Monday, April 13, 2015

Class Post - Review - "Red Sings from Treetops"

 The world is full of color, and the natural world has inspired poets since time immemorial.  Acclaimed poet Joyce Sidman gives thanks for the colors of nature in Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors.  

Beginning with Spring (because spring is the beginning of all things), Sidman writes that “red sings/ from treetops:/ cheer-cheer-cheer,/ each note dropping/ like a cherry/ into my ear.” (emphasis by the author.)  The birds’ cheery music signals life coming back into the world, followed by red rhubarbs and red worms squiggling after the rain.  Green follows, and yellow and purple.  Spring turns to summer and “Yellow melts/ everything it touches.”  Green fades with fall and white encompasses winter until the red birds come back, dropping notes “like a cherry/ into/ my/ ear.”

Poetical journeys through the seasons are somewhat common.  2014 saw the release of Jon J. Muth’s beautiful Hi, Koo!, a trip through the seasons on the haiku form of poetry.  Sidman’s seasonal poetry in Red Sings from Treetops is less structured, more free verse.  She likens the colors of the seasons to tastes, sounds and smells, bringing the reader and listener in to her world.  “In spring/ White/ sounds like storms:/ snapped twigs and bouncing hail.”  

Sidman keeps things relatively simple, calling upon only commonly used colors like white, black, yellow, green and blue, though in summer, “Blue grows new names:/ turquoise,/ azure,/ cerulean.”  She focuses on everyday things, “smells like butter,/ tastes like salt,” so that the reader or listener can feel and relate to what she is saying.

While the colors of the seasons go dark and light, the tone of the collection remains cheerful, even in the face of thunderstorms.  A child reading or listening to the poems could find stability in the cheerful acceptance of nature’s mood swings.

Red Sings from Treetops is beautifully illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (who won a Caldecott honor for her work) with mixed media art.  Obviously tying the artwork with Sidman’s colorful poetry, Zagarenski also plays with words and textures in a fairytale-like landscape where even the fish wear little paper crowns.  Sidman’s poetry is presented within the art, or on a white panel, the color words always emphasized with their own designation.

Spring, summer and fall always seem to me to be alive with color, but I was delighted with the colors Sidman highlighted for "Winter."  When it seems as if gray and white are all you have, it is nice to imagine the pink in your cheeks.  Using winter, or a similarly non-colorful idea such as nighttime, I would work with young readers to imagine the colors we would find.  Creating a poem out of the colors to be found in a blackout would be quite enjoyable.

Sidman, Joyce.  Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors.  Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009.  ISBN: 9780547014944

Class Post - Review - "Jazz"

Jazz is a distinctly American art form.  As explained by Walter Dean Myers in the introduction to his poetry collection Jazz, the form rose out of African and European musical traditions, and has at its heart a foundation of improvisation.  To celebrate this unique form of expression, Myers has written a collection of poems inspired by jazz musicians and the musical form.

“Start with rhythm/ Start with the heart.”  Myers opens his collection with the poem “Jazz” and infuses his words with rhythm and heart, as well as passion, energy and soul.  Practically begging to be read aloud, the language sparks right off the page.  Myers writes about the soul of jazz, and the history.  In “America’s Music,” he writes, “What did the world see? / What did the world hear?”  The poems create a wonderful avenue to talk about the historical context of jazz.  Paintings by Christopher Myers further illustrate jazz’s roots.  Images of black men in uniform accompany “America’s Music.”  

The poems in Jazz range in mood and tempo.  Some are loud and celebrational, like “Twenty-Finger Jack,” and some are more emotive and intimate, like “Jazz Vocal.”  “Can you hear it just beginning/ or am I just imagining those precious sounds?” intones the narrator of “Jazz Vocal.”  The familiar form of address brings the reader and listener in close.

The narrators and characters described in the poems of Jazz are all older, adults.  For that reason, there needs to be something else to draw in the ears and attentions of younger readers and listeners.  For this, Myers employs his language and his rhythm.  Youngsters might not understand the personal longing of a poem like “Blue Creeps In,” but the long sounds at the end of each stanza in that poem create an audible sense of yearning and things unfinished.

Jazz is a very visually appealing book.  Each poem is presented within or opposite a painting by Christopher Myers, the poet’s son.  The art helps to bring the words to life with their vibrancy.  In addition to the poet’s introduction, the book features backmatter that includes a glossary of jazz terms and a time line, making this a wonderful book in include in musical or historical instruction.

The poem “Be-Bop” made me think of Chris Raschka’s amazing picture book Charlie Parker Played Be Bop.  Like Raschka’s book, Myers’ “Be-Bop” makes use of onomatopoeia to create verbal music.  I would love to combine these two books with an activity with my patrons.  Armed with my musical instruments, we could create music together, then use onomatopoeia words to create poems about our music. 

Myers, Walter Dean.  Jazz.  Illustrated by Christopher Myers.  New York: Holiday House, 2006.  ISBN: 9780823415458

Class Post - Review - "Joyful Noise"

Like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices features poems that are meant to be read aloud, or performed.  Written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated with black and white sketches by Eric Beddows, Joyful Noise presents the attitudes and opinions of a variety of insects.

Joyful Noise opens with a short note from the poet giving direction on how the poems ought to be read.  Presented in two voices, the poems occasionally alternate between two voices, or present both voices speaking at once.  The insect collection of poetry begins with “Grasshoppers,” leaping out into spring.  “Vaulting from/ leaf to leaf/ stem to stem/ plant to plant,”  two grasshoppers speak sometimes in unison in a bouncy rhythm that mimics that movement of the insect.  “Mayflies” has the two insects speaking in the first person about their brief time on Earth.  “We’re mayflies/ just emerging,” they both say.  “The Digger Wasp” also employs first person narration, but in this case we get “I.”  “I will never/ see my children/ they will never/ gaze on me.”  It is one voice speaking through a dual-voice performance.  “The Digger Wasp” is probably the most emotional of Fleischman’s poems, describing the life cycle of a digger wasp, who never lives to see her children born.  Speaking as “I,” the readers and listeners feel very connected with the wasp as it speaks, and the dual voices give the narration texture and depth.

Fleischman’s poems do not follow a pattern, but they are each elegant in their simplicity.  Sometimes rhyming (sometimes loosely, but pleasingly), often repeating and spoken in a round, these poems would make for very effective performances.  The poems are not long, and might be easily memorized, and the back and forth between two voices really brings the language to life.  Fleischman makes these poems relevant by anthropomorphizing the insects and imbuing them with thoughts and emotions to which most readers and listeners can relate.  Similarly, Fleischman extends his audience’s understanding by making them familiar with new concepts, such as the idea of only living for a day, like the mayfly.

Each poem in this collection is presented in two voices, divided into two segments, side by side, either alternating lines or given simultaneously.  This makes each poem easy to read aloud.  The poems are illustrated by black and white sketches by Eric Beddows that represent the title insects, often in wonderful detail.  This artwork is subtle and adds to the experience without overpowering it. 

Joyful Noise won the John Newbery Medal in 1989, and has stood the test of the ensuing years, remaining a popular choice for juvenile poetry.  I find one poem in particular to be rich with possibilities.  “Honeybees” features two honeybee voices, one a queen and the other a worker.  Together they explain their lives as bees, and though their narration overlaps in places (“I’ll gladly explain”), they have wildly different opinions.  The queen’s life is full of pleasures (“I’m fed/ by my royal attendants”), but the worker’s life is full of drudgery (“without two minutes time/ to sit still and relax.”)  Using this poem as an inspiration, it would be interesting to have students or patrons think about another species that might have two very different experiences in life, and to explore those differences with poetry.  How different, for example, are the lives of a house cat and an alley cat?  

Fleischman, Paul.  Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices.  Illustrated by Eric Beddows.  New York: Harper Trophy, 1988.  ISBN: 9780064460934