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?

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