Perhaps no other genre has the power of poetry. With the ability to get at the heart of the most common or complex ideas and examine them anew, the form offers something for every youngster, from the fledgling reader to the reflective teenager. April National Poetry Month is the perfect time to acquaint children with the pleasures of verse.
Jack Prelutsky, the high king of humorous rhyming poetry, has written a hilarious new volume called The Frogs Wore Red Suspenders. Accompanied by wonderful illustrations from Petra Mathers, these verses are about people and places from all over the United States. The poems range from the amusing title piece to the historic "In the Heart of South Dakota." Short, readable and easily memorized, they are sure to amuse the youngest readers. Prelutsky's signature rhythmic cadence is a favorite with kids, and this book will not disappoint his fans.
Better read with the eyes than heard with the ears, Outside the Lines: Poetry at Play is a collection of concrete poems written by Brad Burg and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. For the uninitiated, concrete poems are those that have a shape and a feeling of motion. The words in "Swing" follow the trajectory of a swinging child's feet. The words of some poems, like "Kites," start at the bottom of the page and soar to the top. "Soccer" is made up of words connected by dots that follow the trail of a soccer ball to an exuberant "GOAL!" Surely this is one time when the author and illustrator worked closely together. Concrete poems may be new to many adults, but the playful discipline they require is a lot of fun for children.
Alison Jay and J. Patrick Lewis team up in A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme, a book of intriguing illustrations and whimsical poems that celebrate geography. Jay's ingenious visuals oil paintings that appear to be overlaid with cracking varnish charmingly complement the varied verses. The collection includes concrete poems and explores many other forms as well, including the acrostic, a child-pleasing poetic trick in which the first letter of each line forms a word or phrase. For instance, the first letters of the lines of the poem "Christopher Columbus" actually form the words "Santa Maria." Young readers will enjoy the volume's riddles and may be inspired to write some of their own.
The simple elegance of haiku makes it a pleasure to read, and Miriam Chaikin has put together a lovely introduction to this ancient form in Don't Step on the Sky: A Handful of Haiku. The subject matter is typical of the form a celebration of the natural world but this is the natural world of young children. Chaikin deviates from the strict rules of haiku we learned in high school, and the freedom she demonstrates in her verse reflects the wildness of her subject. Capturing the curiosity of a child, she writes, "A blade of grass/pushes through the cement/Hello, world." Hiroe Nakata's nearly translucent watercolor illustrations have a naive style that is the perfect accompaniment to this marvelous helping of haiku.
More serious and reflective are the poems of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her newest volume, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, is a collection of poems for young people that focuses on one of the world's most troubled areas. Adults may be familiar with Nye's passionate voice from her visits to A Prairie Home Companion or her various volumes of poetry. Now young readers can experience her clear, heartfelt words in this slim, accessible volume. Nye's introduction to the book is a new poem entitled "Flinn, On the Bus." It begins, "Three hours after the buildings fell,/he took a seat beside me./Fresh out of prison, after 24 months,/you're my first hello!" Nye goes on to chronicle, in painful, careful free verse, the story of an ex-con who does not yet know of the events of September 11. She ends, "He'd find out/soon enough. Flinn, take it easy./Peace is rough." Most of these poems have been published in other volumes and journals, and most were written well before the events discussed in Nye's introduction. Perhaps that is why they are doubly powerful. Though high school students and adults might best appreciate her verse, this is a powerful, thought-provoking volume for all.