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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.
My full, complete, legal name is Allison Marie Leach. My parents named me Allison because they wanted to give me a name similar to my paternal grandmother's, which is Aldora. Her name was formed in a combination of her parents' names. Her Dad's name was "Al" and her Mom's name was "Dora." Al + Dora = Aldora. My wonderful grandmother. I love this story.
Aldora's nickname, dubbed by my older sister, Mary, is Gong-Gong Strawberry. She was given this moniker because she and my Grandpa grew strawberries in their green backyard in Missouri. And Gong-Gong? Who can explain. I don't even think Mary can recall. It was a name that she invented when she was a toddler; it was a name that was easier to say than "Grandma," or perhaps she just thought it more interesting and original. I tend to think the latter.
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.”
the year when two high fives finally signify your age, a time of social reorganization, of jostling for individuality. During my teaching residency at Corbett Elementary last Spring, I was looking for a way to funnel my fourth grade students’ intense thirst for knowledge and competitive spirits into creative energy on the page. So I started hiding my lessons in guessing games. My writing groups turned into “teams.” Presentations of creative work happened during “finals.” This ekphrastic poetry lesson came from that time when I finally learned to use my students' need to engage with each other as a constructive structure for writing.
I called the lesson Poetry Riddles, and began it with a short discussion of rhyme in poetry. I asked the class to think of places in the world where they could find poetry outside of books. To their ideas, I added hip hop and riddles, which can both involve rhyme, but don’t do so as a rule (I generally veer away from teaching rhyme since I think it can constrict younger writers and leave their work feeling more basic and sing-songy than intended). I then asked the students if they wanted to play a riddle game, to which they responded with emphatic affirmatives.
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.
I was lucky enough to see and hear Seamus Heaney read before he died. Last March, at AWP in Boston, he was a keynote speaker, alongside fellow Nobel Prize-winner, Derek Walcott. I remember how witty they both were. I remember being astounded by their wisdom. I remember thinking: These two men are living legends.
Heaney was, of course, charming. Blame it on his Irish, sing-songy brogue; blame it on his happy eyes; blame it on that generous, hearty laugh. But when I think of Seamus Heaney, I think of a lullaby. After listening to the conversation and reading, I said to a friend, "I want Seamus Heaney to read me some bed time stories tonight." How lucky were his children to get lulled to sleep by that soothing voice.
This morning, after I found out that Heaney had passed, I looked up his reading on the Poetry Center's Voca archives. Heaney came to the Poetry Center on March 30, 1976, just two years after my parents graduated from high school. In the picture that was taken of him--outside of the old Poetry Center cottage--he has a curly, 70's-looking mess of thick hair. He looks sharp in dark clothing (such a poet!). He wears a dark button up long sleeved shirt, a dark blazer, dark pants, and a dark belt. And yet his expression is anything but dark; he has those same happy eyes.
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.
The poet Lucille Clifton prefaces one of her poems during a reading at the Poetry Center in 1975 with this: “I have days when I want to stay in the house all day because the world shouldn’t have to look at me.” She’s joking, of course, but her sentiment is one that I’m sure many people can identify with. Even now, as I type up this review, I’m thinking, “Jesus, I have some stocky, cottage cheese thighs.” It’s an ever circling conversation, argument that many people have with themselves. I can remember in high school and even now into my adulthood, hearing friends of mine blurt out the following about their bodies:
I hate my thin hair.
I hate my curly hair.
I hate my big thighs.
I hate my small boobs.
I hate my baby face.
I hate my hips.