Friday, May 30, 2008


I’m a big fan of Australian poet, Steven Herrick’s, since discovering his wonderful, if edgy, library poem, “Lord of the Lounge” in The Simple Gift (Simon & Schuster, 2004). His verse novels have a verve and vitality that make for fast reading and compelling characters, with enough Ozzie flavor to give you a particularized sense of place. His latest addition, Naked Bunyip Dancing debuted in 2005 in Australia, and is published this spring in the U.S. by Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong. It’s about a class’s interaction with a new teacher and his unorthodox ideas, told from multiple viewpoints, and illustrated with loose and jangly sketches by Beth Norling. Poem by poem, we get an honest and humorous glimpse of the varied personalities in one sixth grade class as they interact with each other and their teacher, Mr. Carey, and as they prepare to perform in a special end-of-the-school-year concert. One kid wants to emcee, the “class couple” prepares a dance number, another juggles, and one brave student chooses to prepare an original poem for presentation. Here’s her final entry:

by Steven Herrick

It’s like I thought it would be.
Absolute silence.
Just me and my poem.
as I stand onstage
preparing to start,
I realize the audience is quiet
because they want to hear me.
Silence isn’t scary.
It’s like Mr. Carey said,
silence is my chance.
And so I speak,
and clearly,
and I don’t see
the faces in front of me.
I see the images of my poem,
and I think only of what I’m saying
and how much it means to me.
My voice grows stronger
and I don’t have to struggle
to remember the words.

I know them
because I wrote them.

From: Herrick, Steven. 2008. Naked Bunyip Dancing. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills/Wordsong, p. 192

I’ve noticed this is a recent trend in poetry for young people-- the school-based poem collection from multiple viewpoints, a distinctive multi-voiced representation of the classroom community. Andrea Cheng portrays a classroom of inner city third graders in Where the Steps Were (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2008). Fifth graders populate Helen Frost’s Spinning Through the Universe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). And sixth graders are the voices in both Joyce Sidman’s This is Just to Say (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), a collection of poems of apology and forgiveness in an amazing variety of poetic forms.

These are all ideal for adapting for readers theater-style performance, read aloud by several volunteers reading in character, with a nearly ready-made script. Or children can choose a favorite character and draw a portrait of what they think she/he looks like, choose a representative poem in that character’s voice, and post it alongside their original drawing. For older readers, several novels in verse focus on school life from the point of view of teen narrators, including: Nikki Grimes’ novel plus poetry, Bronx Masquerade (Dial, 2002), Ron Koertge’s The Brimstone Journals (Candlewick, 2001), or Mel Glenn’s classic Class Dismissed! High School Poems (Clarion, 1982) or Split Image (HarperCollins, 2000).

By the way, a “bunyip” is a legendary Australian Aborigine haunting spirit. I looked it up. I’d say this is a fitting metaphor for sixth graders, having taught that age myself for several years!

For more Poetry Friday entries, head to Wild Rose Reader. Thanks, Elaine!

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Friday, May 23, 2008


How do you follow up the multiple award winning book, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano? Margarita Engle continues to provide a window into the rich and violent history of Cuba with this new collection of poems from multiple points of view on the several wars for independence from 1850-1900, The Surrender Tree; Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

The Surrender Tree
also combines real life characters (the legendary healer Rosa la Bayamesa) with imagined individuals to construct a compelling narrative of escape and hiding, heroism and healing. A former slave, Rosa (and her husband) devotes her life to caring for people, both runaways and persecuting soldiers, using only native plants and herbal remedies with skill, compassion and faith—all while living in hiding and on the run.

Set in the lush landscape of Cuba’s jungles and caves, the story-poem moves forward moment to moment across three wars fought by natives and fueled by outsiders. The plight of the Cubans themselves is a dramatic counterpoint for any war waged in the name of power and possession. But the decency and dignity of our heroine, her husband, Jos, her young protégé, Silvia, and many who prevail despite overwhelming odds makes for an inspiring and humbling saga.

I marked several powerful poems to share out loud, but chose this one as my favorite here for its understated simplicity and layers of meaning:


This is how you heal a wound:

Clean the flesh.

Sew the skin.

Pray for the soul.


Engle, Margarita. 2008. The Surrender Tree; Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. New York: Henry Holt, p. 73.

What a powerful poetic voice, inspiring Latina writer, and distinctive ambassador for Cuba’s history.

For more Poetry Friday gems, go to my former student's blog, Becky's Book Reviews. Go, Becky!

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Friday, May 16, 2008


I’ve written about Helen Frost’s poetry several times in the past:
• I wrote about her Printz honor book Keesha’s House and her use of the sonnet form on April 23, 2007 in Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare
• And about one of my favorite books of 2006, her wonderful novel in verse, The Braid on July 19, 2006
• And again last fall, when she read from her latest book at the Nov. 23, 2007 Poetry Blast at the NCTE convention in New York.

Now I’d like to herald the arrival of that new book, Diamond Willow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008). The twelve-year-old protagonist and narrator, Willow, lives in a small town in the interior of Alaska where frequent snow, bitter cold, and dogsledding are all a part of daily life. Her story unfolds in a series of diamond shaped poems created by Frost to echo the (diamond shaped) scarred wood of a tree that grows in northern climates. Interspersed between the diamond poems are brief vignettes from the perspectives of her animal ancestors that add an element of magical realism. Willow’s journey is both physical, as she proves her strength and independence, as well as emotional, as she copes with secrets and changes that come her way.

The look of the book with diamond poems on opposing pages is quietly pleasing and the tone of the telling is oddly stirring. There are many layers here in this gentle coming-of-age story for the young reader to return to again and again—in the form, as well as in the characters. My favorite poem is the final one, but I decided I couldn’t share it, since it’s a bit of a “spoiler” if you haven’t read the whole book. So, here’s another nugget that reflects Willow's growing wisdom:

From: Frost, Helen. 2008. Diamond Willow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, p. 87.

For much more on Diamond Willow, check out the author’s Web site.

And for more about Helen and her work, allow me to plug the entry about her in my book, Poetry People. Here’s an excerpt:

Helen Frost was born in Brookings, South Dakota on September 3, 1949, one of ten children. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University in New York and her master’s degree from Indiana University. She is married and the mother of two sons. She has worked as a teacher in Scotland, Alaska, and Indiana and has long been involved in the YWCA and teen youth groups. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and her hobbies include hiking, cross-country skiing, kayaking, and raising and releasing monarch butterflies. Frost earned the prestigious Michael Printz honor distinction from the American Library Association for her first book of poetry for young people, Keesha's House. She has authored a play and a screenplay, as well as a resource book for adults who work with teen writers, When I Whistle, Nobody Listens: Helping Young People Write about Difficult Issues (Heinemann 2001). Frost is also a prolific author of nonfiction series readers for young readers reflecting her interest in science and biology.

One of the most outstanding features of Foster’s work is her creative use of poetic form in each of her books. This includes haiku, blank verse, sonnets, sestinas, rondelets, acrostics, and more. And she includes explanatory notes on these forms and her reasoning for choosing them for each book. Aspiring writers and poets may enjoy exploring this aspect of her writing in particular. If so, additional guidance and worksheets for trying different poetic formats are available on Foster’s personal web site. Children who want to read more works like Frost’s may enjoy exploring the poetry of Craig Crist-Evans, Karen Hesse, and for older readers, Marilyn Nelson.

ALSO THIS WEEK: Happy new CHILDREN'S BOOK WEEK: May 12 – 18, 2008.

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday Round Up at Two Writing Teachers.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Happy Limerick Day!

Today, May 12, is Limerick Day, in honor of the birth of Edward Lear, the man who popularized the limerick poem with his own self-illustrated collection, the Book of Nonsense (1846). Limericks for adults are often bawdy verses or songs, but limericks for children are usually just humorous or even outrageous story-poems. There are several teaching resources available on the topic of writing limericks with kids including Poetry-online and Giggle Poetry.

Here are a few, fun original limericks by master punster, J. Patrick Lewis in honor of the day. Enjoy!

Limb-ericks: Hip Verses
All by J. Patrick Lewis
(used with permission)

The Skin

Now a snake who’s about to begin

Climbing out of his ugly old skin

Has the grin of a winner—

It’s “in” to be inner

And out of the outer he’s in.

The Hump

In the desert a camel was minus

A passenger, His Royal Highness.

The King loved the humps

But the bumpety-bumps

Left him down in the dumps and the dryness.

The Nose

The bat clings to the ceiling above,

Wrapped in wings like a hand in a glove,

Too afraid to expose

To his neighbors a nose

That only a mother could love.

The Neck

According to Good Gnus Reporter,

The Giraffe used to be a lot shorter

Till a bird in the trees

Said, “Get up off your knees!”
Said Giraffe, “That’s a very tall order.”

The Arm

To an Octopus luncheon for nine,

The comrades-in-arms come to dine.

But when hugging each other—

What suckers, oh brother!—

They look like a great ball of twine.

The Antler

The Moose suffers pain and distress

If a hat is hung on his headdress.

His horns were intended

For something more splendid—

But what it is no one can guess!

Note: The limericks are forthcoming in J. Patrick Lewis's Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year, Little, Brown, (Spring 2009). I can’t wait to see this book! I’ve been working on my own project matching poems to events for each day of the year, so this should be a terrific resource. A similar approach is the fantastic, Days to Celebrate: A Full Year of Poetry, People, Holidays, History, Fascinating Facts, and More by Lee Bennett Hopkins (New York: Greenwillow, 2005).

For more limericks, there’s always Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense, of course, plus these gems:
Ciardi, John. 1992. The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kennedy, X.J. 1997. Uncle Switch: Loony Limericks. New York: Margaret K. McElderry.

For a wonderful poem tribute to Lear himself, check out:
Lewis, J. Patrick. 1998. Boshblobberbosh; Runcible Poems for Edward Lear. Mankato: Creative Editions; San Diego: Harcourt.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

New BOOK LINKS Poem Feature

Please allow me to plug my “Everyday Poetry” column once again, since the May issue of Book Links just came out this week. This time, I’ve focused on “Blue Ribbon” poetry, looking at the many poetry books that won major awards this year including the Newbery, Printz honor, Coretta Scott King honors, Pura Belpre and Schneider awards, and of course, the brand new Odyssey Award. (And just last week, Pat Mora’s lovely book, Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings, Lee & Low, 2007, won the Americás award.) I’ve written about this before, but I don’t think I mentioned all the poetry titles that also appeared on some of the ALA “best” lists this year. Another dozen poetry books and novels-in-verse made the lists of 2008 Notable Children’s Books, Best Books for Young Adults, and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, including:

Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems by John Grandits (Clarion, 2007)
Chess Rumble by G. Neri (Lee & Low, 2007)
Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Marshall Cavendish, 2007)
Glass by Ellen Hopkins (Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2007)
Good Sports: Rhymes about Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More by Jack Prelutsky (Knopf, 2007)
Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters (Candlewick, 2007)
Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2007)
Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems) by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2007)
Today and Today by Issa Kobayashi (Scholastic, 2007)
Tough Boy Sonatas by Curtis L. Crisler (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2007)
What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones (Simon & Schuster, 2007)
Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings by Pat Mora (Lee & Low, 2007)

Isn't it exciting to see so many poetry books get this recognition? Finally, beginning this month, my “Everyday Poetry” column will also feature an original poem by a children’s poet alongside my short article. This month, it’s “Keep a Pocket in Your Poem” by J. Patrick Lewis, inspired by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers’ poem “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket.” Thanks, Pat! Readers may reproduce this poem for noncommercial educational purposes, as long as the author and Book Links are credited. The downloadable poem is available here. Enjoy!

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday Round Up at Wrter2b.

Picture credit: ALA Book Links

Friday, May 02, 2008

Revising and Recycling Poetry

This time last week, poet Janet S. Wong allowed me to share her poem, “The License Plate Game” in honor of the first minting of license plates in the U.S. However, not only did she allow me to post her poem, she encouraged me to share SEVEN different versions of the poem she had contemplated. Then several of you responded with interesting observations (Emily, Cloudscome, and Linda). Well, to top it off, Janet invited some of her poet-friends to comment on the different versions and and several took her up on her offer, including J. Patrick Lewis, Lorie Ann Grover, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Marilyn Singer, Alice Schertle. Check out the comments area for April 25, 2008. Finally, Janet offered yet another revision of her poem based on all this collective input (posted in the Comments area). HOW COOL IS THAT?

And just for fun, I’ll post a fresh poem by Janet from an older collection I love (A Suitcase of Seaweed) .


by Janet S. Wong

“What you study in school?” my grandfather asks.

“Poetry,” I say, climbing high to pick a large ripe

lemon off the top limb.

“Po-tree,” he says, “It got fruit?”

From Wong, Janet S. 1996. A Suitcase of Seaweed, and Other Poems. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, p. 18.

Thank you, Janet, for all you do for poets and poetry and kids!

For the rest of the Poetry Friday Round Up, go to Big A, little a. Thanks for hosting, Kelly!

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