Today marks the first day of National Poetry Month. This is when we poetry geeks hug our notebooks, iambic pentameter and threadbare copies of Duino Elegies even closer to our hearts. Time to join in commemorating what we already make merry the other 11 months of the year.
To kick it all off, I bring you three new children's poetry titles worth your time. Consider this my rowdy barbaric yawp over your cyberspace rooftops.
Professional reviewers have referred to poet Marvin Bell’s first children’s book, A Primer About the Flag (Candlewick), illustrated by Caldecott medalist Chris Raschka, as ambiguous, befuddling, enigmatic, esoteric, striking, somber, surprising, peculiar, moody, lively, and triumphant. Clearly, a consensus there is not! Sure, this isn’t the most accessible title for children, but there’s certainly a place for picture books that invite in child readers and leave room for them to ponder the open-ended questions and ambiguities of our world. Indeed, I’m still pondering this title myself. (This is a good thing—in Julie’s World anyway.)
Bell and Raschka welcome children to consider the very convention and meaning of flags. That is to say they invite them to ponder our attempts to make precise what is unknown and, by using an object to represent something, make clear what we stand for—all via a spare, 15-line, free-verse poem, printed in its entirety at the book’s close. With lines like “there are beautiful flags / and enemy flags. Enemy flags are not supposed / to be beautiful, or long-lasting,” Bell even touches on politics and warfare. I suppose one is either A Fan or Not a Fan of the impressionistic style of artists like Raschka. Put me enthusiastically in the former category—his vigorous, graceful, minimalist illustrations make this picture-book nerd’s heart skip a beat, and I think he gets better with every book. His thickly outlined gouache and ink illustrations in this one are arresting. This is one to be seen. I’ll have some spreads from it at my site next week.
Lee Wardlaw's Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (Henry Holt), illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, tells the story of a shelter cat's journey from cage to companionship in a series of senryu, a form of Japanese short poetry similar in construction to haiku. While haiku attempts to capture a moment in nature, senryu targets the bumbly nature of humans. Wardlaw shifts the spotlight to the foibles of a cat, one filled with the pride of all felines, yet whose sweet vulnerability manages to peek through. In nine series of senryu, from "The Shelter" to "Home," the cat dubbed "Won Ton" by the boy who chooses him goes from loneliness at the shelter ("Gypsy on my left. / Pumpkin, my right. Together, / we are all alone") to happiness ("Eavesdropping, I hear: / 'My Cat.' Great Rats! Don't you know / yet that you're My Boy?"). This is not without some struggles, including car rides: "Letmeoutletme / outletmeoutletmeout. / Wait—let me back in!" Add fear in a new home, some initial aversion to the dry cat food, and some catnapping by the younger sister, who dresses Won Ton up in frilly pink, and you've got Won Ton's adventure. In the end, he finally reveals his true name: "Boy, it's time you knew: / My name is Haiku.” In this captivating picture book, Yelchin's graphite and gouache artwork brings vigorous line and movement, lots of humor and expertly composed spreads.
The tools of any poet are words, but Bob Raczka likes to extract the juice from each word in more ways than one. In Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word (Roaring Brook), illustrated by Nancy Doniger, he crafts poems—and I can’t yawp loudly enough about what an excellent writing prompt they would be in elementary classrooms—which are a little bit anagram and rebus and altogether riddle and poetry. Raczka, having been inspired by poet Andrew Russ, takes the letters from one word, creates anagrams from it, lines up each letter in the anagrams under the same letter in the poem’s title and…voila! You have a riddle to solve and on the next page a poem to be revealed. Take “Creative,” my favorite: From that word, Raczka gets “i,” “crave” and “art.” This delightful, word-bending poetry collection—with cheerful spot illustrations in shades of gray and red from Doniger—is also one to be seen, so check 7-Imp next week.
And an Honorable Mention—not poetry itself but a picture book biography of a poet—is Monica Brown’s Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (Henry Holt), illustrated by one of my top-10 favorite illustrators, Julie Paschkis. A beautiful celebration of the poet and the power behind his poetry.
What other poetry titles can you recommend? Bring it. Our month is here!
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.