Poetry to Re-Frame Our World
April 28, 2022 § 2 Comments
You didn’t actually think I’d let National Poetry Month go without loving on a few new poetry books, did you? Now wait. I know poetry scares some of us—or scares our kids—but, like with everything from green vegetables to voting, early and often are the keys to success. National Poetry Month will always be a great excuse to infuse our shelves with a new title or three—and maybe re-visit a few that have been languishing. Getting kids comfortable around poetry means deepening their relationship with language, especially figurative language, which will carry them far in any creative pursuit, not to mention the non-linear thinking increasingly rewarded in business.
My greatest parenting win around the subject of poetry remains the year we read a poem from this gorgeous anthology every morning over breakfast. I heartily recommend forgoing conversation for poetry in the mornings! (I hear caffeine’s good, too.) When a new title came out in this same series last fall, I had high hopes we’d rekindle this ritual, but with my teen out the door so much earlier than his sister, this hasn’t happened.
So, consider today’s post as much about my own need to recommit to poetry—something my kids rarely gravitate towards without a nudge—as about inspiring you to do the same. In that vein, I’ve got two vastly different new poetry picture books: one for the preschool crowd and the other for elementary kids. The first is an absolute delight to read aloud, while the second is perhaps better left for independent readers to contemplate privately.
Take Off Your Brave: The World Through the Eyes of a Preschool Poet (Ages 3-6) is a collection of poems written by an actual four-year-old boy named Nadim, using his Mom as a “dictaphone.” Talk about making poetry feel accessible to kids! Here, Nadim gives us a window into the way he sees the world: his dream school, his best things, his “scared-sugar” feelings. Each poem is playfully brought to life by award-winning illustrator, Yasmeen Ismail.
Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek’s Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech (Ages 8-12, though adults will love this, too) is one of the most simultaneously quirky and powerful poetry collections I’ve encountered, a look at what happens when we unleash our imaginations on the natural elements around us. And it’s as much an art book as a poetry book! Artist Richard Jones is already getting Caldecott buzz for his gorgeous, full-bleed illustrations that accompany each of the 28 poems.
Both of these special books speak to the magic of poetry: the way it enables us to process the creative, off-kilter, silly, sometimes contradictory ways we see or experience the world. For as many hang-ups as we have around poetry—its perceived obtuseness, its relegation to the realm of intellectuals—these books remind us that poetry is as simple as conjuring a moment and penning it in a non-traditional way. These poems celebrate the poets in all of us.
Let’s take a closer look at each book.
Take Off Your Brave is a triumphant reminder that young children are perfectly poised to be poets, naturally at home in that space between the literal and figurative. Nadim’s optimistic view of the world, the way he meets it with an open heart, spills out of his poems, one of which tells us that “Everyone has love/ Even baddies,” and another that “Wednesday is rainbow-colored.”
You always have sad moments
And when you smush those moments together
They make a great feeling
In “My Dream School,” Nadim matter-of-factly describes a school where, “All the kids turn into kittens/ when they get into the dream school./ There will be no bullies/ And the teachers are all friendly dinosaurs/ And all they do is chat chat chat/ with anyone they want.” Some of the poems are co-authored with Nadim’s older sister, while a few others are written by his entire class—his real class, not his dream-school-kitten class—which furthers the sense of community in the book.
The title poem, “Take Off Your Brave,” is my favorite, an ode to the literal and figurative things a child removes when they walk through the door. In addition to shrugging off jackets, gloves, and shoes:
You take off your brave feeling
Because there’s nothing
To be scared of in the house:
No dark caves no monsters
No witches no bees no howling sounds
You don’t need your brave anymore
Wash your hands
Go get cozy.
(Thanks, Nadim, I think I will.)
Targeted at an older audience, Marshmallow Clouds boasts more nuanced poems, divided into four sections to represent the elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These aren’t so much nature poems as poems about nature, or everyday life, as transformed by our imagination. If you can breeze through the poems in Take Off Your Brave, the poems in Marshmallow Clouds require time, ripening with revisiting. In fact, many of the poems themselves ask questions, or flirt with uncertainty, as if they were born from the narrators’ own contemplative study of the world, however sometimes silly. As a boy lies on his back in a springtime field, he wonders how it happens that the sky is sometimes covered by wispy white cobwebs.
[…] How did it come to this?
Hundreds of people with time on their hands
and not one broom in the air!
A current of playfulness runs through many of the poems, as meteor showers are likened to cat scratches in the sky, tadpoles to lively punctuation, a barred owl to “somebody shuffling along in his slippers.” Perhaps the most playful—one I can’t resist citing part of here, for obvious reasons—is “Book”:
Oh, sandwich delicious, my book!
The folded pita of your covers,
a layer of mayo your table of contents,
a few words of mustard introducing
the chewy salami of history, complete
with its peppercorn footnotes,
and then there’s the ripe, stinky cheese
of your author’s conclusions!
Others strike a more serious, occasionally somber tone, addressing things like nightmares or winter solitude. One titled “Sleep” gave me chills with its beauty:
Each hour of sleep is an hour of healing.
Some of us can hardly wait to sleep
and grow taller. Others don’t trust
themselves to the night, no matter
that the stars have never
done them any harm, nor the owl
in the oak tree. For some it’s as though
dreams won’t let them go. They are afraid
to climb on this silent raft of moonlight.
I can’t imagine a better introduction to figurative language than reading about barns with “patched-up underwear of rotten boards,” or a dawn that comes in with “ribbons of light like crime-scene tape,” revealing evidence left behind by the night. Or, a fireplace fire that howls “like a happy wolf pup” but, lacking a stomach, is “never full, never satisfied./ That’s why, no matter how it begs,/ we must never set it free.”
Whenever I explore poetry with my kids, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy it as well. At a time when we are looking for opportunities to practice mindfulness, to slow down and sharpen our senses, it strikes me that poetry has much to teach us about how to relish a moment.
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