Sunday, July 30, 2006

War and poetry

Have you seen the news lately? It’s sad and scary to see the multiple conflicts occurring around the world. The ongoing American military presence in Iraq and now the heightened violence in Israel and Lebanon, for example, touch the lives of children, too—both there and here. Poets throughout the ages have chronicled experiences of war or captured the emotions we find difficult to express at such times. Even poetry for young people has tackled such tough topics. Here’s one example poem from Lee Bennett Hopkins’ anthology HAND IN HAND: AN AMERICAN HISTORY THROUGH POETRY (Simon & Schuster, 1994):

The Last Good War-- and Afterward

We saved enough tinfoil
To wrap the entire world,
Said the Pledge of Allegiance,
Read a chapter of the Bible each day,
And even prayed . . . at school.
Then we turned our radios on,
Went to the movies . . . saw newsreels
And learned to hate
Whole nations of people
We would have to learn
To love again, later.

by Isabel Joshlin Glaser

Poems such as this help us gain some perspective, or express difficult emotions, or simply pause to breathe and reflect. In times of trauma and grief, we often turn to a favorite poem or song for reassurance. Their words help us cope. Several collections of poetry for young people look at war from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Some even offer the young person’s point of view. Although we all enjoy poetry that is humorous or nonsensical, serious poetry has a place in our lives, too, particularly when life gets serious. Children feel the same way, so consider offering them this outlet alongside the usual lighter fare. Here are a few outstanding collections that include poems about war:

Crist-Evans, Craig. 1999. MOON OVER TENNESSEE: A BOY’S CIVIL WAR JOURNAL. Houghton Mifflin.
Katz, Bobbi. 2000. WE THE PEOPLE: POEMS. Greenwillow.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

July is National Park and Recreation Month

Our family has always enjoyed the summer road trip. Somehow the memories of loud and restless children fussing in the car fade and the fun of shared exploration and discovery linger. (Thank goodness!) And on our trips we always look for national parks or historical sites to see along the way. There are 58 official National Parks in the U.S. with Yellowstone National Park established as the world's first truly national park In 1872. And of course many states and communities have their own parks and preserves. Since July is NATIONAL PARK AND RECREATION MONTH, it’s a good time to seek out poetry that celebrates nature. Whether you enjoy road trips and national parks, or adventures at summer camp, or simply leisure time at a picnic or barbecue, there are many poems that focus on the wonders of the natural world. Here are a few thematic collections that are wonderful examples to share:



George, Kristine O’Connell. 2001. TOASTING MARSHMALLOWS: CAMPING POEMS. New York: Clarion.

Nicholls, Judith. 2003. THE SUN IN ME; POEMS ABOUT THE PLANET. Cambridge, MA: Barefoot Books.

Singer, Marilyn. 2002. FOOTPRINTS ON THE ROOF: POEMS ABOUT THE EARTH. New York: Knopf.

Find your favorite nature poem and take it along to read as your theme poem for your car trip or as a break on your picnic or just to share outside with kids you care about.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Resource books: DR. ALPHABET

I’m always looking for new ideas for breaking down negative attitudes or apathy toward poetry. Sometimes helping people CREATE spontaneous poetry is just the ticket. I’m especially a fan of “found” poetry-- creating poems (or poem drafts) from unlikely sources like newspaper articles, billboards, and other “environmental” print. One of my favorite resources for this approach is Dave Morice’s book, THE ADVENTURES OF DR. ALPHABET; 104 UNUSUAL WAYS TO WRITE POETRY IN THE CLASSROOM AND THE COMMUNITY. Much of his work has actually been in bringing poetry to senior citizen centers—with amazing results. But his creative ideas work with people of all ages. One warning however: his approach is often unorthodox; for example, he encourages people to write poems on physical surfaces like mirrors or chopsticks! His fresh, often off-the-wall perspective encourages us to be playful with language, to experiment with fresh phrasing, to look for poems in unlikely places. Here is just a sampling of the 104 poem-making activities you’ll find in this book:
• Alphabet music code poem
• Autumn leaf poems
• One-rhyme poem
• Poetry checkers
• Poetry mazes
• Poetry poker
• Postage stamp poems
• Rolodex poems
• Thumb book poem
• Tiny book quatrains
• Train of thought poem
• Trictionary poem
• Wonderverse
• And many more

Morice, D. 1996. THE ADVENTURES OF DR. ALPHABET. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative.

And if you like DR. ALPHABET, look for Dave Morice’s POETRY COMICS: AN ANIMATED ANTHOLOGY, a kind of graphic novel approach to classic poems.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I can’t decide which I enjoy more, Calef Brown’s zany, syncopated story-poems or the crazy, cock-eyed story-paintings that accompany his poetry. In this new collection of “poems and paintings” he invites us into his slightly askew worldview in which cats tango, dogs wear plaid, and people routinely have blue skin or blue hair. And his wordplay and strong rhythms build poems that stand on their own two (three or four) feet. My current favorite has got to be this one (picture the half caterpillar, half alligator creature in the illustration):

Allicatter Gatorpillar

Allicatter Gatorpillar
chews a leaf,
shows his teeth.
Allicatter Gatorpillar
sings a song,
then he’s gone.
Allicatter Gatorpillar
by and by,
my oh my!
Allibutter Gatorfly!

by Calef Brown

I had the privilege of hearing Calef perform this and others of his poems at the Poetry Round Up at the Texas Library Association conference in April, as well as at the Poetry Blast at the American Library Association conference in June (mark your calendars and plan to attend both of these annual events next year). His dry, deadpan delivery was a hilarious surprise. Look for more from Calef Brown and share FLAMINGOS (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) with children of all ages—out loud for the fun of the words-- and show the illustrations to inspire both your poets AND your artists.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Multicultural poetry

Looking for fresh voices in poetry for young people? Multicultural poetry is experiencing a surge of publication in recent years and it’s about time! Although the works of Langston Hughes, for example, have appeared in many anthologies, poets like Angela Johnson, Pat Mora, Janet Wong, and Jaime Adoff are still new names to many readers. A quick survey of recent poetry titles will turn up at least 35 major poets of color writing for children today, representing most of the major micro-cultures within the United States. And more and more international poetry is even finding its way into libraries and classrooms in the U.S., as well. Seeking out the poetry of parallel cultures that reflects many diverse viewpoints enables us to show children firsthand both the sameness and the differences which make the human landscape so dynamic and fascinating. Poets of color are using the language, experiences, and images of their cultures in ways that are fresh and powerful. The special succinctness of poetry is also an appealing introduction into culture for young people. Sometimes powerful points about prejudice, identity, and cultural conflict can be made in a very few words. In addition, we can also rediscover our universality in the words and feelings of poems which often cross cultural boundaries. Look for the wonderful poetry of Nikki Grimes, Arnold Adoff, Eloise Greenfield, Gary Soto, Francisco Alarcon, Jose-Luis Orozco, Michio Mado, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye, among many others!

For more info, check out my article in the ALA online journal, VERSED:

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Poetry and props

Another fun way to make poetry come alive for children is to share poems with props. When we have an object to show or share that corresponds with the poem, it can make the poem more concrete for kids. They can see it, touch it, and experience a piece of the poem more directly. Plus, it just heightens interest and adds a bit of variety. A TWU student shares this example of how it might work.

“My son Jeff had the idea this spring to yank a rubber snake out of his back pocket when he got to the last verse of Judith Viorst's ‘Mother Doesn't Want a Dog’ during his school's Spring Poetry Extravaganza:

Mother doesn't want a dog.
She's making a mistake.
Because, more than a dog, I think
She will not want this snake!

Needless to say, it brought down the house, because somehow, speaking and hearing the words gave him and his classmates a sense of ownership of the poem, which of course made him more confident when he said it.”

Having the snake gave Jeff a “comfort object” that helped him feel more confident speaking in front of a group. It also added interest and surprise and gave his audience a memorable moment.

Poet Janet Wong uses a similar approach with her “poetry suitcase.” She has gathered an assortment of objects and realia that connect with some of her poems (e.g., a toy turtle, a play telephone). She asks children to choose an object, and then shares the poem that “corresponds” with that object and explains the connection. She encourages children to do the same—choose favorite poems, find related objects, and use them as props when sharing the poem. For kids who are still kinesthetic learners, sharing props means “touching” the poem!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Check out: BOOK LINKS

If you’re not familiar with the ALA publication, BOOK LINKS, you need to check it out. It celebrated 15 years of publication with a special anniversary issue this month focused on “Celebrating the Classics.” There are short articles on 15 classics of fantasy, young adult literature, humor, historical fiction, and more, along with interviews with several authors who are “literary legends.” And of course they’ve included an article on 15 classics of children’s poetry (by yours truly!). BOOK LINKS is a reader friendly magazine, full of lots of color images of book covers and arranged in ways that are very practitioner friendly. Their mission is “Connecting Books, Libraries, and Classrooms” and they follow that faithfully with regular thematic bibliographies, behind-the-scenes stories, and author/illustrator interviews. Their web site includes additional links, content from some previous issues, and even guidelines for writing for BOOK LINKS. Check it out:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Walking on the moon today

Today is the anniversary of the first human steps on the moon on July 20, 1969. I am old enough to remember getting up in the wee hours to watch the news coverage of this historic event (as a child visiting my uncle in California). We were groggy and amazed. On one of my favorite web sites, “Today’s Document from the National Archives” [] you can view the original flight plan for this Apollo 11 mission. And you can re-experience this event through J. Patrick Lewis’ poem, “First Men On The Moon” from his collection A BURST OF FIRSTS (Dial, 2001).

First Men On The Moon

“The Eagle has landed!”
Apollo 11 Commander Neil A. Armstrong

“A magnificent desolation!”
Air Force Colonel Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.

July 20,1969

That afternoon in mid-July,
Two pilgrims watched from distant space
The Moon ballooning in the sky.
They rose to meet it face-to-face.

Their spidery spaceship Eagle dropped
Down gently on the lunar sand.
And when the module’s engines stopped,
Cold silence fell across the land.

The first man down the ladder, Neil,
Spoke words that we remember now—
“Small step for man…” It made us feel
As if we too were there somehow.

Then Neil planted the flag and Buzz
Collected lunar rocks and dust.
They hopped liked kangaroos because
Of gravity. Or wanderlust.

A quarter million miles away,
One small blue planet watched in awe.
And no one who was there that day
Will soon forget the Moon they saw.

By J. Patrick Lewis

Even with all the technological innovations that have occurred since 1969, it is pretty amazing to look at the night sky and imagine two men walking around on that shining, white orb. So many poems have been written about the moon—step outside tonight, look up at the moon, and see what happens.

[Moon image from: National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation]

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Helen Frost has given us the Printz Honor book, KEESHA’S HOUSE, as well as SPINNING THROUGH THE UNIVERSE, and now outdoes herself with THE BRAID (FSG, 2006). She “braids” the intertwining tale of two sisters surviving hardships as Scottish refugees/immigrants in the 1850’s. Told through a poetic structure of her own invention derived from Celtic knots (and explained in helpful endnotes), the story unfolds in narrative poems in two voices alternating with brief praise poems and all connected through parallel beginning and ending lines. Although this is complicated to describe, the structure does not get in the way of one’s enjoyment, quite the contrary. The rhythm created by this juxtaposition of short poem/long poem; girl who stays/girl who goes keeps the reader turning the page. And the language and writing is exquisite:

The songs that enter children’s ears
carried across centuries of
love, stay with them, bringing comfort,
setting their feet dancing, coming
back to them when their own children
first look up and see them smiling
or hear them weeping as they rock,
strong boats upon a stormy sea.

Each sister emerges as a strong and individual character framed against a fascinating slice of history in two vivid settings. And each girl’s experience bridges the divide from girlhood to womanhood—thus this may be a book most appropriate for middle school readers and above. A new poem-story book not to be missed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Poet web sites

One of the wonderful aspects of the Internet (besides blogging!) is having access to “inside” perspectives from writers themselves—when they are willing to go electronically public. And fortunately for us, many poets writing for young people maintain rich and lively web sites. Some of my favorites offer interesting biographical information, current booklists, AND ideas and strategies for connecting kids with poetry, even for promoting poetry writing. Plus, they have an appealing LOOK that engages kids. Some even offer opportunities for interaction and communication with the poet. There are book covers, photographs, and even audiofiles. These sites help budding poets see how poets live and work. Conversely, they can also help the poetry-phobic (teacher or librarian!) feel less intimidated about poetry. It seems so friendly on the web!
For starters, check these out:

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Jumping in on reading poetry aloud

One of my favorite things about poetry for children is how naturally participatory it is. Or perhaps I should say, how naturally children jump in and participate in reading poetry out loud when you share it with them. Scholar Lissa Paul reminds us that “The history of poetry written for children begins in oral tradition” (in THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE; THE TRADITIONS IN ENGLISH, 2005, p. 1132) and includes lullabies, baby songs, nursery verse, riddles and wordplay, playground verse, nonsense, and standard poetry collections. Choose a poem, read it out loud, then read it a second time and watch how the children join in, finish a line, or repeat a stanza spontaneously. I particularly like to look for poems that have a repeated word, phrase or line for children to claim as their own. It’s nearly scripted for you then! Some of my favorite examples are:

“Homework, Oh Homework” by Jack Prelutsky from THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK.
“Things” by Eloise Greenfield from HONEY I LOVE AND OTHER POEMS.
“Look in a Book” by Ivy O. Eastwick in I LIKE IT HERE AT SCHOOL, compiled by Jack Prelutsky.
“If My Hand Didn’t Get So Tired” by Kalli Dakos from DON’T READ THIS BOOK WHATEVER YOU DO!
“The Boa” by Douglas Florian from BEAST FEAST.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Whom would you like to write like?

Yesterday, my daughter asked the thought-provoking question, "If you could write like any writer throughout history, who would that be?" It led to an interesting discussion about whether one would want to be a classic like Shakespeare (and would that sell today?) or contemporary (like Updike), a woman or a man, a financial success or a cult favorite, etc. Ultimately, I chose Emily Dickinson, a personal favorite and, of course, a poet. Oddly enough, as much as I love poetry, I have rarely aspired to WRITE poetry myself. But I would love to write (anything) with the economy, power, and surprise of her poetry. I admire her phrasing so much, the careful word choice, the very timeless feeling of her ponderings. And many of her works are accessible to children, even today. Here's one example, just as a reminder. I love this poem for so many reasons, not the least of which is its reminder of the power of the spoken word (poetry aloud!).

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

Emily Dickinson

as cited in A WORLD OF WORDS, AN ABC OF QUOTATIONS by Tobi Tobias and Peter Malone (Lothrop, 1998)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting started: POETRY ALOUD HERE!

Let's explore what's new in the field of poetry published for children and young adults. I'd like to begin with a bit of shameless self-promotion about my new book, POETRY ALOUD HERE. It's a practitioner's guide to sharing poetry with children (ages 5-12) in ways that are fun, meaningful and participatory. Chapter titles include:
Chapter 1: Why Make Poetry a Priority?
Chapter 2: Which Poets are Popular?
Chapter 3: What Poetry do Children Enjoy?
Chapter 4: How do you Promote Poetry?
Chapter 5: How do you Present Poetry to Children?
Chapter 6: What Happens After You Share the Poem?
Ten children's poets contributed original poems and essays, too, including: Pat Mora, Jack Prelutsky, Janet Wong, Douglas Florian, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Nikki Grimes, Brod Bagert, J. Patrick Lewis, Marilyn Singer and Naomi Shihab Nye.
It's published by the American Library Association (2006) and is available at:
Lee Bennett Hopkins said it "should be part of EVERY teacher/librarian's bookshelf."