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Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a
By Megan McDonald
Illustrated by Vera Rosenberry
Set in India, amidst the monsoon rains, not so unlike Tucson, Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a is a beautifully poetic and rhythmic lullaby. The language is meant to be sung, to lull youngins to bed. I couldn’t help thinking, in a sentimental way, that this is the kind of story that I’d love to read to my own kids one day. The story is full of onomatopoeia, with the sounds of a wise man saying, “pani, pani,” the sounds of the sun-yellow baby bird singing, “Chiri-ya! Chiri-ya!” and the sounds of a mother rocking her choti ladki to sleep with “Baya, baby, lulla-by-a.” The story is also filled with great similes and metaphors: “She sings to you morning after morning, like a sleepy cricket. Kira, kira. Your heart answers, a small drum. Dholak, dholak.” One page dazzles in alliteration: “Baya bird flits, flutters, flies among leafy shadows. Collects green grasses, weaves a nest swishhh swishhh, strand by strand by willowy strand.”
by Alice Schertle
Illustrated by Petra Mathers
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2009
Button Up! opens with a question on the inside flap of the book jacket cover: “Do the clothes in your closet have a life all their own?” Through poetry, this book aims to answer those questions. Each piece of clothing, each shoe, each pair of underwear is linked to one child, usually in some alliterative sense:
--Violet’s Hiking Hat
--The Song of Harvey’s Galoshes
--Bob’s Bicycle Helmet
I came to this thinking while researching the work of teaching artist Tony Blackhawk, who uses abstract art like that of Cy Twombly to lead his students in loose ekphrastic writing exercises. In “Third Mind,” Blackhawk quotes Nancy Gorrell, who used Ekphrastic writing to help students learn about history by “entering” into another perspective. In my own practice, I’ve asked students to write from the perspective of an object in a painting, or from the position of the artist creating it. I’ve found that this practice in “entering” from a different angle seems to offer students an open-mindedness and explorative quality in a creative space that then leaks into the larger world.
This reading list is about entering that very practice—one of stepping into another perspective, and inhabiting the life of an “other” by peeking into their daily life, and seeing where you relate. I’m of the opinion that empathy is one of the most important skills an artist can develop—it’s useful across genres and mediums—and that it’s also a significant life skill. Oftentimes, it’s through the eyes of others—a flowerpot, a three-legged dog, the kid with roller skates—that we first begin to understand the world, and more fully engage with it ourselves.
Crazy to be Alive in such a strange World: Poems About People
selected by Nancy Larrick
This is a collection celebrating the details of individual, unique personalities. The collection’s titles reflect the variety of voices contained in one small volume (“Hey, this little kid gets roller skates.” “Well son, I’ll tell you.”), and its accompanying photographs provide the poetic portraits with a visual accompaniment of faces across generations and cultural backgrounds.
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.
Local artist Sid Henderson has been making quite the splash at the Poetry Center these days. The mural that he's creating in the Children's Corner is just about finished! Come on by to watch Sid in action, creating the mural, before he finishes up in the next week or so. One last thing: if you look at the black, rock geodes close enough, you'll notice that there a few poems, written in white chalk, on the rocks. When the mural is completed, the public will be able to come on in and write poems on these rocks, which are made of chalkboard paint. Pretty sweet, huh?
Last Spring, we asked folks at Family Days and at the Tucson Festival of Books to type up poems on our typewriters. One of the prompts we asked them was this: "Write about noises you have heard." Here are some of their amazing poems, in response to this question. Check them out, and then write a poem of your own!
Noises I Have Heard
I have heard the organ
Heliocopters at dawn
I have heard the singing of the birds, and the wind in the willows
I have heard dogs barking in the desert sun
I have heard the birds who sing in the morning
I heard my dog bark in the morning
I have heard the musicians in the heat, in the heart
I have heard the sweet sound of babies breathing
I have heard a beautiful hummingbird in the morning
I have heard the owls sing at ducks, I mean dusk
I have heard things I love and they sound like the wind
and I have heard things I hate and they sound like angry whispers
and still I am grateful I can hear the wind and the whispers
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.