Thursday, April 19, 2007

Janeczko, Paul B., ed. 2001. Dirty laundry pile: Poems in different voices. Illus. by Melissa

Sweet. New York: HarperCollins.

I read two other books of poetry selected by Paul Janeczko books before I chose this one. It was my favorite because all of the poems seemed like they would appeal to and be understood by the children that I teach, PreK through fifth graders and because I love to read writing and poems written from unusual perspectives, like objects or animals. As with all of his books that I read, the poems are high in quality. Mostly their mood is silly, although a few are more serious. They range in “speakers” from a seashell to the winter wind to a crayon to a pair of red gloves. Most, if not all, of the poems were previously printed in other books or anthologies, and I really appreciate the way Janeczko brings them all together in this book with a theme of different voices.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Prayer of a Snowflake,” by Cynthia Peterson, on the fifth page (pages are unnumbered). It reads as follows:

“Prayer of a Snowflake”

Let me land, oh Lord,
On a narrow needle of pine,
or a sheltered slope
where I can memorize
the trim track of a passing fox.
I want more
than a month before melting.

If I can’t have
that long, quiet life,
grant me a sledded slope.
Or better yet, I hope
for my swirling journey to end instantly
on the hot tongue
of some shivering child
out reveling in the return
of my tribe.


I like this poem because it seems like what a real snowflake might say, had they brains and mouths for thinking and speaking. I also think it has numerous options for sharing with students. Younger children can just enjoy it as it is; older ones, capable of more abstract thinking, can think about what kind of life they want – long and sheltered or short and glorious or something else.

Another one I really like is “Crayon Dance,” by April Halprin Wayland. It’s about a “Sky Blue” crayon who wants to be picked out of the box and then is. He revels in the movement he experiences through the child’s hand and in what he is coloring. In the penultimate stanza he cries: “They gave me a chance! / All of me rocks in this / Fine, wild dance— / The dance of me, Sky Blue!” I just love thinking of what a crayon feels about being used, and it certainly opens up the imagination to what other art supplies or tools would say about their own use by us humans.

As I mentioned, there are also serious poems in the book, like “The Red Gloves,” spoken by (you guessed it ) a pair of red gloves who want their owner to come back and find them, and “Roots”, spoken by a tree about the great importance of its roots, which it compares to “a grandmother’s fingers.” What a great image!

One more poem I must share because it is about poetry and words (and you can’t pick a more poetic topic than poetry), is “Hippopotamus,” by Ronald Wallace:


I am tired of wallowing
in this mud and my own hide.
If I were a poet,
and not a hippopotamus,
I could be anything I wanted.
A gazelle, for instance.
The word springs from my mouth,
grows graceful
legs and muscles:
gazelle, gazelle,
it dances on its syllables.
Excited by flies,
I waddle over to my thick wife,
full of the secrets of poetry.

One thing I would say is that the book’s layout isn’t the most practical. As I mentioned, there are no page numbers, making it difficult to refer to or return back to a particular poem; there is no list of what poems are included either in the form of a table of contents or an index. There are some very fetching, child-like, watercolor illustrations by Melissa Sweet on each page, illustrating the various masks the poets take, about which sometimes there is one poem and sometimes there are two or more, from laundry to trees to kites. All the text of the poems is set off nicely and easy to read, but I do wish there were at least page numbers to help me find the poems again.

Overall, this is a really enjoyable book. It is full of poems I would definitely share with my students during poetry breaks or other instruction and that I would refer teachers to when they come to me for material to use on certain topics or writing techniques. The dramatic voice type used, known as a mask, really brings these everyday topics to life in a new way. After all, isn’t that part of the joy of poetry: exploring new perspectives on things we already know or know about?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Poetry Break #11 - Serious Poetry

Introduction: Talk about what it means to fit in and what makes some people different. Ask students if they’ve ever felt that they didn’t fit in. Tell them we’re going to read a poem about what that feels like.

Read the Poem:

“Speech Class (for Joe)”
by Jim Daniels

We were outcasts—
you with your stutters,
me with my slurring—
and that was plenty for a friendship.

When we left class to go to the therapist
we hoped they wouldn’t laugh—
took turns reminding the teacher:
“Me and Joe have to go to shpeesh clash now,”
or “M-m-me and J-Jim ha-have to go to
s-s-speech now.”

Mrs. Clark, therapist, was also god, friend, mother.
Once she took us to the zoo on a field trip:
“Aw, ya gonna go look at the monkeys?”
“Maybe they’ll teach you how to talk.”
We clenched teeth and went
and felt the sun and fed the animals
and we were a family of broken words.

For years we both tried so hard
and I finally learned
where to put my tongue and how to make sounds
and graduated,
but the first time you left class without me
I felt that punch in the gut—
I felt like a deserter
and wanted you
to have my voice.

(Daniels, Jim. 1988. Speech class. Rpt. in The place my words are looking for, 43-44. 1990. Ed. Paul Janeczko. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.)

Extension: This poem makes a nice addition to a unit on belonging and fitting in, which for younger students could feature books like Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester and Timothy Goes to School by Rosemary Wells, or for older students it could introduce reading a novel like Geeks by Jon Katz, Lizard by Dennis Covington, or Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Baird, Audrey B. 2002. A cold snap! Frosty poems. Illus. by Patrick O’Brien. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.

This assignment was to review a favorite book of poetry published since the year 2000. I am glad we were not asked to review our most favorite, but simply “a” favorite book, as I would still be standing at the poetry shelf trying to decide what to do in the former case. I chose this book because I felt that the poems are high in quality; they evoke a variety of moods, thoughts, and emotions; the book is beautifully and appropriately illustrated by Patrick O’Brien; and I really enjoyed the poet’s voice and take on the subject matter. It also probably helps that I tend to be a little nostalgic about cold weather and winter, since I am a displaced Kentuckian (who also used to live in Idaho and North Dakota) living in Texas.

One of my favorite poems in the book is the first one, “Caution,” (p. 6 & 7) and would be very hard to reproduce in the way it appears in the book, since there are some special font effects. It begins as follows:


Put on
a sweater
to read
this book.

Don’t leave
the door open.

Turn up the

Grab an

Words like
balmy, warm,
and mild
won’t have
a chance here.

Words like

and cold
this book.

Later it reads:


Be careful
using this

It could
nip the nose
of neighboring

to ice…

Another favorite poem is “Trees and Me” (p. 10) It is in the first part of the book with several other poems about how winter starts. Later the poems are about the experience of the middle of winter.

“Trees and Me”

Trees undress
in November,

their clothes
where they stand.

I wonder if
Mother Nature
shakes her head
and says,

and underwear

like my mother does.

I think children would really relate to this poem, even ELL students. It has humor to it, but it is the kind that everyone understands: it is funny because it is true (almost all mothers scold their children for making a mess).

There are more serious poems in the book, like “Leaving the Library,” on page 14, and “Weather Term,” on page 16, while many of the poems are very nostalgic, like “A Ritual,” on page 17, about taking winter clothes down from storage.” One more poem worth sharing has such great imagery and sounds to it; it begs to be read aloud (as if all poems didn’t). This is “The Traveler,” from page 21:

“The Traveler”

Ravenous and savage
from its long
polar journey,

the North Wind

is searching
for food—

and wild to find
shelter tonight.

Starved, it


on my house
until the roof

wail down
my chimney.

Frigid, it


at my

trying to
its way in,



at eight o’clock,

spent and

it wraps around
my chimney
with a


when Dad
builds a fire.

The book has a very attractive layout as well. It has a table of contents at the front, which I always appreciate for finding poems again. Then, almost all of the poems are printed on white paper, with either small illustrations on the same page or opposite larger ones. This helps there never to be too much or too little white space around the poem. In addition, the pictures really highlight the content of the poems so well. For example, the poem, “The Traveler,” reproduced above, is accompanied by a painting of a weathervane being whipped about by the cold, winter wind. My favorite illustration is on the last page with the poem “Add It Up.” The poem is just one line: “A soft feather quilt + a raw wintry night = sleeping, polar-bear warm. The illustration, which covers the entire page (the poem is printed in white text at the top of it) shows a bed with a white down quilt over it and the top of a child’s head peeking over the edge. At the foot of the bed, the bedspread sort of turns into a sleeping polar bear. The dark blue sky is filled with stars and snow, which are falling on the bed and the bear. It is beautiful.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for poems about this topic, especially the anticipation or approaching of winter. The poems are well-written and the book presents them very nicely.