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River of Words: Images and Poetry in Praise of Water
Edited by Pamela Michael
HeyDay Books, 2003
Today in Tucson, we had an oven-like high of 113 degrees. I rode my bike in the middle of the day, the heat of the day (a mistake), and between shouts of OH-MY-GOSH and DANG-IT’S-HOT and YOU’VE-GOTTA-BE-KIDDING-ME, a desperate question branded my brain: When will the rains come?*
This is a question, a conversation that’s common among Tucsonans. In fact, a good chunk of us abandon the city in the summer. But for the die-hard (read: crazy), we withstand the abuse because we know that the monsoons are on their way.
In light of the recent heat wave, and in anticipation of the forthcoming monsoon season, I can’t think of a more fitting collection of poetry than River of Words: Images and Poetry in Praise of Water. This collection of poems and artwork, written and illustrated by youth, is an initiative through the River of Words® program, which “trains teachers, park rangers, youth leaders, and other educators around the world on ways to incorporate nature and the arts into their own work with children.” Co-founded by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and writer Pamela Michael, the organization promotes literacy, water-shed awareness, and the arts.
I feel trite in saying that these poems, written by youth, are honest and uninhibited and wildly imaginative. And I it sounds like a cliché to say that the illustrations are surprising, colorful, and fearless. But the writing is honest and uninhibited and wildly imaginative. And these illustrations are surprising, colorful, and fearless. The poetry and the art in this collection are stunning and incite awws and laughs and visceral, heart-string pulls.
There are poems about water in its various forms: rain, snow, storms, rivers, creeks, and oceans. And within these waters, we find the various animals that inhabit them: bullfrogs, snakes, deer, raccoons, chickadees, nuthatches, pine siskins, ducks, blue herons, geese, cicadas, gulls, alligators, crabs, catfish, goldfish, and salmon. We find diverse images that span from a boy fishing for “Cordell redfin, real as a rainbow you like to feast on” to La Llorona, who, as another young poet describes, “thrust her children into the river’s mouth and watched it swallow them like silver minnows,” –From Tyler Sellers, age 8, and Todd Detter, age 17, respectively.
Many of the poems have surprising wordplay, with unexpected phrases that are fun to roll around in your mouth like marbles: “Tread of pale stream, hemming watery licks. And pebbles promise tootsie nooks burrowed scarce amongst the wind and willow creep,” –Lucy Barber, age 11. And also this: “A babbling brook snaking its way through damp Seattle neighborhoods and on its banks, vicious blackberries lurking behind every bend, ready to take the stream over, like a pack of snarling wolves,” –Luke Hussey, age 11.
After reading a collection that’s this drenched in water, it’s possible to believe that rain is on the way in Tucson. That sky looks gray enough. The wind seems to be blowing hard enough. You can almost convince yourself that you’re right. This collection not only gives me hope that the monsoons will indeed come, but more importantly, it gives me hope for our future. The poetry and artwork by these amazing students is provoking. In a city like Tucson, which is starved for water, it gives me hope that programs like River of Words® are informing and inspiring youth throughout the world (Tucson included) about this precious resource that we often take for granted. So let us end on a high note, a fun note, from another one of the talented, young poets: “I can catch the glassy tick of each drop on the roof. Like tap shoes; like diamonds; like tiny horses hooves,” –Sarah Eggers, age 17.
*Editor’s Note: Soon after this article was written, Tucson saw its first monsoon of the season.