“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