Monday, March 30, 2015

Class Post - Review - "How I Discovered Poetry"

2014 was an amazing year for youth poetry, an occurrence that was rightly acknowledged with the ALA Youth Media Awards.  Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover won the Newbery Medal, while Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson was a Newbery Honor book.  Also receiving praise was How I Discovered Poetry by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, which was a Coretta Scott King author honor book (the top award went to Woodson).

An autobiography in verse, How I Discovered Poetry tells the story of Nelson’s childhood in 1950s American.  The daughter of a serviceman, Nelson spent time across the country in a variety of military bases.  Each fourteen line free verse sonnet is prefaced by a location, indicative of the fact that Nelson’s life was hardly static, something to which I can definitely relate.  Nelson embodies her younger self, and we readers get to experience her adolescent worldview.  In “Church,” Nelson writes about mistaking the language of a sermon and wondering why Lot and his wife had to leave with their “flea.”  “Poor Lot: imagine having a pet flea.”  As time marches forward, young Nelson encounters friendship, racial barriers and lives through the “Red Menace.”  In “Attic Window,” a twelve-year-old Nelson starts to question the world around through the books she reads, disdaining her sister Jennifer “and that letter she’s writing to Santa.”  Nelson touches upon big moments and little ones, each one informing the person she grew to be.

In “Sputnik,” Nelson uses poetic language to describe the feeling of being a child in a military community.  “My base school classmates play musical chairs,” she writes, meaning that children come and go.  When her best friend Helene moves away, Nelson writes that she will “feel lonely as Sputnik” (emphasis by the author).  Any child that has been separated from a friend will understand this feeling.  Being structured as a series of free verse sonnets makes How I Discovered Poetry read easily.  As the subject matter is often very deep and thoughtful, the short format makes the ideas more digestible.

Like Brown Girl Dreaming, How I Discovered Poetry is an intensely personal expression.  Readers are privy to Nelson’s innermost thoughts and memories of her childhood.  But because of Nelson’s deft touch, the book is never weighted down.  It never becomes too much to comprehend.  Adolescence is messy, and in reliving her specific experience, Nelson is sharing universal truths of childhood.  

“My face, as foreign to me as a mask,/ allows people to believe they know me,” writes Nelson in “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl.”  Nelson uses this final sonnet to express her feelings of identity and her wish to express herself.  Using poetry as a personal expression of identity is a very powerful exercise.  Students can embrace the sonnet form, or go unstructured in telling truths about themselves, and recognizing differences between what they feel and what other people see.

Nelson, Marilyn.  How I Discovered Poetry.  New York: Dial Books, 2014.  ISBN:9780803733046

Class Post - Review - "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!"

In the forward to her Newbery winning book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, Laura Amy Schlitz references her student love for historical novels, and how the plights, struggles and survivals of ordinary people inspired her.  Wanting to provide the same inspiration for her own students, she wrote Good Masters!, a collection of prose and poetic monologues and dialogues depicting children from a medieval manor in England in 1255.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! opens with the monologue of Hugo, the lord’s nephew.  In short stanzas, Hugo speaks of finding a boar in the forest.  This adventurous story perfectly sets up the characters we as readers , listeners and performers are about to meet.  Schlitz lays the groundwork for an informative and entertaining look at a period of history.  Schlitz includes timely vocabulary, such as “friants,” (boar droppings) “villeins” (non-free peasant) and “varlet” (a man who looked after animals), as well as incorporating religious customs and holidays into her monologues and dialogues.  Schlitz provides explanations and definitions in footnotes, so as to not interrupt the flow of language.

“Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,/ And the river turns the mill wheel/ and the wheel goes on forever.”  These three lines are repeated often in the tale of Otho, the miller’s son.  Each character brings with him or her a different style of writing, some verse and some in prose.  But Otho’s monologue is the only to include repeated lines.  Otho’s narration bounces back and forth between an eight line stanza with an ABCB rhyme scheme and the refrain which includes the lines quoted above.  The overall effect is not unlike a nursery rhyme, though the subject matter is significantly more mature.  Otho talks of being a miller, and cheating his customers.  “My father used to beat me sore - / I’ve learned that life is grim./ And someday I will have a son – and God help him!”

Throughout the unique voices presented here, readers, listeners and performers can observe and relate to a variety of different experiences and opinions.  While the effects of medieval politics and religions might not be immediately relevant to their lives, many youth can relate to feelings of inadequacy, obligation, jealousy and friendship.  Schlitz touches on very common feelings while exploring historical details.

In addition to informative footnotes, Schlitz also includes stage directions (also presented as footnotes) and prose interludes to give the reader more information about a certain historical topic, such as medieval agriculture and the Crusades.  This brief but helpful instruction can only enhance a reader’s or performer’s experience.

For many students, history can be a dry subject with endless names and dates that seem to have no relevance to their lives.  The beauty of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is that it gives students an immediate connection to the past.  This tactic could be employed to explore different time periods.  Students could take time looking at the lives of children to enhance their understanding of history.  I think a valuable exercise might be to have students choose a time period and allow them to create a character from that period, and then write a scene for them, describing the quotidian details of their lives in context.

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007.  ISBN: 9780763615789

Class Post - Review - "Raindrops Roll"

Arriving at my library just in time for April showers is April Pulley Sayre’s new poetical picture book, Raindrops Roll.  This book is illustrated with gorgeous photographs by the author of the natural world with rain, before, during and after.

“Rain is coming./ You can feel it/ in the air,” begins Sayre’s poem.  A drowsy looking frog peers at the reader from its perch on a leaf as the sky darkens behind it.    Sayre continues by telling and showing insects protecting themselves from the rain and other creatures standing out in the storm.  “Raindrops settle./ They slip./ They dot./ They drip.”  These lines accompany images of raindrops sparkling on foliage.  The poem ends with sunlight beginning to shine, and the raindrops beginning to dry up.

“Raindrops Roll” will be a perfect read-aloud, especially with my young group.  The combination of the gentle language with the stunning, detailed photographs is very evocative, and is sure to conjure images in readers’ and listeners’ minds.  The action words, “plops,” “drops,” “patters,” and “spatters,” all in the present tense, lend the poem immediacy.  Rhyming words create a lively rhythm that will appeal to a variety of readers and listeners.  Rain is something with which all children are familiar, but the photographs show a side of the rainstorm that most have probably never seen.  They show vivid details of the water droplets and the creatures encompassed by the storm.  With the deceptively simple verbal cues, readers and listeners can learn something new about something as familiar was a rainstorm.

The visual arrangement of the poem is very pleasing.  With only a few words per page, readers and listeners can thoughtfully digest the poem as they go, while also taking in the artwork.  The words are considerately placed on the page in clear, white letters that stand out against the darker background.  Backmatter for the book gives details about the science of rain in technical, but easy to understand language.  It also includes a link to the author’s website and a list of further reading resources.

I am already planning to share this book with my toddler group, with whom I share poetry on the first Wednesday of every month.  The poem is brief enough to keep their attention, and the photographs are colorful and detailed enough to make them want to look closer.  As a follow-up activity, we could create some rain droplets of our own, using a variety of materials such as string, yarn, ribbon, or even some artificial leaves.  We can look and touch and experience the different kind of water droplets that form.

Sayre, April Pulley.  Raindrops Roll.  New York: Beach Lane Books, 2015.  ISBN: 9781481420648

Monday, March 2, 2015

Class Post - Review - "Santa Clauses"

Grammatically, a “clause” is the shortest piece of writing that can express a complete preposition, with a subject and a verb.  In the hands of master poet Bob Raczka, these clauses become Santa Clauses, subtitled, Short Poems from the North Pole.

Santa Clauses opens with a beautiful illustration of a typewriter by Chuck Groenick featuring a letter explaining the premise of the book.  “Years ago, Mrs. Claus gave him [Santa] a book of haiku, a Japanese form of poetry.”  What follows are 25 poems in the haiku style, one for every day in December leading up to and including Christmas day, purportedly written by Santa himself.  In the first poem, letters for Santa, “Wishes blowing in,” overwhelm St. Nick with “December’s first storm.”  Other poems deal with Santa’s preparation for Christmas (December 6th – “Replacing bad bulbs/ with good ones”), enjoying the winter (December 15th – “One hundred strings of/ outdoor lights can’t compete with/ tonight’s aurora”) or simple, everyday pleasures (December 18th – “Mrs. Claus and I/ wrapped neatly in our bed quilts - / matching packages”).  By December 25th, Santa is ready, flying over “fields and towns - / a toy train layout.”

There are many wonderful poetry books for children featuring haiku.  The short format makes these poems easier to read and even memorize for young readers and listeners.  By opting for this format, Raczka can tell a complete story, Santa and Mrs. Claus preparing for Christmas Day, in little bites, perfect for daily digestion.  Raczka uses poetic language to paint his pictures of the North Pole.  On December 10th, Santa writes, “The north wind and I/ whistling to “Let it Snow!”/ on the radio.”  Raczka personifies the wind by saying it whistles along with a song, just as Santa does. 

The imagery of Raczka’s verse, such as “Clouds of reindeer breath” (December 14th) and “Workshop storm warning/ in effect, heaving sawdust accumulation” (December 20th) creates beautiful pictures for readers and listeners to enjoy.  The quiet simplicity of the haiku fosters a calm, soothing narrative from poem to poem, day to day.  Placing landmark Christmas events, like taking home the perfect tree (December 7th) next to commonplace occurrences such as spotting one’s own shadow (December 8th) places great 
importance on our routine days, making the unremarkable remarkable.

Santa Clauses is laid out beautifully, with one haiku for each day with its date heading on its own page, with an accompanying illustration by Groenick, and the occasional two page spread.  These illustrations are awash in the blue of night and warm indoor earth tones.  The text is very readable, either dark against a light or white background, or white against a dark background.

Christmas books are always a big hit at my library, and oddly enough, not just at Christmastime.  I have children throughout the year asking for holiday stories.  Released in September of 2014, Santa Clauses has only one holiday season under its belt, but it is sure to be a book I will return to and recommend throughout the year for children looking for holiday cheer.  It is accessible, wonderful for reading aloud and sharing.

Haiku is a popular form of poetry that is often crafted with students, and I think Raczka has hit upon something very unique in his day to day exploration of a popular holiday.  My favorite haiku from the collection is “December 17th”:

“Sitting by the fire
reading “A Christmas Carol”
listening for ghosts.”

Reading “A Christmas Carol” is a yearly tradition for me, so I was very pleased to see it celebrated here.  I think it would be fun to have children craft their own haiku, celebrating their own favorite traditions from different holidays.  Do they love Easter egg hunts?  Or trick-or-treating? Or fireworks on the Fourth of July?  Because haiku are short, hopefully this would be a non-intimidating exercise that would allow children to focus on one particular thought.

Raczka, Bob.  Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole.  Illustrated by Chuck Groenick.  Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2014.  ISBN: 9781467718059

Class Post - Review - "Mirror Mirror"

If you look at juvenile literature right now, you would see that fairy tales are all the rage.  Countless series and individual titles, for both children and teens, have been plumbing the depths of traditional stories to write new accounts and to bring new dimensions to existing stories.  Published in 2010, Marilyn Singer’s book of reverso verse, Mirror Mirror, illustrated by Josée Masse, was part of the first wave of fairy tale books that have changed the way we look at traditional tales.

Created by Singer, the “reverso” is a poem that is read both up and down, “especially appropriate for telling two sides of one story.”  For Mirror Mirror, Singer chose to write about fairy tales, in two different points of view.  The opening poem, “In Reverse,” explains the purpose of the style: “Who/ says/ it’s true - / down/ is/ the only view?”  In “The Sleeping Beauty and the Wide-Awake Prince,” the verse gives the point of view of both the sleeping princess, and the questing prince.  “But I have to be/ sleeping,/ never/ partying,/ never/ out in the world./ It’s no fun being/ in a fairy tale,” Sleeping Beauty says.  “But I have to be/ the prince at work,/ looking for love,/ hacking through briars,” says the Prince.  “The Doubtful Duckling” gives the Ugly Duckling two different points of view all to himself, first confident that he will grow into a beautiful swan, then doubting that such a thing could happen.  The closing poem, “The Road,” might inspire readers and listeners to go forth on their own fairy tale journeys: “this much/ I know:/ The road leads/ wherever/ you need to go.”

When Mirror Mirror was released, I had never seen anything like it, and the poetic form seemed almost like magic.  I can’t imagine the time it must have taken to craft each poem so that it comes out perfectly both backwards and forwards.  For something that one would assume took so much work, the poems read easily, as if they were no trouble at all.  The poems read out loud very well, with a largely bouncy rhythm, and are peppered with punctuation to help the reader give personality to the recitation.  The language is relatively straightforward, and the magic in it is how Singer is able to make lines mean different things coming or going.  In “Rapunzel’s Locks,” the opening line of the first poem and the closing line of the second poem is “No wonder she felt snippy.”  In the first poem, the line refers to Rapunzel’s attitude, her frustration to being trapped in the tower.  In the second, “snippy” refers to Rapunzel’s hair being cut off.

Part of the magic of Mirror Mirror is in playing with familiar stories and characters that children already know.  Even if their only experience with Snow White is through the Disney animated film, they will recognize the dwarves, the princess, the witch and the apple, and that is all they need to enjoy Singer’s poems.  In the title poem, Singer even refers to the dwarves as “Sleepy, Dopey, Happy,” names that were given to them by Disney.  Because children are most likely to be familiar with this story, they are more likely to “get” the conceit of the style and understand both poems as being different points of view of the story.  Building from this place of familiarity, Mirror Mirror also fosters empathy in the reader or listener, as it offers points of view that are often not heard in fairy tales.  In “Bears in the News,” we are given the point of the view of the three bears, whose home has been broken into and trashed by a trespassing blonde.

The layout of Mirror Mirror adds greatly to its charm.  Each set of poems is presented with a title on one side of a two page spread, opposite an illustration.  These paintings by Masse are each little works of art, featuring bold, bright colors and cleverly divided between the two spheres of each poem.  The artwork for the poem “Full of Beans” features Jack climbing the beanstalk and the giant peering angrily down.  The illustration for “Bears in the News” is particularly ingenious, featuring the same scene, the bears coming home to discover Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed.  On Goldilocks’ side, we see the surprised young lady waking to see the shadowy figures of the bears approaching.  On the bears’ side, we see a well-dressed bear family surprised to see a shadowy figure in one of their beds.

Part of this recent trend towards fairy tales in juvenile publishing has been dedicated to hearing the villain’s side of the story.  Series like Ever After High by Shannon Hale and books like Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross offer some insight into the darker sides and characters of familiar stories.  One poem in Mirror Mirror would work very well as an exercise towards creating different points of view.  The poems “In the Hood” tell the story of Red Riding Hood, first from Red, then from the Wolf.

“In my hood,
skipping through the wood,
carrying a basket,
picking berries to eat –
juicy and sweet
what a treat!
But a girl
mustn’t dawdle.
After all, Grandma’s waiting.”

“After all, Grandma’s waiting,
mustn’t dawdle…
But a girl!
What a treat –
juicy and sweet,
picking berries to eat,
carrying a basket,
skipping through the wood
in my ‘hood.”

While constructing a reservo poem might be a bit much to ask on the fly, a group poem is great fun and requires imagination and teamwork.   The group should select a familiar fairy tale and identify two opposite forces in it, such as Red and the Wolf, and then person by person, line by line, construct two poems telling both sides of the story.  I have done something similar to this with one of my groups at the library, wherein my patrons created a funny and heartbreaking backstory for Mother Gothel, the witch from “Rapunzel.”

Singer, Marilyn.  Mirror Mirror.  Illustrated by Josée Masse.  New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2010.  ISBN: 9780525479017