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Thematic Reading List: Lil' Critters

Written and Illustrated by Janell Cannon
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2005
48 pages

What happens when a crooked-winged cockroach, who moonlights as a skilled sculptor, gets bullied? Anything. Written by popular children’s author and illustrator, Janell Cannon, who’s famous for her book Stellaluna, Crickwing follows the journey of a little cockroach-fellow by the same name, who finds himself getting bullied by animals larger than him. In his angst, he starts to pick on animals—a colony of leaf-cutter ants, to be exact—who are smaller than him. This is a great book to read when discussing themes like bullying and friendship with youth. In addition to a strong and captivating story, Cannon’s artwork is absolutely breathtaking. She creates such tactile images in her art—the monkey's fur actually seems soft to the touch; the green tree leaves look like they’re covered with a mossy fuzz. Youth and adults alike will be charmed by this story and its incredible illustrations.



Animal Poems
Written by Valerie Worth
Illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007
48 pages

This collection of poems about animals—each poem titled after a specific one, like Penguin, Hummingbird, Bat, Whale—is filled with interesting language and consciousness:


The elephant
Consents to curl
Her trunk on
Command, to stand
On a tub,
And other foolish
Tricks that are
Part of her job

I love that the poems in this book don’t succumb to easy rhymes or easy thoughts, but instead are poems that both adults and children could enjoy. Another one of my favorites is about kangaroos:


The trouble is,
Once born, there’s
No going back—

Except for these
Babies, who can
Leap about free

Until they’ve had
Enough; and then by
A simple somersault

Return headfirst
To the delectable
Pocket of dark.

The illustrations, composed of construction paper cut-outs, are so specifically textured for each animal that they give off the illusion that these animals are ALIVE! One of my favorites from the book is that of a soft, gray sleeping squirrel, all curled up and comfy in his nest made of twigs and hay.




Pig Dreams
Written by Denise Levertov
Illustrated by Liebe Coolidge
The Countryman Press, 1981
47 pages

These poems are from the perspective of Sylvia, a pet pig on a farm, and are about her life on that farm. The reader follows Sylvia on her life journey: from the time she’s a baby pig, to when she becomes a Mama, to when she grows old. Sylvia’s poems are about Sylvia, but are also about other humans and animals on the farm, like her owners, her dogbrothers, John the Cat, and Kaya the cowfriend. Sylvia’s thoughts are complex and thoughtful, meditative and intelligent:




Her Destiny

                Every pig
could be cuddled if there were justice.
                Every human
could have its intelligent pig,
                every pig
its dexterous human. Our lives
would be rich as creamy corn,
tasty as acorns.

Sylvia’s thoughts and dreams are beautiful, haunting, and even existential:

“I know
the days of a pig--
and the days of dogbrothers, catpigs,
cud-chewing cowfriends—
are numbered,

Even the days of
Sylvia the Pet,

even the days
of humans are numbered.”

The poems continue in this vain, detailing the successes and failures, ups and downs of Sylvia’s life and the lives of the animals and humans around her, until the very end, when, for the first time, a poem is not from the perspective of Sylvia, but from someone else: Isis, a goddess that Sylvia and the other animals honor and pray to:

Isis Speaks

Sylvia, my faithful
Petpig, teacher
of humans, found
of pigwisdom:
you shall yet know
the grief of parting:
your humans, bowed with regret,
shall leave you.
But hear me,
this is no dream:
the time will come
when you shall dwell,
in a house of your own
even finer than that you have.




Written and Illustrated by Douglas Florian
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2004
48 pages

These poems are short and sweet, packed with punch and sass, wit and laughs, cunningness and quickness, just like the fox it describes:

The Fox

A fox composed this poem,
Not I.

Other poems are delightful and fun, to the mouth and tongue, meant to be sung:

The Beaver


The illustrations are lively and charming watercolors, painted in such a way that they suggest movement and humor and play. These are the kind of paintings that would look absolutely adorable framed in a child’s bedroom.




Cat, You Better Come Home
Written by Garrison Keillor
Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Francher
Viking Juvenile, 2010
32 pages

Written by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame, this cute and rhyming, long poem tells the tale of a cat that wants to go outside, but won’t come back in. The narrator, the cat's owner, repeats the caps-lock refrain, “CAT, YOU BETTER COME HOME,” throughout the book, which makes me think that this would be a great book to reader to younger students in a kind of call-and-response style.



The story takes an unexpected and entertaining turn when the housecat leaves for a year-and-a-half to become:

“…the Number One TV cat-food queen
With a fat contract with a cat-food firm,
And her hair was done up in a perm.
I could tell it was Puff even though she was wrapped
In a white mink stole and her teeth were capped.
She was lying on a beach in the south of Greece,
And she’d changed her name to Clarice!”

The story becomes more and more absurd and imaginative, until, finally, the cat indeed…well, I won’t give away the ending.


Allie Leach is the Poetry Center's Education Programs Assistant and co-editor of the Wordplay blog.

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
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