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Jul/Aug 2009 Reviews & Interviews

Poetry Collections for Kids and Teens

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! In 1973 Alan Aldridge had a stupendous bestseller (and Whitbread award winner) with The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast. With stunning full color illustrations and delightful poems (based on an 1807 poem by William Roscoe), Butterfly Ball was a beautiful book. In an new edition of the book, Oliver Craske explains how Aldridge came to discover Roscoe's work and further, how after creating illustrations he then met poet William Plomer, who updated the poems. Templar Books also enlisted wildlife expert Richard Ritter to write pages of nature notes on the animals involved as a nice conclusion to the fantasy. This new 2009 incarnation of Butterfly Ball is a stunner—it returns a classic for a whole new generation of readers and really, if you haven't seen how gorgeous this book is then you are missing something special. Honestly, as fabulous as the dust jacket is, I was blown away by the equally colorful cover underneath. Every page is a surprise and the story will be equally welcome to fairy lovers and animal fans.

The poems are about various animals responding to invitations to the annual Butterfly Ball and Grasshopper's Feast. The invitees range from the cute to the dashing and sometimes dangerous. There is a mouse who's a financier, an ant dressed as brave knight on his faithful stag beetle steed and a wealthy spider (from the silk market) of course) who is concerned with making her best appearance. Not a single creature is the same as the last, all are written and drawn with distinct and unique personalities. The colors and rhymes pop equally off the page, making it both a visual and auditory feast for nonreaders. As children grow up this will become a treasured favorite and for adults the slightest bit interested in illustration it is a textbook plain and simple. Many many times I have been fooled by a catalog presentation but The Butterfly Ball proved to be more than I expected. Treat yourself to a classic that deserves the term and buy this book.

The Cuckoo's Haiku is an unusual blend of art and poetry that strives not just to collect a series of poems on a single subject (haiku in this case) but to present them in a manner that blends two genres. Michael Rosen's poems are combined with Stan Fellows' illustrations to create a field notebook on birds that is lyrical and informative. The text goes beyond the beautiful to provide descriptions of each subject: their appearance, their song, their habitat. While the haikus create mood, the text provides fact and the illustrations, which complement both aspects of Rosen's work, are the sort of quickly constructed watercolors that a bird artist would create for a notebook—the sort of drawings done on the fly. It's delightfully odd and mature and it works for bird lovers of all ages. In fact, when I first read this book I wondered why it hadn't been published as some sort of gift book for adult birdwatchers, which might be a far more lucrative market than children. But then I thought about it and considered that perhaps Rosen and Fellows are aiming for the birdwatchers of tomorrow—the ones who are just now starting to appreciate the wonder of ornithology and are not slaves to a life list that is more about checking off species than contemplating ducks on a pond. The Cuckoo's Haiku is perhaps the best first field notebook for kids; the one to usher them into a lifelong appreciation of the animal and what it can inspire—both in art and words. It might even make a naturalist or two into a poet, or, just as cool—vice versa.

I've been meaning to write about Charles R. Smith's dazzling Twelve Rounds to Glory for quite some time now. The book came out two years ago and I promptly fell madly in love with it. Part of my reaction was visceral as this was such a successfully creative approach to a true American icon: Muhammad Ali. He is one of the most written about figures in modern culture yet by splitting the story of Ali's life into twelve long poems (the "twelve rounds" of the title) Smith has put his own mark on the boxer and written a wonderful biography that should stand out for fans of any age.

Each and every one of Smith's poems is a stunner, and coupled with Bryan Collier's oversized bold paintings it's almost an overwhelming read. Larger fonts are used to shout out certain quotes or to emphasize sounds and add to the intensity of the spreads. But mostly this title is about a perfect marriage of words and pictures to subject and the elegant way in which Smith and Collier accomplished this beautiful book will deeply impress anyone who reads it.

Trust me—if you are looking for the book for a child between the ages of eight and eighteen who has the slightest interest in Ali, then you must buy this book. Consider this brief passage about Ali (then Cassius Clay) returning from a gold medal fight in the Rome Olympics:

But the welcome was short
because away from the sport
the country you fought for still
put people, like laundry,
in two separate piles,
and forced you, a black man, to deal
with hate-filled words
spit into your ear,
like, "I don't care who you are,
boy; get out of here!"

From there Smith covers Ali's fight with Sonny Liston and then his battle against serving in Vietnam, and his fight with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier and George Foreman. It's all here just as Ali lived it but in the work of Smith and Collier it is the epic it should be—it is a life of great literature and high art and a true joy to read.

Tell the World is a collection of poetry written by teenagers who participated in the WritersCorps workshops. It is, as you would expect, full of raw emotion that is sometimes harshly brutal and at others sweetly tender. The full gamut of subjects is here, and various poems will speak to different readers as their own personal experience touches on those of the writers. I was struck again and again while reading by so many ringing moments in lines like "I am history's child/ the wind over the Island of Cuba" by Dainiel Jimenez or "I am a young male red apple/ feeding humanity/ an African of Moroccan blood/ fishing for the fourth language" by Abdessalam Mansori.

WritersCorps teacher Michelle Matz has an excellent essay "They Come From" describing her students, in locations and textures and tastes, that conjures a map of poetry. "I teach them vocabulary, explain metaphor, correct grammar. They tell me their stories." Nineteen year old Robin Black writes in her poem, "I can't give you that poem, the one about/ the electric chair that washes up on the beach/ the one that people misunderstand and/ conclude that it's about overthrowing the government" and twelve year old Kionna McCurdy writes, "Poetry should be like a piece of sweet-potato pie/ It should taste like broccoli with cheese and butter/ It should sound like you really mean it." Turn the page and there is another poem to rock your world, another to remind you that teenagers are smart and brave and powerful, another to wipe away all those misconceptions we think live behind their faces.

"When I grow up, I want to remember/ how much I loved to tie my short hair/ with a beautiful ribbon," writers Yan Jun Xu and Alma Garcia hears that call and writes, "Anger is like breaking/ all the plates/ and ripping out/the windows... Poetry is like seeing/ the whole world." I had Shakespeare when I was in high school and Yeats and Keats and Shelley and so many other dead white men who are worthy of all their accolades, but not anyone I wanted to spend time with. I didn't think I knew everything but I thought I knew something. Tell the World honors that truth about teenagers and invites all of them to be part of something bigger than English class, bigger than what someone else decided they are supposed to learn.

The dead white guys are great, honest; I just wish I had a chance to spend some time with a poet who actually understood my world when I was fifteen. Lucky kids of today, they can spend time with a whole book full of them.

 

The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper Feast
By Alan Aldridge and William Plomer
Templar/Candlewick 2009
ISBN 0-7636-4422-2
96 pages

The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems
By Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Stan Fellows
Candlewick 2009
ISBN 978-0-7636-3049-2

Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali
By Charles R. Smith
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Candlewick Press 2007
ISBN 0-7636-1692-2
80 pages

Tell the World
Harper Teen 2008
ISBN 0-06-134504-3
116 pages

 

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