Thursday, July 29, 2010

Notable Children's Poetry Books in 2010

The Children's Literature Assembly (CLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in the USA exists to promote the centrality of literature for teaching children. Each year it publishes a list of 'Notable Children's Books' in 5 categories - poetry, historical and realistic fiction, fantasy/folklore, information books (including biography and autobiography), and picture books. The 2010 list was released recently (here). Rather than reviewing all five categories I thought that I'd focus on the poetry books.

The award committee reviewed approximately 90 books before naming 8 books as notable.  They have also listed a further 12 books in a recent review in the NCTE journal Language Arts.  One definition of poetry is that "it is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response".  However, the committee defines poetry more broadly in this way:

"Poetry is words and phrases that stretch our imaginations and make us dream of impossible things or unlikely worlds."

No matter how we define it, poetry can be enjoyed by people of all ages; and poetry for children, if written well, can be enjoyed just as much by the 80 year old as the 8 year old. The list of notable poetry books is a wonderful collection of varied ways to draw together a collection of poems. Some are written by a single poet, others are written by many poets, one is an illustrated version of a well-known poem written almost 90 years ago and all use varied poetic forms.

The 2010 Notables

1. Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings (2009) by Douglas Florian. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This is a collection of 20 poems about dinosaurs, including 'Tyrannosaurus Rex', 'Spinosaurus', 'Seismosaurus' and even the 'Minmi'. Now I grew up near the town of Minmi in the state of New South Wales Australia, but this dinosaur was first found near Minmi Crossing in the state of Queensland. "What's the Minmi's BIGGEST claim to fame? It has the smallest dinosaur name".  Any boy (or girl for that matter) will love these poems and the beautiful illustrations that use collage, coloured pencils, dust, stamps and brown paper. 

2. Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems (2009) by Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

This novel book consists of 32 list poems by 24 separate poets.  It covers topics as diverse as the seasons, shooting stars and frogs.  The book was inspired by Walt Whitman’s famous list poem, “Song of Myself”. The collection parallels the school year and the school day with poems that children will relate to whether reading them or listening to them.  Here's one in the collection by Georgia Heard, the compiler of the collection.

'Recipe for Writing An Autumn Poem'
by Georgia Heard

One teaspoon wild geese.
One tablespoon red kite.
One cup wind song.
One pint trembling leaves.
One quart darkening sky.
One gallon north wind.

3. The Tree that Time Built (2009) by Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston. Illustrated by Barbara Fortin. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

This unusual book manages to combine poetry and science. It offers a perspective from the planet's beginnings millions of years ago, through the age of dinosaurs right to the present. It uses an evolutionary cycle to tell the story of Darwin and his theories in poetic form. It was published in the bicentennial year of Darwin's birth. It contains over 100 poems and is accompanied by a CD with 44 poems read by 20 poets.

4.  My People (2009) by Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Charles R. Smith, Jr. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This book is based on the famous poem written by James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967), the African American poet, novelist and playwright, short story writer and columnist. This 33 word poem was first published in 1923. Charles Smith (who is a photographer and poet) decided to produce a modern illustrated edition of the poem for children and was inspired both by the poem and Langston's reason for writing it. In the Afterword to the book, Smith shares that "Langston wrote the poem to celebrate the pride he had for his black brothers and sisters in the late 1920s, when blacks were not acknowledged much in society”. Here it is:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

The design of the book is very effective. It consists of double-page spreads that have a black background and contain a brief segment of the poem in large letters (mostly a tan colour) and photographs. These are typically lively and sepia-toned close-up images of people. The focus is always on the faces of real people that project varied emotions (but often smiles and joy), and that complement the power of the words. Smith comments that he decided " show that like any other group of people, black people come in all shapes, sizes, shades, and ages, and that each of us is unique." He achieves this with great distinction!

5.  Looking Like Me (2009) by Walter Dean Myers.  Illustrated by Chris Myers. New York: Egmont.

This book is a celebration in poetry of people of all kinds - athletes, writers, dancers, readers, writers, talkers, dreamers, artists, brothers and sisters. Walter Myers' strong message is that we are all different and should be prepared to celebrate our diversity and uniqueness. The illustrations and words complement each other beautifully, a key quality of a great picture book.

Chris Myers illustrates his father’s poetry using mixed media with vibrant colours like red, yellow and purple. Each of the people in each poem is shown in silhouette allowing the reader to more easily project themselves into each poem.

6. Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (2009) by Marilyn Nelson. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Penguin.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' was the first integrated all women's band in the USA.  It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The band is the focus of the book, and its story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages made from textured paper, including music, maps and even flowers, which overlay sketches that use watercolour, coloured pencil and graphite. The book also includes author and illustrator notes, a bibliography, and a list of related films, recordings and websites.

7. A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems (2009) by Deborah Ruddell. Illustrated by Joan Rankin. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This collection of 22 poems about forest animals written by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated by Joan Rankin will be a winner with younger readers. Ruddell's poetry focuses on the lives of rich animal characters that do many things. There is a poem that compares coyotes to carol singers, one in which a badger is writing a love poem, and there is a toad that tells of its ruined lunch.

"But I made a mistake
with the slug-on-a-stick–
a smidgen too salty–
and now I feel sick." 

The book is well designed, using a large bold font for the words and beautiful integration of text and image. Ruddell's poems are a riot of word play that are enriched by Rankin's magical watercolour illustrations. Children will love reading it or listening to others read them.

8. Red Sings from Treetops: A year of Colors (2009) by Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

As well as appearing now on the CLA notable list, this book of poetry was named earlier in the year as one of the 2010 Caldecott Honour books. Zagarenski’s playful illustrations support and enrich Sidman’s wonderful poetry as she explores the seasons and their colours.

Colour is hardly a new topic for poetry, so both author and illustrator needed something special to gain the attention of judges. Zagarenski uses computer illustration and mixed media paintings on wood. These combine rich textures, varied graphic elements, stylised figures and rich colours. Sidman describes each season of the year with a series of poems that sometimes use the predictable colours of the season (e.g. green for spring), but sometimes she uses colours that surprise you. The scenes in word and illustration offer many a surprise (just like the seasons) as a red bird flies above singing the seasons. The book 'dazzles' with its economical use of words and wonderful illustrations. A bit like the colour white really:

"White dazzles day
and turns night
inside out."

This book is a wonderful blend of exquisite wordsmithing and stunning illustrations.

Summing Up

Many teachers and parents neglect poetry, here is an opportunity to seek out some of the best that have been published in recent times.

Other Relevant Posts

You can see a list of all my posts on children's literature HERE.


overseas grandma said...

Thank you so much for your delightful site. Poetry is a source of immense pleasure to me and I wonder if you might be able to help me find a lost treasure. When I was raising my children in South Africa in the early eighties, we once borrowed (from the local library) a book by an Australian children's poet. It was very tatty and had obviously been well-loved by many previous readers. All I can remember is that it was larger than A4 and, I think, had a poem per page with bright illustrations; the only one of which I can remember is of a large horse with many little children on its back - the children were thereby being transported to school. Oh! I know this is so very vague but I would love to be able to buy it and share it with my grand-children. Is there even the smallest chance that you might be able to help me?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Overseas Grandma,

Surprisingly, I have a vague memory of the book, but I'll need more information if I'm going to help. Could you possibly recall a title or two of the poetry? A first or second name of any of the poets? Rough idea of when published (even the decade?

See what you can recall and I'll try to find it.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Dear Trevor,
Thank you so very much for your reply. How I wish I could provide you with more information.
My memory, which is usually word based, is throwing up only this one image (of the children on the horse) and nothing further. I am fairly certain that it was the work of one poet and not a compilation of several. I am so sorry that I can remember nothing more and hope I haven't left you with even a little of my frustration concerning the matter.
I love your site and will use it more and more often as my baby grandchildren grow older. I am leaving on Monday to visit my American grand-daughter who has cerebral palsy (affecting only her legs) she is very bright and I would love to find books which stretch her intellectually but acknowledge that not every little child in the world can walk.
Thank you again,

Trevor Cairney said...

H Valerie,

I'll keep looking for you, but I'm not hopeful that I'll find it with so little information.