Crystal Williams

Along with April showers comes National Poetry Month! This month's selections are akin to a poetry petting zoo: Kids can get up close and personal with poems that represent everything from sound and meaning to simple rhymes to haiku. Each selection emphasizes the way words interact with each other and can be used as developmental tools.

I Heard a Little Baa, written by Elizabeth MacLeod and illustrated by Louise Phillips, is composed of nine vignettes in which sounds are explored. For example, the sound eeeeek is represented by the following rhyme: I heard a little squeak; I searched around the house. First I saw two shiny eyes, And then I saw a . . . Well, you get the picture. Very young children will find this book loads of fun, not only because the author has a great sense of humor but because each vignette has a page pull-out. The animal making the sound is hidden, and children must uncover it to find out what makes the sound. The book's bright, fun illustrations and interactive qualities practically guarantee that this small book will get a lot of use.

Similarly, Farmer Brown Goes Round and Round also explores the sounds of animals and is a personal favorite. Meant for children in the 2-5 age range, very old children (like me, for instance) will also delight in the adventures of Farmer Brown and his rowdy charges as they are thrown into a tornado. The ensuing mayhem causes his cows to oink, the pigs to moo, and his sheep to cluck. When Farmer Brown tries to shout, What's wrong with you?, the words come out, COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO! He soon finds himself taking orders from the rooster who is, ahem, demanding, to say the least. Luckily, another tornado comes to town, and that's the salvation of Farmer Brown. Teri Sloat's writing is so exuberant that children won't stop laughing. And the illustrations are superb! Nadine Bernard Westcott's characters are quirky, expressive, and unforgettable. This book is a testament to fluidity and sound.

A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes is the largest of this month's featured books, which is good because children will certainly use it for years. The book is broken into sections. Welcome, Little Baby is composed of rhymes about babies. Kady McDonald Denton has done a good job of compiling globally representative rhymes, and she includes illustrations that reflect the diversity of our world's children.

Toddler Time, the second section, contains old favorites reminiscent of parents' own childhoods, with rhymes such as Rub-a-dub-dub and Humpty Dumpty. Denton also provides a particularly useful index of titles and first lines. This book is designed to accompany your child throughout his youth, and becomes a valued friend in the process.

Following the theme of diversity, I Call It Sky is different in tone than the other poetry books featured this month. Here is a contemplative book that will introduce children to new ways of considering our natural surroundings. I Call It Sky explains to kids not only how the weather is produced, but how it affects human beings. For example, Will C. Howell has gracefully captured how rain is made: Sometimes wet air gathers in big black bunches of clouds. When the clouds get too heavy, they squeeze out rain. Howell then moves from the literal to the figurative by emphasizing that every child experiences weather, thereby pointing young readers to a more global view of the world. John Ward has captured the expansive nature of the book's subject with his broad and generous illustrations. Each grouping of pages represents whichever weather pattern is being discussed: fog looks and feels foggy; breeze looks and feels refreshing. Essentially, if your child has had questions like, Why does it rain? or What is fog? you'll find this book useful.

Isn't My Name Magical: Sister and Brother Poems written by James Berry and illustrated by Shelly Hechenberger, explores the world of Dreena and Delroy, the sister and brother poetry-writing characters. Children will read poems with titles that are (thankfully) beyond cute: Dreena's Notebook That Makes People Laugh and Delroy the Skateboard Roller, for example. Soon we learn that Dreena and Delroy live with their schoolteacher mother and train-conductor father, and enjoy a typical sister and brother relationship. Their poetry is anything but typical, however. The insightful verse makes this book a special treat for any young reader. James Berry and Shelly Hechenberger capture the essentials of personification and provide a glimpse of the beauty in normal lives while depicting those lives with vivid and robust coloration.

Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs: The Life and Poems of Issa may be the most beautifully crafted of all of these books. A combination of story and haiku translations, illustrations, and calligraphy, Cool Melons offers children a glimpse into the life of Kobayashi Yataro, otherwise known as Issa a poet American children may know little about. This resplendent story captures the joys and sorrows of Issa's life, including the loss of his mother, his seven-year walk around the Japanese countryside, the reunion with his father, the loss of his daughter, and the uniting thread of it all his love of and respect for nature. Throughout his life, Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku, several of which Gollub includes. To further add to the book's loveliness and significance, Kazuko G. Stone, a native of Japan, has created exquisite illustrations that effortlessly weave into the text. Additionally, every haiku included in the book is also written in Japanese calligraphy, creating a sophisticated story and an equally elegant presentation. If there is another book on the market which so successfully combines narrative, poetry, and art, I've not found it. Issa, I think, would be proud.

Finally, King Honor Book The Other Side: Shorter Poems is, within this grouping of books, a title best suited for older children. Angela Johnson writes clear, concise poetry about growing up in Shorter, Alabama, and includes a cast of characters both specific and universal. In her preface, Johnson says, "My poetry doesn't sing the song of the sonnets/but then I sing a different kind of music." Those words accurately foretell the experience young readers will have with these full-bodied and sassy poems. Following a clear narrative, the journey begins when Johnson's grandmother writes, "They're pullin' Shorter down." We soon discover that the small town has been steadily sold off to a large company who has plans to move out the remaining residents and move in a race track. The ensuing poems reveal that, like most people, Johnson has a complex relationship with her hometown. She writes: "You'd have to be/crazy/to want to live/your life in/a place like Shorter, Alabama . . . /You'd have to be crazy/to want/to wake/up every morning to sweet/magnolia and moist red/dirt . . . "Johnson offers contradiction and implication of loving and hating, wanting and despising, themes relevant to adolescents. The Other Side is a work of honesty, depicting a generosity of spirit. Children deserve poetry that's a fact. Gone are the days of poetry that is too complex and inaccessible for kids. In are the days of fun and exciting poetry. Thank goodness.

 

Crystal Williams is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Cornell University.

Along with April showers comes National Poetry Month! This month's selections are akin to a poetry petting zoo: Kids can get up close and personal with poems that represent everything from sound and meaning to simple rhymes to haiku. Each selection emphasizes the way words interact with each other and can be used as developmental tools.

Tiel McCoy, the gusty heroine in Sandra Brown's Standoff, is like many protagonists: smart, ambitious (perhaps overly so), quick on her feet, and faced with a seemingly unreconcilable situation. A reporter by trade, Tiel is on her way to a much-needed vacation when she is diverted by an unfolding drama. The situation holds the promise of professional advancement, if only she can scoop the other reporters who will undoubtedly be in hot pursuit. Stopping at a convenience store to pick up some snacks and call her boss, Gully, Tiel unwittingly places herself smack dab in the middle of a botched robbery by a kidnapper and his alleged victim. Now a hostage herself, Tiel must insure that the kidnap victim, the daughter of a hotheaded Texas millionaire, survives a particularly nasty situation. Sandra Brown has written an infinitely readable suspense story with characters who are funny, tragic, sexy, and calculating. There is the feisty, newlywed senior citizen couple, Gladys and Vern; a couple of Mexicans who pose more of a threat than anyone could have imagined; Donna, the blabbermouth cashier; and the very mysterious and handsome man everyone calls Doc. And those are just the characters inside the convenience store. Outside are the Texas millionaire readers will love to hate, the unusually level-headed and fair minded FBI agent, the father of the kidnapper, and Gully, who flies into town to provide support to his star reporter. The major secondary characters, though, are of most interest. With the characters of Ronnie and Sabre, Brown sets up a suspense that is not only action-based but also emotionally driven. Readers will no doubt be rooting for the pair in a way that is surprising and refreshing. Through the ordeal she endures, Tiel is forced to face her own demons, and ends up failing miserably. It is through her failures that readers will come to recognize the very real humanity in this character. The question is: Can Tiel forgives herself for these mistakes? In short, Standoff has all the elements needed for suspense: danger (literal and figurative), emotional content, love, sex, and a whopper of an ending.

Crystal Williams's first book of poetry, Kin (Michigan State University Press) debuts this month.

Tiel McCoy, the gusty heroine in Sandra Brown's Standoff, is like many protagonists: smart, ambitious (perhaps overly so), quick on her feet, and faced with a seemingly unreconcilable situation. A reporter by trade, Tiel is on her way to a much-needed vacation when she is diverted by an unfolding drama. The situation holds the promise […]

The first National Poetry Month in the new century has wrought books with great things: an eclectic mix of words, forms, and perhaps most importantly, subject matters. From collections directed at small children to anthologies for teenagers, publishers have begun to focus on young readers of poetry as a very real segment of the book-buying population.

A veritable feast of poetry, The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury sets the stage for children's poetry collections to come. Not an overly thick book (some 87 pages and 211 poems), the content is diverse, well selected, and most importantly, fun. Jack Prelutsky has done a wonderfully subtle job of editing. While there are no thematic divisions, the poems build upon one another amazingly well. Connections inferred by such clusters are inevitable and get to the root of what poetry is about. In this way, Meilo So's illustrations also work nicely. Each page is illustrated appropriately, humorously, and comprehensively; for example, a single illustration might point to five or six corresponding poems.

Similarly diverse is The Songs of Birds: Stories and Poems from Many Cultures. Indeed, this culturally rich book includes representations of Celtic and Yoruba poems, Inuit and Afghan stories, and every culture in between (well . . . just about). And while The Songs of Birds boasts more stories than it does poetry, Steve Palin's lovely illustrations make up for that difference. Beautiful birds make this a collection superbly suited to parents of children interested in our aviary companions. I actually wanted to buy some seed, a pair of binoculars, and proceed to the nearest wood. In place of that, however, the book does just fine.

It's About Dogs, written by Tony Johnson and illustrated by Ted Rand, is a homage to our canine friends and a pleasure to read. The poems range in focus and all kinds of behavior are represented: some dogs hunt, some sleep, some howl, most are just cute and have interesting stories. Included are several poems that are quite serious the death of a beloved family pet, for example and may help parents explain sensitive issues.

Poetry was once an oral art form. Another exciting addition to this year's children's poetry lineup is Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Beppe Giacobbe. Written to be read aloud by four children (yet two can also enjoy it), this book is a testament to what poetry once was and can be. The instructions on the book read: "Find three friends and get ready to boogie. . . ." Each line is color coded, and once colors are assigned, children will find themselves creating a symphony of poetry. Three distinct poems compose the book, and while there may be some hesitation and stumbling at first, children will find that poems read aloud and in unison take on a different meanings. Quite a bit of modern poetry doesn't take its history into consideration, yet Fleischman has succeeded in creating a book that is fun for children of all ages.

Ken Nordine of NPR fame and Henrik Drescher have created a wildly unique children's book: Colors. Truth be told, I'm uncertain about how to classify this book. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Is it, as the book jacket describes, word jazz? In fact, the closest approximation may be it's a bit of all of three. Each page is dedicated to a specific hue and thus, an idea. Along with primary colors are those in-between colors like olive. Others, including turquoise, magenta, and chartreuse, have earned their own pages. Nothing about this book is normal. . . I mean, mundane. The text is big, then it is small; it runs horizontally and then suddenly, vertically; some letters are big while others are small, often within the same sentence. The illustrations are a mix of collage, computer illustration, photos, graph paper, good old-fashioned drawing it's all hodgepodged together, creating great visual interest. Young children will enjoy the colors and sounds, older children will luxuriate in the content and details.

As we enter the new millennium, great strides toward diversity are everywhere: television, movies, and the like. Children's books are no different, and Someone I Like compiled by Judith Nicholls struck me as a truly diverse volume. From the Giovanni Manna's handsome illustrations to poems by Margaret Walker, Fred Sedgwick, and Eloise Greenfield, Someone I Like fulfills its goal, creating a children's book that crosses barriers and offers poetry that takes on real issues. While topics like the imperfections of our parents and the difficulties of having to adjust to new siblings are included, one of the more pleasant aspects of this book is that the poems are not cute and do not talk down to children. Each poem invites children to participate in a very substantial way. Instead of spelling everything out, the child has the opportunity to consider his own life in conjunction with the poem. At the same time, however, the poems are not too advanced for early readers. This book makes a wise assumption: children are intelligent and will take from each poem what they can. Some children will delight in the sounds of the poems, some in the content, and others will find joy in both.

Finally, older children can enjoy poetry as much as younger ones, especially if written by their peers. Movin': Teen Poets Take Voice, edited by Dave Johnson is a short anthology of poetry written by teenagers who attended one of several poetry workshops sponsored by Poets House and The New York Public Library. In his forward, Johnson writes that he hopes . . . Movin' will inspire young writers and the communities in which they live to launch their own poetry workshops and readings and make their own publication happen. In fact, the voices in Movin' are similar to the voices of poets all over the country. Dealing with teen-specific issues, their voices rise in chorus, attacking loneliness, emotional and physical alienation, and fear. Readers will be struck with how these young people grapple to reconcile the often irreconcilable realities of adolescence. A testament to Johnson's editing is the fact that these poems are largely internal narratives, pushing and pulling the reader through a terrain that is not so distant.

Children who read poetry regularly feel more comfortable with language, and a child who is comfortable with language develops stronger reading and thinking skills. Kudos to the publishers for offering entertaining collections that children of all ages will enjoy!

Crystal Williams's first book of poetry, Kin (Michigan State University Press) debuts next month.

The first National Poetry Month in the new century has wrought books with great things: an eclectic mix of words, forms, and perhaps most importantly, subject matters. From collections directed at small children to anthologies for teenagers, publishers have begun to focus on young readers of poetry as a very real segment of the book-buying […]

In his introduction, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, how deeply moving and poignant it is to think of what gave rise to Fly, Eagle, Fly! (ages 5-9) it was written for [author Gregorowski's] dying child. Indeed, this adapted African fable is a hopeful and stirring tale.

The story begins when a farmer happens upon an eagle chick blown from its nest by the winds of a great storm. The well-intentioned farmer rescues the chick and raises it as a chicken.

Villagers watch in amusement as the maturing eagle continues to behave as a chicken. When a visiting friend sees the confined eagle, he is determined to set it free. Unaware that it is confined, the eagle doesn't know something more is waiting beyond the farm; in short, the eagle doesn't know it can fly.

After two failed attempts, the farmer and his friend take the eagle to a distant mountaintop. As the sun rises, the friend instructs the eagle, You belong not to the earth, but to the sky. Fly, Eagle, Fly! and with that, the eagle fulfills its destiny.

Illustrator Niki Daly, who dedicates the book to the children of South Africa, uses watercolors that are broad, sweeping, and very detailed. Full of browns, greens, and oranges, the book feels earthy and warm. And, while the story itself describes few, if any, daily village activities, Daly's illustrations are sufficiently explicit, and children will gain a rudimentary sense of some traditional African architectural structures, textiles, and geography. Further, the illustrations represent present-day Africa, where people wear contemporary clothing as well as traditional African garb. In this sense, Fly, Eagle, Fly! points to the fable's timelessness.

This is a tale of spirit and hope, and Desmond Tutu acknowledges its spiritual significance. Fly, Eagle, Fly! is an ever-expanding tale; so rich and dense are its metaphors that there is no single way to read this story. I was particularly moved by the story's implication that if we acknowledge what's in our hearts, we can fulfill our destiny.

Crystal Williams is a poet, and her first book, Kin (Michigan University Press), will be available this spring.

In his introduction, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, how deeply moving and poignant it is to think of what gave rise to Fly, Eagle, Fly! (ages 5-9) it was written for [author Gregorowski's] dying child. Indeed, this adapted African fable is a hopeful and stirring tale. The story begins when a farmer happens upon an eagle […]

Anyone who has followed the sleuthing of Kinsey Millhone won't be surprised to hear that Sue Grafton, in this 15th installment of what many people call the Alphabet Murder series, has been successful again. What will surprise readers is the journey into Kinsey Millhone's past, something that until now, Grafton has withheld (well, save for some tidbits here and there). In fact, O Is for Outlaw is solely about Kinsey's past. And because it is, readers are treated to aspects of Kinsey's personality that make the character more real, more fallible, infinitely more interesting. The book begins when a shifty character contacts Millhone claiming to have a box full of Millhone's personal documents. This event pulls Kinsey into a web of intrigue that forces her to confront some very real demons, some her own making, some the making of others. Thus, Millhone reassesses choices she made regarding her ex-husband and their marriage and sets out to right wrongs before it's too late. In sum: She's on the case, tracking a 20-year-old murder, navigating the very tricky path of memory, while, at the same time, trying to come to grips with choices she made long ago. One of the reasons O Is for Outlaw is so intriguing has less to do with the actual mystery and everything to do with Kinsey Millhone's moral dilemma and it's a doozy of a dilemma. In the interim, readers are treated to Grafton's expert storytelling abilities, coupled with her subtle sense of humor. Kinsey is still funny, quick-witted, and charmingly self-reflective. It's Kinsey's honesty that makes her so endearing.

This isn't the normal whodunit. Rather, this book is about the wonderful details of Kinsey's former life. Grafton has opened a new door, but what next? O Is for Outlaw makes you want more: more Kinsey, more information, more mysteries being solved by this tough cookie, who isn't as tough as she thinks.

Anyone who has followed the sleuthing of Kinsey Millhone won't be surprised to hear that Sue Grafton, in this 15th installment of what many people call the Alphabet Murder series, has been successful again. What will surprise readers is the journey into Kinsey Millhone's past, something that until now, Grafton has withheld (well, save for […]

Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a European-American man, has gathered the thoughts of over 40 mixed-race young people to create an empowering tool with something to say about navigating the racial waters of contemporary American culture. The complexities of being a multi-racial person in contemporary America are eloquently and fairly discussed in poetry, essays, and interviews.

What Are You? is divided into eight major sections (Are You This? Are You That?, Check One Box, Who's That White Lady?, Sticks and Stones, My So-Called Identity, Are You Dating Me or My Hair?, Double Breed, and Resources). Some issues will not be new to readers. In Check One Box, for example, contributors discuss their concerns over being labeled, both officially and informally. Questions such as "If a child is of black and Asian parentage, do they call themselves Black or Asian?" are continually being addressed by the larger society.

Readers may not find such topics as powerful as Are You Dating Me or My Hair?, in which contributors discuss the stereotypes and racially based expectations placed on them in their most intimate relationships. For example, 20-year-old Monina Diaz, who is of African-American and Puerto Rican heritage, says, ". . . unless I marry a Black or Puerto Rican man, there will always be tensions and pressures from society or just issues of not understanding each other." It is this kind of honesty that makes What Are You? a valuable tool hard questions are being asked and answered.

Even more admirable is the comprehensive list of advocacy groups, books, magazines, videos, and organizations listed, which young people can use to empower themselves. Additionally, Gaskins has included photographs of most contributors, which adds to the value of What Are You?

For young people constantly having to navigate the often cruel waters of race ethnicity in America, knowing that there are other people in the world who are not only asking difficult questions of themselves, their peers, and their elders, but who also have physical similarities, will no doubt be invaluable.

Crystal Williams is a poet pursuing her MFA at Cornell.

Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a European-American man, has gathered the thoughts of over 40 mixed-race young people to create an empowering tool with something to say about navigating the racial waters of contemporary American culture. The complexities of being a multi-racial person in contemporary America are eloquently and fairly […]

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