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I spent that summer outrunning sunburns at a Carolina beach. My sister and I dug for crabs, gathered shipwrecked slivers and the pinkest shells from dunes. At night, my dad told us stories in the light of hurricane lamps because at seven, though I loved words, I still couldn’t read.
My parents tried everything--fairy books, a private tutor (those of you from the 80’s remember "Hooked on Phonics?") but after kindergarten, words were still loose packages of sound and rhythm for me. I couldn’t focus them onto pages where lettering slipped like black eels. To compensate, I “read” to my parents from stories I had memorized, embellishing here, skipping words there. I turned salty pages myself, marking the storyline in pictures. Then, I started to care about the order of my words, about how each picture came into play. Eventually, I noticed that there were fewer black squiggles below than I had imagined, and in trying to match my rhythms to theirs, the sound-image connection happened. The eels floated up and into focus one at a time.
by Lucille Clifton
Illustrated by Michael Garland
E P Dutton, 1981
Written by one of the sassiest voices in poetry—Lucille Clifton—comes the delightful novella, Sonora Beautiful. The voice is strong and angsty and delightful. (You can hear excerpts from the novella read by Clifton herself at the Poetry Center in 1983 here on Voca). The title character, Sonora, is our narrator who leads us through her so-called life. She opens with: “Some mornings I wake up and I am real ugly. I’m not joking. My face is all broken out. My ears are waving like wings. My legs and arms have shrunk or something. My clothes fall off me like off a stick,” (5). Not only is the voice strong and poetic and repeats the funny phrase “I’m not joking” throughout, but the language is also fresh and lively with metaphor and simile. After Sonora makes these comments, her Mom assures Sonora, “Oh, stop. You are beautiful, Sonora. Beautiful.”
Everybody Needs a Rock
By Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall
My older sister Mary had a rock collection as a child. Even as she proudly showed me these rocks, which ranged from tiny, shiny pebbles to medium-sized quartz filled gems, I never quite understood her fascination with collecting these objects. Then I grew up and married a man who likes to collect rocks, too. In fact, one of his favorite books—Annals of the Former World by John McPhee—is a book all about rocks and the history of rocks. Even still, I can’t quite understand his fascination with rocks, either. I mean, I like rocks, I guess. I think mountains and the rocks that they consist of are beautiful. Living in the Southwest, I often come across incredible rock formations like Bryce Canyon’s orange steeple hoodoos and the Chiricahuas’ big, balancing rocks, and the orange, Flintstone boulders on your way to the Pinaleño Mountains. I find the huge, expansive rocks, the rocks that combine to make mountains beyond mountains, absolutely breathtaking. But the tiny rocks—those rocks that you find on hikes—yes, I look at them, but I have no interest in picking them up, as my sister did, as my husband does, and collecting them. I guess partly it’s because I hate having to pick up each individual, teeny-tiny rock off of his desk, each time I dust it. I have a miniature collection—another collection that some may find perplexing—and told him that he should put his miniature rocks within my miniature collection, which is actually just a printer’s drawer, flipped right-side up on a wall, so that it resembles a frame with tiny room boxes. He agreed on this, and now our collections have found homes within homes, a compromise of sorts, a marriage of minds, a way of melding our eccentric collections together. This makes me happy.
The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear
Illustrated by Jan Brett
Growing up, I had an illustrated book of poetry for children, the illustrations of which were pretty lousy, but the poetry of which was pretty great. “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, was one of my favorite selections. So I was super-stoked to find the poem in board book form, meticulously illustrated by Jan Brett, when my son was about five months old.
He’s always been opinionated about books (screaming and batting away the ones he deems unacceptable), and I’ll be honest: he was indifferent to “The Owl and the Pussycat” at first. But he clearly didn’t hate it, so I kept at it, and eventually he succumbed to its charms, which are many.
The lush romanticism of it kills me. The Owl is an elegant fowl; he looks up to the stars above and sings to his small guitar (imagine poor Pussy’s discomfort if he creepily stared into her eyes while he sang about her) (though even with his discreet technique, after a year and a day, I’d be ready to abandon ship). The Pussycat is a decisive lady: O! let us be married, too long have we tarried.
by Eve Merriam
Illustrated by Harriet Sherman
I first came across the poet Eve Merriam when 2012 Poetry Out Loud State Champion, Josh Furtado, recited her poem “Catch a Little Rhyme." The poem is simple and playful, but it was Josh’s spunky, West-Side-Story-like performance that really made the poem come alive. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I came across one of Merriam’s poetry collections. To my delight, in the Poetry Center’s Children’s Area, I came across her children's collection, Out Loud. Published in 1973 and with illustrations by Harriet Sherman, the drawings that accompany the poems are delightfully funkadelic, reminiscent of some of those commercials in between skits on Sesame Street, like this one.
These illustrations aren’t just illustrations that accompany the poems, per se. The illustrations are the poems. In other words, these poems are concrete poems, in that the shape of the poems mimic the subject matter of the poem. For example, in a poem about a snake, Merriam uses the form of a slithering snake (and also a lot of alliteration) to make the poem seem alive:
What Can You Do with a Paleta?
Written by Carmen Tafolla and Illustrated by Magaly Morales
Tricycle Press, 2009
It's summer. I live in the Tucson desert. It's hot outside. I'm expecting my first baby in a few weeks. Did I mention it's hot outside?
So when I recently saw the picture book, What Can You Do with a Paleta?, on the shelf at the Himmel Park Library, I knew I had to read it. After all, the paleta is a refreshing, frozen dessert bar made from natural ingredients like nuts, fruit, and milk (did I mention that Tucson is hot?). In the back of What Can You Do with a Paleta?, the author provides this information for those unacquainted with the Mexican dessert: “Paletas come in lime, coconut, pecan, mango, banana, kiwi, strawberry, watermelon, guava, chocolate, horchata, jamaica, tamarind, pineapple, vanilla and more.” Are you hungry yet?
The book itself presents the delicious paleta (which is sold all over the United States in paleterias, kiosks, carts, and even at Walmart, with varying degrees of quality and authenticity, of course) through the story of one little girl's barrio. We get sensory, poetic lines about her neighborhood:
“. . . where the smell of crispy tacos or buttery tortillas or juicy fruta floats out of every window. . . that's my barrio!” And finally, we learn about our protagonist's favorite summer treat: “. . . I think the very best thing to do with a paleta is to. . . lick it and slurp it and sip it and munch it and gobble it all down!” I'll have two, thank you very much.
The Animal That Drank Up Sound
by William Stafford
Illustrated by Debra Frasier
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992
It’s not often that I read a children’s book, and really have to slow down. By this I mean that many children’s books that I've read have easy, simple texts that are predictable enough to allow me to scan through quickly and understand the narrative just fine. But William Stafford’s The Animal That Drank up Sound is different. Maybe it’s because this book—like many of the children’s books that will soon be reviewed here on Wordplay—are written by poets. And, in turn, the phrasing is original, unexpected, and complex.
When the story opens, I’m struck with the driving force right away: “One day across the lake where echoes come now an animal that needed sound came down.” So I now know that there’s a mysterious animal that needs sound. And I think: okay, how is he going to get this sound? So I read on: “He drained the rustle from the leaves…and folded a quilt over the rocks…he buried--thousands of autumns deep--the noise that used to come there.” What I love about the language here are the verbs. This animal didn’t just “get” sound from doing x, y, and z, he drained and folded and buried the sound. How else did he retrieve sound? Like the title implies, he “began to drink the sound out of all the valleys—the croak of toads, and all the little shiny noises grass blades make.” The narrative plays with the sense of sound, and how one could potentially manipulate it. Stafford expanded my notion of sound and how I typically describe it. When talking about sound, I usually say: “I hear this sound…I hear that sound,” as I’d imagine most of us do. A poet, though, looks at sound differently. A poet challenges us to taste sound, to smell sound, to touch sound, and to see sound. And that’s exactly what Stafford does in this story.
The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit
by Sylvia Plath
Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner
St. Martin’s Press, 1996
In the little town of Winkelburg, where the mountains are all capped with scoops of vanilla and where the tables are always set with tarts, Max Nix wakes each morning and wishes he had a suit. A suit to wear proudly before the grocer and the goodwives. A suit to call his own. A suit to be admired by the minister and the mayor, the tinker, and even the tailor. Such is the great dilemma for this book’s Max Nix—a seven-year-old Robin Hood look-alike and the youngest of seven sons. Like many children’s books, the premise is a simple one; however, the book’s creator is anything but.
Sylvia Plath has been getting a lot of attention these days. But, as too often is the case, it’s more about the shadows than the light—the years of mental anguish and depression, followed by her dramatic suicide at age 30. For the average kid growing up now, it’s hard to think of Plath in any way that doesn’t involve an oven. But a couple of new-ish books are attempting to change all that. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit presents a more carefree Plath; the manuscript was discovered in the years after her death, and it was first published in 1996. Another book comes from Elizabeth Winder; it’s a bit of nonfiction called Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, 1953 (Harper Collins, 2013).
My mom is reading Winder’s book right now, and she has spent the better part of her days off lately curled up in a yellow chair, reading about young Sylvia trying to make it in the Greatest Winkelburg of all – New York City. Winder’s angle is to provide a window into Plath’s life in a very specific way, by focusing on a single summer she spent with twenty other young women, serving as guest editors for Mademoiselle. This is the time in Plath’s life that would come to be loosely represented in her novel The Bell Jar—a heady cocktail of late nights and literati, a time where she would feel great insecurity in her own skin.
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.
Lost & Found
by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011
I first came across Shaun Tan’s bestselling Lost & Found when I was at The Harvard Bookstore in Boston. My co-worker’s good friend is the children’s book buyer for the store, and as we were wandering around the stacks, she playfully demanded, “You need to read this book.”
The front cover piqued my attention, grabbed my curiosity. What is that red, industrial looking machine on the cover? What kind of apocalyptic town is this story taking place? Then I flipped to the back cover. Who’s that girl carrying the metal box? Why is she surrounded in darkness? I had many questions. Luckily, the book provided answers. More than answers, Lost & Found does what great children’s literature should do: it presents challenging material to youth in a way that’s easily digestible. The book provides meditations on huge topics like depression, post colonialism, and apathy. Lost & Found is a collection of three stories: The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, and The Rabbits. The book takes these big topics and makes them easy to swallow with imagery and metaphors. In The Red Tree, dark imagery and a bleak urban landscape speak to a young girl’s depression and isolation. In The Lost Thing, a huge, red machine that’s lost in the city is paired up with a young boy, and we read into themes of displacement and friendship. In The Rabbits, a phalanx of rabbits invade a country and meditations on post colonialism arise.