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Everyone suggests Shel Silverstein. My daughter, Zoe, 7, got her third copy for Christmas this year. You can’t go wrong with Where the Sidewalk Ends but everyone already knows that. Then, there are the books the kids love and ask me to read over and over like Goodnight Moon, Curious George and Panda Bear Panda Bear What Do You See? But I assume you have all those books memorized too.
The books I want to showcase are the books that I think play with language the best. I want to read books that make me say how did they do that? That make me wish I had written that. That let words linger on my tongue like butter and lemon. I want to read books to my kids in the same way I want to read books to myself. Because, wow. Words are awesome.
I picked up a copy of Owl Moon at Bookman’s for no reason except I like owls. I didn’t know that this book would make me and my daughter go walking in the night in the forest behind our house saying whoo whoo to the trees. But it did. The author, Jane Yolen, writes a poem that doesn’t seem like a poem because there’s adventure and story and owls but the way she uses linebreaks and repetition remind me every time I read it how poems work:
Pa almost smiled.
Then he called back:
Just as if he
and the owl
were talking about supper
or about the woods
or the moon
or the cold.
I took my mitten
off the scarf
off my mouth,
and I almost smiled, too.
My friends Caitlin and Todd gave Zoe a copy of The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson. It’s a crazy book about a creature that’s kind of like a hippo. Jannson is from Swedish-speaking minority of Finland. The rhythm and the rhyme are so playful. The tetrameter lets the kids bob their heads along and I can use the book as an example to my Intro to Poetry students of why rhyming tetrameter sounds like children’s poetry. But this is good children’s poetry that inflects up at the end of every page/stanza with a question:
Beyond the forest, bathed in light,
the air tastes fresh. The grass glows bright.
The sun shines down on fields of flowers.
Moomintroll’s walked for hours and hours
but, happy to be homeward bound,
he kicks his legs and leaps around.
He sees a TALL shape. A house? His own?
How very TALL the chimney’s grown
when yesterday the roof was FLAT.
Well, GUESS what happened after that?
As Moomin and Mymble and Little My try to bring milk home, a Fillyjonk falls through actual holes in the paper of the book, that’s what. In the end, the milk spoils but Moominmamma serves Sweet Pink Berry Juice, so all is well. I like a happy ending, in children’s books and others.
Byrd Baylor’s Hawk, I’m Your Brother disturbs Zoe because the little boy wants to fly so badly, he keeps a hawk tethered to him. But finally, he lets the bird go. Look how slowly the bird takes to flight. Look how the white space is like the wind.
and the pull
and the feel
a hundred times
I love books about hawks. So does Zoe. And Max, my just-turned-three-year-old is starting to.
I don’t know if everyone reads On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman. I like the idea that everyone across the world is reading this long poem about how unique each of their children are. I read it to Zoe when she was little and I read it to my son now. There’s something great about celebrating the occasion of a child’s birth in almost song, almost every day:
If the moon stays up until morning one day,
or a ladybug lands and decides to stay
or a little bird sits at your window awhile,
it’s because they’re all hoping to see you smile.
There is a lot being said about giving kids too-big-of-heads these days (“special snowflakes” the blogs call them) but I love the notion that “polar bears are asleep at the zoo, because they’ve been dancing all night for you.” Why not have a notion, once in a while, that all the music and the dance of the world is meant for you?
I like to counter the very sing-songy and fantastical with the very realistic, even harsh. I read Zoe Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George when she was four. It’s a novel, not a poem, about an Alaskan girl fending for herself as she crosses the tundra. This girl knows how to snare rabbits and what kind of moss you can eat. Eventually, she befriends wolves. The detail in this book, the specificity and the taxonomy, along with sentences like “The fog thickened and, like an eraser on a blackboard, wiped out Amaroq and Silver and the tip of Kapu’s tail” make this book almost poetry to me.
Other non-poetry that is good for poetry are the Amelia Bedelia books. If you want to teach your kids figurative from literal, there is no better lessons than the pictures that accompany the words, Amelia Bedelia hoisting bread up from the chandelier in an attempt to “make it rise.”
I read a study last year (citation admittedly lacking) that the more variety of words a child hears before he or she is six, the more groundwork be dug for a humungous (my word, not theirs) vocabulary later in life. To that end, reading bilingual books seems like a good way to multiply vocabulary and introduce cultural nuances. You can’t go wrong with any of Monica Brown’s books. From Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match to Waiting for the Biblioburro, these books are lyrically written and beautifully illustrated. Particularly for poets, Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People, is a great one. But our favorite, and the one I want to recommend is Clara and the Curandera. This book is about a grumpy girl and the Curandera who lives down the hall who gives her assignments to take out the neighbor’s garbage and to read five books in one week. Zoe and I don’t know exactly what a Curandera is and Brown never defines it. Instead, she illustrates what she is within a culture that we get to experience in both English and Spanish. Zoe and I know what apartments, soccer balls and books are. By inference, we figure out what a curandera was (and sometimes I could use one.)
“Finally, after seeing Clara frown one too many times, Mami said, “Enough! It’s time to see the curandera who lives in apartment 220. She is very wise, and you must ask her what to do. Go!” Grumpily, stormily, unhappily, Clara went.
Después de ver a Clara fruncir el ceño demasiadas veces, Mami dijo—Basta! Ya es hora de que vayas a ver a la curandera que vive en el apartamento 220. Es muy sabia, y debes preguntarle qué debes hacer. Ándale, vé! Enojada, furiosa y triste, Clara se marchó.”
I can just see the vocabulary tracks growing longer and wider and deeper in both Max and Zoe’s brains.
To that end too, I read them grown-up books. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the Mandelbaum translation) is beautiful. The kids get a background on creation myths, on the Greek Gods, and, most importantly, how words and transformation go together:
And he gazes in dismay
at his own self; he cannot turn away
his eyes; he does not stir, he is as still
as any statue carved of Parian marble.
Stretched out along the ground, he stares again,
again at the twin stars that are his eyes;
at his fair hair, which can compare with Bacchus
or with Apollo’s; at his beardless cheeks
and at his ivory, his splendid mouth,
the pink blush on a face as white as snow.
In sum, he now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
He wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
The sought, the longed-for and the one who longs,
he is the arsonist and the scorched.
You not only learn mythology, you learn where words come from. Narcissus. Narcissist. See what happens to him? He cannot abandon the beautiful in which he sees his true love, his reflection. He dies there, staring into it. Lesson learned!
And finally, I read them poems from books of poems that I’m reading, anything open is usually good. Short poems. You can attack the kids with them before dinner or while they’re in the bath. They’ll look at you aghast. What have you done to them, tricky reader. Dogs, birds, dragonflies. Nature at the kitchen table.
Max loves the bird book by my friend Mike White actually called How to Make a Bird with Two Hands. You have to skip the sex and death poems but here’s a sample.
Bird in the Hand
Make it a live bird
wing-shattered and gasping
in a storm drain
and such a hand
as could conceivably hold
the flutter behind those bones.
Katharine Coles’ book of poems Fault is as playful as Amelia Bedelia and as transforming as Mandelbaum’s Ovid.
Not even a decent pack. Just a pair,
though in small rooms they move to multiply.
A piebald dog. A dog with golden fur.
One who herds. One who gulps each fly
that buzzes her, cracking it in snap jaws.
Tonight, stretched out on oriental rugs,
A relaxation of dogs, dog tired; a doze
And snoring. Then absolution: a bliss of dogs,
a conflagration, a swarm, unspooled. Odd
dogs, chasing the invisible. Like me. A fool,
a blaze of dogs, a plight, an inspiration
of frenzied tongue and paw; two dogs in a pod,
Mathematic. An education. Love’s school
in wilderness, its muzzled exultation.
Kids like poems about animals. And they like short poems. As do I. Sadly, I write long blog posts but I hope you and your kids forgive me and find some of these books as inspiring, engaging, amazing, lovely and charming as we do.
p.s. Zoe typed the quotations from the poems. Thanks Zoe! And thank you University of Arizona Poetry Center!
Nicole Walker’s nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published next year. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which will be released by Continuum Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in the journals Fence, Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, New American Writing, Seneca Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She has been granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.