4.30.2011

Nest by Marianne Boruch

Nest


I walked out, and the nest
was already there by the step. Woven basket
of a saint
sent back to life as a bird
who proceeded to make
a mess of things. Wind
right through it, and any eggs
long vanished. But in my hand it was
intricate pleasure, even the thorny reeds
softened in the weave. And the fading
lef mold, hardly
itself anymore, merely a trick
of light, if light
can be tricked. Deep in a life
is another life. I walked out, the nest
already by the step.


-Marianne Boruch
empty_nest_by_muffet.jpg
photo by muffet








The Trees by Philip Larkin

The Trees


The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread, 
Their greenness is a kind of grief.


Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.


Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


- Philip Larkin

4.29.2011

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, written by Julie Sternberg, illustrations by Matthew Cordell, 120 pp


I resisted the lure  of Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie for a few weeks. But it kept staring out at me from the top shelf of the bookstore where I work. People would walk by it and read the title out loud and laugh. Then I would remember how much I loved illustrator Matthew Cordell's picture book, Trouble Gum for both its humor and humanity and how much the pigs in the story reminded me of the truly brilliant author and illustrator William Steig. I even read about the Evolution of a Cover over at Mishaps and Adventures, the blog of the art director for the publisher, Amulet/Abrams. What was holding me back? I just didn't want to read another book about a little girl. Ridiculous, I know, since the job I have given myself with this blog is to do that very thing. But, sometimes I just get so tired of real life and the stories of real kids. And I was tired. But not too tired, fortunately.  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is an absolute gem and a wonder. It is the kind of book that will leave you, if you are anything like main character Eleanor Abigail Kane's mother, crying a little bit at happy endings. I cry at happy endings and I cry at sad parts and poignant parts and  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie has all of these. Matthew Cordell's pitch perfect illustrations will show you that  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie also has funny bits and sweet spots. And, while  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is not a verse novel, it is verse-like and therefore fits in with this genre as well as National Poetry Month! Finally, Sternberg's book is exactly the kind of book I am always on the lookout for - a well written, entertaining, high quality story for emerging readers who are ready to tackle chapter books.

In Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie Eleanor tells us about losing her beloved babysitter, Bibi. The first page of the book, which is also all of chapter one, shows a glum Eleanor who tells the reader, "I had a bad August. A very bad August. As bad as pickle juice on a cookie. As bad as a spiderweb on your leg. As bad as the black parts of a banana. I hope your August was better. I really do." By that last line, "I really do," I was won over by Eleanor and her straightforward, honest tenor and couldn't wait to see how her story would unfold. As the Publisher's Weekly review put it so wonderfully, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is "no less resonant for its simplicity and accessibility, Eleanor's ingenuous free-verse monologue should strike a chord with readers, especially those who have had to cope with the loss of a loved one." It is Eleanor's voice that carries this novel and carries it well. Even if hers is a reluctant, hesitant, resistant, sometimes grieving voice, what makes Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie work, what makes it poignant, is the fact the Eleanor's voice is so real. As Julie Danielson writes in the preface to her interview with Sternberg and Cordell on her blog 7 Impossible Things, Sternberg captures a sensitive child's first experience with loss with "veracity; in the hands of lesser author, we could easily see a forced kids-say-the-darndest-things kind of characterization, affected whimsy, and an insincere, imposed quirkiness for Eleanor." Yet, Danielson continues, Sternberg is able to "capture with a spare, lyrical text the seemingly little moments of childhood that add up to so much for those experiencing them. Sternberg must know children and know them well, as her ability to capture the details that matter to them makes this book an engaging read." 

What moved me most about this book was seeing how the adults in Eleanor's life were gentle and loving with her, much like the parents I so admire in the Frances books by Russell Hoban, doing their best to guide her through this difficult separation from the only babysitter she has ever known.  However, they are also firm in the one or two moments where Eleanor acts out. When she slams her dresser drawer the first night her new babysitter Natalie is with her, Natalie says, "We don't slam drawers. Please try again, more gently." Natalie is understanding and respectful of Eleanor's attachment to and deep love for Bibi and gives her the space and the time to heal and adjust but also doesn't let her emotions get out of control. The two bond during their daily wait on a bench infront of Eleanor's apartment in Brooklyn for the mail carrier, Val, to deliver the response to a letter Eleanor writes to Bibi at the start of the month sine Eleanor is reluctant to travel anywhere or do anything that will remind her of Bibi.
One of my favorite moments of the book comes when Natalie shares her photo album filled with pictures of flowers she had taken from all over the state. Asking for her help in cataloguing the flowers of Brooklyn, Natalie gets Eleanor to take a walk and she notices things she had never looked at before. Eleanor also notices that they have walked past Roma Pizza, Bibi's favorite place to eat. This reminds Eleanor of the way that Bibi would hold her hand as they took walks and say, "This is the best hand. I love this hand." Eleanor takes a deep breath and tells Natalie that she misses Bibi. "Of course you do," Natalie says, "First babysitters are very special. I know I'm not Bibi. And I'll never be your first babysitter. But I'll try to be an excellent second babysitter. Does that sound okay?"

A short book, Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is filled with so many moments (and illustrations) I could share here. If you do get this book for your child, I strongly encourage you to read it yourself. It might bring up some interesting discussions between you and your child, but even if it doesn't, I think its value lies in having met Eleanor and shared her experiences for a little while. It's so easy to forget, intentionally or not, the difficult parts of childhood. I am always in awe of authors who seem to remember and convey it so well in their writing. If you liked this book, don't miss The Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern. Also short and sweet, this book is a little bit more playful but just as thought provoking.

Don't miss Julie Sternberg's website which has a great design as well as the best author bio I have read in a while. Sternberg describes her childhood framing it with five books she read that were important to her and how they shaped her - then always encouraging the reader to read them as well. Be sure to checkout Matthew Cordell's blog for the latest news and some sneak peeks, like these two magnificent paintings below.







4.28.2011

Snowball by Shel Silverstein

Snowball

I made myself a snowball
As perfect as could be.
I thought I'd keep it as a pet
And let it sleep with me.
I made it some pajamas
And a pillow for its head.
Then last night it ran away
But first - it wet the bed.

- Shel Silverstein

(suggested by zoey)




4.26.2011

Haiku by Kobayashi Issa




Don't worry spiders,
I keep house
casually.

-Kobayashi Issa






Don't kill that fly!
Look-it's wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.

-Kobayashi Issa








Under the evening moon
the snail
is stripped to the waist.


-Kobayashi Issa





4.22.2011

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, 227 pp, RL 5


Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse's 1998 Newbery award winning book, is narrated in verse by fourteen-year old Billie Jo Kelby. From the Winter of 1934 to Autumn 1935, Hesse follows a painful and difficult time in the narrator's life that mirrors the hardship, destruction and decimation brought on by the worst ecological disaster in American history. Although beautifully written, Billie Jo's personal losses and the brutal, grinding facts of life in the Dust Bowl are almost too much to grasp. Two things I have found myself wondering as I read verse novels is, "Why tell this story in the form of poetry?" and, "Why do most verse novels seem to tell such sad stories?" When I read a verse novel I feel like I am looking at a photo album and each poem inside is a snapshot capturing a moment in time. Distilling a person's story down to 50 or 75 moments makes it more intense and more vivid for the reader, perhaps even easier to process when the story is filled with so much loss and sadness, making this an ideal way to tell the story of a difficult time. And, because these are verse novels written for children there is always hope and progress that emerges from the tragedies. In The Aleutian Sparrow Hesse's narrator, Vera, tells the story of her people and their experience in an internment in a camp during WWII. Despite the fact the they are Americans, they are treated worse than some German prisoners of war and discriminated against by the people of Ketchikan, their unwanted new home. But Vera returns to the Aleutian Island, many of her tribe dead, carrying the stories of her people with her and a determination to build up her tribe again despite the devastation the war and soldiers both Japanese and American, have done to the islands.

In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo and her family suffer at the hands of nature and their own personal failures. Over and over in poem after poem, Billie Jo talks about the dust that is everywhere. She describes the dust that creeps through every opening in the house, the dust that covers their plates and their food, the dust that covers them while they sleep. Hesse writes of the dust storms that rip roofs off houses, cause car accidents, and kill livestock. And the grit and grime that is wiped out of eyes, blown out of noses and coughed out of lungs when it is not choking a person to death with dust pneumonia. On top of all this, a terrible accident causes the deaths of Billie Jo's mother and infant brother, leaving her with hands that are raw, red and scarred. Billie Jo had been hoping to make her way out of the dust with her piano playing, taught to her by her mother, but this seems impossible, especially since her father retreats into himself and barely speaks to Billie Jo.

In the midst of this loss, Billie Jo's feelings of defeat are sometimes buoyed by small events around her. In the poem "Night Bloomer," she talks of walking miles in the middle of the night to see her neighbor's cereus plant produce its annual bloom, wondering how "can such a flower/ find a way to bloom in this drought,/ in this wind." In the poem "Art Exhibit" Billie Jo describes an art show that is also a fund raiser for the library, filled with watercolors, pastels, charcoals and oil paintings. She visits it three times, and in the final stanza of the poem says,

But now the exhibit is gone, 
the paintings
stored away in spare rooms
or locked up
where no one can see them.
I feel such a hunger
to see such things.
And such an anger
because I can't.


December 1934

Billie Jo also struggles with the loss of the use of her hands. Her piano playing afforded her the chance to perform with a local group every once in a while, earning dimes that her mother saved to send her to college. The group continues to book shows and the leader, Arley Wanderdale, also Billie Jo's piano teacher, encourages her to practice again. Returning to the piano brings up memories of her mother and all she has lost as well as the blistered, peeling, painful state of her hands.

In the poem "Out of the Dust" that appears in the section "Spring of 1935," Billie Jo runs away from home. Unable to bear the silence of her father and the hopelessness of her hands, she takes her college fund and a few biscuits and hops a train. After a few days on the train and an encounter with a man who has left his wife and children hoping to find work comes the poem "Homeward Bound."

Getting away,
it wasn't any better.
Just different.
And lonely.
Lonelier than the wind.
Emptier than the sky.
More silent than the dust,
piled in drifts between me
and my
father.

Billie Jo's return to Joyce City marks a change in fortunes, the weather and Billie Jo's perspective. In one of the last poems in the book, "Thanksgiving," Billie Jo lists all of the things she is thankful for, ending with,

The poppies set to
bloom on Ma and Franklin's grave,
the morning with the whole day waiting,
full of promise,
the night
of quiet, of no expectations, of rest.
And the certainty of home, the one I live in,
and the one
that lives in me.


November 1935

Works of historical fiction for young readers tend to portray hardships and suffering and this can be difficult for some children, even though many love this genre.The tragedy that takes the lives of Billie Jo's mother and infant brother was very difficult for me to read and I had to put the book down for a few days, even though I had read Out of the Dust once before many years ago and knew what was coming. I think, though, being an adult and mother, I am much more sensitive to situations like this. Kids will probably take these events in stride, as well as the hardships that the dust brought on. I think that the historical aspects and events of the novel are fascinating and worth reading about, making Out of the Dust a unique and important book.

For more excellent books for children about the dust storm, please be sure to read Jessica Bruder's article Blowin' in the Wind from the New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2009. She reviews three children's books on the subject including Albert Marrin's Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl, which she says "feels like a museum in the form of a book," in the best possible way. Of Martin W Sandler's Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster, she says that Sandler presents the "two intersecting historical arcs, the crisis of the Dust Bowl and the rise of documentary photography." The final book she reviews is Matt Phelan's amazing graphic novel,  The Storm in the Barn. Click the title for my review.


The Storm in the Barn, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, 201 pp, RL 4


Matt Phelan's powerful graphic novel from 2009, The Storm in the Barn, is as intense and an ultimately as hopeful as Karen Hesse's verse novel set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Out of the Dust. Where Hesse's novel creates a snapshot with the words in her poems, Phelan's book is filled with images, leaving us to imagine the words that go with the pictures. While the text in The Storm in the Barn is sparse, when employed it makes an impact. Although the story that he is telling has moments that are cruel and harsh, Phelan's artistic style is gentle, his color palette soft and washed out like the land. And, although the eyes of his characters are most often just black dots, Phelan manages to portray a wide range of emotions on their faces over the course of the story.
 Jack Clark was seven the last time he saw rain. Eleven now, his family's farm, livelihood and health is being torn under by the unending, relentless dust storms sweeping the prairie.  Picked on by a merciless gang of older boys and unable to be of help to his father on the farm, Jack is desolate. His sadness is misunderstood by the doctor tending to his older sister, Dorothy, who is suffering from dust pneumonia. When Jack returns home after seemingly running into a dust storm instead of away from it, the doctor suggests that he has dust dementia, a "trend, a new condition," that he thinks he is seeing among his patients.
Devoted to Dorothy, Jack spends his free time with her as she reads from L Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz, which seems to eerily reflect the struggles of those affected by the Dust Bowl. Talking about Oz helps Dorothy to forget her illness and the family's failing farm, as does the stories their mother tells them about what Kansas was like when she was a child, before the storms. These moments provide some much needed relief and splashes of color to the otherwise grey and tan story.
But, something in the abandoned Talbot barn across the field is calling to Jack. Mysterious noises, inexplicable mud puddles and strange flashes of light seeping out of the crack in the barn at night pull Jack in.
In one of the most moving passages of dialogue in the story, Jack expresses his frustration at not being able to help and his sense of powerlessness to Dorothy. She tells him that he was only seven, too young to help out when the rains first stopped. No one expected him to help. Then, she says, "you got older, but the farm didn't. The dust stopped everything - except you getting older. It's not your fault that there was nothing for you to do, nothing for you to show us how valuable you are to the farm . . . When the rain went away, it took away your chance to grow up."
Spurred on by stories of the great Jack who fought a two headed giant, among others, that Ernie at the Mercantile has been telling him, Jack comes face to face with the Storm King in the Talbot's barn. Made powerful by his refusal to serve, the refusal to rain, the Storm King finds he has taken an almost human form. The Storm King taunts Jack, fighting with him in the barn. But Jack finds his weak spot and races to the top of the nearest windmill with a mysterious valise that unleashes much needed relief for the townspeople and the farms alike.
In his author's note for  Storm in the Barn Matt Phelan talks about the various influences that led him to write this book. Powerful images from a book bought at a used bookstore and the American Experience documentary, Surviving the Dust Bowl. These two things inspired Phelan to imagine what "living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. Without the complicated explanation of the history of over-planting, soil erosion, and other factors, a young boy or girl would only know a world that could suddenly vanish in a moving mountain of dark dust. The rain had gone away. But where?" The American folklore of the "Jack" stories and the popularity of Baum's Oz books as well as Superman gave life to the story swirling in Phelan's head, resulting in this unique book.

One note to parents of sensitive children, a brutal jackrabbit drive is a brief and moving part of this story. Viewed as a battle for survival between the rabbits and the farmers at the time of the Dust Bowl, the rabbit population was out of control and their natural food sources were rapidly disappearing, leaving the farmer's struggling crops as their only food source. Early in Out of the Dust there is a poem called "Rabbit Battles," which portrays a jackrabbit drive in less graphic terms than Phelan's illustrations, but speaks to this reality nonetheless. Horrific as it seems to us now, it was a last resort for desperate people suffering from loss of livelihood and food source as their crops were blown away, their farms covered by layers and layers of dust, their livestock choked by the dust storms.

 For more excellent books for children about the dust storm, please be sure to read Jessica Bruder's article Blowin' in the Wind from the New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2009. She reviews three children's books on the subject including Albert Marrin's Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl, which she says "feels like a museum in the form of a book," in the best possible way. Of Martin W Sandler's Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster, she says that Sandler presents the "two intersecting historical arcs, the crisis of the Dust Bowl and the rise of documentary photography." 


4.20.2011

Talking Like the Rain, selected by XJ and Dorothy Kennedy, illustrated by Jane Dyer


Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-me Book of Poems, newly in paperback, is selected by longtime poets and anthologists of poetry, XJ and Dorothy M Kennedy and illustrated by the heir to Tasha Tudor and Beatrix Potter's delicate watercolor tradition, Jane Dyer. If you can only buy (or make room on your shelves for) three poetry books for children, this should be the first one you buy as soon as your baby is born. (The other two are anything by Shel Silverstein and A Children's Anthology of Poetry, to be purchased and read in that order.) Jane Dyer's illustrations make this collection infinitely irresistible to little eyes and the poems make it irresistible to little ears.

The poems are divided into sections that include subjects such as, Play, Families, Just for Fun, Birds, Bugs and Beasts, Rhymes and Songs, Magic and Wonder, Wind and Weather, Calendars and Clocks and Day and Night. Contributing poets include Jack Prelutsky, Edward Lear, Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Eve Merriam, John Ciardi, Gwendolyn Brooks, NM Bodecker, Nikki Gionvanni, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Jane Yolen.

























Families

Listen! I've a big surprise!
My new mom has light-green eyes.

and my new brother, almost ten,
is really smart. He helped me when

we did our homework. They moved in
a week ago. When we begin

to settle down, she said that you
could come for dinner. When you do

you'll like them, just like Dad and me,
so come and meet my family!

-Myra Cohn Livingston


While you may not be able to read the tiny text of the poems, you do get a feel for the wonderful illustrations that accompany and enfold them. And, if you are interested in how this book got it's name, a passage from Isak Dinesen's book Out of Africa begins the book. Dinesen writes of harvesting maize in the field with young Swahili field laborers and speaking to them in their own language, but in non-sensical, rhyming verse. She tried to get them to join in with her and finish her rhymes, but they would not. When she stopped her game, they begged her, "Speak again. Speak like rain." As Dinesen writes, "Why they should feel verse to be like rain, I do not know,. It must have been, however, an expression of applause, since in Africa rain is always longed for and welcomed." What a beautiful image and thought to begin the book with - that poetry itself should be like applause and welcomed like rain in a dry land.


4.18.2011

Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse, illustrations by Evon Zerbetz, 156 pp, RL 5

Aleutian Sparrow is Karen Hesse's second verse novel, coming five years after Out of the Dust, which won the Newbery in 1998. Hesse's book is narrated by Vera, an Aleutian girl who has moved from the town of Kashega to the town of Unalaska on Unalaska Island so that she can continue her schooling. The book begins in May of 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and month before the Japanese invade Kiska and Attu, the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands. Within days of the first Japanese attack, most of the inhabitants west of Unimak are evacuated and sent to an internment camp, first in Wrangell, Alaska, and then further south to Ketchikan. Aleutian Sparrow follows Vera, her friends and family and the other evacuees as they struggle to adapt and survive their years of internment which are filled with prejudice and neglect from the government that has taken over their land and their homes. Vera's story and the story of her people is a moving one, one that I knew nothing about before reading this book. I am not a history buff, so the fact that the Japanese actually occupied American soil during WWII along with the fact that there were people other than Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps was fascinating to me, almost as fascinating as the history of the Aleut people themselves. 

Russians fur traders gave the name Aleut to the native peoples when they traveled to the islands in the late 1700's, however, the Aleuts call themselves Unangax, and that is who Hesse has dedicated her book to. The poem below speaks of this encroachment, as well as the new one.

WHILE THE LITTLE ONES PLAY KICK THE CAN

Alfred's grandfather says, "Remember, we were once
         unparalleled hunters, men of the sea.
We were the elders of the world.
We had our own language, our fierce victories, our
          tribal pride.
The Russians ended that.

"We went from ten thousand to eight hundred. Our
          grandparents perished. Our parents perished.
And that was before the
          Americans came.
How many times can a people lose their way
Before they are lost forever?"

Besides renaming them, the Russians also brought a new religion to the Aleuts. In 1794, a group of Russian Orthodox monks arrived on the islands and, after converting the Aleuts, became protectors for them, as they were increasingly treated badly by explorers and traders. The man who became St Herman was part of this original group of monks. The man who became St Peter the Aleut was converted, probably by St Herman, and tortured and killed by Spanish Jesuits in 1815 when he traveled south from the islands on a fur trapping expedition. In one amazing poem, Vera describes the frantic race to hide the icons from the church in Kashega. Alexie Golodoff, half of the elderly couple who take Vera in when she leaves home to attend high school, packs as much as he can into a trunk and buries it in the churchyard. In the internment camps, the Aleuts make do with what they are given, crafting an altar out spare wood - they were told to build their own homes once they were moved to Ketchikan - and continuing their services. Below is a poem describing this.

St. Herman of Alaska

WORSHIP

One thousand miles away our churches stand empty.
But we are alive and we give thanks.
Five villages' worth of Aleuts gather in the field under a
         steady rain.
The hem of God brushes our upturned faces.



As with every verse novel I read, I am amazed at the amount of information that the author packs into so few words. Aleutian Sparrow has provided me with more information about the Unangax people that hours of scouring the internet for information and images has. Unfortunately, I could not find a good picture of what the Aleutian Islands looked like in 1942, but Hesse's poems create powerful visual images of a windswept land with almost no trees and frequently harsh weather. However, it is also a place of beauty that provides the people with everything they need to survive, from grasses to weave into baskets and mats in the winter, to the seals that provide meat and skins for clothing to the pootchky, an edible Aleutian plant that can cause great pain when not prepared properly. But, the real story of that these poems tell is of the suffering of the Unangax during the internment, their struggle to survive in a place where their skills and their means to a livelihood are useless and the efforts to keep their heritage intact despite the prejudice and harsh conditions the government thrust them into. It is estimated that one in four of every Aleut who was in the internment camps died during their three year stay. The poem below speaks to this.

TRADING

The Aleut does not always get the good end of a trade.
Once, the Aleuts piled sea otter skins until they reached the
           top of a Russian gun.
The Aleuts kept the gun, the Russian kept the skins. This
           time we trade our skin of freedom for the gun of the
           government's protection.
Even the Russian trade was better than this.

Sadly, when the Aleuts were allowed to return to their islands they found much of their former life destroyed, from homes to fields to shops, as described in the heartbreaking poem, "The Spoils of War." However, Vera finds the holy relics and "the seven Russian bells" that Alexie hid and she begins her life over again in Unalaska village. While much of this story is heartbreaking, the wonder of Hesse's book is the beauty that she is able to capture by telling the story in verse. Hesse's poems are not just paragraphs with thoughtful line breaks, they are metaphor filled, image rich moments in time. Reading Aleutian Sparrow is almost like looking through a scrapbook, a vivid trip back in time. I'll leave you with one last poem, an example of Hesse's beautiful writing and an interesting photo.

KETCHIKAN CREEK

When Eva returns from Ketchikan, she says
The creek there is like a woman
Dressed in a filmy green gown,
Her lace pockets spilling with leaping salmon.






The caption for this photo reads:

L-R "Mrs. Mike," "Little Mike," and "Big Mike" Hodikoff. In 1934 Big Mike was chief of the native Aleut Tribe on Attu. They are posing in front of their native Barabara, the Aleut hut. Trapping Blue Fox, fishing, and making baskets was the only means they had of making a living.

This photo was taken in 1934 by the Bureau of Aeronautics of the U. S. Navy during an aerial survey of the Aleutian Islands. (Official U. S. Navy Photograph. Was made available for distribution on Thursday, August 6, 1942 at 3:00 P.M.)

At the time this photo was released in 1942, it was assumed that Big Mike and his family were prisoners of the Japanese. It was later learned that Mike Hodikoff died in 1945, in Japan, while still imprisoned.



4.14.2011

TODAY IS POEM IN YOUR POCKET DAY!!!

This is the poem in my pocket today! What did you have in yours?


Substantial Planes


it doesn't
matter

to me
if

poems mean
nothing

there's no
floor

to the
universe

and yet
one

walks the
floor.




A.R. Ammons





Included in the book: Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets: 100 Poems to Rip Out and Read



4.12.2011

heartbeat by Sharon Creech, 180 pp, RL 4

heartbeat by Sharon Creech is her second verse novel, coming after Love That Dog and before  Hate That Cat. Whereas Creech's other verse novels are about an exploration of the self through poetry, heartbeat is a book about the exploration of the self written in poetic form.

Creech tells the story of Annie's transitional twelfth year of life over the course of fifty-two poems. Her mother is pregnant and her grandfather, who lives with her family, is slowly losing his memory. Annie worries for her mother and the baby growing inside her - she calls it an alien baby and dreams that when  it is finally born they will find a rabbit, mouse or small horse instead of a human. She also worries about her ailing grandfather, looking up to him and taking care of him at the same time. Outside of her home, Annie struggles to maintain a friendship with Max, whom she has known all her life.  Max is determined and often angry, thinking that Annie is "spoiled" for having two parents and a grandfather in her life. Max and Annie run together, barefoot and free through the woods at the edge of town. Max joins the track team at school and pressures Annie to join to, as does the coach, but she knows that she doesn't want to be part of a herd racing for a finish line. She knows that she loves to run and she loves to run by herself.

The young adult novelist, Adèle Geras, captures the heart of heartbeat best with her review from The Guardian from 2004. I don't think I could find my own words here without echoing hers, so here they are, summing up the central theme of the book beautifully.

Annie's art teacher sets her class a project. They must each choose an apple and draw this piece of fruit every day for 100 days. The progress of the apple and what becomes of it is a metaphorical parallel for what is happening to Annie's grand-father. It also demonstrates, neatly and economically, the truth about life: that it passes, that every day is different, that you must notice things before they disappear, and so forth. The baby emerging into life is the beginning of a continuum that ends in death. Annie doesn't say this aloud, but it's there in the text for careful readers. The last drawing of the apple is one tiny seed: all that's left after it's been eaten.


Once again, Creech takes difficult familial and emotional situations and crafts them into a powerful, economical story. I'll end here with Annie's poem that comes near the end of the book:


                           SLEEPING


                          Grandpa is lying on his bed
                          with the baby asleep on his chest
                          the two of them curled together
                          peacefully.


                          I lie beside them
                          sneaking one arm over them
                          making sure they are both breathing
                          thump-THUMP, thump-THUMP
                          and I feel infinitely happy
                          that this miracle baby
                          has come to us 
                          and infinitely
                          infinitely
                          infinitely
                          sad
                          that my grandpa
                          does not have a whole
                          long 
                          life
                          ahead
                          of him.

4.11.2011

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, 86 pp, RL 4


A love letter to the importance of poetry and how creative expression can help one cope with overwhelming emotions, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is just perfect. And brilliant. And, for certain adult readers, probably the impetus for a good cry. I was intrigued by this book, which is about a boy who, with the help of a remarkable teacher, deals with the loss of his dog through poetry and finds a whole new world of words opens up to him, when it was released in 2001. The only other verse novel for kids I was familiar with at the time was Karen Hesse's Newbery winning Out of the Dust which I had read and loved. In 2004 we got our first dog and after that I knew there was almost no way I would ever read Love That Dog. I don't deal well with loss. In fact, I even get pretty upset if I think I have lost a book, so reading a book about losing a beloved dog was definitely very low on my list no matter what I felt about Sharon Creech and verse novels. But, things change and National Poetry Month happens. And I'm glad.

Love That Dog can be best described by quoting directly from the book. Page one begins,

 JACK
 Room 105 - Miss Stretchberry

SEPTEMBER 13

I don't want to
because boys
don't write poetry.

Girls do.

As the poems unfold, it becomes clear that Jack is keeping a verse journal, comprised of original poems and one-sided conversations with his teacher, also in verse, for his class with Miss Stretchberry. In class, the students are also reading other people's poetry and responding to it in their journals, in verse.

SEPTEMBER 27

I don't understand 
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much 
depends upon 
them.

If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words 
can be a poem.
You've just got to
make
short 
lines.

It is through the continued practice of writing and his exposure to other poets, especially a specific poem by Walter Dean Myers, that Jack begins to open up. Over the course of this journey, Jack is inspired and influenced by each poem and poet that he reads. When he reads Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," and William Blake's "The Tiger," he writes a poem about a mud spattered blue car in the night. After being assigned to write a poem about a pet, he refuses, saying he doesn't have a pet. Eventually, though, after reading a poem by Valerie Worth about a dog, he does begin to write. And it is heartbreaking. As Jack writes, Miss Stretchberry types up his poems and puts them up on the board in the classroom for all to see, leaving his name off as requested. His peers praise his work, and the continued attention of Miss Stretchberry bolsters Jack and the floodgates open. Walter Dean Myer's poem, "Love that Boy," opens up a whole new world (writing to authors, learning how to type on a computer) to Jack that is so exciting and sweet and rewarding you will be amazed how much imagery, emotion and plot Creech has condensed into the economy of words that is Love That Dog.  But, that is the remarkable and wonderful thing about poetry - the magnitude of images, ideas and stories that can be contained in a handful for words. Amazing! And so is this book. Creech

Below, Creech describes how she came to write Love That Dog:

Walter Dean Myers' poem, "Love That Boy", has been hanging on my bulletin board for the past three or four years. It's at eye level, so I probably glance at it a dozen times a day. I love that poem--there is so much warmth and exuberance in it. (The poem is reprinted at the back of Love That Dog.);

One day as I glanced at this poem, I started thinking about the much-loved boy in Myers' poem. I wondered what that boy might love. Maybe a pet? A dog? Maybe also a teacher? And whoosh--out jumped Jack's voice.

Amazing! And so is this book. Creech picks perfect poems for first time poets and, much to my joy, she includes them in the back of the book, although sometimes just the first stanzas of the poems. It is miraculous to me how she uses these poems as the skeleton to build her story on, how the poems influence Jack's writing style and how Jack's world opens up. But, that is why she is a writer, a Newbery award winning writer! For more of Jack and his poetry, read Love that Cat.

For those who like to know this kind of thing (like me) the dog on the cover was drawn by none other than the marvelous William Steig.