New poetry for a new century
The first National Poetry Month in the new century has wrought books with great things: an eclectic mix of words, forms, and perhaps most importantly, subject matters. From collections directed at small children to anthologies for teenagers, publishers have begun to focus on young readers of poetry as a very real segment of the book-buying population.
A veritable feast of poetry, The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury sets the stage for children's poetry collections to come. Not an overly thick book (some 87 pages and 211 poems), the content is diverse, well selected, and most importantly, fun. Jack Prelutsky has done a wonderfully subtle job of editing. While there are no thematic divisions, the poems build upon one another amazingly well. Connections inferred by such clusters are inevitable and get to the root of what poetry is about. In this way, Meilo So's illustrations also work nicely. Each page is illustrated appropriately, humorously, and comprehensively; for example, a single illustration might point to five or six corresponding poems.
Similarly diverse is The Songs of Birds: Stories and Poems from Many Cultures (Barefoot Books, $19.95, 1841480452). Indeed, this culturally rich book includes representations of Celtic and Yoruba poems, Inuit and Afghan stories, and every culture in between (well . . . just about). And while The Songs of Birds boasts more stories than it does poetry, Steve Palin's lovely illustrations make up for that difference. Beautiful birds make this a collection superbly suited to parents of children interested in our aviary companions. I actually wanted to buy some seed, a pair of binoculars, and proceed to the nearest wood. In place of that, however, the book does just fine.
It's About Dogs, written by Tony Johnson and illustrated by Ted Rand (Harcourt Brace, $16, 0152020225), is a homage to our canine friends and a pleasure to read. The poems range in focus and all kinds of behavior are represented: some dogs hunt, some sleep, some howl, most are just cute and have interesting stories. Included are several poems that are quite serious - the death of a beloved family pet, for example - and may help parents explain sensitive issues.
Poetry was once an oral art form. Another exciting addition to this year's children's poetry lineup is Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Beppe Giacobbe (Candlewick Press, $14.99, 0763606367). Written to be read aloud by four children (yet two can also enjoy it), this book is a testament to what poetry once was and can be. The instructions on the book read: "Find three friends and get ready to boogie. . . ." Each line is color coded, and once colors are assigned, children will find themselves creating a symphony of poetry. Three distinct poems compose the book, and while there may be some hesitation and stumbling at first, children will find that poems read aloud and in unison take on a different meanings. Quite a bit of modern poetry doesn't take its history into consideration, yet Fleischman has succeeded in creating a book that is fun for children of all ages.
Ken Nordine of NPR fame and Henrik Drescher have created a wildly unique children's book: Colors (Harcourt Brace, $16, 0152015841). Truth be told, I'm uncertain about how to classify this book. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Is it, as the book jacket describes, "word jazz?" In fact, the closest approximation may be it's a bit of all of three. Each page is dedicated to a specific hue and thus, an idea. Along with primary colors are those in-between colors like olive. Others, including turquoise, magenta, and chartreuse, have earned their own pages. Nothing about this book is normal. . . I mean, mundane. The text is big, then it is small; it runs horizontally and then suddenly, vertically; some letters are big while others are small, often within the same sentence. The illustrations are a mix of collage, computer illustration, photos, graph paper, good old-fashioned drawing - it's all hodgepodged together, creating great visual interest. Young children will enjoy the colors and sounds, older children will luxuriate in the content and details.
As we enter the new millennium, great strides toward diversity are everywhere: television, movies, and the like. Children's books are no different, and Someone I Like compiled by Judith Nicholls (Barefoot Books, $16.95, 1841480045) struck me as a truly diverse volume. From the Giovanni Manna's handsome illustrations to poems by Margaret Walker, Fred Sedgwick, and Eloise Greenfield, Someone I Like fulfills its goal, creating a children's book that crosses barriers and offers poetry that takes on real issues. While topics like the imperfections of our parents and the difficulties of having to adjust to new siblings are included, one of the more pleasant aspects of this book is that the poems are not "cute" and do not talk down to children. Each poem invites children to participate in a very substantial way. Instead of spelling everything out, the child has the opportunity to consider his own life in conjunction with the poem. At the same time, however, the poems are not too advanced for early readers. This book makes a wise assumption: children are intelligent and will take from each poem what they can. Some children will delight in the sounds of the poems, some in the content, and others will find joy in both.
Finally, older children can enjoy poetry as much as younger ones, especially if written by their peers. Movin': Teen Poets Take Voice, edited by Dave Johnson (Orchard Books, $15.95, 053130258X) is a short anthology of poetry written by teenagers who attended one of several poetry workshops sponsored by Poets House and The New York Public Library. In his forward, Johnson writes that he hopes ". . . Movin' will inspire young writers and the communities in which they live to launch their own poetry workshops and readings and make their own publication happen."
In fact, the voices in Movin' are similar to the voices of poets all over the country. Dealing with teen-specific issues, their voices rise in chorus, attacking loneliness, emotional and physical alienation, and fear. Readers will be struck with how these young people grapple to reconcile the often irreconcilable realities of adolescence. A testament to Johnson's editing is the fact that these poems are largely internal narratives, pushing and pulling the reader through a terrain that is not so distant.
Children who read poetry regularly feel more comfortable with language, and a child who is comfortable with language develops stronger reading and thinking skills. Kudos to the publishers for offering entertaining collections that children of all ages will enjoy!
Crystal Williams's first book of poetry, Kin (Michigan State University Press) debuts next month.