Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s birthday is said to be today. He is captured beautifully in words and pictures in Bard of Avon (Morrow, 1992), the nonfiction picture book biography by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema. One of my favorite parts of that book is the wonderful endnote detailing his unique coining of words such as “hint,” “excellent,” “lonely,” and “hurry.” And of course we also associate Shakespeare with the poetic form of the sonnet. It's a form that some of today’s poets who write for children have also tackled.

One of my favorite examples is Helen Frost’s Printz Award honor book, Keesha’s House (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) which incorporates both sonnets and sestinas. It’s the story-through-poems (remember novels in verse on April 19?) of a motley group of teenagers who each find themselves at a crisis point in their lives and come together at Joe’s house, a welcoming place for kids who aren’t welcome or safe in their own homes. The central character, a strong survivor named Keesha, is the catalyst for each teenager finding this safe haven, thus the book’s title. The various points of view make for compelling reading, with perspectives shifting as the story is pieced together through sonnets and sestinas. It is also an excellent audiobook read in multiple voices (Recorded Books, 2004). Here’s just one sampling of a sestina (and it happens to be set in the library and you know how I like poems about the library!):

Do Not Leave Children Unattended
by Helen Frost

After school and on weekends I go to the library
and do my homework or listen
to music. I brush my teeth, wash my hair,
and, a couple of times a week, I shave. They have
a private sink in one of the handicap stalls.
Sometimes I go in the youth section and sign

up to play computer games. There’s a sign
I know there’s younger kids than me who use the sink in that stall
like I do. I keep my eye on them. I try to listen
to adults that talk to them, especially in the rest room. Last week, I had
something creepy happen when I was combing my hair.

A guy made a comment about my gorgeous red hair,
which is nothing new. But right after that—the first sign
of something weird—he asked if he could have
a picture of me. I got out of there fast. When the library
was about to close, he left the same time I did. Hey, listen,
he said, you need a ride somewhere? I said, No, thanks, stalled

for time until he left. The next day, I came out of the stall
and he was in the rest room combing his hair.
He said something to me, but I didn’t stay to listen.
Now I watch every move he makes. If I ever see a sign
that he’s messing with one of the kids that hang out in the library,
I’ll—well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I know I’d have

to help. I guess I’d act casual, like I had
some reason to be there—but I’d stall
around and eavesdrop till he left the kid alone. The library
should be a safe place, and if a kid needs a place to comb his hair,
just let him be. Hey! I finally got a job. I’m going to sign
the paperwork this afternoon. I have to listen

to a tape about dishwashing safety. That’s funny! I’ve listened
to my mother harp on that stuff all my life. Like—you have
to scrub the cutting board. Use bleach or boiling water. There’s a sign
in the rest room—in fact, there’s one in every stall—
reminding us employees to wash our hands. We have to use hair
nets if we get anywhere near food. The librarians

won’t be seeing so much of me now. That’s a good sign. I’ll have
a bathroom I can use at work, and I’ll just use the library stall
to wash my hair. I’ll listen to music while it dries.

from Frost, Helen. Keesha’s House. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003)

Other poets who have written sonnets for young people include:
J. Patrick Lewis
Alice Schertle
Myra Cohn Livingston
Naomi Shihab Nye
Jane Yolen

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