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, April 19, 2007

Poetry Book Six: A Collection of Poetry Compiled by Paul Janeczko

Janeczko, Paul B. (1991). Preposterous: Poems of Youth. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN 0531085015.

The world around us changes daily. Technological advances and cultural progress make us feel like our world is become better and better—sometimes at the expense of perfectly wonderful traditions. But some things never change. One example of that can be illustrated in Janeczko’s Preposterous, a collection of poetry written for young people about topics they face daily—most of them seem like they could have been written yesterday, but they are still relevant today.

With a collection of 108 poets, some famous (Gary Soto, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes to name a few), some not as much, Janeczko has put together a group of 82 poems illustrating with both humor and frank seriousness, the thoughts, emotions and experiences of young people “coming of age” in many different ages.

Following are a few of my favorites:

Juke Box Love Song by Langston Hughes

I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue buses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

Sister by H.R. Coursen

Younger than they,
and not the same.
Girl growing amid
a grove of brothers.
They took my dolls
one day into their
forbidden circle
in the woods,
drove sticks
into the cleared dirt,
and burned them
at the stake.

No Question by Leo Dangel

There was no question,
I had to fight Arnold Gertz
behind the high school that Friday.
All fall he kept throwing pool balls
at me in the rec room.

There was no question,
I was scared spitless at the mere sight
of his grimy fists and bull neck.
When we rolled on the cinders
and grappled and thumped each other,

there was no question,
I was actually winning
when the principal broke us up.
And when Arnold went hunting pheasants
on Sunday, everybody said
there was no question,
he was a damn fool to climb through
a barbed wire fence with a loaded shotgun.
There were exactly eight of us guys
who were classmates of Arnold so

there was no question,
I had to be one of the pallbearers,
even though I never liked Arnold,
never would have, but I was sorry
the accident happened,

there was no question,
and if her hadn’t got himself shot,
I wonder if he finally would have let me alone.
There is no question,
I wonder about that.

Anne Frank by Sheryl L. Nelms

I played hooky once

to see
if I could do it

it wasn’t much fun
because the only
place I knew
to go

was home

then Dad showed up
in his squad car

and I spent the afternoon
huddled in my closet
reading The Diary of Anne Frank

by flashlight.

I’m sure I could include at least fifty more with which I relate or remember relating to as a young person. The poems above seem timeless because even though they might have been written in my parents’ generation (or before) their themes still apply to me.

Following this line of reasoning, I think a collection of poems like this could 1) spark discussion amongst young adults about issues which are common—those which transcend generations, 2) open a discussion about the changes in vocabulary and traditions of youth, and 3) encourage young adults to write poems about experiences, thoughts or emotions they are feeling… These poems could be typewritten (in the same font) so that they remain anonymous, read before the class and a discussion could follow as to whether or not other students relate to the themes expressed.

Reviews of Preposterous (per Amazon.com):

From Kirkus Reviews
By more than 80 authors, including Robert Penn Warren, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, and Herbert Scott, an anthology of recent (70's and 80's) poems plus a few nostalgic looks at long- gone youth, with references to WW II and earlier. Many relate sharply poignant stories or epiphanies, succinctly and powerfully recalled; Janesczko's familiar themes (e.g., small-town life, Catholic angst) frequently recur. The voices are almost overwhelmingly male (an imbalance echoed in the handsome jacket painting of a small, worried girl peering from behind a much larger, confident man), but the quality is so high, the appeal so immediate, and the selection so personal that it's a forgivable happenstance; teen-agers will easily identify with the problems expressed, often reflecting adolescence as a time of deep self- absorption and loss of faith in childhood beliefs. An excellent collection for any library, especially those with activities involving poetry.

From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up --A collection of more than 100 short poems by contemporary authors such as Leo Dangle, David Allan Evans, Gary Soto, and Charles Harper Webb that center on the bittersweet experience of growing up. Those who have enjoyed Janeczko's Pocket Poems (1985), Going Over to Your Place (1987), and Don't Forget to Fly (1981, all Bradbury) will recognize the appeal of this one--a wide range of poems that describe basic human experiences in deceptively simple language. Some of the epiphanies are lighthearted, but the overall tone is wryly serious… Zeroing in on issues that concern most adolescents--alienation, belonging, friendship, movies, sex, school, truancy, family, and death--these poems will grab readers and not let them go. The anthology concludes with William Stafford's lines, "It's hard being a person./We all know that." Janeczko makes the notion that poetry is boring seem totally preposterous.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Poetry Break Six: A Serious Poem On A Difficult Subject.

Woodson, Jacqueline (2003). Locomotion. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 0399231153.

There are volumes of books of poetry on “difficult subjects” many of which are collected into whole novels. One such collection is called Locomotion. Lonnie Collins Motion (or Lo Co Motion for short), is a young boy whose fifth grade English teacher has shown him a new way to express his feelings: through poetry. Through his poems we learn that his parents died in a fire just four years ago and though his sister, Lili, was adopted, he lives in a foster home with Miss Edna. His poetry takes us through a year or so of his life as he struggles to deal with the loss of his parents, missing his sister and coming of age in circumstances that make him feel invisible sometimes even though Miss Edna is always telling him to be quiet.

The poem that touched me the most is near the beginning (p.5-6), as Lonnie is remembering a moment with his mother and sister before any tragedy had happened:


Once when we was real
I was sitting at the window holding my baby sister, Lili
on my lap.
Mama was in the kitchen and Daddy must’ve
been at work.
Mama kept saying
Honey, don’t you drop my baby.

A pigeon came flying over to the ledge
and was looking at us.
Lili put her hand on the glass and the pigeon tried
to peck at it.
Lili snatched her hand away and screamed.
Not a scared scream,
just one of those laughing screams
that babies who can’t talk yet like to do.

Mama came running out the kitchen
drying her hands on her jeans.
When she saw us just sitting there, she let out a breath.
Oh, my Lord, she said,
I thought you’d dropped my baby
I asked
Was I ever your baby, Mama?
and Mama looked at me all warm and smiley.
You still are, she said.
Then she went back in the kitchen.

I felt safe then.
I held Lili tighter.
Maybe if I was eleven then
and if one of my friends had been around,
I would have been embarrassed, I guess.
But I was just a little kid
and nobody else was around.
Just me and Lili and Mama and the pigeons.
And outside the sun
getting bright and warm suddenly
like it’d been listening in.

Reviews for Locomotion (per Amazon.com):

From Publishers Weekly:
The kinetic energy of the aptly named Locomotion (the nickname of Lonnie Collins Motion) permeates the 60 poems that tell his sad yet hopeful story….Woodson, through Lonnie, creates (much as Sharon Creech did with the boy narrator in Love That Dog) a contagious appreciation for poetry while using the genre as a cathartic means for expressing the young poet's own grief.

From School Library Journal:
… Woodson allows Lonnie's poems to tell a complex story of loss and grief and to create a gritty, urban environment. Despite the spare text, Lonnie's foster mother and the other minor characters are three-dimensional, making the boy's world a convincingly real one. His reflections touch on poverty and on being African American when whites seem to have the material advantages, and return repeatedly to the pain of living apart from his younger sister. Readers, though, will recognize Lonnie as a survivor…

Verse poetry, with all its freedom, is an easy medium to use to convey serious thoughts and feelings about difficult topics and situations. The great part about verse novels is that they can be used both as a whole novel or as singular poems to illustrate snapshots of life. This poem could be used to talk about a happy or vivid memory of someone we love who is not near us for whatever reason. After a discussion of the great memories we have of those people and how the nostalgia of those memories is in constant conflict with the feeling of desperate longing for those people, children of any age could be encouraged to write their own poems in free verse about a long-lost loved one (or object).

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Poetry Book Review Five: Favorite Book of Poetry (published since 2000)

Prelutsky, Jack. (2006). Illustrated by Carin Berger. Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and other poems. New York: Greenwillow Books. ISBN 0060543183.

I LOVE Jack Prelutsky. He’s quirky. He’s crazy. He’s creative. And his poetry ALWAYS has great rhythm and tongue-twistery rhymes. Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is no exception. It’s a collection of seventeen poems about creatures who are hybrids made up of ordinary everyday objects and various animals—as the title implies, the first poem is about an umbrellaphant. Other interesting creatures within are Ballpoint Penguins, Panthermometer, a Clocktopus, and a Solitary Spatuloon! True to his form, the rhymes are zany and wonderfully melodic and even though they are meant to be silly, they are SERIOUSLY convincing—and oh so creative! Another thing I’ve always liked about Prelutsky’s collections is that he always seems to be paired up with artists as crazy as his rhymes seem to be. Carin Berger is another name to add to this list. The illustrations in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant uses a sort of strategically organized collage art to make the amazing creatures come to life on the page with snippets of newsprint and many other textures.

Of all the weird species presented in this collection, my favorite one (today, at least) would have to be the alarmadillo. Check this out:

The Bizarre Alarmadillos

Are a clamorous quartet,
For they’re in a constant frenzy…
They’re incessantly upset.
You’d imagine they’d be calmer,
No one means them any harm,
And besides, they’re thickly armoured,
Yet they’r always in alarm.
When they push their panic buttons,
Buzzers buzz and beepers beep.
Brass alarms clang ever louder,
It’s no wonder they can’t sleep.
Then they flail their tails in terror
As they holler and they whoop—
Yes, those four ALARMADILLOS
Are an odd and noisy group.

These silly creatures are hilarious! Who other than Prelutsky could come up with a cross between an alarm clock and an armadillo? And who else could wind such an interesting yarn with simple yet sophisticated vocabulary not to mention the great sounding alliteration? Just look at “clamorous quartet” and “frenzy.” What about “flail their tails in terror?” Awesome! He even sticks with the Texas/Southwestern theme by adding the “they holler and they whoop” just as any cowboy might (this is also echoed by Berger’s illustrations of the Alarmadillos with their cowboy-type hats and their boots).

Reviews of Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant (per Amazon.com):

Booklist: “Like the scrambled animals and vegetables that populated Scranimals (2002), the creatures featured in Prelutsky's latest picture-book verse collection are a wildly imagined crew… Kids may need help puzzling out some of the combinations (the spatuloon, for example), and the concept and poetry in a few selections, such as "The Tearful Zipperpotamuses," feel somewhat forced. In most poems, though, Prelutsky's wordplay is inventive, as are Berger's stylishly retro, photo and cut-paper collages, which extend the wild silliness. Elementary teachers may want to borrow the book's concept and use it, along with Scranimals, in poetry and art exercises that inspire new combinations of creatures.”

School Library Journal: “Prelutsky is one of the best word crafters in the business, and this collection does not disappoint. The poems are full of fun and wit, with wordplay and meter that never miss a beat. The whimsical illustrations use cut-print media, old-fashioned print images, and a variety of paper textures to create a rich visual treat well suited to the poetry. The detail in the mixed-media pictures makes this a good choice for individual or lap reading, but the poetry begs to be read aloud. This is definitely a do not miss poetry pick.”

I can’t imagine anyone of ANY age not LOVING a Jack Prelutsky poem or poetry collection, so I think this book could be used from as young as Pre-K straight through college. Of course, folks of all ages could be allowed to come up with their own strange object-animal combinations and be encouraged to write poems about them. It would be interesting to see how the creations of different age groups would compare/contrast. As a side project, children could be encouraged to follow Berger’s example and make cut-and-paste, mixed-media illustrations of their creations. For that matter, classes could put together their own zany creatures book complete with original artwork!