourke

2021 NOTABLE VERSE NOVELS

All He Knew. Helen Frost

Becoming Muhammad Ali. James Patterson and Kwame Alexander. Illus by Dawud Anyabwile

Before the Ever After. Jacqueline Woodson

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer: The Kids under the Stairs. K. A. Holt

Closer to Nowhere. Ellen Hopkins

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown. Ann E. Burg

Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math. Jeannine Atkins

Land of the Cranes. Aida Salazar

Love Love. Sung J. Woo

The Places We Sleep. Caroline Brooks DuBois

When You Know What I Know. Sonja K. Solter

Wishes, Dares, and How to Stand Up to a Bully. Darlene Beck-Jacobson

Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye

Cover image for Everything Comes Next

Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye (9780063013452)

The current Young People’s Poet Laureate has compiled a collection of over 100 of her poems. It is a mixture of both previous published poems and new ones that have not been published before. Though some date back to the beginning of her stellar career and others are newer, there is a strong consistency across the collection with their eye towards hope combined with a strong sense of truth and honesty. Nye also has a way of focusing on the small and mundane in our lives and bringing out the wonder, including flour sifters, toddler comments, and cat food.

I bookmarked far too many of the poems, looking forward to returning to them again. While I had my distinct favorites (and lots of them) there were no poems in this collection that disappointed. The entire collection work both as a whole and as its separate parts. It provides a great introduction to Nye’s poetry.

Perhaps Nye’s greatest quality is her refusal to speak down to children or to simplify her poetry for them. She asks them to stretch to understand them, but not in confusing ways or using esoteric language. The concepts are fascinating, the poems leading the reader but not in a straight line, her poems more of a journey.

A gorgeous collection of poetry from one of the best. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

In the Woods by David Elliott

In the Woods by David Elliott

In the Woods by David Elliott, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey (9780763697839)

Enter the woods through this book of poetry for children. The picture book volume shares insight into the different animals living in the woods. First is the musky bear, emerging from his den in the early spring. The red fox also appears in the melting snow, hunting to feed her kits. A scarlet tanager flashes past announcing spring alongside the cowslips. Soon the grass greens, the opossum and her babies bumps along with skunks and their perfume too. Porcupine and fisher cat are also there, quiet and fierce. Hornets buzz in the air while millipedes munch on rotting leaves. Moose, beaver, turkey, raccoon, bobcat and more appear here, each with their own poem that eventually has winter returning with deer appearing ghostlike through the snow storm.

Elliott chains his poems together leading readers steadily through seasonal changes as each animal appears on the pages. The focus is not the seasons though but the animals themselves. Some get longer poems while others get a couple of lines that capture them beautifully. There is a sense that Elliott is getting to the essence of many of the creatures he is writing about here. Each poem is focused and very accessible for children.

Dunlavey’s illustrations in watercolor and mixed media are rendered digitally. Their organic feel works well with the subject matter. Each creature is shown in their habitat and turning the pages feels like rounding a new corner on a walk in the woods.

A poetic journey through the forest that is worth taking. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

Box Henry Brown Makes Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood (9780763691561)

Told in brief poems, this nonfiction picture book explores a daring escape to freedom in the face of loss and brutality. Born in 1815, Henry Brown was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia. He worked from the time he was a small child, passed from one generation of his owners to the next. Despite a series of promises by various owners, Henry Brown’s family is sold away from him multiple times, even when he paid money to keep them near. Hearing of the Underground Railroad, he decides to make a dangerous escape to the North, mailing himself in a wooden box.

Weatherford builds box after box in her poetry where each six-lined poem represents the number of sides of Henry Brown’s box. Each of the poems also shows the structure of oppression and the trap that slavery sets for those caught within it. Still, at times her voice soars into hope, still within the limits she has created but unable to be bound.

Wood’s illustrations are incredibly powerful, a great match to the words. She has used a color palette representative of the time period, creating her art in mixed media. The images are deeply textured, moving through a variety of emotions as the book continues. The portraiture is intensely done, each character looking right at the reader as if pleading to be seen.

Two Coretta Scott King winners collaborate to create this powerful book about courage, resilience and freedom. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Green on Green by Dianne White

Green on Green by Dianne White

Green on Green by Dianne White, illustrated by Felicita Sala (9781481462785)

Explore the changing colors of seasons through this poetic picture book. The colors slide together, dynamically playing in the seasons in ways that surprise and delight. Yellow on green is lemonade and bees buzzing. Spring is new bird song, rain and breeze, yellow on green. Summer comes in on turquoise water with beaches and swimming. It is also peaches, sun and shade, blue on green. Fall is cinnamon and squirrels, brown on green. Corn, pumpkins and candles too. Winter is white with snow and gray skies, white on green. Green as spring returns.

There are so many season books, many that I really enjoy. This one though is very special. It takes colors and shows young readers how they pair and shift and change over the course of the seasons. Green stays constant, always there under snow or next to blue waters. The poetry here invites readers to explore things more deeply, to look beyond the first color they think of for a season. It reads aloud beautifully, the measures actually reading aloud better than they do silently on the page. It turns into a dance like the colors themselves.

Sala’s illustrations are lush and colorful, showing a family of color who experience the seasons together. Children will also notice the mother’s stomach growing rounder as the months pass and then a baby appearing. Throughout there is a strong feeling of family and community.

A lovely new way to see colors and seasons. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane Books.

Whoo-Ku Haiku by Maria Gianferrari

Whoo-Ku Haiku by Maria Gianferrari

Whoo-Ku Haiku by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Jonathan Voss (9780399548420)

The story of a great horned owl family is told in dramatic fashion using only haiku poems in this picture book. A pair of great horned owls find a squirrel’s nest and claim it as their home. The mother bird lays three eggs in the nest, losing one when the crows attack her. Now there are two eggs left to guard and keep warm. Soon two owlets emerge from their eggs, eating the prey that Mama and Papa bring to them. The woods has lots of dangers like hunting hawks and foxes waiting for an owlet to fall. Mama is there to protect them though, until it is time for them to take wing and find a home of their own.

Through her series of haiku poems, Gianferrari creates moments that build on one another into a full story of the first months of egg laying and owlets growing up. Focusing on the strength and power of the most commons owls in North America, along with their exceptional parenting skills, the book also reveals the dangers they face despite their size.

Voss’ illustrations are a gorgeous match to the beauty of the poetry. Illustrated in sepia ink and watercolor, with digital color added, these illustrations captures the various moments with skill and drama. The quiet moments are just as powerful as the action ones, filled with dappled forest light and the incredible creatures.

A marvelous book of nature poetry for children. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Cast Away Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Cast Away: Poems for Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye (9780062907691)

By the Young People’s Poet Laureate, this collection of poems shines a fierce light on the garbage and litter we create and toss away. The poems tie litter to larger environmental concerns as well as American politics in the time of anti-truth and fake news. Some poems question whether technology is helping us or not too. This is a collection that is thought provoking and insistent that we begin to pay attention to the large and small choices we are making each day and figure out how we too can make a difference and start picking up our own litter, both physical and figurative.

Nye has written a collection of poems with a strong political viewpoint that demands attention. Yet she never veers into lecturing readers, rather using the power of her words to make us all think differently about our privilege on this planet, how we abuse it, and how to restore balance to the world, our lives and our politics. The poems move from one to the next with a force of nature, almost like wandering your own garbage-strewn path and engaging with it. Sometimes you may lack the equipment, but the hope is that your own fingers start twitching to pick things up too. 

A strong collection that is provocative and tenacious. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.