Category Archives: Poetry

Day 175 – A Stick is an Excellent Thing

Today we read a perfect book for summertime – a playful and breezy book of poems about outdoor play called “A Stick is an Excellent Thing” by Marylin Singer and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. With jaunty, rhyming text and joyful depictions of children enjoying the outdoors to the fullest, it had us ready to drop everything and head outside to play!stick

Ms. Singer’s poems pay tribute to all the fantastic fun that can be had outdoors with the simplest of toys – a sprinkler, bubbles, jacks, a red rubber ball, a jump rope, some sidewalk chalk, and (yes) excellent sticks! It’s a great reminder that having fun on a hot summer day doesn’t necessarily require any planning or expensive toys, just a few simple props and some space to move (of course, around these parts you also often need some Off repellant – which I noticed was not mentioned in any of Ms. Singer’s poems!)

The rhyming text is fun to read aloud, and the fast-paced format is perfect for short attention spans (whether it’s the reader or the listener with the short attention span). I’m not sure which poem was my favorite, but my favorite illustration accompanied the poem “Upside Down” about looking at the world from another angle while hanging from a swing. I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Singer: a stick is an excellent thing. I have seen it many times with my own eyes – which is why just reading the title of this book makes me smile. Ding-ding! Another winner.


Day 121 – The Pet Project

If you’re the type that oohs and aahs
at furry faces, precious paws,
the words ahead may be alarming:
Animals aren’t always charming

So reads the disclaimer at the beginning of “The Pet Project” by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Zacharia O’Hara. It is a clever and captivating collection of cautionary compositions about picking the perfect pet. With heaps of humor from the rhythmic, rhyming prose and the witty, whimsical illustrations, “The Pet Project” is read-aloud gold!

projectThe book centers on a young girl who asks her professorial parents for a pet. Responding to her request, mom and dad recommend research, advising our protagonist:
“Research, child is not a joke…Formulate a query…slowly plan your bestiary“. If their plan is to convince their daughter that she doesn’t need a pet, then it comes off (almost) perfectly. After working her way diligently through farm animals, woodland creatures, zoo beasties, and more traditional pets, and finding issues with each selection, our heroine arrives at the conclusion that her ideal pets may actually be…protozoa?

I had a lot of fun reading this book aloud. The rhythm varies from poem to poem, and the rhymes are clever. Some of the less desirable characteristics of the potential pets are also sure to get a giggle from younger listeners (the dove poops on her glasses, the cow lays a stinky pie at her feet, and the hippo has a horrible case of halitosis, etc.). Laid out like a field guide, the book is full of hand-written notes and comments in the margins that add to the humor (bonus: even the comments in the insets rhyme!). And then there are the expressive and engaging illustrations (if the gross-outs in the poems don’t get a giggle, the accompanying pictures surely will).

We are sad to leave National Poetry Month behind as we head into May…but I can confidently claim that we thoroughly enjoyed the month right down to the very last read-aloud word of “The Pet Project”!

 


Day 119 – Swing Around the Sun

So…it’s April and you’re looking for a book about seasons that also has poetry – you know, for National Poetry Month? Well, have we got the book for you! “Swing Around the Sun” is a charming collection of seasonal poems by Barbara Juster Esbensen about the colors, events, and feelings that we typically identify with each of the seasons. It’s a book that is a joy to read aloud, and with seasonally appropriate illustrations blanketing every page in color, it’s also an engaging work of art.swing

We were originally alerted to “Swing Around the Sun” by author Laura Purdie Salas – who mentioned that book as one of her inspirations during an online author event several weeks back at Read Aloud Revival. Ms. Esbensen has written five short and engaging poems for each season, with our favorite being “The Wind Woman”…in part because of the dramatic illustration that seems to show the face of the Wind Woman flying over the shadows of trees in the evergreen forest of winter.

Originally published in 1965, “Swing Around the Sun” was reissued in 2003 with an all-star cast of four illustrators – each one applying a unique style and creating a particular feeling around each of the seasons. As a side note, I did think it was interesting that each of the four illustrators currently lives in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. While I thought each artist’s style was appropriate for the chosen season, our favorite illustrations in their own right were Janice Lee Porter’s for Summer.swing 2

This was a very entertaining picture book, and one which I am glad to have added to our collection (poetry books are particularly nice to be able to pick up and read again and again). I will admit that I had to order a copy of the original 1965 edition as well, if only because I love the old-school look of the orange and yellow sun illustration on the front cover. Hey – having two copies can’t hurt…can it? We’re not entirely buried in books yet!


Day 118 – Who Likes Rain?

Who likes rain? With April showers in full swing, we found ourselves asking – and answering – that question while reading “Who Likes Rain” by Wong Hebert Yee. Mr. Lee’s book is a rhyming and rollicking good time that makes entertaining use of onomatopoeia, keeps readers engaged with the repeated question “Who Likes Rain?” and provides a very satisfying ending…at least from the perspective of some younger listeners.who likes rain

Filled with Mr. Yee’s colorful soft-focus illustrations, the book follows a little girl who, rather than despondently sitting at home and asking “Who Likes Rain?”, decides to don her raincoat and, boots and head out into the downpour to find out first-hand. The rain pit-pit-pits on windowpanes, ping-ping-pings on awnings, and tum-tum-tums on umbrellas as the little girl watches cats scat, frogs hop, and worms squirm. She decides that the neighbor’s dog doesn’t like rain, nor does papa’s truck, but ducks clearly do. Eventually, as the rain clears, it occurs to the little girl that there is one more creature who may like rain most of all…as she – KER-SPLAT – jumps right into one of the puddles left behind.

We had a lot of fun reading this relatively simple picture book. There’s some information here about how the real world works – but the best part was the way in which the rhymes hinted at who, on the very next page, was going to like rain. It was infectious enough that mommy couldn’t help but call out the answer before I could turn some of the pages. Big smiles all around!


Day 115 – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

For April 24, the beginning of National Dance Week, we read a beautiful book about one of the most famous prima ballerinas of all time: “Swan – The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad. With poetic prose and graceful illustrations, “Swan” is less a traditional biography and more of an enchanting ode to Ms. Pavlova’s love of ballet, and to her burning desire to share that love with the world. Ms. Snyder and Ms. Morstad combine words and pictures to create a true work of art befitting of the book’s subject matter.swan

We are first introduced to Anna as her mother is whisking her off on a snow-covered evening to see the ballet, and that is where we see Anna fall in love. As the dancers perform, Anna’s feet “wake up” and “there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” From that point forward, Anna can not stop dancing. Eventually she begins formal training, and when she finally sets foot on a stage “Anna becomes a glimmer, a grace. Everyone feels it…the room holds its breath.” We are told that Anna shouldn’t be this good, her legs are too long and her feet are all wrong, but “Anna was born for this.”

Anna’s career takes off, she performs for years to adoring crowds, and she is wined and dined by royalty, but there is still something missing. Anna knows that “somewhere, there are people who haven’t heard the music,” so she sets out to “feed (the world) beauty.” She travels the globe performing in venues from bull rings to rickety old dance halls…and “when people throw flowers, Anna tosses them back. It’s enough just to dance.” Sadly, on one of her many trips she is caught out in the snow and catches a chill…”a rattle she can’t shake,”…and try as she might, she can not spin away.
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The poetry of Ms. Snyder’s writing paints a beautiful impressionistic picture that hints at specifics of Anna’s life but focuses more on providing a window to her soul. That felt right to us. There is a very helpful Author’s Note at the end that does fill in some of the details, and I highly recommend it. For a Philistine like myself – previously unfamiliar with Ms. Pavlova – it was fascinating to read about how her oddly-shaped feet inspired her to invent her own ballet shoes (shoes which provided the template for the shoes that ballet dancers use today) and how she took what had been an art form strictly to be performed for the wealthy and shared it with everyone, even dancing on the backs of elephants. I also read elsewhere that the title refers to the dance for which she was most known, “The Dying Swan”, which was choreographed just for her in 1905…and then performed by her all around the world.
swan3
I would be remiss if I did not talk about Ms. Morstad’s artwork, which is just as important a piece of the puzzle in “Swan” as the writing. We are big fans of Ms. Morstad’s work (see “This is Sadie” and “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”), and her elegant style is tailor-made for Ms. Pavlova’s story. I particularly enjoy how she subtly captures Anna’s awe upon seeing her first ballet, and the graceful, flowing way that she shows Anna moving through every page thereafter.


Day 110 – Book Speak

This evening we read another fabulous book of verse for National Poetry Month. “Book Speak” by Laura Purdie Salas is a compilation of poems about or inspired by books. Full of clever turns of phrase, insightful metaphors, and just the right mix of rhyming and free-verse compositions, “Book Speak” was an absolute joy to read aloud! The collage and watercolor illustrations by Josee Bisaillon added a playfully colorful touch of whimsy.bookspeak

After we finished reading the book together, we paused – as we frequently do – to discuss our impressions and to pick out what it was we liked best about the book. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that what we liked most about this book was: it’s a book about books (one of our favorite subjects)! Our favorite poem was “This is the Book” – in part because of the informative way it walks through the the individual roles that are played when a book is made (writer, editor, designer, illustrator, publisher, buyer, and reader), and in part because we loved the ending:

And she is the reader, who browses the shelf, and looks for new worlds, but finds herself

What a beautiful concept!

There are also lots of clever points of view in the book. I particularly liked “Index” where the voice of the book’s index sounds distinctly like a shady street vendor hocking “Rolex” watches from inside his raincoat: “psst!”, don’t bother with the rest of the book, kid – I’ve got everything you could possibly want right here in the back! I also enjoyed “The Middle’s Lament”, which is a “Poem in Three Voices” with the middle of the book having an existential crisis and being “talked off the ledge” by the front and back. What I liked about this one was that the three voices facilitated a collaborative read-aloud, like a play, for me and our oldest…(as a side note, I can’t wait until we can read some plays together as a family).

I could go on with examples, but suffice to say that this is a very entertaining, charming book. You can tell in reading it that Ms. Salas is a true book lover (why wouldn’t she be?). I think we also enjoyed it in part because we learned on a recent online author event that Ms. Salas’ first love is poetry. She mentioned that it can be difficult to get a poetry book picked up by a publisher. However difficult it may have been, we are very happy Ms. Salas was able to get “Book Speak” published.


Day 109 – Oh No!

This afternoon we were thrilled to be able to sit in on another live author event at Read Aloud Revival – this time with author Candace Fleming. In her honor this afternoon we read “Oh, No!”, an infectious, rhythmic read-aloud experience that has been a favorite with our youngest ever since we checked it out of the library several weeks ago. I was hooked on this one from the very first “Ribbit-oops” of the tree frog falling into a deep, deep hole. The jaunty cadence, the repetition, the rhyming, and Eric Rohmann’s rich and humorous illustrations make this an instant read-aloud classic – in my humble opinion.oh no

Following the tree frog into the deep, deep hole we meet a squeaky mouse (pippa-eek), a lethargic loris (sooo-slooow), a clever sunbear, and a merry monkey. Oh No! All the while they are being watched by a ravenous and patient tiger who has been waiting his turn to “help” the trapped animals out of their predicament. Oh No! However, there is one more animal coming that the tiger did not count on…turnabout is fair play, as they say…Oh No!

Just flipping through the book as I write this review, I wish we could all sit down and read it aloud again. It’s thoroughly addictive – both the words and the pictures. I’m honestly not sure which I like better. The repetition and the rhyming are also great for beginning readers. I highly recommend this Fleming-Rohmann collaboration. It’s an honest-to-goodness five-star read-aloud treat!

While we didn’t hear a lot from Ms. Fleming regarding “Oh, No!” on the recent online event, we did learn that the illustrator – Mr. Rohman – is Ms. Fleming’s husband. You wouldn’t know it from their brief bios on the inside of the dust jacket, although (curiously) they both live in Oak Park, Illinois…so I guess you could “do the math”. It seems like a pretty good deal as an author to have your own Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator right there in the same house…even if Mr. Rohman has only illustrated a few of Ms. Fleming’s books. Ms. Fleming provided what I thought were some fascinating insights on how she thinks about the author-illustrator dynamic. Ms. Fleming has been writing long enough that she does actually get some say in who will be chosen to do the artwork for her books, unlike most authors. However, she has also learned to get out of the illustrator’s way once he or she has been selected: she believes it is the illustrator’s job to decide how to tell the story in pictures, and she doesn’t even like to provide feedback to her husband when he is working on one of her books. It sounds like she is typically very happy with the results, too. I particularly enjoyed hearing her description of what it’s like to see the final version of her books for the first time; regardless how she might have imagined the characters when she was writing, she opens up the book to see the pictures and thinks (and I’m paraphrasing): Of course! THAT is what they look like! I thought that was a neat way to think about a process that might seem impersonal to some.


Day 108 – Zen Ties

In honor of Haiku Day on the 17th of April, we read a fantastic book: “Zen Ties” by John Muth. Sprinkled with clever plays on words, beautiful watercolor images, and some insightful and well-placed Haiku, “Zen Ties” is a sweet and gently humorous book about compassion and friendship.Zen ties

The story reintroduces giant-panda Zen master Stillwater and his three friends Addy, Michael and Karl, who originally appeared in Mr. Muth’s Caldecott Honor book “Zen Shorts”. “Zen Ties” also introduces us to Stillwater’s taciturn yet poetic nephew Koo, who arrives at the train station at the beginning of the book. “Hi, Koo” says Stillwater in greeting – foreshadowing the charming bits of poetry that Mr. Muth, through Koo, will insert periodically throughout the story.

It’s summer time in “Zen Ties”, the weather is spectacular, and there is fun to be had playing at the park with Stillwater, Koo, and the children. Michael, however, is troubled; he is nervous about an upcoming spelling bee, and he is afraid his nerves are going to keep him from doing well. Stillwater suggests that the children come with him to bring food for his ailing friend Miss Whitaker. The children are skeptical; to them Miss Whitaker is the angry old lady on their street who is always yelling at them to get out from in front of her house. However, despite Miss Whitaker’s initial gruffness and her blue mood (she appears to be lonely and tired), the visit goes rather well; the children clean around the house and spend time painting pictures for Miss Whitaker. Stillwater suggests that Michael might like to come back the next day. When they return on the morrow, Stillwater explains that Miss Whitaker used to teach English and might be able to help Michael prepare for his spelling bee – which she does, gladly.

Eventually, the children and Miss Whitaker become fast friends, visiting frequently and enjoying apple tea together. Oh, and about that spelling bee: Michael makes it through all the way to the end and has a ribbon to share with Miss Whitaker. When Stillwater walks Koo to the train station at the end of the book, offering to dispose of his tea cup for him, Koo shakes his head:

“Nearing my visit’s end,

summer now tastes of apple tea

I will keep my cup”

I adore this book. I’m not really even sure where to start. The book is very well written – as noted below, Mr. Muth takes care to say what he has to say in the most efficient manner possible – and he manages to work in some humor in the process: “What would you do if you were in a spelling bee?” Michael asks Stillwater…”I would spell words,” he answers. Stillwater’s quiet confidence is comforting as well; you know that if you stick with him, everything is going to work out just right. Mr. Muth’s illustrations are captivating – expressive and colorful – adding heart to the story. My favorite picture was of Miss Whitaker at home alone in the evening after the children’s first visit; she is sitting in the dark peering through a magnifying glass to get a better look at the paintings the children left behind. The connection between Miss Whitaker and the children by the end of the book is inspiring; it always makes me choke up a little when Karl tells Stillwater that Miss Whitaker had been yelling at them just that morning. Stillwater asks “Why are you smiling?” and Karl says, “She was telling us to get out of the street and play in her yard”. Most of all, however, I love the sense of caring and community that shines through in this story.

About the Haiku – I did notice that Koo’s poetic interjections are not truly Haiku in the way Americans know it – with three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. When I first read this book, I thought it was odd to see the obvious play on words with Koo’s name, but not see any true Haiku…as I knew it. In fact, if you read Mr. Muth’s author note (well worth the time, by the way), he makes that point that the rigid 5/7/5 structure is actually an attempt in English to “create an analog with the Japanese language”. Rather than adhering to those particular numbers of syllables, Mr. Muth tries to “have the discipline to say what (he wants) said in the fewest words. It doesn’t always work out to be seventeen syllables”, an interesting lesson in and of itself.


Day 99 – How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Did you know that April 8th was “Draw a Bird Day”? Neither did we until just recently – but it sounded like a neat unofficial holiday with a sweet story behind it, and we always enjoy fitting another special day into our Storybook Year reading list. So, in honor of DaB Day 2016 and in further celebration of National Poetry Month, we read “How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird” by Caldecott Medal winner Mordecai Gerstein. Full of playful and colorful illustrations, the book is a humorous and joyful interpretation of a poem by French surrealist Jacques Prévert.DABDAY

How do you paint the portrait of a bird? Well, apparently it’s not so much about painting the bird itself. A truly great painting of a bird requires you to first draw a cage on your canvas that is attractive enough to entice a bird to land. Then you must erase the cage and replace it with a scene that is beautiful enough to inspire the bird to sing. Sometimes you must wait a very long time for the bird to arrive – perhaps years – and even if you eventually attract a bird, it may not ever sing. If it doesn’t sing, no worries – you will still know that you did your best. HOWEVER, if it does sing, it is a sign that you have a painting which is worthy of your signature. Either way, tomorrow you can always paint another one.

The poem itself, which is apparently very well known in French-speaking parts of the world, is wonderfully inventive and entertaining and there were several things about it that we enjoyed. We appreciated the instruction that you must immediately erase the cage once you have “captured” your bird. It is perhaps a metaphor for opening your mind, but on a more literal level, we loved the idea that the bird must be free; once you have his attention, it is up to the artist to create a scene beautiful enough to inspire the bird to stay and sing. I liked the reminder in the poem that sometimes it takes a very long time, a lot of patience, and perseverance to create a great work of art – it’s a universal lesson that is applicable not only to painting but to other artistic pursuits, like writing. The comment at the end – that tomorrow you can paint another one – is a charmingly optimistic post-script, reminding us that a new day brings another chance to make the bird sing (if you didn’t succeed today) or to create a picture with a completely different song (if you did succeed)…the possibilities are endless.

Mr. Gerstein’s artwork adds further humor and life to Mr. Prévert’s composition – particularly in the expressions and body language of the young artist in the poem. His looks of concentration or anticipation are amusing, but my favorite picture by far was the unbridled explosion of joy when the bird does sing. Overall, this is a beautiful production, small enough to be attractive for little hands with a bold picture of a bluebird on the cover that immediately caught my attention. This book will leave you with a big smile on your face; it’s a great choice for National Poetry Month, Draw a Bird Day, or any day, really.


Day 93 – When Green Becomes Tomatoes

As you will know if you follow this blog, we thoroughly enjoyed reading Julie Fogliano’s “and then it’s spring” on Day 80 of our storybook year. Imagine our delight when we discovered “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”, a book of verse about the seasons by Ms. Fogliano, which was released on March 1, 2016. The timing was just right for us to put it on the list for April…National Poetry Month…and boy, are we glad we did!

GreenThis charming book is a compilation of short, free verse poetry presented as a series of journal entries. The journal begins and ends on March 20, the vernal equinox, and there are poems scattered intermittently on days throughout the year in between (I hesitate to say that they are scattered randomly…that may be the case, but the author may have some intentional pattern that I haven’t noticed yet). The delightfully evocative prose captures how I imagine a child would view, and experience, the changing of the seasons – conveying a sense of wonder in the process. Ms. Fogliano finds ways, with short clauses and carefully chosen words, to present ideas in a creative and intriguing way which really appealed to us. I paused periodically while reading to ponder what she was saying, and thought to myself, “I wouldn’t have thought to describe it that way…but it absolutely makes sense.”  We appreciated the way that each season is welcomed in it’s time – the writer is clearly ready for each transition to take place.

Ms. Morstad’s  illustrations are a perfect complement to Ms. Fogliano’s poetry – presenting playful and colorful images of children interacting with the changing seasons. We love Ms. Morstad’s artwork, in “When Green Becomes Tomatoes” as well as in “How To” and “This Is Sadie” – two other books which we own and will be reading and reviewing here later this year.

There wasn’t a poem in this book that we didn’t enjoy. We had a lot of fun taking turns reading aloud and presenting different vocal interpretations of each poem, followed by extensive discussion in some cases. It was a truly interactive and fulfilling read-aloud experience!