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Written by Mark Reibstein
Illustrated by Ed Young
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008
A children’s story such as Wabi Sabi, might come across to readers as too philosophical for a child to understand. That is far from the truth. The book speaks quietly and deftly about how children often perceive reality. Children are more curious about deeper questions about life than adults realize. The author makes this clear through the musings of a Japanese cat named Wabi Sabi. She is on a mission, which is to discover the meaning of her name. She asks a dog and another cat. No luck. On the recommendation of a bird, she decides to travel to Mount Hiei to ask Kosho, a wise monkey. However, the monkey simply says, “Simple things are beautiful.” The cat goes home, not unhappy, but at peace with a name she simply is blessed to have in all its simplicity. But before she goes home, she spots a temple, and realizes that beautiful things do not have to be “grand” and “fancy.” Children exploring the meaning of their name will find joy and pleasure in the cat doing the same. I was happily lost in the quiet path of haikus that trail along the pages of the story, and with the astonishing art work representing trees, ponds, and mountains that makes up the landscape of Japan. It made me think of my own name and made me wonder, “What does it mean?” Toward the end of the book, Wabi Sabi is moved enough by his simple name to write these beautiful haikus that weave together into a beautiful poem after he sees the simple beauty of a palace:
In the introduction to Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experience Travelers, she writes about her first encounter with William Blake's poetry:
"I was seven and starting my second week in bed with the measles when I made the acquaintance of William Blake. 'Tell me a story about lions and tigers,' I said to the babysitter...Miss Pratt, the sitter...began:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Two days later, Willard's babysitter anonymously sent her Blake's Songs of Innoncence and Songs of Experience with the following inscription:
Poetry is the best medicine.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
Written and Illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
Sunburst Books, 2004
The story opens with a familiar bleakness, the kind that one often finds in winter, before the snow falls:
"The skies are gray.
The rooftops are gray.
The whole city is gray."
But, then, some hope:
"Then one snowflake."
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Raul Colon
Dragonfly Books, 2010
Doña Flor is the story of a giant-sized woman who could. Who could do anything. As a child, Flor's size often made her the brunt of jokes. But, as she gets older, the people of her village come to respect her. Doña Flor is a beautifully poetic story of courage and generosity, of looking at one's weaknesses and seeing how they can become one's strengths. In Doña Flor's case, it is her gargantum size. She takes her ginormousness and plays it up as a strength to help the people of her pueblo. Flor, an expert tortilla maker, makes tortillas for her pueblo's peeps. And they find other uses for the huge ones: "People used the extra ones as roofs. Mmmm, the houses smelled corn-good when the sun was hot. In the summer, the children floated around the pond on tortilla rafts." But her biggest claim to fame is saving her pueblo from the wild mountain lion who roars loudly, wildly around town.
The poems in Mites to Mastodons, from Pulitzer Prize winner Maxine Kumin, are seriousness about play. The language and the rhythms found in each one are fun and original and dance off the page with delight. One of my favorite poems, about an owl, reminds me of a story I once heard from a friend who told me that, when owls hoot at night, their call sounds like they're saying, "Who cooks for you?" So, as you can imagine, I was smitten when I came across this poem:
My favorite barred owl, who lives in the woods
nearby, wakes me, hooting, "Who cooks for you-u-u?"
And if I could hoot I'd answer, "I do-oo-oo
but I wish you could, you could, you could."
Two weeks ago, Borton Magnet School had a special visit from author Kate Bernheimer as part of the Poetry Center’s Matinee series that brings local writers into area schools. The students had been waiting for her visit, prepping by reading and writing poetry based on Bernheimer’s books for the past month. The students came with a list of questions for Bernheimer including “Where do you write?” “Do you make the pictures?” “Where do you get your ideas?” “Who is Xia?” Bernheimer answered their questions and read to them from a class favorite, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. Together, the Aloha and Earth rooms discussed the process of making the story with its author, who told them that she had gotten to read their class poems before coming to visit.
The Desert Is Theirs
Written by Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall
It's hard to write a thematic reading list about the desert without including a handful of Byrd Baylor books. And who better than Byrd Baylor--a resident of both Tucson and Arivaca--to describe firsthand the sights and sounds of the desert. The Desert Is Theirs is the perfect book to get this reading list started. The book opens with poetic text, describing what the desert is not:
Written by e.e. cummings
Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1989
If all-hallow's-eve could be summed up in two syllables, it would be e.e. cumming’s hist whist. Accompanied by taut illlustrations from Deborah Kogan Ray, this reinterpretation delivers a mouthful that we’ll be chewing on for some time.
The book is one of the most sensory works of art that I’ve come across in a while, and it’s also the most simplistic. It takes us through a cast of some of Halloween’s greatest: ghosts, witches with warts, toads, mice, and, to top it all off, devils. In that sense, it’s traditional in its subject, but there is nothing traditional about e.e. cumming’s approach. The writing is quick and playful, especially with its cadence, rhyme, and onomatopoeia, as in the following: “histwhist/ little ghostthings / tip-toe / twinkle-toe.” You have to see it on the page to fully appreciate the affect. It’s skintight. It’s an image of three ghosts in bed sheets hovering over a moonscape of blue, one with a bright, yellow circle of light. Minimalistic in both language and imagery, it strikes a sort of primeval cord that’s the basis of fear and really the basis of Halloween.
Written by Lewis Carroll
Illustrated by Graeme Base
Harry N. Abrams, 1989
Graeme Base's take on this classic poem is eye-poppingly good. His pop-up book rendition of Jabberwocky fire-breathes new life into the old tale. The paper cut-out are layered three times, each time with new imagery and scene. This triple-imagery creates not only more complex imagery, but also more layering to the poem, as it were. Base's vision of the Jabberwocky seems more absurd than scary, but, seeing as this is a children's book, that's probably a good idea. That said, with bulging eyes and a huge orange beak, with sharp white fangs and repitalian claws, Base does in fact create a monster. But alas: we forgot the language! I forgot how lively and interesting, how sound based and folly based is his language. It's a treat for the ears:
'Twas briilig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were teh borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The fruminous Bandersnatch!"
What happened to the pint-sized pig who ran across a sleeping cat?
How does a baby t-rex feel about his condensed version of Alice in Wonderland?
What does a mini panda bear scaling a California orange have to do with poetry?
This week, as part of the Poetry Center’s Matinee series that brings writers to local schools, I had the opportunity to visit Borton Elementary, (thanks to teachers Kathleen Edgars and Caroline Castrillo Pinto who hosted the residency), where the tiny characters pictured above got to mingle with a group of first grade students who jumped head first into writing activities inspired by the work of Kate Bernheimer.
The tiny creatures here were part of a lesson plan that I developed with the help of my colleagues at the Poetry Center. The lesson was one focused on entering into the perspective of something minuscule through writing. One that mirrored some of the motifs found in Bernheimer's children's stories.