I hope that 2014 is a good year for poetry in children’s literature. Specifically, since picture books are what I write about, I hope that we see a lot of well-crafted picture books that involve poetry. This can come in many forms: Illustrated nursery rhyme collections, themed anthologies, singular poems (old and new) accompanied by illustrations, compilations from individual poets, picture books written in verse, song anthologies and much more. In 2013, mid-year, Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production, who often follows publishing trends in children’s literature, noted that last year was a record year for traditional literature (folktales and fairy tales), yet there was a low number of published poetry books.
But 2014 is off to a good start, and here are just a few reasons why. Let’s look at merely the first three months of the year, shall we?
First up is a picture book, scheduled to be released at the end of January, which may have language arts teachers doing a happy dance. Joan Bransfield Graham’s The Poem That Will Not End: Fun with Poetic Forms and Voices, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, tells the nearly spastic story of a boy who feels helpless to stop writing poetry. He wakes up inspired and happy to pen some poems, but by the end of the day, he’s worn out from his obsession. Woven into Brooker’s bustling collage illustrations are poems the boy writes: He’s inspired to write a couplet about his French fries at lunch, haiku about sleep at the end of the day, and lots more in between. The aforementioned happy dance is because, at its close, the book explicitly lays out a guide to poetic forms, as if the protagonist himself wrote it. Acrostic poems, concrete poems, free verse, sonnets, tanka—they’re all here. This is followed by a page on “voices” in poetry (conversational, narrative, lyrical, mask and apostrophe or address poems). Each entry on both spreads points back to poems in the book as examples. It’s an entertaining book to hand an elementary- or middle-grade student, who is learning all about poetic forms and techniques.
February will see the release of Lin Oliver’s collection of 23 original poems for very young children, Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola. This one is simply superb. The poems get right to the heart of what toddlers care about—sensory experiences and security. There are poems about movement (wiggling toes, falling down, riding in a stroller); poems about exploring bodies (nose, tongue, belly button, daddy’s beard); poems about what creatures and objects fascinate in a toddler’s world, such as cats, dogs, mirrors, car seats, high chairs, blankies, and noisy pots and pans in kitchen drawers; and a closing poem about being rocked in mama’s arms at night. Oliver’s verses roll right off the tongue; it’d be problematic if they didn’t, given this is, by necessity, a read-aloud. And dePaola’s primarily pastel illustrations, which include a multicultural cast of toddlers, are sunny and inviting, as well as sweet without being at all saccharine. This one’s a keeper.
We have till March to see on bookshelves Paul B. Janeczko’s Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, but I promise it will be worth the wait. This is a collection of 36 poems—short ones, as the subtitle indicates—that take readers on a trip through the year, starting with Spring and ending in Winter. Janeczko includes a range of poets, primarily (but not exclusively) contemporary ones, including Joyce Sidman, X. J. Kennedy, April Halprin Wayland, Ted Kooser and Liz Rosenberg. The poems have a variety of tones, but most are reflective. Contemplative in nature and noting subtleties in our world—such as Herbert Read’s “Night,” which compares white housetops in the evenings to “still hands at prayer”—they create a new awareness in readers, as good poetry does. And Sweet’s illustrations are the perfect complement. She puts to use her signature watercolor, gouache and mixed media illustrations, but there are less of her very detailed collage spreads here and more smooth, uncluttered watercolors, which capture the grace and mystery many of the poems express.
I’d be remiss to not mention Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems, a collaboration between J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian, which was released just this week. It is delightfully offbeat, but I am saving it for my own site, where I’ll mention it in a visit from the illustrator Jeremy Holmes, an interview I hope to post soon.
Here’s to poetry in 2014!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.