Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Poetry of 2008

For my final entry this year, I'd like to offer my short list of favorite poetry books published for young audiences in 2008. This year, I tried to track ALL the poetry produced for young people and tallied about 75 titles! Impressive, I think, considering 50 titles per year has been closer to the norm, IMO. And there is an interesting variety, with picture book collections dominating, and new trends in poetry morphed with biography growing strong. I'm also seeing more experimentation with poetic form/topic and book layout which is fun for those of us who like to provide diverse models for aspiring writers and artists.

We also have new poet distinctions to celebrate this year with the announcement of the second Children's Poet Laureate (Mary Ann Hoberman) and the 15th recipient of the NCTE Excellence in Poetry Award (Lee Bennett Hopkins). So, all in all, I call it a good year for poetry and hope you will join me in building on this momentum by pushing poetry even further in 2009. Seek out these wonderful titles and more, buy multiple copies, and donate them to your local public and/or school library. Then read your favorites aloud to the kids you know (or don't know!).

Although I didn't get my hands on every single one of the books published this year, I did my best, and chose these two dozen to highlight, in particular. I also thought it would be fun to showcase a variety of categories, including poetry written by kids, novels in verse, and even nonfiction works about poets and poetry. My list is personal and idiosyncratic, I grant you, but I offer it for your consideration. And note: I did a bit of research and found that you could purchase hard cover copies of this whole list for only $382-- and have a wonderful mini-library of 2008 poetry for young people that runs the gamut from the hilarious (Frankenstein monster parodies) to the transcendent (Billie Holiday's literally lyrical life). What a bargain! Here's my list with the briefest of annotations. Best wishes to all for a health, happy, poetry-filled 2009!


Alarcón, Francisco X. 2008. Animals Poems of the Iguazú / Animalario del Iguazú. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press.
*Animal spirits, Spanish/English, vivid, energetic art

Ashman, Linda. 2008. Stella, Unleashed. New York: Sterling.
*Fun and frolicking, frisky rescue dog, dog point of view

Beck, Carolyn. Buttercup’s Lovely Day. Custer, WA: Orca Books.
*Dawn to dusk day in the life of a contented cow, with lyrical illustrations

Giovanni, Nikki. Ed. 2008. Hip Hop Speaks to Children. Sourcebooks.
*Amazing range, African American voices, fabulous audio CD

Greenberg, Jan. 2008. Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World. New York: Abrams.
*Poetry inspired by art from all around the world, multilingual

Holbrook, Sara and Wolf, Allan. 2008. More Than Friends; Poems from Him and Her. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
*Teen boy and girl perspectives, fun sidebars on poetic form and experimentation

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 2008. America at War. New York: McElderry.
*Poets on war, historical perspective, mural-like art, poignant and powerful

Lawson, Jonarno. 2008. Black Stars in a White Night Sky. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills/Wordsong.
*From silly to serious, playful to absurd, poignant to wry

Lewis, J. Patrick. 2008. The World’s Greatest: Poems. San Francisco: Chronicle.
*Fun facts and factoids become focus of clever poems in varied formats

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 2008. Honeybee. New York: Greenwillow.
*Poem gems, vignettes and observations are political, personal, and powerful

Rex, Adam. 2008. Frankenstein Takes the Cake. New York: Harcourt.
*Hysterically funny riffs on monsters in poems, parodies, and amazing art

Soto, Gary. 2008. Partly Cloudy; Poems of Love and Longing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
*Half and half, he said, she said, young love poems, with crossover character connections


Franco, Betsy. 2008. Comp. Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

*More teen love from teen perspectives, VERY varied and compelling

Michael, Pamela, Ed. 2008. River of Words. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed.

*Eco-themed poems by kids, international writing contest, inspiring and challenging


Engle, Margarita. 2008. The Surrender Tree. New York: Holt.

*Cuban history, true story, heroic woman, multiple viewpoints

Frost, Helen. 2008. Diamond Willow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

*Alaskan setting, girl growing up, mystical ancestors, great dogs, new form

Herrick, Steven. 2008. Naked Bunyip Dancing. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills/Wordsong.

*Classroom characters, inspiring teacher, hilarious talent show

Nelson, Marilyn. 2008. The Freedom Business. Asheville, NC: Front Street.

*True story, primary source, slave narrative, evocative art

Smith, Hope Anita. 2008. Keeping the Night Watch. New York: Henry Holt.

*Absent father returns, son rebels, family dynamics shift

Weatherford, Carole Boston. 2008. Becoming Billie Holiday. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

*Poems channel music and music history, biography through poetry, spunky girl

Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn. 2008. 42 Miles. New York: Clarion.

*Divorce and division, dual identities, girl growing up, quirky art


Bryant, Jen. 2008. A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. New York: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

*Biographical picture book, doctor + poet, poetic illustrations

Lawson, JonArno. 2008. Inside Out: Children's Poets Discuss Their Work. London: Walker.

*Poems plus creation commentary from two dozen international poets

Prelutsky, Jack. 2008. Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry; How to Write a Poem. New York: Greenwillow.

*How to, helpful tips, behind the scenes glimpses, hilarious and outrageous

Find more Poetry Friday fun at the Miss Rumphius Effect.
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Helen Frost NEA Poetry Fellow

I’m excited to share a bit of poetry news—Helen Frost, author of Keesha’s House, Spinning through the Universe, The Braid, and this year’s Diamond Willow (a 2009 Texas “Lone Star” list book), has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Poetry! (There were 42 applications accepted out of 1000 applications submitted this year.) What a victory for children’s poets, since most of these awards go to writers of poetry for adults.

She used The Braid both as her eligibility-establishing publication and as her work sample. When I asked her about her plans for the coming Fellowship year, she responded:

"In my novel-in-poems, The Braid, published in 2006 (Frances Foster Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I wrote poems in the voices of two sisters who were separated during the Highland Clearances in 1850, one going to Cape Breton, Canada and the other staying on the Isle of Barra, in the Western Isles. Readers often ask me if the sisters were ever re-united. I would like to explore the idea that six or seven generations later, the descendants of the two sisters meet, perhaps by an American going to Barra. The American, and possibly the resident of Barra too, would be of mixed heritage, bringing many cultural influences to the meeting."

Wouldn’t that be terrific? I reviewed The Braid two years ago (July 19, 2006 New: THE BRAID), and just loved it. It was one of my favorite poetry books of 2006, in fact.

Helen also reported, “Once a fellowship is awarded, you're allowed to use it in any way you want to (you're not bound by the project you proposed in the application, because of course writing takes a lot of unpredictable twists and turns). But, surprisingly, this is a pretty accurate description of what I'm working on now; it will be a YA novel-in-poems--I am really looking forward to the uninterrupted writing time this fellowship will allow me in 2009.”

Here's the Web site for a listing of all the poetry recipients. As far as I can see, she is the ONLY poet writing for young people to receive this distinction. She'll receive $25,000 to support a "creative writing fellowship." Congratulations, Helen!

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday crowd at Author Amok.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Biography + Poetry in BOOK LINKS

Once again, I’d like to call your attention to the ALA magazine Book Links and my most recent “Everyday Poetry” column. In this issue, I focus on biographies told through poetry, a big new trend, IMO. Here is a brief excerpt:

If there’s a twenty-first century trend in poetry for young people, it may well be the marriage of poetry and biography. There are over a dozen recent biographical poetry books available for young people, with many focusing on subjects who are African American, Latino and/or women. Perhaps the poetic form allows the subject’s voice to emerge in a more personal way or perhaps this genre format simply allows for more creative experimentation. Whether the focus is on a key event in one life history or a cradle-to-grave complete biography, there are many excellent works that weave together history, biography, and poetry.

Individual verse biographies
Like the “novel in verse,” another trend in poetry is the biography told through a series of connected poems or poetic vignettes particularly appropriate for older children and young adults. Carole Boston Weatherford calls this a “fictional verse memoir” in her new work, Becoming Billie Holiday. Marilyn Nelson set the trend in motion with her award winning biographical poetry book, Carver: A Life in Poems, a blending of fact, poetry, and images of primary source material. Others by Nelson are fact-based, moving poetry collections in a variety of poetic forms:

Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem
A Wreath for Emmett Till

The Freedom Business

Carmen T. Bernier-Grand has also used the verse format for her biographical works, César; ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! about activist César Chavez and Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! about artist Frida Kahlo. Add to this roster of innovators Margarita Engle whose recent verse biography, The Surrender Tree, features Cuba’s legendary healer Rosa la Bayamesa, told from multiple points of view during several wars for Cuba’s independence.

Older readers can research primary source documents to help them visualize and conceptualize historical times. One excellent resource is Jackdaws Publications, a source of full-size facsimiles of actual letters, diaries, telegrams, newspapers, study maps and many other authentically reproduced documents from various eras. Create displays to showcase biographical poems alongside these contextual artifacts and realia. Weaving biography and poetry together makes sense. For poetry lovers, it’s way to absorb history, and for all readers, the poetic format provides a unique entrée into stories of people of the past.

I also wrote about collective poetry biographies and picture book poem biographies, with examples of each. And the most fabulous feature is a new original poem by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. It’s “Dear Diary” from the point of view of Anne Frank, capturing a snapshot moment with haunting details and lyrical language. Don’t miss it!

Next month’s column is about pairing poems and award books. We all tune into the major awards (especially the ALA awards announced at the end of January) and try to keep up with what the experts recommend as outstanding literature. Why not make a poetry connection here? In this column, I showcase the ALA multicultural award winning books of 2008 by connecting each with a work of poetry that extends the topic, theme, or tone in interesting ways. Watch for it.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Poetry at the NCTE conference

I’d like to post one last time about the recent NCTE conference in San Antonio. I was pleased and surprised how many sessions were focused on poetry. Here’s the scoop—

*As you know, the NCTE Poetry Award committee decided on the 15th recipient of the award: Lee Bennett Hopkins. That was the highlight of the weekend! That same committee also led a session discussing some of their favorite poetry books of 07 and 08. Their “poetry notables” list for 07 was published in Language Arts in July. The committee talked about why they selected the books they chose, read aloud favorite poems from each, and discussed ways to share the books with kids and even sample responses from young people.

Committee chair (and author) Ralph Fletcher reminded us that poetry should not be “immune from discussion” and cited the need for two kinds of poetry for kids: poetry that is fun, playful, and comforting (he shared examples from Good Sports by Jack Prelutsky, and poetry that will haunt and stretch kids (sharing examples from John Franks’ How to Catch a Fish). Committee member and poet Janet Wong read poems from two of her favorites: Linda Sue Park’s Tap Dancing on the Roof and this year’s America at War compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins (with a generous nod to my review on my blog here).

Barbara Ward enjoyed the nonfiction connection and environmental theme of Polar Bear, Arctic Hare by Eileen Spinelli, the archival photos and powerful poems of The Brothers’ War by J. Patrick Lewis, and the concrete poem collection, Blue Lipstick by John Grandits, noting its particular appeal to middle school kids. Gail Wesson Spivey admitted her reluctant, but enthusiastic, conversion to appreciating Joanne Ryder’s Toad by the Road and the poems and paintings of Carmen Bernier-Grand’s Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!. She pointed to Nikki Giovanni’s Hip Hop Speaks to Kids as a favorite of the current 08 crop. Kathleen Armstrong shared Bugs by David Harrison with its science connection and appealing trim size. She also loved Joyce Sidman’s This is Just to Say (who didn’t?!) and shared response poems that kids—and their MOMS!-- had written. They were lovely!

Jonda McNair enjoyed the multiple functions of Yum! Mmmm! Que Rico! by Pat Mora—its poetry, its facts, its food theme. She also celebrated the facts-plus-humor of Douglas Florian’s comets, stars, the moon, and mars. Georgia Heard, herself a poet (with a new collection of list poems coming in 09, Falling Down the Page), talked about the three criteria she considers when selecting poetry: authenticity-- a true, real, point of view, language that is beautiful, skillful, playful and engaging, and coherence—does the collection hang together, like a house—is there a front door, rooms you can walk through, from room to room, and out the back. She cited two examples she felt were outstanding, Lee Bennett Hopkins’ anthology full of mystery, information and many poets, Behind the Museum Door and Jane Yolen’s collection, Here’s a Little Poem, a gem for the very young child.

When pressed for their favorites of THIS year (2008), they cited:
Planet Pregnancy
On the Farm
Side by Side

Becoming Billie Holiday

The Freedom Business

Voices fro
m Afar
America at War

Hip Hop Speaks to Kids

Official list to come later next year…

I also chaired an “Author Strand” session featuring Jane Yolen, Brod Bagert, and John Grandits. Brod began with an energetic and rousing performance of many of his poems from several different collections, including his newest 2008 title, School Fever. He talked about his poetry beliefs including his notion of the “fundamental communication of beauty and truth” whether writing for children or adults. He also advocated for the importance of HEARING poetry aloud (a cause dear to my heart) and argued that children should hear 10,000 poems in their growing up years. Love that number!

John Grandits included the visuals of his concrete poems (from Technically, It’s Not My Fault and Blue Lipstick) as he dryly read them aloud. He endorsed the necessity for “shape and motion” in poetry—“not just the object of the poem, but the movement of the object.” What a fun and meaningful way to envision the chemistry of language, image, shape, and motion in synch with the words on the page.

Jane Yolen closed the session reading from some of her 70+ (!) poetry collections, endorsing the importance of range in poetry for young people, saying “children’s poetry is not only about children.” Good reminder! She mentioned some new upcoming collections she’s written or edited that we can look forward to soon:

Animal Epitaphs with J. Patrick Lewis
Switching on the Moon, a companion to Here’s a Little Poem
The Girl’s Bible, with poems about Old Testament women

Weren’t those two fantastic sessions? Each had a packed room and eager audience and I was pleased to be a part of them. There were also a few other sessions on poetry at the conference, but I had scheduling conflicts and couldn’t attend them all. If any of you did, please share the highlights! I love it when professional conferences include this important topic—and it seems to be popping up more and more.

For more Poetry Friday entries, go to Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.

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