Poetry Studio... Writing poetry with children - 2022 Book Reviews

A SELECTION OF 2022 POETRY AND VERSE NOVELS

Picture book poetry collections explore a variety of topics and concepts.

In Serengeti: Plains of Grass by Leslie Bulion, linked verses place readers in the vast ecosystem in East Africa. Known for her science-focused poetry, Bulion introduces the collection with an explanation of the migration habits of the myriad of animals that call these grassy plains home for a portion of the year. Each poem is four lines: the first three lines (though not exactly rhymed, they utilize consonance in the last word of each line) lyrically describe the behaviors of various animal groups; the fourth line, their association with "grass." The poems are accompanied by brief asides that offer additional information. Vividly colored gouache and pastel illustrations sweep across the pages and capture the essential characteristics of the animals and their interactions at different times of the day. In appended pages, Bulion explains her adaptation of the utendi poetic form; a "Serengeti Glossary" offers definitions of the animals and scientific terms that appear in the text; a message for stewardship along with citations of appropriate organizations makes an appeal to readers who want to know more, and a map. Serengeti brings an ecosystem that is likely not as studied as other areas in the world into the science classroom.

A companion to David Elliott's earlier collections, On the Farm (2008), In the Wild (2010), In the Sea (2012), On the Wing (2014), In the Past (2018), and In the Woods (2020), the short, rhymed and unrhymed poems in At the Pond invite readers to observe and listen near a pond for a whole day. A red-winged blackbird greets and closes the day, and vivid word choice with an abundance of poetic devices capture the environment populated by 14 different animals plus water lilies and cattails. Some sophisticated vocabulary (e.g., appellation, enigmatic, diaphanous, prolific, domesticity) will elude younger readers, but the lilting text ([turtles]"shatter the burnished surface / into shards of splintered light.") pleases the ear. A collection of facts about the animals that young readers will find interesting are appended. Mixed media collage illustrations digitally rendered showcase the pond life in a myriad of blues. This lovely, quiet book will inspire curiosity and lead readers to learn more.

Susan Ewing's Alaska is for the Birds! is an ideal blend of poetry and science. Not all of the 14 birds, both year-round and migratory, woodland and water, will be familiar to young readers (willow ptarmigan, rufous hummingbird, sandhill crane, bald eagle, arctic tern, common raven, belted kingfisher, and others). However, the scientific information in each poem, dealing with appearance, eating behaviors, habitat, and more, provides a more than adequate introduction. The poems are lively rhymes conducive to reading aloud. Large linocut illustrations in spectacular colors capture the essence of each bird. Substantive additional information is appended as is a glossary of bird words that will help with difficult terminology in some of the poems. Bird enthusiasts will snap up this book. Great choice for science curriculum and units about Alaska.

Douglas Florian's characteristic humor and colorful art infuse Zoobilations!, the newest addition to his ouvre of animal books. Twenty lively, pun-filled rhyming poems cover a range of animals from weasels and mandrills to starlings and midwife toads (labeled "World's Best Dad"). Mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects are all represented and nearly all of them very familiar to young readers. In the poems, horses rarely "horse around;" a naked mole rat is admonished to "go get dressed;" an orangutan asks, "Orange you sorry that you're not me?" Each poem has a facing full-page illustration of child-like art rendered in colored pencil and vivid oil pastels. Meant for repeated read-alouds, like the llamas, children are going to llove this book!

Betsy Franco addresses a wide range of math concepts in Counting in Dog Years and Other Sassy Poems. The 20 rhyming poems arranged in four categories ("Hanging Out at Home," "Math Musing," "School Daze," and "Last Bell, School's Out!") are humorous and cleverly conceived. Time is dealt with in several different ways; the multiplication of mice exemplifies the concept; patterns, geometry, fractions, sorting, and more are imbedded in child-friendly activities. Child characters in the poems wonder about math in their everyday lives. Math vocabulary (e.g., tessellate, palindrome, octahedron, sphere, infinity, etc.) is explained in context. Colorful gouache illustrations featuring wacky Pixar-like creatures help to clarify concepts in the text. Students might enjoy creating their own "Fractions of Me" poems and illustrations, pondering "Hold on a minute" and "in a sec," and participating in "palindro-mania" (11 x 11 =121…all the way to 111111 x 111111 = 12345654321). Fun for reading in math class or any time.

In another stunning collaboration, Wait - and See, Helen Frost and Rick Lieder invite young readers to explore their world and see what nature has to offer. As in their four previous books - Step Gently Out (2012), Sweep Up the Sun (2015), Among a Thousand Fireflies (2016), and Wake Up! (2017) - a thought-provoking rhyming poem accompanies exquisite full-page photographs. This time, the lyrical message is be patient, be still, and watch closely as a praying mantis (specifically a Chinese praying mantis) makes its way across flower petals, leaves, and weeds; hunts for prey, and eats. One photo shows hundreds hatching from a nest. Lieder must be the most patient of photographers as he waits for just the right light to fall on his subjects. The photos of the praying mantis looking into the camera are jaw-dropping. A page of information about praying mantises is appended. Children (and adults) will be mesmerized and, hopefully, head out the door with a notepad and a camera, ready to "watch closely."

Maria Gianferrari's Ice Cycle: Poems about the Life of Ice take readers into a frigid world with which most have some familiarity on a personal level, but…who knew ice had so many forms? In eleven poems, vivid descriptions laced with numerous poetic devices, strong verbs, and technical vocabulary provide significant scientific detail about the formation of ice on land and then the shaping of ice in the water. Unique Photoshop illustrations in all shades of blue feature dramatic geometric shapes that complement the words by elaborating on the concepts. Ample appended material discusses ice in states of matter, provides additional information about freshwater ice formations, definitions and comparisons of sea ice and ice on land, an experiment about making ice spikes, and sources. This truly novel collection has a place in the science curriculum well beyond the picture book audience.

Subtitled "Wise & Witty Poems for Language Lovers," Mary Ann Hoberman's Away with Words! delivers what it promises - playful poems that both amuse and instruct. Organized A to Z, this collection of rhyming poems addresses a slew (not slough) of language conventions, including multiple meanings of words, punctuation, contractions, homonyms, homophones, homographs, quirky words, and more. Tools of poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, similes, and rhyme are also exemplified. The cartoon-like illustrations, digitally manipulated from pen and pencil drawings, help to clarify concepts in the poems and add humor. This is a book to revisit often as a reminder of skills to which students have likely already been introduced as well as to acquire new insights. Former youth poet laureate Hoberman clearly had fun writing these poems! As the selection "Just Think" says, "Locked inside the alphabet/Is every word/That ever was/And every book/That never was/But will be."

Alice Faye Duncan's Yellow Dog Blues, a free verse story, is a sad, bluesy tale. Bo Willie can't find his yellow dog and laments the loss of it to everyone he meets. Each person he speaks to has seen the yellow dog and tells him where that dog is headed, which happens to be along a road of famous locales associated with the evolution of the blues. Eventually, he connects with his aunt who drives him around in her pink Cadillac looking for the dog. They discover that yellow dog has made his way to Memphis traveling with a band where he sings "all day and night." The blues rhythm makes the story fun for reading aloud. Children will want to examine closely Chris Raschka's extraordinary illustrations. The visual style is similar to that of his other books, but the media here is oil paint and embroidery on canvas - an eyepopping result! The book concludes with a bit of history about blues music and informative annotations about every place yellow dog visits on his journey. Although the blues references will be over the heads of students, they will have empathy for the boy who can't find his dog.

Marshmallow Clouds is a sophisticated journey through imagination in 28 (plus 2) poems - poetry unlike we usually find published "for children." But that's no surprise coming from U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and his co-author Connie Wanek, a prize-winning poet herself. Arranged in sections according to the Four Elements (Fire, Water, Air, Earth), the individual poems on a variety of topics are not signed, but they flow seamlessly from one to another with similar cadence and vivid imagery. Meant to be read aloud, they will appeal to a wide range of readers - younger children who might not understand all the concepts but will see images in the descriptive words, older children who will delight in the literary devices and metaphoric language ("huge comma, soft and black"-a tadpole; "great golden moth"-harp; "folded pita of your covers"- book; "patched-up underwear of rotten boards"-barn), and adults who are familiar with other works by these two poets. Full-bleed paint illustrations, digitally rendered, feature subdued settings that incorporate images suggested in the text. Each poet offers a comment and an additional poem in the Afterward to further invite readers to look inside themselves as well as outside, to think, to find their own poetic voices. A poetry collection to savor! With the exception of verse novels, the Newbery Medal rarely recognizes poetry. Marshmallow Clouds deserves to be in the conversation.

In The Crab Ballet, a poem picture book by Renée LaTulippe, readers are invited to enter and enjoy a "sunset seaside show." And what a show it is! In Act 1 of the sea ballet, swaying anemones, squids, turtles, and a pair of seahorses perform an "elegant marine routine." There is a hush when the crabs, clearly the stars of the show, begin their spectacular performance…all before one crab pulls down a watery curtain to announce INTERMISSION. The second act is as dramatic as the first, featuring a surprise cameo from Medusa while two dolphins dance. It is the stars of the show, however, who provide the finale…Bravo, crabs! The rhymed text is liberally sprinkled with ballet terms, all of which are defined with pronunciations in the back of the book. Illustrations in muted colors in shades of pale orange, pink, and blue fill the pages with sea creatures and details of underwater life. Perfect for reading aloud, this imaginative tale will leave readers enchanted.

Pablo Neruda completed Book of Questions, a collection of 74 poems that ask 320 questions in total, shortly before his death in 1973. Gorgeously illustrated, Book of Questions, Selections, with text in English and Spanish, draws 70 questions from 39 of those poems. With the exception of one full poem, the other selections are parts of poems arranged in "thematic groups" according to the book's editor. The questions - mysterious and profound - have no answers (except perhaps in the mind of the imaginative reader)…"How many questions are in a cat?" "Does smoke strike up conversations with clouds?" "Do you hear explosions of yellow in the middle of the fall?" From endpaper to endpaper, luscious stylized illustrations mostly in blues, reds, and yellows against backdrops of black or white dominate the pages of this oversized book. Numerous gatefolds extend the theme of some of the poems. Text and illustrations work together to create a sensory experience. An Editor's Note, Illustrator's Note, and Translator's Note (all of which are fascinating reading), and brief biographies of all three round out the volume. There is so much in this magnificent introduction to the work of Pablo Neruda for readers of all ages to ponder and to imagine, as well as to inspire writing and art.

Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle relives the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, credited to June 19, 1865, in Texas, and the activities of enslaved people there in the following days. This poem picture book, mostly free verse with some rhymed sections, relates that after 300 years of bondage, some rested, some sang and danced, some prayed, some stayed near and others went as faraway as they could go, some died. Yet the celebration continues into the present day all over the United States. Some lines are quotes from the Emancipation Proclamation. Sumptuous realistic oil paintings in warm colors fill the pages and reflect the variety of emotions of enslaved families in Texas when they received the news. An Author's Note explains Rolle's creation of the poem for the online magazine AfriGeneas and its subsequent wide distribution, leading to her involvement in Juneteenth celebrations. Additional information about Juneteenth, including the fact that slavery did not officially end until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified at the end of 1865, is presented in the Note. A worthy library addition that merits reading aloud at any time, not just on June 19.

Following On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring (2020), Buffy Silverman invites readers to explore the autumn season in On a Gold-Blooming Day: Finding Fall Treasures. What can you do on an autumn day? This picture book-length rhymed poem highlights the activities of animals and the beauty of the season through the changes in plants. Engaging descriptions (e.g., "frog-leaping," "log-sleeping," "goose-honking day.") and vivid verbs ("Cranes rattle. Fish skedaddle.") create a lively text. Extraordinary full-color photographs fill the pages and offer much for young readers to examine. Appended informational blurbs provide context for the lines of text and the photos. This book invites children (and their parents) to step outside and see, hear, touch, and smell all that autumn days have to offer.

In the introduction to If This Bird Had Pockets, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater offers background information about Poem in Your Pocket Day and poses a magical idea to readers: what "if animals carried poems too…." The first and last poems in this collection are "by Me," a young girl who ponders the kinds of poems animals might carry and in conclusion as an "animal child" herself, has written her poem. Each of the remaining 19 poems is told in first person by animals - mammals, birds, insects - mostly familiar to younger readers. The text is rhythmic with varying rhyme schemes and styles. Facts about the animals (e.g., what they eat and how they live) are imbedded in the poems. Readers will delight in the whimsical touches in the full-page illustrations, created as graphite sketches and colored digitally. These lively poems will make great read-alouds, as well as create interest in the animals.

In Copycat by Christy Hale, 15 vivid tanka poems compare objects in nature with accomplishments in architecture, transportation, artistic urban spaces, and more. Familiar pairs, such as a dragonfly with helicopter and octopus arm with robotic arm, are included with lesser known, such as armadillo with a fold-up car and a honeycomb with a housing project. Relief print illustrations of the natural phenomena and the tanka are positioned with a labeled photograph of the invention on the facing page. Further descriptions of the aspects of nature and the scientific inspirations of each are appended along with a discussion of how nature provides the inspiration for innovation and biomimicry. History and conventions of the tanka form are included in the appended material plus an explanation of how the poems are structured in this collection: the first two lines relate to nature; the last two lines highlight a design or invention that is the human response to the natural phenomenon, and the third line links the nature and human sections. An extensive list of sources concludes the volume. The unique comparisons between natural and human-made objects in these poems will hopefully sharpen young readers' observations of the world around them and inspire "That looks like…" conversation. Fascinating!

Following her exploration of our planet in Earth Verse: Haiku from the Ground Up (2018), Sally Walker offers Out of This World: Star-Studded Haiku, a challenging blend of science, art, and poetry to the bit older reader who has some background knowledge of space. Divided into sections ("Constellations and Astronomers," "The Universe Begins," "Stars," "Our Solar System," "Moons and Eclipses," and "Asteroids and Comets"), rich visual imagery of exquisite word choice in haiku style takes readers on a tour of space. The Milky Way is a "galactic pinwheel," Jupiter's red eye is a "cyclops sentry," the rings around Saturn are "cosmic Hula-Hoops," and "with tiny nibbles / the moon gobbles down the sun." The haiku format can be a bit restrictive, but Walker manages to convey scientific fact in a few words. Full-page (and sometimes double-paged) digitally rendered illustrations explode with color and light and create the illusion of deep space. The book concludes with "Further Explorations," a lengthy section of information related to each topic in the poems and containing sufficient detail to satisfy the immediate curiosity of readers. A glossary, further reading suggestions, and online resources are appended. Young space aficionados will gravitate toward this book and use it as a springboard for locating additional information. The poets among them will want to experiment with the haiku form.

Mary Hamilton had a "fighting spirit," as was evidenced in Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman's Case for Equality and Respect, a picture book biography about a lesser-known figure in civil rights activism. Mary grew up with segregation, but in college, she learned to address people as "Miss," "Mrs.," or "Mr." - a sign of courtesy. She became a teacher whose concern for the Civil Rights Movement led her to join CORE (she was the first woman to head the southern region) and participate in Freedom Rides. Although she was repeatedly arrested and beaten, she insisted that she be addressed with respect, which eventually resulted in a charge of contempt in court. Not backing down, Miss Hamilton took her case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1964 that all people deserved respect in a court of law. The text by Carole Boston Weatherford is reported straightforwardly in loose free verse. Scratchboard illustrations with actual photos for backdrops provide stark images. A Civil Rights timeline, photos, and further reading are appended. This story about perseverance and standing up for one's beliefs provides a valuable theme for young readers.

Allan Wolf's Behold Our Magical Garden: Poems Fresh from a School Garden is a clever combination of plant science and writing poetry all in one volume. In 29 poems, a group of diverse children plus some flowers, vegetables, insects, birds, and even the FBI (Fungus Bacteria Invertebrates of compost) inform readers about planting and caring for a garden. Many of the poems rhyme and represent a variety of styles and formats. Humor abounds. Garden volunteers march to a chant; Latin nomenclature is explained; a carrot keeps a diary; bugs go on strike, and the sun is interviewed, in addition to how seeds germinate, the function of herbs, the loyal garden "ship" (a wheelbarrow), and a touching poem about the community response when the garden tools are stolen. It ends with the garden buried in snow and the wise words, "Gardens come and go!" Appended pages address the writing of each poem and offer suggestions for reading and writing poetry. The digital cartoon-like illustrations are highly detailed and filled with humorous touches that will delight readers. Sure to inspire some budding gardeners to start planting!

Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple follow up Eek! You Reek!: Poems About Animals That Stink, Stank, Stunk (2019) with another collection of unique animal poems in Yuck, You Suck!: Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck. Nearly all of the 13 animals that sip, slurp, and suck in this book will be familiar to readers (with the possible exception of the remora and the erebid moth). The poems rhyme for the most part and contain factual information about body attributes and behaviors. The theme carries into the ample back matter that supplements the poetry: Animals Suck for A Reason, Anatomical Terms for Parts That Suck, More About Those Suckers, Other Books to Stick Your Proboscis Into, and A Glossary of Science-y Words That Don't Suck. The illustrations are large (extending to double-paged spreads), vividly colored, and highly detailed. Readers will particularly enjoy the accentuated teeth, stingers, and buggy eyes. These lively poems are natural read-alouds and a good addition to the science classroom.

Robert Frost's memorable poem is brought to life through luminous watercolor and gouache paintings by P.J. Lynch in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The central figure is a young woman on horseback who leaves the village in the opening endpapers. The woods are indeed "dark and deep" as she dismounts and revels in the silence of the "easy wind" and the beauty of the falling snow. But as we know, she has "miles to go" and rides on to fulfill her promises. Double-paged spreads, some wordless, depict close-up and bird's-eye perspectives, drawing readers into the woods with the rider. Shades of blue and gray conifers are highlighted by remnants of the pale yellow setting sun. The mystery of her destination still exists as the concluding endpapers show a magnificent sun aglow on the snowy landscape. Gorgeous introduction to an iconic poem for a younger audience. For an excellent example of how pictures help shape the narrative, pull Susan Jeffers' version of this poem (1978) from the shelf and invite students to compare the "story" told through her exquisitely detailed pencil illustrations with this one.

There are numerous illustrated versions of Clement C. Moore's classic 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. In an introductory note to this version, illustrator Matt Tavares discusses the original newspaper publication of the poem, the question of its authorship, and changes over the years. He also tells us that the words in this text appear exactly as they did when "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" was originally published in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Readers will notice variations to which they are not accustomed (two of the reindeer are "Dunder" and "Blixem") along with some irregular spellings, but they will be so entranced with the exquisite black-and-white pencil illustrations by Tavares that it won't matter. Stunning use of light and shadow and multiple perspectives of near and far effectively create the atmosphere. The grainy texture has a nostalgic feel. On the pages with text, red and white border art adds a bit of color. A lovely addition to a holiday library collection.

Verse novels explore different time periods and family situations

As she has done in earlier biographies in verse of accomplished women, Jeannine Atkins presents the life of acclaimed Austrian physicist Lise Meitner in Hidden Powers. Although described by Atkins as a work of "imagination and historical interpretation," this highly readable book is grounded in research and rich detail. From a young age Lise had many questions about science and math at a time when girls are not supposed to have such interests. Lise persisted with her education and finally earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna and became a full professor at the University of Berlin. Her publications were widely known and respected, but too often her male colleagues received the credit for her work. As Hitler rose to power, many scientists left Germany. Lise, although Jewish, was reluctant to leave and continued her search for a new element on the periodic table. She eventually emigrated to Sweden and continued her work with Otto Hahn, which led to the discovery of nuclear fission. With great disappointment, she watched Hahn receive the Nobel Prize without mentioning her primary role in the discovery. She was further dismayed to watch the ultimate use of nuclear fission in the development of the atomic bomb. Appended material includes a timeline and brief biographical sketches of Lise's friends and colleagues, in addition to a bibliography. This moving and inspirational story of a determined and brilliant scientist is sure to find an audience among readers of history, STEM titles, and biographies of women.

In Rima's Rebellion, a work of historical fiction, Margarita Engle introduces readers to 12-year-old Rima (who ages to 25 by the end of the story), a courageous girl who strives for a better life for herself, her mother, and her grandmother, though she is aware it will be a struggle. Rima is the illegitimate child of a wealthy man who has no regard for her or her mother. She is bullied and shunned by society - that's the way of life in her village. Her abuela is a blacksmith; Rima and her mother make fine lace for wealthy women. Her skill on a horse brings her father's "real" daughter to their door to learn from Rima. In spite of the political turmoil and natural disasters that pose threats, she learns to set type to print forbidden materials and finds hope and love. Evocative poetry in a variety of forms reflects Rima's passion for her beliefs in women's rights and her desire to make a difference. Cuba's tumultuous history with a series of dictators is embedded in the poems as well. Engle offers a bit more background information about Cuba in an appended Historical Note and a discussion of women's voting rights along with a very interesting International Timeline of Women's Suffrage. Readers who enjoy stories with strong female protagonists will want to read this one.

Eleven-year-old Lacey is confused when her mother hurries her to pack important items as the police arrive to remove them and her little sister from the home that has been like a prison in Rebekah Lowell's The Road to After. For her entire life, Lacey's father has refused to let them go outside, except for rare family outings, under the threat of retribution unless they are "good." As the family adjusts to transitional homelife and then an apartment of their own when her mother has a chance to attend graduate school, Lacey continues to recall moments that are bizarre and disturbing. Everything is new - the prospect of school, playing with other children, experiencing typical childhood joys, even writing and drawing in her nature journal which she has always had to hide from her father. Steps forward in adjustment are generally followed by steps backward…the process is slow…like the time it takes the sunflower Lacey planted to grow. But the ending of the story is hopeful, even when they learn the father is out of jail. According to the author, she writes from experience, as a survivor of domestic abuse and includes a list of agencies that will help. This moving story of family resilience is age-appropriate but might not be for every reader.

In Garvey in the Dark, Nikki Grimes continues the story begun in Garvey's Choice (2016). As in the first book, a series of tanka poems reveals Garvey becoming more comfortable with who he is - a reader and budding musician instead of a sports enthusiast. This time, however, the menace of COVID takes over his family's life as well as his community. Garvey can no longer physically go to school or spend time with his best friends. His mother is teaching remotely, which is exhausting, and he rarely sees his father who is still working outside the home because of his technical expertise setting up WIFI for the many people who need his service. The spareness of the tanka format doesn't weigh the story down. Garvey's confusion, anxiety, and the stress of confinement have space to build especially as his father contracts the virus and opts to quarantine at home instead of going to a hospital. When the stories of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd dominate the news and protests begin, Garvey is frustrated when he cannot be part of the movement. The story has a fast pace and will call back those memories for readers of when the world shut down. Readers who enjoy the graphic novel format may be interested that Garvey's Choice: The Graphic Novel is scheduled for publication in mid-2023.

Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis by Susan Hood and Greg Dawson follows the life of two sisters, and piano virtuosos, Zhanna and Frina Arshanskaya, as they tr to escape persecution of Jews in Ukraine. Zhanna and Frina enjoyed a happy, music-filled childhood until Stalin's antisemitism forced the family to move. Life in the big city was not easy, but the girls' talent earned them scholarships at a famed music conservatory, where they excelled. They were dealt yet another blow when Nazis forced citizens, including the Arshanskaya family, into a death march which most certainly would result in the end of their lives. Zhanna and Frina, then 14 and 12, managed to escape back to the city, where courageous people helped them assume new identities with the names Anna and Marina Morozova. They were meant to play piano and became quite famous, hiding in plain sight and entertaining Nazi soldiers all over Europe. Their immense talent worked against them, however, as they continually risked being recognized. The poems are primarily free verse with occasional uses of different forms, the explanations of which are located in the back of the book. Quotes from Anna (Zhanna) are scattered throughout the text, increasing the impact of the story. Extensive appended material further illuminates their lives and includes letters; family photos; an Afterword by co-author Greg Dawson about finding Zhanna's story; a list of pieces that Zhanna and Frina played; additional facts about Hitler, Stalin, and music; and sources (museums and other places of note, websites, films, books). This harrowing survival story of bravery, deception, and perseverance will appeal to readers looking for a World War II adventure, as well as introduce them to two world-renowned pianists.

This riveting story begins with a map and a letter from a current resident and direct descendant of one founding family of Africatown. Encompassing the years 1859-1901, African Town by Irene Latham and Charles Waters is an ambitious verse novel relating the story of how 110 men, women and children were purchased in Africa and illegally brought to Alabama. Their journey across the Middle Passage, the time spent in the swamps, their lives on plantations, and eventually the establishment of a free settlement now known as Africatown come alive in 14 first person voices. The poems, including the enslaved men and women, the white individuals (and members of their family) who were responsible for bringing them to the United States, and even the ship Clotilda itself, have unique forms designed according to personality and background of the character who is speaking. As they struggle to survive and adapt, the Africans attempt to hold on to their memories and the cultural traditions of home, with the dream that they may someday return. The abundant appended material is must-read: an author's note that discusses their research process and their choices regarding telling the story; "Voices" - the list of characters and more about their lives (plus a list of real-life characters); Africatown today; a timeline and glossary (languages in the story); an explanation of the poetry forms, and sources for additional information. The story of these resilient and determined people is powerful reading and essential for library shelves.

Described by author Kwame Alexander as "the saga of an African family," The Door of No Return is the first book in a historical fiction trilogy based on the real lives of the Asante people who are native to what is now known as Ghana. Eleven-year-old Kofi lives with his family in Upper Kwanta where he loves the stories of his grandfather, goes to school (to learn the "Queen's English" and read Shakespeare), envisions a future with Ama, avoids his bully cousin, and enjoys carefree times with his best friend Ebo. He's an excellent swimmer but has been warned to stay out of the water at night because of unexplained "beasts." When an annual festival pits wrestlers from Upper and Lower Kwanta against each other, Kofi's brother Kwasi represents Upper in the match and the unthinkable happens. Tensions grow between the two parts of the country, and Kofi and Kwasi are captured and taken to the coast. More tragedy occurs, and Kofi is put on a ship with many others, all unwitting victims of the international slave trade. The verse novel format moves the story along. Kofi's emotions and confusion are palpable. Back matter includes the story background in Acknowledgments, a Twi language glossary with suggestions for pronunciation of words, a description of the Adinkra symbols that Alexander placed at the beginning of each section to "foreshadow what's about to happen," and a discussion of locations mentioned in the story. The cliffhanger ending (reminiscent of "The People could Fly" story) leaves the fate of Kofi and his bully cousin (also on the ship) unknown, setting up the next book.

Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor's Life by Marilyn Nelson introduces readers to one of the fixtures of the Harlem Renaissance art scene. Art dominated the life of Augusta from the time she was a child, though her father tried to "beat it out" of her. For every step forward, it seemed she was pushed two steps back. In spite of incredible hardship, she kept working and achieved some of her goals: she studied art in Paris, she initiated programs for would-be artists, she hosted a salon featuring the work of Black artists (though it was not sustainable). Augusta was the recipient of many honors and attained a measure of fame with her sculpture, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which was the highlight of the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Sadly, she could not afford to have it bronzed, and it was destroyed. And, because she took a leave of absence to work on it, she lost her job as Director of the Harlem Community Art Center. Writing primarily in first person, Nelson utilizes different poetry forms as she relays events and circumstances in chronological order and imagines the thought processes of the artist as she sculpts. The use of concrete poetry - a tree, hands, outlines of sculptures - is especially effective. In "Hitting Bottom," a giant "X" represents the death of Savage's husband and newborn infant. Photographs of Augusta Savage and several of her sculptures are reproduced in the text. In a substantial biographical note, the Afterword by Tammi Lawson provides details that fill in the spaces of Savage's life. This book for mature readers is a lyrical look at the life of a gifted sculptor through the lens of a master poet.

Poets and such…

In a series of free verse poems, Renée Watson's Maya's Song follows the life of singer, storyteller, lecturer, poet Maya Angelou from her birth through the performance of her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Strong forces shaped Maya's life - the undying support of her brother Bailey; the example of her grandmother as a wise, successful businesswoman; friendships with James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr., and always the importance of words. The evocative poems depict Maya as a survivor - a victim of abuse as a child, which rendered her silent for five years; a mother at age 16; a performer who defied odds (not always the most talented, but persistent); a woman who gathered stories and experiences until she found her voice. Bryan Collier's characteristic watercolor collages are a feast, filling the pages with emotion and context. A timeline and personal notes by both the author and illustrator are appended. This extraordinary portrait of courage and resilience will inspire readers to use their voices, tell their stories…and discover that they matter.

Hope Is an Arrow: The Story of Lebanese American Poet Kahlil Gibran by Cory McCarthy is a poignant picture book biography of a poet and artist whose work has maintained an international presence. Disturbed by the conflict in his home country of Lebanon, Kahlil, even as a boy, had a secret hope of bringing people together. When he, his mother, and siblings were forced to leave for America and settled in Boston, he discovered that divisions were more than religious - the realities of wealth vs. poverty were evident. Kahlil's talent as an artist opened opportunities, but his concerned mother sent him back to Lebanon to continue his education. In spite of the intolerance he found there, he never abandoned his hope for peace and began to express himself in writing. The vivid lyrical text sprinkled with quotes from Gibran's writings is filled with details. Luscious collage and acrylic illustrations seem to saturate the pages and reflect the emotion of Gibran's story as well as illuminate the circumstances of his life. An appended section including source notes with additional stories and biographical information about Gibran's life expands upon the text. This story of hope and the intersection of art and writing is an introduction to a poet whose work a new generation of readers may someday encounter.

Wild places helped shape the writer and forester that poet W. S. Merwin became. In The Poem Forest: Poet W. S. Merwin and the Palm Tree Forest He Grew from Scratch by Carrie Fountain, his dedication to both of those aspects of his life is presented to younger readers. As a child, William Stanley loved wild spaces - the trees, the animals, the silence. He felt that people were always trying to "straighten out" the wilderness with towns and cities until all the wild places were gone. As he began to study and travel and write poetry, he sought a wilderness where he could "plant a seed to find out what it would grow into," and he chose Hawaii. Specifically, he found a "wasteland" on Maui and planted his first tree - a palm tree - and continued to plant one every day during the rainy season. Thus began his palm forest, and his career as a poet flourished just as his trees grew. Full-page digitally rendered illustrations showcase the forest and depict significant moments in his life. An Author's Note with additional information and Merwin's poem "Palm" round out the book. An inspirational introduction to a poet readers might enjoy in the future and a reminder of what impassioned individuals can do to preserve wild spaces.

In one of her last published books, Patricia MacLachlan pays homage to National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning author Mary Oliver in My Poet. Lucy walks with her neighbor, a poet, searching for words and wonders where her poet finds them. Words are seemingly everywhere for the poet as she and her young friend use their senses to explore the town, the seashore, the woods, and the familiar environs of home with the dogs, a horse, and a pond. Lucy wonders if a heron carries words in its cry or does the sound of leaves in the wind bring words to the poet. Do roses sing and sand whisper words to her? Or perhaps she finds words in the fur of her dogs or hears their dog talk. In the end, Lucy realizes the importance of a connection to the natural world, begins to discover her own creative process, and writes a poem about a stone they found. Gouache illustrations in a muted palette reflect the Cape Cod community, a landscape known to both MacLachlan and Oliver. In an appended author's note, MacLachlan discusses her casual acquaintance with Mary Oliver. This quiet tale offers a bit of writing craft to readers who may find themselves empowered to find their own words…and write.

Celia Thaxter was a renowned poet of her time, but her love of gardening is the focus of Celia Planted a Garden: The Story of Celia Thaxter and Her Island Garden by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt. As a child, Celia planted flowers among the rocks on White Island where her father was the lighthouse keeper. The island was a wondrous place for her throughout the seasons even when the ocean became angry. When the family moved to Appledore Island and opened a hotel, Celia planted bigger and bigger gardens and shared the color with everyone. She married a man who did not like island life, and they moved to the mainland. Celia missed the sea and began to write poetry - "her words opened like flowers." Once again, she filled her life with flowers and painted them on cards and plates. But the sea called, and Celia went back to her island, where she gardened and wrote and painted and nurtured the birds. Detailed illustrations rendered in watercolor, gouache, and pencil have a muted palette fitting to the atmosphere of the story. Hand-lettered quotes from Celia's writings adorn each double-paged spread. An author's note with additional information, a timeline and sources complete the text with a photo of Appledore Island on the last page. This color-filled piece of nature writing is an excellent introduction to a multi-talented woman.

Bibliography

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Wolf, Allan. Behold Our Magical Garden: Poems Fresh from a School Garden. Illus. by Daniel Duncan. Candlewick

Yolen, Jane & Stemple, Heidi E.Y. Yuck, You Suck!: Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck. Illus. by Eugenia Nobati. Millbrook.

Zoboi, Ibi. Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler. Dutton

Page last updated 12/21/23

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