Fueling Up With Poetry

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas FlorianOn the Monday morning following Easter, JP crawled into my bed with a new book and proudly announced, “Mommy, I am going to read you some poems. I have lots of favorites. Some of them are very funny. Also some of them are very weird. A few of them I don’t even understand!” And hence followed one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes that I’ve had in awhile. All thanks to J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian’s new Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Ages 5-10).

“Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees, and sleepers into dreams…Poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood.” So begins a recent online article in The Guardian about a movement among educators and publishers to bring back children’s poetry from “near extinction.” Why, if poetry is so intuitive, so enticing, for children, is it in danger of dying out? The article points a finger at booksellers, many of whom (and I admit to being guilty of this at one time) struggle with how to display and shelve a hard-to-pin-down category. Not considered picture books, not considered chapter books, they end up in their own “poetry” section way off in No Man’s Land. When was the last time you sought out the poetry shelves at your bookstore?

But I would argue that the onus is also on us parents. For many of us, there’s a bit of an unspoken stigma surrounding poetry. Like the eccentric, half-deaf great aunt that sits in the corner at Thanksgiving, we’re not quite sure what to do with her; we largely leave her be. Perhaps this is carried over from our own struggles in high school to decipher Shakespeare’s sonnets or muscle through The Faerie Queene. We just don’t feel comfortable with a genre that doesn’t lay everything out clearly. Poems are harder than stories. They require repeated readings. They require us to think moreand to think less literally. When we’re looking for that gratifying book to share with our kids at bedtime—one with a clear beginning, middle, and end tied up in a bow—how often does it occur to us that our children might be equally satisfied with a few Shel Silverstein poems chosen at random from Where the Sidewalk Ends?

Our own hesitations surrounding poetry can get in the way of giving our children what their very minds and souls crave. Sound. Language. Rhythm. Meaning. Our children are far less literal than us. They don’t see the world as a continuum of time the way we do; they see it as a series of disconnected vignettes—a series of poems, if you will—with middles that are often messy and muddy and mysterious. Our children want to work hard to make meaning; they are used to working hard. Life for a child is hard.

I’ve written before about how a toddler’s early addiction to nursery rhymes can actually facilitate her later efforts to read: nothing better prepares a child’s ear to hear and break down letter sounds than rhyme. But many educators agree that the “sweet spot” for poetry lies among the 5-12 year old set: the age of budding readers and writers, of those learning about the power of words and how to string them together to express what’s in the head or the heart. For a newly independent reader, poems can feel like a lifeboat: a digestible set of words to tackle. They can be mastered. They can be recited. JP’s teacher once told me that she credits Douglas Florian’s Insectlopedia with inspiring many of her reluctant readers to fall in love with reading. (The same teacher also read her 6-9 year old students, my son included, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I half-jokingly told her, “I’m not sure I even understand that poem!” Her response was: “And neither do they. But they can feel the power of the language, and if we read great works like this to our kids now, just think how comfortable they will be with them by the time they reach high school!”)

But back to our family’s favorite Poems du Jour, courtesy of the Easter Bunny. Each of the 21 collaborative poems comprising Poem-Mobiles is a pun-tastic description of a wacky, made-up, off-your-rocker, out-of-this-world vehicle. Given that Chris Van Dusen’s How I Built a Car is arguably my son’s favorite book of all time, it was probably only inevitable that he would fall fast for another zany combination of imagination and locomotion. There’s the “Paper Car”: “so very fine and light as air,/ A small breeze takes it anywhere.” There’s the “Caterpillar Cab,” which can metamorphosize into a butterfly to shuttle you to the moon. “The Sloppy-Floppy-Nonstop-Jalopy” (in addition to being really fun to say) sports tires made from bubblegum and an engine that fries an egg. I might have have expected JP’s favorite to be “The Supersonic Ionic Car,” but then I saw the glee on his face when he read “The Dragonwagon”:

The Dragonwagon

For all its poetic content, Poem-Mobiles masquerades as more of a picture book than a traditional poetry book—and perhaps herein likes the secret to piquing the interest of contemporary booksellers and parents alike. As masterful as Lewis and Florian are at word play, their poems are made all the zanier, all the more intriguing, by Jeremy Holmes’ illustrations. Holmes endows his sepia-toned art with splashes of digitally-composed colors of the most eerie, jarring, and beautiful varieties, a kind of cross-section of fairy tale and science fiction. I’m not suggesting we should gloss over good ol’ fashioned anthologies, whose thickly bound pages are filled with poems and only the occasional illustration or black-and-white sketch (another time, I’ll tell you about my favorites in this category). But I appreciate this new generation of poetry books—ones, like Poem-Mobiles, which “bridge the gap” between the kind of books we think we want to read to our children and the kind of books we should challenge ourselves to share with them. A book like this can and should easily reside in the prime real estate section of a bookstore: alongside the picture books. There it will find the audience is so deserves.

"The Egg Car" ("Make no mistake: there is no brake--/ You slow down with your legs./ Or else you'll crash, most likely smash,/ And sit in scrambled eggs.") And another favorite: "Hot Dog Car."

“The Egg Car” (“Make no mistake: there is no brake–/ You slow down with your legs./ Or else you’ll crash, most likely smash,/ And sit in scrambled eggs.”) And another favorite: “Hot Dog Car.”

Other Favorites That Combine Infectious Poems With Vibrant Visuals:
Hi Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth (Ages 3-8, discussed here)
National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar and Roar! edited J. Patrick Lewis (Ages 4-8)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, by Joyce Sidman (Ages 5-10)
Scranimals and The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, by Jack Prelutsky & Peter Sis (Ages 5-10)
Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, by Jack Prelutsky & Carin Berger (Ages 5-10)
Insectlopedia, UnBEElievables, Dinothesaurus, and everything else by Douglas Florian (Ages 6-12)

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