Welcome to Poetropia, an arena for discussion about children's poetry, specially designed for my graduate Special Topics (LS 5903 Section 22) at Texas Woman's University. Please feel free to visit as often as you like and to give me your reactions to my reactions of the poems and poetry collections I'll share here throughout the Spring 2007 semester. Thank you for your visit. You can leave the door ajar for the next visitor as you leave. Happy reading!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Poetry Book Review One: Lee Bennett Hopkins

Poetry Book Review One: A Lee Bennett Hopkins Collection

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. (1995). Been to Yesterdays. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press. ISBN 1563974673.

Been To Yesterdays is not just a random collection of good poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins, but rather a group of poems that come together to tell a story. The book’s cover has a black and white picture of a smiling young boy and the inside cover flaps (both front and back) have the same Rockwell-esque pictures of a smiling happy family of five, a grandmother, a happy mother holding a frilly-dressed baby and a young girl next to a tinsel-laden Christmas tree. Just looking at the cover and flaps, one might assume this is a book of light, happy poems.

And the collection does start out that way as a family of five pose for a photographer. Even the move from Pennsylvania to New Jersey (to live with Grandma) seems like an adventure. But when the family gets there, the narrator—young Lee Bennett Hopkins himself—is faced with some very foreign things and ideas as we are show through each untitled poem.

Over the fifty pages, the reader is taken on a first-hand journey, allowed to live vicariously through the young boy’s eyes as he is faced with such complicated issues as relocation, wealth/poverty, racism, the power and consequence of words, domestic discord and ultimately divorce, being the child of a single parent and yearning for a father, parental unemployment, loss of a cherished grandmother, making do with very little, alcoholism and finally hope for a bright and different future.

Lee Bennett Hopkins accomplishes this task with such a simplicity and lack of melodrama that it makes these issues seem surmountable without minimizing their painful impact—without being didactive or condescending and in words/structures that are easily accessible to children. There are many poems with one word lines and one word stanzas that might remind the reader of the iterative pattern of a child’s speech.

The inside illustrations (done by Charlene Rendeiro) are simply shaded thick line drawings reminiscent of Dick Tracy-esque comics—giving the book a sense of time, the fifties, and in their minimalism remind us of the narrator’s young age.

Although there is some rhyme and some rhythm, most of the poems do not have a predictable rhyme scheme or meter which seems to echo the reality and the transitory feeling of the poet’s childhood stories. The first few poems tend to rhyme more consistently, but then when the family starts to fall apart, the tendency wanes. The rhyming and rhythm that does happen so intermittently serves as an anchor—reminding us that it is a poem—as if the child who is speaking is grasping at anything he can in order to cling to some hope that everything will be alright. Then, as the boy begins to hope again, the rhyming comes back.

The first poem to indicate that this book is not going to be about a happy-go-lucky family is the one found on page 13:

a lady
smiled at me
and said
to Mama:

“What a good lookin’
young’un you got there.
What bright-eyed eyes.
What sleek brown hair.
God must’ve
given them
special on him.


Mama didn’t answer.
She didn’t return
the lady’s kind smile.

She tugged me away
down the toy aisle.

“Their skin’s
so dark.”
I said.

“They’re niggers,”
Mama answered.
“That’s what they’re called.
You’ll see
a lot
of niggers
here in this town.”


It didn’t sound
so good
when Mama said it—
when the lady’s smile
a sadlike frown.

Her face
a sadness
of a kind
I just couldn’t
seem to erase
from my mind.

That afternoon
alone with Grandma
I told her
I saw two niggers.

she asked.

“This afternoon
when Mama
took me to

Nigger’s not
a good word
to choose.
Call them
is a better word
to use.

can be tricky.
Some words
can hurt
when you
blurt ‘em out.
undue sorrow.
undue pain.
Don’t go
usin’ that
word again.”

I thought
about what
Grandma said
all night long
as I lay
in bed—

the word


my brain—

I learned
a lesson
from Grandma
about words

some words
are right
some are
too strong

still others—


After his parents have divorced, one short, simple poem (page 39) embodies the young narrator’s conflict between hope and transition:

“Uncle Ron”
“Uncle Chad”
“Uncle Brad”—

One of
these days
one of these
will become
a real

A ray of hope filters through the dark times and comes through an unpredictable source… school (page 45):

do you
want to be
when you grow up?”
asked my teacher,
Miss Ethel K. Tway.

Down the rows
the kids called out:

“A cop.”
“A nurse.”
“A soldier.”
“A sailor.”
“A scientist.”
“A firefighter.”

When she got to me
I said.

“A writer.”

Louis laughed

“A writer!”
he said.
“What a crazy thing
to want to be!”

“I don’t think
that’s funny, Louis,”
said Miss Tway.
“Everyone’s entitled
to sound
their own voice.
a writer is a
fine life-choice.”

That special moment
on that
red-letter day
I fell madly
in love
Miss Ethel K. Tway.

The final poem (page 62) is full of hope and light as the boy now has a new focus—his own future, of which he is in control and in which all the stories of his youth will serve as fodder for his art (he shows this by calling back to symbols from other poems in the book):

this world
a whole lot

grow up
a writer.
write about
some things
I know—

how to bunt
how to throw…

a Christmas wish
a butter dish…

a teddy bear
an empty chair…

the love I have inside


this world
a whole lot

I grow up

Although the format and linguistic simplicity of this book would be a great way to introduce poetry to children, the topics of its content might not be a very edible appetizer. Still, to more seasoned child poetry readers, this is a delectable morsel, ripe with emotion and thought.

Reviews of Been to Yesterdays (per Amazon.com):

School Library Journal: “Grade 5 Up-This autobiographical cycle of poems is a rare gift, a careful exploration of one life that illumines the lives of all who read it…The spare elegance of the poems is matched by a spare, clean book design-the words are surrounded by white space and a few pen-and-ink sketches. Like Cynthia Rylant's Waiting to Waltz (Bradbury, 1984), this book offers rich biography in a clear, poetic form. Readers will rejoice that Hopkins decided ‘To/make/this world/a whole lot/brighter/when/I grow up/I'll/be/a/writer.’”

Booklist: “Hopkins distills the experience of his middle-grade years into 28 poems of poignant clarity, achieving in very few words what many prose authors take chapters to tell. Hopkins transforms bleak events into crystalline moments, concluding with his resolve as a 13-year-old to "make the world a whole lot brighter" by becoming a writer. Good reading and an excellent, unconventional choice for teachers doing units on poetry and autobiography.”

Awards for Been to Yesterdays:

1995 School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
1996 Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies
1996 ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
1996 Christopher Award
1996 Books for the Teen Age (New York Public Library)
1996 Golden Kite Award Honor Book

Poetry book reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot February 1, 2007


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