Monday, August 31, 2009

Poetry reissued

My fall semester is starting today, so I have been busy with getting it ready to roll. Still, I don’t want to neglect my poetry postings, so here’s a short note about new "old" poetry books to watch for. Good news! There are a few older poetry books that are being reissued as paperbacks this year. I’m always excited to see that happen because it means they’ll be available a little while longer (since books go out of print so very fast, especially poetry books) and it means that more KIDS may buy them since paperbacks are even more affordable and portable for young readers. So… here are a few notices I’ve encountered, I hope readers will comment on other poetry titles they know are coming out in paperback.

Marilyn Singer—Monster Museum (Disney-Hyperion)

X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy (compilers)—Talking Like the Rain (Little, Brown)

Wouldn’t it be great to see some of Karla Kuskin’s work reissued? I’d vote for Near the Window Tree… or how about some Myra Cohn Livingston gems?

I’m sure you’ve also seen the notice about the new special edition of Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic coming out from HarperCollins. Here’s a newsy nugget from Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf, “First published in 1981, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was the first children’s book to reach the New York Times bestseller list, where it appeared a total of 182 weeks…. The reissue will include 12 previously unpublished poems and 10 new drawings by the author, who died in 1999. To help promote this new edition, due with a 250,000-copy first printing, the publisher will add new features to the Shel Silverstein Web site and will launch additional online initiatives…. including creating a free iPhone app… and distributing animated videos of Silverstein poems on YouTube and Facebook…. A Light in the Attic continues to be one of HarperCollins’s top-selling children’s books and has sold more than five million copies in North America.”

With Silverstein’s birthday coming up on Sept. 15, it’s a good moment to revisit his kid-friendly, irreverent work—not that he needs any help from me in reaching his audience! Still, here’s one of my favorite poems from A Light in the Attic. I have used it countless times in poetry performances with kids and it’s always a hit. Ask for volunteers for individual lines (while you read the N = narrator parts). There are 20 “Whatif” lines, so a whole class can participate. The poem has a humorous tone, despite the list of worries, but it takes on deeper shades of meaning when children voice the lines. Try it—it may be a good icebreaker for the beginning of the school year when children do have many worries about how the year will go.


by Shel Silverstein

N Last night, while I lay thinking here,

N Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear

N And pranced and partied all night long

N And sang their same old Whatif song:

1 Whatif I’m dumb in school?

2 Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?

3 Whatif I get beat up?

4 Whatif there’s poison in my cup?

5 Whatif I start to cry?

6 Whatif I get sick and die?

7 Whatif I flunk that test?

8 Whatif green hair grows on my chest?

9 Whatif nobody likes me?

10 Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?

11 Whatif I don’t grow taller?

12 Whatif my head starts getting smaller?

13 Whatif the fish won’t bite?

14 Whatif the wind tears up my kite?

15 Whatif they start a war?

16 Whatif my parents get divorced?

17 Whatif the bus is late?

18 Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?

19 Whatif I tear my pants?

20 Whatif I never learn to dance?

N Everything seems swell, and then

N The nighttime Whatifs strike again!

Afterward, put out a shoe box inviting kids to contribute their own anonymous “whatif” worry lines and then combine them into a new “Whatif” poem to read aloud. It may be reassuring for kids to see that their worries may be shared by others.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Remembering Karla Kuskin

It is with great sadness that I share the news of poet Karla Kuskin’s death last week. She was the first major poet whose work I encountered when I was a teacher and graduate student in the 1970’s. I met her and appreciated her smart, clever wit and way with words. She showed me that poetry for kids could be funny, yes, but even more. And now I find that so many people don’t know her work—as with many of the earlier “greats”-- and that’s a shame. One of my favorite poetry collections for kids (of all time!) is Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams which you can buy “used” for a penny. You’ll find “Bugs” there, as well as “Lewis has a trumpet” and “Write about a radish”—all with short notes from Kuskin about how each poem came to be. And one of my very favorite poems is from another Kuskin collection, Near the Window Tree, which conversely is available for $150 on Amazon! It’s 35 years old now, but this poem is perfectly timeless, don’t you think?

Three wishes
The first
A tree.
Dark bark
Green leaves
Under a bit of blue
A canopy

To glimpse sky through
To watch sun sift through
To catch light rain
Upon the leaves
And let it fall again.
A place to put my eye
Beyond the window frame.

Wish two:
A chair
Not hard or high
One that fits comfortably
Set by the window tree
An island in the room
For me
My own
Place to sit and be

My tree
Here my chair.
Rain, sky, sun
All my wishes
All the things I need
But one
Wish three:
A book to read.

by Karla Kuskin
from: Near the Window Tree, Harper and Row, 1975.

Doesn’t it have a delicious rhythm and structure? And doesn’t it capture a wonderful reading moment? And isn’t that echo of three magical wishes absolutely perfect?

One of my favorite quotes about teaching poetry is a Kuskin gem: “Instead of building a fence of formality around poetry, I want to emphasize its accessibility, the sound, rhythm, humor, the inherent simplicity. Poetry can be as natural and effective a form of self-expression as singing or shouting.” This is almost a “mission statement” for my own work in poetry.

And of course, you may also know that Kuskin was an artist and illustrator and created the unique seal for the National Council of Teachers of English Excellence in Poetry Award.

Here’s an excerpt from my entry on Karla Kuskin in Poetry People, as a bit of background bio:

Karla Kuskin was born on July 17, 1932, in New York City. Encouraged by her parents and teachers, Kuskin began writing poetry as a young girl. She attended Antioch College and earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree from Yale University. She is married and has two grown children who are photographers.

Karla Kuskin’s first book developed from her senior thesis.
Roar and More, a children’s book she wrote and designed, was published in 1956, in a slightly altered form. Kuskin has gone on to become a prolific writer and illustrator of over fifty works of children’s poetry, storybooks in verse, easy readers, and even nonfiction. Her many awards include American Institute of Graphic Arts Book Show awards, American Library Association Notables, International Reading Association Children’s Choice distinctions, a National Book Award nomination, and the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children award given for a poet’s entire body of work.

Karla Kuskin’s pictures and poetry are brimming over with the experiences of children growing up in a big city. For a wonderful compilation of poems from several previous works as well as new poems, look for
Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin (HarperCollins 2003)…. Kuskin shares further insights in her autobiographical picture book, Thoughts, Pictures, and Words (Richard C. Owen 1995).

Many of Kuskin’s poems have a strong voice or distinctive structure that lends itself to being read aloud and performing chorally. For example, try “The Question” (
Dogs And Dragons), a poem that poses multiple answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Different groups or individual children can each pipe in with a different answer from the poem, “I think I'd like to be the sky,” “Or maybe I will stay a child," etc. Kuskin also has written many poems for children that incorporate a linear format that lends itself to line-around reading. For example, look for “Rules” (Dogs and Dragons), a listing of “rules” such as “Do not jump on ancient uncles” that children will find hilarious. And of course they may want to generate their own list of crazy rules to follow.

Finally, here’s a link to Karla Kuskin's obituary in the New York Times.

I hope there’s a run on her work in every library and bookstore.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Capstone poetry

I feel like I must be the last person on the planet to discover that Capstone Press has a whole series of poetry books designed to feature subject matter content. Cool! I've long been a fan of linking poetry and nonfiction. Here's what I wrote in my book, Poetry Aloud Here,

"Pairing nonfiction and poetry may seem like an unlikely partnership at first, but these two different genres can complement one another by showing children how writers approach the same topic in very different and distinctive ways. In addition, children will see that you can learn a lot of information from BOTH a poem and a work of nonfiction.... Poems can also serve to initiate a topic or enrich and extend it. The length is less intimidating to children overwhelmed by longer prose and streams of new vocabulary. Although poetry may also present new words and concepts, this shorter appearance provides a motivating advantage.... Look for poetry anthologies organized by subject matter, when possible, since they help make the content connection obvious.

Poetry breaks across the curriculum can serve to:
• Jumpstart or introduce a lesson or topic
• Provide examples of terminology or concepts
• Provide a transition between activities
• Provide a stretching (poetry) break
• Provide closure
• Extend the topic further"

Capstone has collaborated with the up-and-coming poet Laura Purdie Salas to create an emerging series of poetry books that focus on a variety of appealing and curriculum-worthy topics for kids including these in 2009:

Always Got My Feet: Poems about Transportation
A Fuzzy-Fast Blur: Poems about Pets
Lettuce Introduce You: Poems about Food
Chatter, Sing, Roar, Buzz: Poems about the Rain Forest, the book I have in hand.

Two things grab you as soon as you open this picture book-- it's highly visual with full color, full page (sometimes double-page) photographs for every poem and secondly, the design showcases the poems equally effectively in a large, appealing font spread nicely across the page. Eye catching and easy to read. Add to that, the photos are well chosen and well matched to the poems (although the image focus could be a bit sharper IMO) and the poems manage to be both clearly descriptive and well written and representative of a variety of poetic forms.

This collection focuses on the rain forest with 16 poems about the wildlife, the landscape, the people, the crops, etc. It's teacher-friendly, while still having appeal for reading (and performing) out loud or sharing during poetry time-- as well as in science lessons. Kids will love reading about the stealth of the jaguar, the slow life of the sloth, the tired lemur and capybara mamas, the playfulness of chimps and bearded pigs, the "small can be powerful" message from the leaf-cutter ant, as well as encountering poison blue frogs and cuddly tent bats, among other topics. [Combine this book with Francisco X. Alarcón's Animals Poems of the Iguazú / Animalario del Iguazú (Children’s Book Press, 2008) for a double dose of rain forest perspectives.] The diversity of rain forests is enticingly introduced here-- I just wish they had included a map to locate the sites referenced in the poems. Overall, this example collection convinces me that Capstone and Laura are definitely on to something. Here's just a taste:

Treetop Scientist
by Laura Purdie Salas

My lab is high among the trees
I scramble up and down with ease
I climb to work, and this is why:
I'm doing science in the sky

Boots are sturdy, helmet's tough
I'm in the field, I'm living rough
I dangle free, enjoy the breeze
Because I'm high among the trees

Salas, Laura Purdie. 2009. Chatter, Sing, Roar, Buzz; Poems about the Rain Forest. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, p. 20.

Finally, I love how this book connects further with nonfiction by modeling the attributes of quality nonfiction in providing helpful backmatter: a section entitled "The Language of Poetry" that explains poetry terms and forms relevant in this collection (e.g., "diamonte"-- describing the form and noting which poems in this particular book are diamonte poems), a "Glossary" of unusual vocabulary found in the poems (e.g., "liana" [lee AHN uh]-- a thick vine of the rainforest), "Read More" with recommendations of related books, "Internet Sites" with a "Facthound" that will "fetch" the relevant sites from the Capstone site, an "Index of Poems," and in small print, photo credits and a note to parents, teachers, and librarians. I for one really appreciate the backmatter in books. These tools make the book even more versatile for a variety of purposes and audiences.

Each picture book is designed to be at a reading level for first-to-second graders. The Capstone brochure indicates the "interest level" at preK-2, but I would argue that these would be interesting to kids beyond second grade, too. That's the terrific thing about poetry, IMO, it is so much LESS age-bound than other genres, especially when you read a good poem aloud. Who can say what age a poem was intended for? It's for ME!

Capstone's backlist titles from this "A+ Series" include (from 2008):
And Then There Were Eight: Poems about Space
Do Buses Eat Kids?: Poems About School

Flashy, Clashy, and Oh-So-Splashy: Poems about Color

Seed Sower, Hat Thrower: Poems about Weather
Shrinking Days, Frosty Nights: Poems about Fall
Tiny Dreams, Sprouting Tall: Poems about the United States

I want to look for these titles next, don't you?

FYI: Laura blogged about the writing process for these 10 poetry collections. Check it out!

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday gathering hosted by Andromeda Jazmon today at A Wrung Sponge.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Livingston, I presume

I love book sales, particularly library book sales, and last week I hit a gold mine at the annual Plano (TX) Public Library used book sale. Of course, I’m always digging for poetry, but I rarely run across any volumes that I do not already have. But this time… bingo!... I found nearly 30 fabulous out-of-print titles. This is a bittersweet moment, because I’m sad that they’re no longer on the library shelves and I wonder how often (or whether they’ve been) checked out and shared. But I’m tickled to give these orphans a home and will pore over them to enjoy poems that are new to me, even if the books are old.

In particular, I bought several collections written and/or edited by the Grande Dame of poetry for children, Myra Cohn Livingston, including:

No Way of Knowing; Dallas Poems (1980)
--can you guess why I love this collection and was so excited to get my own copy? Myra lived in my city for 12 years (1952-1964), and the poetry here is a tribute to a local woman and the African American community here

Poems of Christmas (1984)
I Like You, If You Like Me; Poems of Friendship (1987)
--although Myra published plenty of her own poetry, she was also a gifted anthologist who assembled beautiful collections with amazing range, like these two

Worlds I Know (1985)
--a child’s point of view on spending time with family, especially grandparents

Higgledy-Piggledy (1986)
--Peter Sis illustrates every page with tiny sketches of the perfect boy, Higgledy-Piggledy, lampooned by a contemptuous peer

Sea Songs (1986)
--if I remember correctly, these “song” collections (also Earth Songs, Sky Songs, Space Songs) were some of the first anthologies to appear in picture book form with double-page spread art (expressive paintings by Leonard Everett Fisher). Very visual, with only one poem on each double-page. [UPDATE: I am wrong about that. I have since learned that there were indeed illustrated picture book poem collections in the 1970's-- such as Do Bears Have Mothers, Too? by Aileen Fisher and illustrated by none other than Eric Carle (1973).

There Was a Place (1988)
--such poignant poems from the child’s point of view about living with divorced parents or in “broken homes” and coping with separation

If I had to pick only ONE of these to reissue, I think I’d go with this one. The short, rhyming poems are so true, so direct, and sadly timeless. Kids worry so much when their families hit a rough spot—sometimes we forget how much they observe and feel. Here’s the first poem from the book, just as a sample:

Lost Dog
by Myra Cohn Livingston

When I came home
and you weren’t there
I wondered,
worried—tell me where

you went
and why you

I’ve called and called.

Why are you gone?
Why did you leave?
Where did you roam?

When will you sniff your long way home?

from: Livingston, Myra Cohn. 1988. There Was a Place and Other Poems. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, p.1

Why are these wonderful books all out of print? Why is nearly impossible to find nearly any of Myra’s books in print? It’s just crazy! So many of today’s poets learned at her feet. And so much of her poetry (and her collections) feels so timeless.

Her birthday is coming up soon (August 17), and although she is no longer with us, please dig around for her work on the library shelves and in anthologies. (Check out my Aug. 17 posting in 2007 for a more thorough tribute to Myra.) By the way, the Children's Literature Council of Southern California presents a Myra Cohn Livingston award for outstanding poetry each year. Lovely legacy!

It's not too late to check out the Poetry Friday gathering at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

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