Saturday, January 31, 2015

Class Post - "The Crossover"

I am loving this boom of wonderful verse novels we are having in youth literature at the moment.  The Newbery Award has honored such recent titles as Inside Out and Back Again and The One and Only Ivan, and 2014 saw the release of many spectacular works of longer verse, including my favorite of the bunch, The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander.

The Crossover tells the story of basketball playing twins, Josh and Jordan.  Josh is our narrator, taking the reader through a story about family, sport and the emotional punch of responsibility.  Josh doesn’t just tell us his feelings.  He raps, he pops language that is vibrant and electric.  From the very first poem, “Dribbling”, Josh captures the reader’s attention with his verbal pops and locks.  The first time I read The Crossover, I was so energized by this dynamic opening, I plowed halfway through the book before realizing my break was long since over.

Alexander, in Josh’s voice, plays with imagery, narration and dialogue to propel his story.  In “Josh’s Play-by-Play”, Josh lays down a basketball game for us.  “I roll to his right. / The double team is on me,/ leaving JB free./ He’s got his hands in the air,/ looking for this dish/ from me.”  Sequences like these are a great way to intrigue readers who might be reluctant to pick up poetry.  Alexander also uses some advanced vocabulary, with different entries wherein Josh defines a new word; pulchritudinous, for example.  Josh then uses this word in a variety of sentences that both educate and amuse or engage the reader.

I don’t know if I’ve ever come across a voice like Josh’s before.  He is bold and brash, but at the same time sensitive, concerned for his father’s health and mourning the loss of his beloved dreadlocks.  Like any teenager, he has moments of boasting and self-doubt.  He both loves his twin and engages in a fierce rivalry with him.  Josh tell his story in a very charged way, but also very intimately.  The nature of the poetical narration gives us insights into Josh’s thoughts and feelings that a prose novel might not accomplish.

If I were to take a part of The Crossover to use with a group of kids, I would take the first stanza of the second poem, “Josh Bell,” in which Josh introduces himself:

Josh Bell

Is my name.
But Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame.
Folks call me that
‘cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant,
LeBron, and Chris Paul.

This sequence has great rhythm and rhyme, and it fun to read as well as being informative.  In just these few lines, we learn a lot about Josh, from what he tells us (he’s tall and plays Basketball) and what he doesn’t (such boasting and high aspirations can mask deeper feelings).  I would ask the kids to read this section aloud, then maybe rap it or sing it to see the way the language flows.  As a writing exercise, we could all take Josh’s idea and compose lyrical introductions for ourselves.

Alexander, Kwame.  The Crossover.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.  ISBN: 9780544107717

Class Post - "Oh, No! Where Are My Pants?"

We’ve all had those days, those days when nothing seems to be going right.  Your shoes are on the wrong feet, you forgot your homework, and you had that dream…again.  Days like these can be even more exasperating for a child who may lack the emotional framework to deal with their frustration or the agency to be able to fix their problem themselves.  This indeed is the topic at hand in Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch.

Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? is comprised of 14 poems by different authors, each describing a less-than ideal set of circumstances.  The collection features familiar poets such as Alice Schertle, Marilyn Singer, Lee Bennett Hopkins and Judith Viorst, as well as some names with which I am less familiar, like Madeleine Comora and Karla Kuskin.  Most poems appear to have made their first appearance in print in this collection.

The collection begins with “First Day” by Susan Hart Lindquist, espousing the all too familiar feeling of being separated from a friend at school, “You/ in/ Room Two./ Me/ in/ Room Three.”  From here, the selected poems cover such topics as classroom embarrassment (“A Million Miles from Tallahassee” by Alice Schertle), pantless nightmares (“Nightmare” by Judith Viorst), misadventures in eating (“Oh, no!” by Kate McAllaster Weaver) and swimming (“My Brand-New Bathing Suit” by Sandra Gilbert BrĂ¼g) and the crippling anxiety of a malfunctioning Ferris wheel (“At the State Fair” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich).

The poems differ in form and style.  Some are funny (“Haircut” by Marilyn Singer) and others are somewhat somber, but quite relatable (“Winter Rabbit” by Madeleine Comora and “Away at Camp” by Ann Whitford Paul).  While I don’t feel any one poem stands out as extraordinary, neither is there a weak poem in the bunch.  Each selection moves fluidly into the next, aided very much by an easy-to-read and pleasing layout.  Each poem is given its own page, easy-to-read font and clean background, with a whimsical image by Wolf Erlbruch opposite it.     As this is a small collection, there is no index, but there is a table of contents in the beginning, listing the titles and poets’ names and page numbers.

One poem that especially caught my eye was “Play Ball” by Joy N. Hulme.  Describing a missed opportunity in a baseball game, the layout is shaped vaguely like a baseball, creating a concrete poem.  I would love to duplicate this with my kids, first sharing Hulme’s poem and examining her word choices and the way she shaped her lines, then moving on to create concrete poems of our own.  We could stick to the sports theme (a football shape would be immediately relevant), or opening up the possibilities to anything the kids could imagine.

Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems.  Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins.  Pictures by Wolf Erlbruch.  New York: HarperCollins, 2005.  ISBN: 9780688178604

Friday, January 30, 2015

Class Post - "I Thought I'd Take My Rat to School"

“Homework sits on top of Sunday, squashing Sunday flat.”  So begins one of the poems in the collection I Thought I’d Take My Rat to School: Poems for September to June, collected by Dorothy M. Kennedy and illustrated by Abby Carter.  Simply entitled “Homework,” this poem by Russell Hoban describes the way a child’s homework assignments weigh on them when they are facing Monday morning (“Homework has the smell of Monday”) and all the things the speaker would rather be doing instead.  Other poems in this collection touch on such school-y subjects as mathematics, classroom pets, art and daydreaming, as well as offering different viewpoints about the schooling experience.  Some are funny, some are touching, some are rather odd.

This collection offers 57 poems from a variety of poets, including well-known names such as Hoban, Nikki Giovanni, Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Judith Viorst and Gary Soto, as well as some names with which I was not as familiar, like Ramona Maher, X.J. Kennedy and Louis Phillips.  Most poems had first appeared in other collections.

I Thought I’d Take My Rat to School features a wide variety of poems employing different styles and language.  Some are very meaningful, such as “education” by Nikki Giovanni and “I don’t understand” by Nikki Grimes (both featured on the same page).  Both invoke “Mama” and the idea that education is important, and a way to elevate one’s life.  Some poems are humorous, and have a bouncy rhythm, like X.J. Kennedy’s “Teacher” (“My teacher looked at me and frowned/ A look that must have weighed a pound”).  “The Eraser Poem” by Louis Phillips is a stylized poem, featuring the line “The eraser poem” repeated over and over with one character missing from the end until nothing is left.  This creates a visual triangle.

Many poems describe well-understood feelings about school, including “Homework” by Jane Yolen, in which the speaker describes all the things homework makes her want to do instead, such as writing thank you notes, cleaning the litter box and taking out the garbage.  The universally sullied reputation of school cafeteria food is on display in “Lunch” by Katy Hall and the varied activities of recess are explored in “In the Playground” by Stanley Cook.  There are no overly sentimental poems in this collection, but there are some that don’t quite live up to the quality of the others.  “Mixed-Up School” by X.J. Kennedy aims for nonsense, but doesn’t have the verve to make it shine, and “Wind Circles” by Aileen Fisher has beautiful imagery, but the flow of the words hit a wall in the last thought and make the reader come to too abrupt a stop.  This makes for a somewhat uneven collection.

While the black and white, wavy illustrations don’t offer much in terms of diversity, there are some poems that offer an alternative schooling experience, most notably Ramona Maher’s “September / Bini’ant’aatsoh” (the Navajo word for September).  It tells of a girl named Alice Yazzie, and her one mile trip to the bus stop with her grandfather.

The arrangement of the selected poems moves well, from “September to June”, going throughout the school day from recess to lunch, etc. and down to the last day of school.  The layout, the placement of the poems on the page, especially in conjunction with the illustrations does not always work as smoothly.  Several times in the collection, a word will be partly obscured when placed on top of a shaded segment of the illustration, making it difficult to read.  Often, a poem will be dropped all the way to the bottom of a page, and to my taste, that is less pleasing to see.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is one accredited to an anonymous poet, entitled, “Arithmetic”. 
“Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The Rule of Three it puzzles me,
And fractions drive me mad.”

I run a program at my library called “Pajama Math,” wherein we play math related games and do activities to make math fun.  I can already imagine sharing this poem with my group.  Because of its rhyming scheme, it is something to which I think it would be fun to add additional stanzas.  I could let the children tell me their most feared, or vexing parts of arithmetic, and we could play with syllable counts and numbers of rhyming lines.

I Thought I’d Take My Rat to School: Poems for September to June.  Selected by Dorothy M. Kennedy.  Illustrated by Abby Carter.  Boston; Little, Brown and Company, 1993.  ISBN: 9780316488938