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, March 29, 2007

Poetry Break Five: A Poem With A Refrain

Wright, Blanche Fisher (Illus.) (2003). The Real Mother Goose. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing. ISBN 0880297719.

Who can take credit for folkloric poetry—rhymes which have been passed down for ages, from father to son, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation? Mother Goose, that’s who. The Real Mother Goose is a collection of hundreds of the traditional nursery rhymes with which we Westerners grew up. Wright’s pen/ink/watercolor illustrations give us a window into how things used to be in the “times of yore” and look like they are as old as the poems themselves.

One thing common in Mother Goose rhymes is that many of them are repetitious. In early children’s poetry, repetition seemed to help the rhythm of the verses along. Sometimes the repetition was within the verses themselves, and at other times, they were separated from the rest of the poems. Both could be considered refrains (shown in italics) and are illustrated by the following poems.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep

Sleep, baby, sleep
Our cottage vale is deep:
The little lamb is on the green,
With wooly fleece so soft and clean
Sleep, baby, sleep.
Sleep, baby, sleep,
Down where the woodbines creep;
Be always like the lamb so mild,
A kind, and sweet, and gentle child.
Sleep, baby, sleep.

For Baby

You shall have an apple,
You shall have a plum,
You shall have a rattle,
When papa comes home.

The preceding Mother Goose rhymes illustrate the repetition as a separate and as an integrated refrain. Ironically, both of these poems might also be considered lullabies because they are for babies—but that is something that poetry shares with music lyrics: refrains are found in both. The refrains in the above poems give them a musical quality, perhaps most likely spoken softly or sung along with the rocking of a chair while lulling a baby to sleep.

Thus, these poems (and other rhythmic Mother Goose poems with refrains) can be used to teach babies and toddlers about rhythm and rhyme. With older children, the vocabulary could be discussed—they might have a difficult time understanding what a “vale” or a “woodbine” is. A discussion of the vocabulary could reveal a lot about the culture and period of the poem.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Poetry Book Four: Science in Poetry

Shields, Carol Diggory. (2003). Science, Fresh Squeezed!: 41 thirst-for-knowledge-quenching poems. Brooklyn: Handprint Books. ISBN 1593540051.

This is an AWESOME collection of poems truly about science. Not about science in general, but about specific topics ranging from fossils to the water cycle (and the itsy bitsy spider’s role in it); from the ecosystem to the food chain to cloning to the periodic table. The poems are hilarious yet informative. What a wonderful way to play with both poetry and science—two subjects many young people have a problem digesting. The language is always accessible and, as I mentioned, funny. All the poems have a predictable rhyme scheme as well as a catchy rhythm, but they are varied within the collection. The accompanying illustrations (done by Richard Thompson) are cartoon drawings that echo and add to the humor of the poems. ALSO, accompanying each poem is a funny tidbit of science (at the top of the page).

Choosing a favorite in this collection was tough, so here are my top three in descending order:

The Solution Problem (the funny tidbit to which is this: “A picnic at the beach: OCEAN (salt + water solution), AIR (oxygen + nitrogen solution), PEANUT BUTTER (ground peanuts + oil solution), LEMONADE (water + lemon juice + sugar solution).”

My solution had a problem:
It was weak and too dilute,
I had poured in too much solven,
And not enough solute.

So I added lots more solute
And stirred with concentration
Until, at last, it reached
The point of saturation.

But, oops, I overdid it,
No more solute would dissolve.
These solutions are a mystery
I fear I’ll never solve.

“Heat it up,” my teacher said,
So I did and—jubilation!
My solution’s resolution,
Was supersaturation.

What if? (the funny tidbit to which is “Each speck of dust contains a million million atoms.)

Atoms are tiny, small as can be,
Far too small for us to see.
But scientists say that inside each one,
It looks like planets encircling the sun.
What if our sun and the planets that twirl,
Are only one atom in a much bigger world?

Fungus Among Us (the funny tidbit to which is “ ‘We took a LIKIN’ (LICHEN) to AL G. (ALGAE) because he was a FUN GUY (FUNGI).’ (LICHENS are made up of ALGAE and FUNGI).”

There’s a fungus among us,
It’s everywhere!
In the house, on the ground,
In the water and air.
You’re sure to find fungi,
Sooner or later,
Just look inside
Your refrigerator.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I LOVED these poems! I was one of those kids who thought science was boring. So I can see where poems like these with their accessible language, riotous/silly humor and REAL SCIENTIFIC MESSAGES could help a child change his or her mind about science not being interesting. Not only could this sort of poetry open a child up to science, but it could open a science-loving child to poetry!!!

Review of Science, Fresh Squeezed (per Amazon.com):

School Library Journal: “…Shields continues her humorous looks at school subjects. This collection of 41 poems is divided into four sections: "Earth and Space Sciences," "Life Sciences," "Chemistry," and "Physics." All of the selections are brief; some are quite clever and others are forced. …The factual content is accurate, and the witty poetry just might draw science-phobic children into learning about these topics.”

As I said before (and the SLJ review echoes), I would use these poems to open up discussions about both science and poetry, both subjects many young people are reluctant to explore.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Poetry Break Four: Spring

Poetry Break Four: Spring

Ebensen, Barbara Juster. Illus. by Cheng-Khee Chee, Janice Lee Porter, Mary GrandPré and Stephen Gammel. (2003). “Umbrellas.” In Swing Around the Sun. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group. ISBN 0876141432.

Swing Around the Sun is a book of poems about the four seasons, each season with its own unique perspective, artist and look. The first chapter is on spring and is illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee. The spring poems are on topics ranging from the sea, to the month of March; from the return of the birds who flew south for the winter to the robin, one of the first birds of spring. But the most poignant poem for me is called Umbrellas


Umbrellas bloom
Along our street
Like flowers on a stem.
And almost everyone
I meet
Is holding one of them.

Under my umbrella-top,
Splashing through the town,
I wonder why the tulips
Hold umbrellas

First of all, this simple poem uses a predictable rhyme scheme and the lyrical qualities of the words themselves add a singsong nuance to the poem. Also, even though the meter is definitely regular—its rhythmic cadence adding to the song-like feel of the poem—the lines are not organized accordingly, forcing the reader to peruse the poem aloud to understand the cleverness of its arrangement.

Mechanics aside, it is the metaphor in this poem that really strikes at my heart's chords. In the beginning, the analogy of umbrellas as flowers seems figurative in how they “bloom.” But in the end, it is easy to see the brilliance of the thought of tulips being upside-down umbrellas—and it adds depth to the poem: why do humans shield themselves from something the flowers see as so life-giving and important? It’s ingeniously simple yet incredibly complex and it’s just the kind of question a child might ask—the same sort of parallel a child might innocently, naively and oh so poetically draw.

The illustrations which accompany the spring section of Swing Around the Sun are not really my kind of art. The blurry watercolors are a bit too flue for my colorphile eyes to really appreciate; however, the somber hues and hazy quality do add to the feel of a rainy—and somewhat over-overcast—season.

Reviews of Swing Around the Sun (per Amazon.com):

School Library Journal: Kindergarten-Grade 4-A well-loved collection of seasonal poems, first published in 1965, is revived for a new generation, creating a rich, vibrant reading and viewing experience….The illustrations transcend the standard pastel springs and whitewashed winters….An exceptional marriage of poetry and art that will encourage children to write and illustrate their own seasonal poems, this book has broad appeal and instructional potential across the calendar and curriculum. A must-have for any library.

Booklist: …Each set of illustrations creates a distinct mood as defined by the season and the artist's style. The large pictures interpret the verse with varying degrees of exactness and finesse, but their overall quality and impact are very strong. The rhymed poems are as accessible and appealing as ever

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that most of the poems in Swing Around the Sun—but especially "Umbrellas"—are excellent poems for young children to discover themes. While some children may see spring to be a rainy, droopy, boring season, other children may see it as a time of green and new beginnings; and still others may see it as a combination of both—that the rain only brings out the contrasts in the bountiful palette of spring’s colors.

These poems would be a great introduction into such a discussion—how many people see things differently. Perhaps to some child, summer means lazy days full of swimming and ice cream while others see it as sweaty hard work harvesting summer crops, and still others may see it as that exciting time when they get to go visit a distant relative in a foreign country. Who knows? The children could be encouraged to list what the seasons mean to them and to write similar poems based on those themes.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Poetry Book Three: A YA Novel in Verse

Poetry Book Three: A YA Novel in Verse

Hesse, Karen. (1997). Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0590371258.

Out of the Dust is the story of a young girl, Billie Jo (her father wanted a boy), who lives in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. While her friends around her leave one by one, her father, Bayard stubbornly refuses to run away, even though the dust covers and smothers everything they have worked for. Billie Jo’s mother, Polly, comes from a more sophisticated background and even plays the piano proficiently enough to have taught Billie Jo—who actually gets invited to play with the band at a local theatre.

Just when Billie Jo thinks things are settling down, her mother—in an attempt to put out a fire—throws a pail of kerosene Bayard has left near the stove onto the fire. Polly runs out of the house to get Bayard’s help and Billie Jo throws the pail outside. Unbeknownst to her, Polly was coming back in the house. She is covered by the flaming fuel and while Billie Jo does her best to put the fire out—marring her piano hands forever—her mother dies giving birth to Billie Jo’s brother (who also dies shortly after). Bayard, who was never really very warm, becomes even more distant. Billie Jo finally runs away, but after a while she understands that everything she knows and loves—including the memory of her mother and little brother—is back home.

This is an AMAZING book. It is no wonder that it won the Newbery Medal in 1998. The language is both accessible and sophisticated—pregnant with vocabulary from a time and culture that is nearly extinct. Like most verse novels, Out of the Dust is raw emotion and conflict, stripped of the trappings of prose and pared down to the meat of a heart-wrenching story of struggle, disaster, loneliness and self-discovery.

One of my favorite passages from early on in the book:

Losing Livie

Livie Killian moved away.
I didn’t want her to go.
We’d been friends since first grade.

The farewell party was
Thursday night
at the Old Rock Schoolhouse.

had something to tease each of us about,
like Ray
sleeping through reading class,
and Hillary,
who on her speed-writing test put
an “even ton” of children
instead of “even ten.”

Livie said good-bye to each of us,
She gave me a picture she’d made of me sitting
in front of a piano,
wearing my straw hat,
an apple halfway to my mouth.

I handed Livie the memory book we’d all
filled with our different slants.
I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough
to tell her how much I’d miss her.

helped clean up her own party,
wiping spilled lemonade,
gathering sandwich crusts,
sweeping cookie crumbs from the floor,
while the rest of us went home
to study for semester reviews.

Now Livie’s gone west,
out of the dust,
on her way to California,
where the wind takes a rest sometimes.
And I’m wondering what kind of friend I am,
wanting my feet on that road to another place,
instead of Livie’s.

January 1934.

The details that Billie Jo notices throughout this story show the depth and insight Karen Hesse put into this work—they give us a window into what life must have been like in the early 1900’s Oklahoma; how rough and lonely a dusty childhood could be, how strong the longing to get away. In the passage above, we feel the emotion start out light—at a party, and crescendo from a memory book, to watching Livie clean up her own party through the eyes of our main character who in the final lines is filled with a guilty longing to trade places—she goes from mourning the parting of her friend to wanting to BE the one escaping.

Reviews of Out of the Dust(per Amazon.com):

School Library Journal: “A triumphant story, eloquently told through prose-poetry..”

Publishers Weekly: “This intimate novel, written in stanza form, poetically conveys the heat, dust and wind of Oklahoma. With each meticulously arranged entry Hesse paints a vivid picture of her heroine's emotions.”

Kirkus: “Told in free-verse poetry of dated entries that span the winter of 1934 to the winter of 1935, this is an unremittingly bleak portrait of one corner of Depression-era life. In Billie Jo, the only character who comes to life, Hesse (The Music of Dolphins, 1996, etc.) presents a hale and determined heroine who confronts unrelenting misery and begins to transcend it. The poem/novel ends with only a trace of hope; there are no pat endings, but a glimpse of beauty wrought from brutal reality.”

This book could be used to illustrate how great poetry is for shedding the extraneous mechanics of prose—how rich meaning does not need paragraphs and how an extremely emotional story can be told through just a few lines. It could open a discussion of life in the 30’s (and/or a comparison of how that life might be different depending on where one lived). It could also foster a discussion on loss and hope—how does one come back from something so incredibly tragic as death and loss of one’s talent? Run away? But only to come home again? I can imagine an engaging discussion of what hope means to each teen reader.