Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spring Boy Book Extravaganza

Okay, so girls are welcome to read them. I'm a girl, and I did! But, with one possible exception, these books seem squarely aimed at boy readers. In order from youngest to oldest target audience, I give you: the Guys.

The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless by Allan Woodrow, illustrated by Aaron Blecha

Horrid Henry meets Greg Heffley in this new series about a boy who wants to be evil, but only sort of evil, when it comes right down to it.
"Bwa-ha-ha!" he cackled. Zachary knew every self-respecting rotten evildoer needs a gleeful, evil cackle. But although he practiced almost every day, his cackle needed work. It sounded like a hyena with the hiccups.
Zachary continued walking past the two-story houses along his street, and then turned into Plentyville's small downtown. He read the sign on the side of the road: Plentyville, Where Plenty of Good things Happen!
Zachary knew plenty of bad things also happened in Plentyville.
In fact, he made sure of it.

Zachary's aspirations to evil range from the grandiose—"Alter the gravity of the earth so it crashes into Pluto"—to the mundane—putting snakes in people's mailboxes. And because he's such a sweet-looking boy, who blinks a lot, no one suspects him of wrongdoing, ever. I got a little tired of the recurring joke about the blinking, but I did not get tired of the joke about Zachary and other citizens yearning to qualify for entrance to a secret society of villains. And then there's Amanda Goodbar, Zachary's opposite number, a girl who looks like trouble and so gets blamed for Zachary's pranks. ("'You can't fool me with your blinking eyes,' said Amanda. 'I'm onto you.'") But my favorite character is Zachary's new henchman, Newt, who concedes that he would be willing to stop liking puppies in order to hang out with our budding supervillain.

Zachary is not happy to discover other aspirants for membership in SOURBALLS (Society of Utterly Rotten, Beastly, and Loathsome Lawbreaking Scoundrels). In his attempts to eliminate the competition, Zachary might just accidentally do something good!

This tongue-in-cheek offering reminds me a little of Mark Walden's H.I.V.E. books, but it's a shorter, easier read, apparently aimed at younger or reluctant middle grade readers, say, boys ages 8 to 10. Zachary's desire to walk on the bad side is tempered by absurdity and a lack of real malice. The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is not a character-driven book, but I will say that at heart, this boy seems to be mostly a bored daydreamer. I think kids will enjoy watching his interplay with Newt, not to mention his success in filling a giant inflatable fish with mustard.

Try pairing this book with How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible. (See my review here.)

Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger

Angleberger is the guy who wrote a whole book about a fortune-telling origami Yoda, so it probably won't surprise you when I tell you the full title of his latest: Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset.

The story begins with Lady Luggertuck unexpectedly asking her maid to tie her corset a little less tightly. She's never done that before, and the household practically falls into chaos as a result. As the back jacket copy puts it: "Shelves go undusted! Cake is eaten! Lunch is lukewarm!"

Then a family heirloom disappears, and the servants naturally get the blame. But Horton and his friends, the stable boys, who sound like a slightly objectionable law firm (Blight, Blemish, and Bump), are determined to discover the real thief. Along the way, Horton falls hard for a girl above his station and the Shipless Pirates complicate things considerably. Besides which, there's the obligatory sneering villain to make life hard for our hero.

Tongue-in-cheek is Angleberger's rallying cry in this book, as he takes on a traditional genre (um, Upstairs-Downstairs Melodrama? Gothic English Manor House Mystery with Highwaymen?) and makes it his own. Here's where we meet Horton:
"Lazy, lazy, lazy boy!" roared Miss Neversly, a middle-aged woman with two hundred years' worth of meanness in her. Her wild black hair whipped across her furious face as she swung her spoon at the servant boy. "Wretched wart-covered ape!"
Beware, Reader, do not form an opinion of Horton based on Miss Neversly's cruel words. True, he had just been a trifle careless in the matter of firewood fetching. However, he is to be the hero of our story and it is only fair to point out that he was ill-paid and ill-treated for his services, which mostly involved the washing of dishes and was normally done quite carefully.

Be sure to watch for the author's parody of Hercule Poirot and his ilk, AKA The Greatest Detective in all of England. Plus the harried and harrying members of the press. I also really enjoyed Angleberger's frequent references to previous volumes about Lady Luggertuck, e.g., "Faithful readers will remember that M'Lady Luggertuck had a fear of forks ever since the events recounted in 'M'Lady Luggertuck Hires a Tattooed Nanny.'"

Outrageous? Oh, yes! But very funny, and very fun. I suspect this one requires a rather different sort of reader than some of the other books listed here, but for the kid with a taste for farce, Horton Halfpott will be just the ticket.

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

If you make your way to the fourth stall in the East Wing boys' bathroom of a certain elementary/middle school, you will find the offices of a kid who's a slightly shady problem solver. Mac and his best friend Vince are in business, and they're good at what they do. They're also saving every penny they earn so they can get tickets to the World Series, where they hope to watch the Chicago Cubs get their due at last.

Until suddenly things go south. A mysterious high school crime lord named Staples orders his bookies and thugs to undercut Mac's business. Mac retaliates in his usual clever fashion, enlisting the help of the baddest of his school's bullies, but Staples is ahead of him every step of the way—all because Mac has agreed to offer his protection to a worried third grader.

The Fourth Stall has a mafia thriller feel as it escalates, with Mac's every effort stymied and even those closest to him falling under suspicion. Walden Pond Press is known for its book-to-film crossovers, and it's easy to picture this one as a movie. If they do make it, I hope they don't lose the strongest things about the book: Mac's voice and the buildup of suspense. You almost wish the story wouldn't end: as in movies like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, it's almost more fun not knowing just why things are going so very wrong for your hero! I'll leave you with a glimpse of Mac from early in the book.
I was sitting behind my desk in the fourth stall from the high window. Maybe I should stop here to explain how we fit my desk into the stall. A lot of kids will tell you that the toilet was cleared out years ago due to a huge accident. They say some joker tried to flush a whole box of Black Cats and four cherry bombs down the toilet. Supposedly, the porcelain shards exploded everywhere and severed his arm and he now has a hook for a hand and lives in some special institution for kids who think they're pirates.
I know the truth, though, because I have connections the other kids don't.

Warp Speed by Lisa Yee

Yee is famous for her humor, but there's something awfully poignant about Marley's story. The major theme here is bullying, which reminds me just a tad of a recent fantasy novel, Ellen Booraem's Small Persons with Wings. With all the accounts of cyberbullying and other student persecution in the news lately, I suppose it's no wonder that the topic is cropping up in MG/YA more often these days.

Marley Sandelski's life is one endless round of being bullied. In answer, he puts on the speed. But when he accidentally wins a race for the track team that's been trying to recruit him, Marley isn't necessarily interested. For one thing, he doesn't want to abandon his own little group of geeks. For another, he runs for himself.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it mocks the clueless, pointless way well-meaning adults address bullying—with goofy assemblies and messages the bullies alternately jeer at and incorporate into their own ruthless schtick.

Warp Speed is another book in the Millicent Min series, with appearances from characters like Stanford, Emily, and Millicent. Yee perfectly captures the voices of these middle school kids. The audio-visual club is a great setting for Marley and his equally unpopular buddies, and I especially enjoyed the endless arguments about which is better, Star Wars, Star Trek, or—thanks to a newcomer—Batman. Here's Marley, climbing the bleachers for a school pep rally:
As I push my way up the bleachers, I get punched in the arm three times. This started last year. Some guy hit me for no reason, and now he and his two idiot sidekicks do it all the time. I call them the Gorn, after the evil slow-moving beast who first appeared in "Arena," Star Trek: The Original Series (a.k.a. TOS), Season One, Episode 18. The biggest Gorn is the leader. His head looks like a giant pink grapefruit, he's got a beak nose, and he's missing a front tooth. The middle Gorn is missing part of his left eyebrow. He hits the hardest. The smallest Gorn is crazy scary, laughs like a little girl, and appears to be missing a brain. All of them have shaved heads and wear letterman jackets with no letters on them. They used to play football, but got kicked off the team for not playing by the rules. Each time any of them lands a punch, they high-five. Forget touchdowns—just hit Marley instead.

And the Gorn aren't Marley's only bullies, though the boy who forces him to do his homework, Digger, ends up having secrets of his own. I think you'll find that Marley's matter-of-fact approach to the depressing realities of his life at school is one of the most painful things about Warp Speed. You'll be rooting for this kid to survive, let alone to get out from under those Gorn fists, Digger's homework racket, and the sneers of the popular kids.

The Secret of Rover by Rachel Wildavsky

This one's the exception because its main characters are a brother-and-sister team. However, it's not the exception in that it's an adventure story, a book that's plot-based with a capital P. Besides which, the girl, Katie, is kind of irritating—or at least, irritated—throughout the book.

Katie and her twin, David, are left with a nanny while their parents fly to Eastern Europe to pick up the baby they're adopting. Only the nanny acts creepy even before their parents take off, and after they do, she really shows her true colors. Even worse, Katie and David's parents stop answering their phones...

This is our introduction to the new nanny:
[T]he woman stared back from beneath straight black brows. She was short and squat and everything on her crackled with newness. Her neat skirt and blouse, her sensible low-heeled shoes, and even the twin suitcases that she clutched in each fist seemed to have been slipped from their plastic packages and arrayed on her person just moments before she appeared at their door. Her eyes flickered over them and for an instant her straight black brows drew together.
And then she smiled. It was a smile that seemed to glide out from the middle of her face on a slick coat of syrup. Wearing this slippery grin and gripping her suitcases, she leaned toward David. They were almost the same height.
"Hi, sweetie?" she said. "I'm your new nanny?"

Mr. and Mrs. Bowden are scientists who have invented a top-secret project called Rover for the government, and their disappearance is no accident. The fake nanny is in on the plot, part of a military group from a small country that wants to get its hands on Rover. Once they are in control, they make it clear that Katie and David are prisoners and should be grateful if they even get fed. It becomes apparent that the kids will be killed soon.

But Katie and David manage to make their escape, hoping to get to their reclusive Uncle Alex, who also worked on the Rover project. Most of this book is one really long chase scene in which Evil Nanny and her cohorts try to recapture the twins. The kids have a number of near misses and come up with some daring ways to evade their pursuers.

We eventually do get to meet Uncle Alex. The reason for his seclusion strains credibility a bit, but then, this is one of those secret weapon/spy adventures, so credibility isn't its primary goal. More to the point, The Secret of Rover is a daring adventure that I think kids will like. Pair it with Gordon Korman's series, On the Run.

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

Of all the "younger versions of famous literary figures" out there, Sherlock Holmes has got to be one of the best picks. As the jacket flap tells us, "Fully authorized and endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Death Cloud launches a new series of books that will take the teenage Sherlock Holmes, along with his tutor and friends, to America, Russia, and beyond."

I do wonder how many contemporary teens are as drawn to historical mystery as adult readers might be, but putting that aside, this is a promising endeavor. I'm sure the recent Robert Downey Jr. incarnation of the great detective, while it may have shocked purists, can only help sell these books. While Holmes tends to be remembered for his cerebral prowess, he makes a perfectly good adventurous hero, too.

Death Cloud begins, not with Sherlock, but with another boy. Matthew Arnatt is a 14-year-old living hand to mouth, and when he sees the bizarre cloud going in and out of an upper window, followed by a terrible scream, he simply runs. Later we learn more about who died, although how, exactly, is a mystery for much of the book.

Here is the scene is which Sherlock meets Matthew (Matty):
"For a townie you really can sit still, can't you?"
"So can you," Sherlock responded to the voice behind him. "You've been watching me for half an hour."
"How did you know?" Sherlock heard a soft thud, as if someone had just jumped down from the lower branches of a tree onto the ferns that covered the ground.
"There are birds perching in all the trees except for one—the one you're sitting in. They're obviously frightened of you."
"I won't hurt them, just like I won't hurt you."
Sherlock turned his head slowly. The voice belonged to a boy of about his own age, only smaller and stockier than Sherlock's lanky frame. His hair was long enough to reach his shoulders. "I'm not sure you could," Sherlock said as calmly as possible under the circumstances.
"I can fight dirty," the boy said. "And I got a knife."
"Yes, but I've been watching the boxing matches at school, and I've got a long reach."

Matty soon tells Sherlock about the mysterious cloud, which is only the beginning of the plot and its attendant horrors—a plot young Sherlock is determined to unravel. After all, he has been bored stiff after being exiled by his older brother to spend the summer with his dull aunt and uncle at their country estate. Things begin to pick up when he meets Matty, and then Sherlock is assigned a strange tutor from American, Amyus Crowe. Crowe has a pretty daughter, but she's not the demure type, and Sherlock isn't quite sure how to talk to her. Virginia ends up helping him out, however, and it's a good thing his list of allies is growing. Sherlock has come up against a perverse supervillain who would be only too happy to kill anyone who interferes with his plans.

The actual conspiracy is a little off-the-wall, reminiscent of the plans of a James Bond villain, but the adventure is thoroughly enjoyable, and I think you'll enjoy watching an untried Sherlock as he learns from his mistakes as well as from people like his unusual tutor, the sensible Matty, and the intrepid Virginia.

The Secret Journeys of Jack London: The Wild by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Then there's the new Young Jack London series, made all the more intriguing by the authors' decision to introduce elements of the supernatural. This was perhaps inspired by the fact that Jack London's mother, a troubled woman, actually worked as a spiritualist in San Francisco for a time. Other astonishing claims in The Wild—that London worked as an oyster pirate at 13, then went to sea and traveled to Japan, lived as a bum after his return to the States, and was jailed for six months, all before the age of 18—are true. (What's more, though it's not in this book, Jack finally attended high school after all of these adventures, writing for the school paper!)

Note that Jack is arguably more memorable than any one of the characters he created, except maybe the dog in Call of the Wild. Golden and Lebbon have chosen to make Jack a few years younger as he sets off for Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush. Oh, and they've thrown in Native American nature spirits and monsters, not to mention some very bad bad guys. But it's true that Jack London got scurvy while in Alaska.

Take a look at the wilderness as seen through the fictional Jack's eyes:
The landscape was incredible. He came to see it as the great white silence, because if he stood still out in the snowfield, all he could hear was his own breathing and the thudding of his own heart. There was not a breath of wind out there, as if the air itself were frozen into inmobility. The land slept beneath the thick carpet of snow. Sometimes it snowed some more, but other times the air was crisp and clear, and even though the sun didn't rise so high above the horizon, he could see a long way. Closing his eyes, standing out in the snow, he always knew from which direction his watcher observed.
Because it was still there.

The Wild is an adventure story, which is obviously fitting for anything focusing on Jack London. Jack's personal/spiritual evolution in the book is at times a little self-conscious, and I'm not too sure about his stint living in a patch of enchanted forest with a lovely, lethal demigoddess, but I did enjoy the wolf guardian, and the whole thing's a refreshing take on a genre that has gotten rather bogged down with Alex Rider imitators over the past decade or so.

In fact, looking at this crop of books and others that have come out in the past year or two, I would say that authors and publishers have stepped up to the plate, meeting the challenge to produce better books for boy readers.

Note for Worried Parents: Zachary Ruthless's stated goals may be of concern to some parents, while The Fourth Stall's Mac is a rule-breaker in his own right, plus people get beat up. The bullying in Warp Speed can be upsetting. The kids on the run in The Secret of Rover break a few laws along the way as they try to avoid being captured. Young Sherlock has his first exposure to opium, and there are various threats and murders in Death Cloud, a book intended for teens. Another work for the Young Adult reader, The Wild is pretty mature, particularly when it comes to violence, of which wendigo-type cannibalism is only one example. The book deliberately highlights the brutality of mankind and of nature.

Update, 5-1-11: For another take on young Sherlock Holmes, try Shane Peacock's series, starting with
Eye of the Crow. Peacock's books have an air of melancholy about them and are very well written. On a related note, Anthony Horowitz, author of the best-selling Alex Rider YA spy series, has been asked by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to write a new adult Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Update, 5-15-11: Here's a nice video interview with Chris Rylander, author of
The Fourth Stall. Among other things, we learn about major plot points in the sequels.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Chili Dip at the Poetry Potluck

I've been following several National Poetry Month blog events religiously, but my three favorites are Gottabook's 30 Poets in 30 Days, The Miss Rumphius Effect's Teaching Poetry in the Classroom, and Poetry Potluck at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup.

Anyway, today it's my turn to make a guest appearance at the Poetry Potluck. I share three poems from an unpublished collection about a Latina child in L.A., along with my favorite quick, sure-fire recipe for chili dip. Take a look!

Note: My first poetry collection comes out next spring, a book of ocean poems titled The Water Sings Blue from Chronicle, illustrated by Meilo So.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Poetry Friday: A Child's Garden of Verses

Just as every child should own a good Mother Goose (personally, I'm fond of Rosemary Wells's version), I think every kid should have a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.

Why? Well, talk about poems that age well! Not all of them, perhaps, especially if you have an unabridged edition, but who else has written the perfect swing poem or the perfect shadow poem? "I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,/And what can be the use of him is more than I can see...." But my favorite is Stevenson's galloping description of "Windy Nights" (which really must be read out loud! See Alice and Martin Provenson's illustration, right.):
Whenever the moon and the stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night, when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he,
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

There's a great deal of artistry in that poem; take just one line, "Whenever the trees are crying aloud." Or consider this line from another poem, "The moon has a face like the clock in the hall." What a metaphor!

Now, when I read old-fashioned books to kids or simply read them historical fiction, I deal with the difference in customs and language by saying up front, "This book was written a long time ago, so some of the words are a little different." (Or, "This story takes place a long time ago," etc.) Then I explain any out-of-date customs or words along the way as needed.

This post was actually prompted by the recent publication of an all-new, unabridged edition of A Child's Garden of Verses, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock, author-illustrator of books like Adele and Simon and The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle. There have been numerous editions of Stevenson's poetry collection published over the years, but let's see how McClintock's new volume stacks up against a handful of classic versions.

Barbara McClintock—The artist's preference for stories set in the 19th century makes her the perfect pick for illustrating Stevenson's poems, which were first published in 1885. Though they are certainly dressed in old-fashioned clothing, her children are energetic and real, not frozen in good-child poses, as one might expect in paintings evoking this era. We are reminded that little girls in pinafores and petticoats could be just as engaged and mischievous as their modern-day counterparts. In addition to numerous spot illustrations, McClintock gives us several full-page illustrations, e.g., showing us the snowy day from "Wintertime," the garden of verses itself opposite the title page, or the "Block City." If you don't yet own an edition of these poems, McClintock's new book would be a great starting point.

Alice and Martin Provensen (out of print)—This is the version I grew up with, and I swiped the tattered volume from my mother a few years ago. (Okay, I did ask, and she said yes!) As in their Newbery Award and Caldecott Honor-winning book, Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn, the Provensens include a rich array of illustrations like this one, which accompanies the poem, "Looking Forward":
When I am grown to man's estate
I shall be very proud and great,
And tell the other girls and boys
Not to meddle with my toys.

I think it's worth setting your child up with definitions of "estate" and "meddle" so that they can catch the humor! (Though they might even grasp it without the definitions.)

Gyo Fujikawa—Did you know that Fujikawa used to work for Disney? I'm rather fond of her ABC book, her Mother Goose, and her version of Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. With Fujikawa, you usually get one page of black-and-white art alternated with one page of color artwork, back and forth throughout the book. Her children are noticeably sweet, yet don't quite cross the line into saccharine territory. Many of them are characterized by a certain wistfulness. They look a little old-fashioned, but at least mid-20th century. Fujikawa also did a good job of giving us a multicultural cast of kids. I especially like her illustration for "Bed in Summer," which shows a little African American girl kneeling on her bed in her nightgown, looking longingly out the window. Look, too, for Fujikawa's art for "My Shadow," in which a child and his dog and cat make really long shadows together.

Brian Wildsmith—This illustrator's version is a terrific departure from the other, more traditional editions. If you've never seen Wildsmith's style, take a look at his marvelous sun (right)! The image accompanies Stevenson's poem, "Summer Sun," which begins:
Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven without repose.
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Wildsmith is not a pastel kind of guy; his art is redolent with bright color and loose, thick lines that give these poems a whole new feel.

Tasha Tudor (out of print)—Tudor's artwork is famously sweet, but her style is well suited to the poems. Unlike Wildsmith, Tudor is a pastel kind of gal.

Jesse Wilcox Smith (out of print)—Another sweet rendition, with plenty of pastel colors. Perhaps you've seen Smith's artwork available as posters and prints. Here's a piece that accompanies the poem, "At the Seaside," to give you the idea. (See below right.)

Cooper Edens, editor—Have you heard of Green Tiger Press? If I understand correctly, this small California publisher headed by Cooper Edens was bought out ten or fifteen years ago, but you should keep looking for Edens' books. In particular, Edens came up with the brilliant idea of finding a bunch of artwork from the late 1800s and early 1900s for a particular title and using a variety of pieces to illustrate the story, giving the whole thing the feeling of a collage. Look for his Tales from the Brothers Grimm, for example. And of course, A Child's Garden of Verses. The book jacket happens to feature a very nice piece of art from Jesse Wilcox Smith's version of the poems (see below left). It's just really fun to see how different artists handled the subject matter some 75-100 years ago. For instance, an illustration accompanying "The Land of Nod" emphasizes the darker side of the poem with an eerie evocation of Arthur Rackham's work. Think about this stanza, which speaks of the strange and inaccessible dream world:
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

Probably the best meaning of the term "classic" is a book or work of art whose appeal endures across generations. Robert Louis Stevenson's poems certainly fit the bill. Their exuberance, their wordcraft, and their understanding of what it means to be a child continue to resonate in our day. So does much of the marvelous artwork created to accompany the poet's famous collection.

All of these editions are beautiful, only in different ways. If you're an old-fashioned soul and diligently refer to books for kids as "children's literature," possibly in a British accent, I recommend the McClintock or Edens versions. If you're a romantic who gets all "aw shucks" over children and puppies, stick with Fujikawa, Tudor, or Smith. If you're the bold, contemporary type, then Wildsmith's version is the book for you. As for best all round? No bias here, but I'd have to say that the Provensons' book still reigns supreme!

Of course, it's lovely to have so many good choices. As Stevenson puts it in his couplet, "Happy Thought":
The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Update: Amy L. Vanderwater recommends A Child's Garden of Songs: The Poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson in Song by Ted Jacobs. Visit the Amazon page to listen to music samples.


Speaking of happy, how wonderful to be hosting Poetry Friday during National Poetry Month! Turns out April isn't so cruel, after all. I will add your links below starting Friday morning at around 7:00 Pacific Standard Time, if not earlier. Thank you in advance for your participation—and for your love of poetry!

--Mary Ann Scheuer of Great Kid Books reviews Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, a 2011 Newbery Honor Book by Joyce Sidman.

--Brimful Curiosities gives us Rose Fyleman's classic poem, "A Fairy Went A-Marketing," newly illustrated by her daughter in a tiny, fairy-size book.

--I've been really enjoying Greg K's 30 Poets in 30 Days posts in honor of National Poetry Month. Today he's showcasing "If I..." by Brod Bagert, an Earth Day lament about the BP oil spill.

--From Tanita S. Davis, we find this poetic response to the book Mare's War by 11-year-old Zack.

--Tabatha Yeatts shares a feline poem by Dian Duchin Reed, "Holy Cats."

--Carol features Edmund Spenser's poem "Easter" just in time for this coming Sunday.

--Diane Mayr goes all out with A.E. Housman's spring poem, "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" at Random Noodling; a cat poem from Derek Walcott's book, White Egrets, at Kurious Kitty; and a Walcott quote at Kurious K's Kwotes.

--At Hope Is the Word, Amy reviews Mary Ann Hoberman's book of family poems, Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers.

--Carol Rasco of Reading Is Fundamental posts about jonquils, giving us a jonquil poem by Carl Rakosi, "The Menage."

--Celebrate the second blogiversary of Teaching Authors with Carmela Martino, who's posted an original blogiversary poem by fellow author April Halprin Wayland and a critique giveaway for you aspiring writers!

--David Elzey of Fomagrams offers us a weekly roundup of twitku, the haiku he's been sharing on Twitter. He also refers us to yesterday's Grimmoire, a poetic reinterpretation of a Grimms' fairy tale.

--Elaine Magliaro's original poem "Marshmallow Chicks" at Wild Rose Reader is a light-hearted Easter post. Then at Blue Rose Girls, see further chickness with her mask poem, "Chick Chatter."

--Thanks to Tara of A Teaching Life for posting two poems by Marie Howe, "The Gate" (on video) and "The Copper Beech."

--At Author Amok, Laura Shovan continues her month of Maryland poets by showcasing Margaret S. Mullins' poem "Kindergarten," a poem about "that amazing moment when a child begins to read."

--Heidi Mordhorst is visiting Costa Rica, but she shares this visual poem about a sloth, "Mission Accomplished," and teaches us the term pura vida.

--Mary Lee of A Year of Reading has been presenting a poem a day in honor of National Poetry Month, too. Today's gem is a perhaps controversial found poem spoken by the marvelous Billy Collins.

--For Good Friday, Learning to Let Go (Happy Catholic) features a poignant Edwin Muir Easter poem, "The Killing."

--Sarah of Books, Dogs, and Frogs celebrates spring and Earth Day with an ultra-classic poem, Anacreon's "Spring." She reminds us that every day is an earth day!

--Terry Doherty of Scrub-a-Dub-Tub gives us pointers on creating an Easter Egg hunt with some poetic clues she wrote for her daughter.

--Katie reviews African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways by Avis Harley at Secrets & Sharing Soda.

--Jone's students are writing up a storm with her 30 Days = 30 Students project. Today's poem is about writing. Thanks, Jacob!

--Author Sara Lewis Holmes of Read Write Believe presents both ends of the faith spectrum with her Gerard Manley Hopkins/Lyle Lovett duo. I really must quote her great line about Hopkins: He "writes compressed agony like no one else."

--Check out The Miss Rumphius Effect, where you can read "A Shower" by Amy Lowell. April showers; perfect! See also Tricia's list of her Poetry in the Classroom series for National Poetry Month. As a teacher and a poetry person, I've been following these with great interest.

--Barbara of The Write Sisters presents an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, "Thursday."

--Laura Salas shares her original poem, "After the Storm," which is featured in the terrific e-anthology, Poetry Tag Time. I've read this anthology of linked poems and thought it was worth many times the 99-cent purchase price. (I set it up on my PC, since I don't have an e-reader. Very easy!)

--Charles Gigna (Father Goose) is in with an entire new poetry blog! It's called How to Write a Poem, and it's subtitled "Tips on Tapping into the Magic of Your Muse."

--Another National Poetry Month series I've been following is Jama Rattigan's Poetry Potluck at her Alphabet Soup blog. (And not just because I'll be one of the poetry guests before the month is over!) Today's poet is Amy Ludvig Vanderwater with her original poem "Mother Bird's Lullaby" and a recipe for the tricky but rewarding Pineapple Slices from Grandma Vanderwater. Please also look back over the other posts so far this month; they're simply delicious!

--Blythe Woolston joins us with spine poems and a book giveaway: Jacqueline Houtman's The Reinvention of Edison Thomas.

--Author Michelle Markel of The Cat and the Fiddle hosts a poetry Q&A with Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland, and Janet Wong.

--At Poem Farm, poet Amy L. Vanderwater offers us some nature poems of her own, as well as poems from a fifth grade poetry blog project. Amy has been mentoring this class of kids, and it shows. See also her list of links to the poetry lessons she's been posting for National Poetry Month. She's another one whose April poetry celebration I've been following!

--Author Janet Squires of All About the Books introduces us to Canyon, a book of free verse by Eileen Cameron and photographs by Michael Collier paying homage to the way water carves out canyons.

--At Adventures in Daily Living, Suzanne shares "Good Friday in My Heart" by Mary Elizabeth Coolridge.

--Author Robyn Hood Black joins us with an Emily Dickinson poem, "Nature rarer uses yellow...."

--Over at Literate Lives, Karen reviews Bob Raczka's book, Lemonade and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word.

--There must be something in the lemonade! Jennie of Biblio File is spotlighting Virginia Euwer Wolff's novel in verse, Make Lemonade.

-At The Drift Record, poet Julie Larios shares her poem "Far from Home" and refers us to Gottabook's 30 Poets in 30 Days, where the poem appeared previously.

--And finally, we've got Books 4 Learning with a review of Rhonda Lucas Donald's book of poems, Deep in the Desert.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Earth Day and Compost Stew

Next Friday, April 22, is Earth Day. Celebrate with the organizers' "A Billion Acts of Green," as described on their website. Basically, you perform some kind of environmental service and register it on their site as they try to tally up that billion by Earth Day 2012. What a great idea!

In addition, you can check out Kaboose for Earth Day crafts, recipes, games, and projects.

And did you know it's possible to volunteer at a National Park?

But the most important question here at Book Aunt today is, "How do you make compost?" I guess you could start by visiting Composting 101 or Compost Guide.

Or you could sit down with your child and read Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth, a new book by Mary McKenna Siddals with illustrations by Ashley Wolff. And admit it, the response may not be enthusiastic if you announce, "Hey guys, let's have some fun with kitchen garbage and maybe hang out with the lint from the dryer trap!" I'm pretty sure you'll get better results by calling out, "Let's make Compost Stew!"

As the subtitle implies, this is an alphabet book. It rhymes its way through two dozen plus ingredients for your backyard compost, starting with Apple cores and working its way forward to Nutshells before chortling on toward Zinnia heads.

Of course, if you've ever tried to write an alphabet book, you know you have to come up with viable Q, X and Z entries before you can start querying editors and totting up royalty checks. In this case, the Zinnia heads are joined by Quarry dust and Xmas tree needles.

The text flows fairly well, although the phrasing is sometimes inverted a bit to serve the rhyme. For instance, on one spread we read:
Dirt clods, crumbled
Eggshells, crushed
Fruit pulp left behind, all mushed

Then again, this is a list of ingredients, so it works out just fine.

Siddals gives us a cheerful refrain at regular intervals:
Just add to the pot
and let it all rot
into Compost Stew.

Ashley Wolff illustrates Compost Stew's ripe frolic with collage and added details done in gouache. Our main character is a girl with curly red hair—she is wearing a chef's hat, naturally. My favorite thing about her is her clothes: the chef's hat has origami-style folds, the red gardening gloves have a punched-out flower design around the wrists, and, best of all, her dress is made of seed packets and her apron is made of a farmer's almanac!

In a nice multicultural touch, other composters include an Asian American girl and an African American boy, along with a Caucasian boy. We also get help from a Dalmatian and a goose. Textured papers make the collage even more rich and lively, e.g., the clouds are made of some kind of thin cotton-quilted fabric, the teabags appear to be real, and the egg carton is clearly made from the same sort of thing real egg cartons are made of. And take a gander at the goose's wing on the D page—I never could have imagined that marbling would be such a great choice for representing feathers!

Be sure to examine the endpapers, too. They give us a close-up view of the compost, nicely developed dirt garnished with earthworms doing their thing.

The instructions for making the stew on the last few pages are fairly simple: "Moisten. Toss Lightly. Cover. Let brew...." An Author's Note at the beginning of the book and a rhymed Chef's Note at the end provide additional information, such as what not to put in your compost mix. For further details, you can consult the websites listed above.

Environmentally concerned parents and teachers celebrating Earth Day might want to add this book—and this project—to their repertoires. Compost Stew makes garbage look positively delicious, at least from your garden's perspective!

For a chance to win a free copy of the book, visit the author's website.

Speaking of composting, on their page of quick earth facts, indicates how long it takes human-generated trash to break down:
—organic materials take 6 months
—cotton, rags, and paper take 6 months
—plastics take 500 years
—aluminum cans take 500 years

Not only do organic materials make for better garbage from a biodegradable standpoint, but they actively give back when converted into fertilizer.

Here are a few more earth facts for your enjoyment:

The earth's crust is made of about 47% oxygen, 28% silicon, 5% iron, 8% aluminum, 4% calcium, and smaller percents of other minerals.

Compare this to the composition of the human body: 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and 3% nitrogen, with other trace elements.

In other words, oxygen is not only what we breathe, it's what we and our planet are made of. So greening the planet helps maintain our existence in more ways than one!

Finally, did you know that only 11 percent of the earth's surface is used to grow food?

So go outside, breathe deep, and start that compost pile. While you're at it, plant a tree!

Thanks to publisher Tricycle Press for providing a review copy of Compost Stew.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

Jane Austen meets the lovechild of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, with Neil Gaiman as godfather and Libba Bray as godmother...

Sort of. Only not at all, because we're talking Franny Billingsley, okay?

There are a couple of authors working in the field of children's books who take three to six years to write each book. It's probably not a coincidence that they are among the best writers out there. Megan Whalen Turner is one, and, as Franny Billingsley proves with her long-awaited book Chime, she is another.

Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Is it a gothic novel set in a swamp? Well, yes. I think my first thought was Pride and Prejudice because of the banter between the two leads, plus the Victorian setting. But from there, this book might as well be set in the bayous of New Orleans, since the Swampsea is just that swampy. Alligators would feel right at home here. No, wait: actually, they'd get eaten by one of Billingsley's marvelous British folktale monsters, like the Boggy Mun or maybe Mucky Face.

But we really should talk about Briony...

She hates herself, especially for what she did to her sister Rose, who hasn't been quite right ever since. What's more, Briony is pretty sure she's a witch, since she can see the Old Ones, the nature spirits and other eldritch creatures who inhabit the Swampsea. If anyone finds out her secret, she will hang. Briony tries to be careful, but it doesn't help when the Boggy Mun sends a fatal coughing disease into the village. He promises Briony he'll withdraw the disease, but only if she can get Mr. Clayborne's crew to stop draining the swamp to build a railroad.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clayborne's son Eldric is staying at the vicarage, and he and Briony are instantly attracted to each other. Eldric has a good heart, but he's also a mischief-maker. He quickly sees the wildness in her that Briony has been trying to hide.

Cedric is sure he's in love with Briony, too, and a girl named Leanne starts getting her claws in Eldric. Briony can feel herself getting angry, and that's not good. When Briony gets angry, terrible things happen...

The best thing about this book is its characters, especially Briony. She is so vital and good and bad and full of self-doubt that she feels completely true as you are reading. Everywhere she turns, this girl faces a new dilemma, or rather, each time she tries to solve one problem, she seems to create a new one. Despite her stubborn strength, Briony is haunted to the point of being tormented.

Other characters are just as rich. Even the most peripheral ones manage to feel dimensional. The golden, leonine Eldric is such a wonderful combination of deviltry and kindness that readers will probably fall in love with him even as Briony does, especially when listening in on the conversations between this couple: you know, the kind of talk that leaves everyone else in the dark even as it illuminates just how perfectly in sync two people can be.

Briony's sister Rose is an intriguing character, as well. At first she seems to need Briony so desperately that we can pretty much understand why Briony sometimes chafes under the weight of this burden. On the other hand, Rose is fiercely loyal to Briony, and just because she is prone to screaming fits and other behaviors that are probably a mild form of autism doesn't mean she can't ever come through for her sister in her turn. You will surely smile, as I did, to see the way Rose frames every demand and request, small and large, like this one: "I prefer that you not talk."

We also get lovelorn and sometimes threatening Cedric, a father who may not be quite as distracted and unaware as he appears, an array of scary fairy critters in the swamp, the deceased (but still influential) Stepmother, and the titular Chime Child, an old woman (no, really) who weighs in on legal or social situations involving magic.

I've mentioned Briony, but not her voice, which is powerful and idiosyncratic, wry, self-deprecating, and very smart. Here are a few choice excerpts:
"Thank you." But why should I thank Pearl? She was being paid. Anyone could stand a screaming girl if she was paid, but the sister of such a girl is never paid. I'd like to go farther than twenty feet. France would be nice, and I speak tolerable French. Or Greece, although I speak intolerable Greek, and only ancient. But if I couldn't manage to order a glass of wine, I'd order a wine-dark sea; and I like olives; and I believe I might like squid; and I would certainly like anyplace far away from Rose.

The swamp slurped and swallowed. The stars rubbed out the Dreary-shaped space. Eldric shifted behind me; the tussock gasped and gurgled....
Mr. Dreary had vanished. Too late to pull him out. The false lights had vanished. Everything had vanished except Eldric and me. Everything had vanished except the two of us, the lantern, the stars, and the swamp, which breathed slowly through its jellied lungs....
The Wykes lured Mr. Dreary into the most treacherous part of the Quicks, where he fell and drowned. Where anyone would have drowned, unless he could walk on water, which I venture to say Mr. Dreary could not.
But I could not forget how the swamp slurped and swallowed. Those were not the sounds of falling.

Despite her cough, Rose was in unusually good spirits. That was irritating. If I'm to trade my life for Rose's, I'd appreciate her exhibiting a touch of melancholy. Also acceptable would be despair....
"I don't like my shoes," said Rose.
"I'm wearing my shoes and you don't see me complain."
"You only hear a person complain," said Rose. "Not see."
How has Rose lived for seventeen years and no one has ever killed her, not once?

Billingsley packs this book with twists and mysteries small and large. For example, Briony used to write the stories of the magical swamp creatures, but all of her stories were burned in a fire that also damaged one of her hands. Now the creatures beg Briony to write their stories again, but she refuses.

Some of the Swampfolk, like the Brownie, the Strangers, and the ghost-children, seem harmless, but others are lethal. More than one character runs afoul of the Dead Hand, a terrible thing that tears off people's hands and drags them deep beneath the dark waters of the swamp.

Little by little, readers will learn Briony's secrets, even as Eldric learns them. We discover that Briony is both an utterly reliable and an unreliable narrator. Gradually, her troubles take on surprising shapes, like newly made swamp creatures. Until pieces of the story that didn't seem to be connected suddenly clasp tentacles and feathers before showing us fresh, uncanny faces. I'll admit I guessed a villain or so early on, but not the why of it or how it actually made Briony the person that she is.

My sole quibble? The too-modern looking girl on the book cover—her lipstick, her mascara, and her American cheerleader face and 'tude. She feels so un-Briony to me! Briony should be wild and fine-featured, ghostly and bony, with a 'tude that speaks of mysteries and swamps, not malls and football players. (This would be a bit better, though still too prissy. Or if it has to be a photo, check out the cover art for Gretchen McNeil's Possess. Trees on interesting face, very cool!)

Ah, well. Everything else is superb. Along with its other delights, I should point out that Chime is beautifully crafted, its well-made language carrying you along like a small boat on a river of story. I'm betting you can't resist a book that starts out: "I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged. Now, if you please."

Chime is one of those books that makes you astonishingly glad to be a reader. I'm very pleased to hear that it's garnering multiple starred reviews from key review sources. If it doesn't win the Printz or at least a Printz Honor award next year, I will Not Be Happy!

Also: If you haven't read any of the author's other books, I highly recommend The Folk Keeper. It's a little more middle grade, but another great read. And visit the Enchanted Inkpot to read a recent interview with Franny Billingsley.

Note for Worried Parents: Chime is a book for teens. There is talk about sex and having babies in spots, a threat of rape, and a trio of unforgettable flashers who are witches up in the trees of the swamp—one of the book's odder, funnier moments. We also get violence, especially in the form of attacks by nightmarish swamp creatures. And there are kisses, some more welcome than others.

A Review of The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge

This author isn't the first adult writer to cross over to YA, but so far she's one of the best. Steampunk, urban fantasy, alternate history, dystopian fiction, romance, gothic novel, you name it: The Iron Thorn combines the best of all these subgenres, throwing in one of those genetic ticking clocks plus an actual ticking clock that's the nerve center of an entire house made of magic-infused gears. Which is to say, if you liked Fever Crumb, Leviathan, Lament, and Twilight, you should take a look at Kittredge's new YA offering.

As the jacket flap puts it, "Aoife's family is unique in the worst way." Her mother has gone crazy and is in an insane asylum, while her beloved older brother lost his mind, too, nearly killing Aoife before running away.

Aoife lives in the dark city of Lovecraft, where she studies in the strict school of engineers, applying reason and science to practical problems as the city's great Engine beats like a malevolent heart beneath it all. Her fellow student and best friend, Cal, stands by her, but even he is uneasy when it appears that Aoife herself will lose her mind when she turns sixteen. The city authorities, as represented by the Proctors, also have their eye on the girl, which is a very bad thing.

Then Aoife gets a cryptic message from her brother Conrad and sets off to find him, presumably at their father's home in a village to the north. Crossing the city, let alone the countryside, is a dreadful prospect, considering the threat of death or capture from monsters like the nightjars and government spies in the form of clockwork ravens. Fortunately, Aoife and Cal find a scruffy guide named Dean, who has secrets of his own. He knows a guy with an airship, and it appears he won't sell them out to the monsters that live in the sewer system, so off they go.

The little company eventually reach the house where Aoife's father lived, only there's no sign of him or of Conrad. Of course, Aoife has never met the man. And his house turns out to be very strange indeed. That's even before Aoife has her first encounter with the fairy realm, whose denizens—most notably a fey named Tremaine—may prove to be the greatest threat of all. But Aoife, despite her growing attraction to Dean and her loyalty to Cal, will do anything to get her brother back. Anything.

This book is a thoroughly marvelous tale, one of my favorites so far in 2011. In fact, I felt that my experience of YA horror/steampunk/dystopian fantasy was refreshed by reading The Iron Thorn. I also appreciate how the main plot thread comes to a satisfying conclusion, even as new problems set us up for the next volume in this series. In addition, for those of you looking for romance, Aoife's interactions with Dean aren't cliché in the least; they're clever and bumpy and real (with Cal acting sweetly jealous, to boot).

I guess about the only thing that threw me off even a little would be the logistics of Aoife's role relative to the fey, especially her use of magic in the book's climax; however, close enough. The rest of the book more than makes up for a bit of trouble in that regard.

Here's part of Aoife's description of the marvelous clock in her father's mechanical house:
On the opposite side of the long narrow room was a leviathan clock—a full-bodied, intricate machine, much different than a pocket chronometer. As I watched, the hands swung in a parabolic arc, their wicked spiked finials grinding to a halt at twelve midnight. The chimes let out a discordant, muffled bong.
The hands swung again, and I stepped closer, watching them trail across the clock face like compass needles that had lost north, the unearthly ticking echoing loud enough to vibrate my skull. Each numeral was actually a tiny painting, wrought in delicate ink. A naked girl lying sleeping on a stone. A great goat with the body of a man sitting on a throne. A circle of figures in a dark forest who wore the sign of Hastur, the heretical Yellow King, whom cultists worshipped before the necrovirus. According to Professor Swan, and who knew where he got his stories from?
...Friendly as the library was, the clock was a monstrous thing, a machine of bloody teeth.

I know you're all wondering how to pronounce the main character's name, so I looked it up: that would be ee-fa.

Now, please get your shivers on and enter the alarming world of Aoife's Lovecraft!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. The horror elements are pretty horrific, and there's some teen attraction with eventual kissing.

Update 8-17-11: Check out this interview with the author on The Enchanted Inkpot!

A Review of Entwined by Heather Dixon

What a real and personable world Heather Dixon creates in this book! Hers is the fifth retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" to come out in the last four years, but it is nevertheless a standout. (See my post about three of them. You can also check out the Once Upon a Time version, Suzanne Weyn's The Night Dance. I believe still another version is due out next year!)

A year earlier, eleven princesses hid in the rose bushes to watch the Yuletide ball while their mother was upstairs, awaiting the birth of her twelfth daughter.
They had fallen asleep right there in the rose bushes, burrowing together like mice. When the girls were discovered missing, Mother had stopped the ball and made everyone—including the musicians—search for them. Prime Minister Fairweller had found them. Azalea had awoken in shivers to see him holding a lamp over them and frowning.
The girls had pelted him with snowballs.
They had lost two weeks of dance lessons over the Great Rose Bush and Snowball Scandal. It had been worth it, they all agreed.

Now Azalea is attending the ball herself, with her sisters no doubt secreted in a new hiding place, watching her. But none of them can feel as giddy as they did the previous year, when their mother was still alive.

In Dixon's retelling of the famous fairy tale, Crown Princess Azalea is a bit of a mother hen, trying to keep her sisters out of trouble while dealing quietly with her own grief and maybe, just maybe, taking an interest in a kindly young man named Lord Bradford. (Or is he simply Mr. Bradford, a commoner?) A case of mistaken names complicates the already subtle dance between these two would-be lovebirds, while Azalea's sisters Bramble and Clover have convoluted romantic troubles of their own.

But the true trouble comes when Azalea mistakenly opens the way to a magical place where a dark stranger named Keeper makes glittering promises, luring the girls into his web of music and dance. At first a magical sanctuary, Keeper's realm turns out to be the fulfillment of century-old curses and sorcerous ambitions.

Watching Azalea and her sisters sort through all of this is thoroughly satisfying, especially as Azalea tries to make meaning of the small clues left to her by her mother. How does magic work, and what does it mean to make a promise?

It may surprise you, then, when I tell you I suspect the most important plot thread in this book is the need for mending the rift between the King and his daughters. His long-time formality and his particular coldness after his wife's death have shaped an estrangement that the very hurt Azalea actively nurtures. Forbidding them to dance is only one of the rules that feel unbearable to the princesses. But this very rift with their father turns out to have created an opening for the Keeper to enter the girls' lives and work his wiles.

Blackmailing Azalea to break his enchantment, Keeper becomes increasingly dangerous. As Azalea comes to realize her peril, she scrambles to protect her family, but the threat has grown beyond her control, and she is hard pressed to save her sisters, her kingdom, and herself.

Fortunately, she and her sisters have allies, not to mention an invisibility cloak that comes in handy at a crucial moment or two. And don't forget the enchanted tea set (though I'm still trying to figure out the precise shape and purpose of the part of the set referred to as "sugar teeth").

Azalea and her sisters are a terrific bunch whose loyalty, humor, and personalities give even the drafty, mysterious palace a feeling of home. The whole book has a nicely Edwardian feel, or perhaps it's Victorian. I'm not surprised to find out that Entwined has already earned three starred reviews from major review sources. I think you'll like these girls and their story very much.

Note for Worried Parents: Although Entwined is aimed at teens, it is wholesome enough for younger readers, probably 10- to 12-year-olds. The only real problems would be the deeply menacing gothic villain and some brief references to sensual attraction.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hans on Amazon

I'm so excited! My next book is already up on Amazon and available for pre-order, even though the publication date is January 2012. Link through to see the cover art.

Hans My Hedgehog is a retelling of a Grimms' fairy tale, illustrated by the marvelous John Nickle. It's the story of a farmer and his wife who so long for a baby that the farmer exclaims he wants a son even if it's half hedgehogand that's exactly what happens. Hans grows up to be a fiddler, and he has a particular knack with pigs. Lonely because none of the village girls will talk to him, he goes off to live in the magical forest. There he helps two kings in return for two promises...

Anyway, it's very fun to see Hans out in the world already. (I have the page proofs, and the art is just wonderful. Yay, John!)

4/13/11 update: Someone's trying to sell a "used" copy of Hans (galleys?) for $1462.32. Yikes!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Poetry Quick Picks

These books have all been out for a while, but have you read them? They're terrific! I'm still in poetry mode thanks to National Poetry Month just launching, so here goes...

Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy

First published in 1982 and updated in 1999, this is still my favorite overall collection for kids ages 8 to 12. It's very well rounded and includes all of the poems you think it should, along with others you've never seen before. The collection of 150+ poems is organized by topics such as What Do Poems Do? and broken into subtopics, e.g., Make You Smile, Tell Stories, Send Messages, Share Feelings, Help You Understand People, and Start You Wondering. Other broad categories include What's Inside a Poem?, Special Kinds of Poetry, and Do It Yourself. Kennedy and Kennedy also give us reader-friendly riffs on poetry forms and even the topics of certain poems here and there. Check out this excerpt from one of the poems to "make you smile," "Commas" by Douglas Florian:
Do commas have mommas
Who teach them to pause,
Who comfort and calm them
And clean their sharp claws?

This book is still in print, still the perfect poetry collection for home or school. (You've heard of a bedtime story, but what about a bedtime poem?) In case you don't recognize the name, X.J. Kennedy is a famous poet in his own right.

An Old Shell: Poems of the Galapagos by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tom Pohrt

This book has such a narrow topic that I was a little dubious when I first picked it up, but I soon changed my tune. What lovely poems! They will put you right there on the Galapagos Islands. Here's an excerpt from "The Whale":
Gray and pale and still,
like the first dawn,
like the Beginning.
Through the water a whale comes
swimming a gleaming
swath of calm.
An old old whale...

Johnston writes in a variety of forms, giving us pictures of the islands' flora and fauna, removing them almost entirely from human connections, though I'm sure Charles Darwin will be tiptoeing around the edges of your mind as you read. (He is mentioned in an author's note at the end of the book.)

Confetti: Poems for Children by Pat Mora, illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez

A gold-glowing collection with a Latino flavor. My one complaint is that there are only 13 poems and I wish there were more. We do get the benefit of some very pretty full-page artwork, though. The collection touches on the sun, the wind, and colors, with a feel of constant motion, as exemplified by poems about singing and dancing. I especially like the poem that inspired the title of the book, "Words Free as Confetti." Here are a few lines:
Come, words, come in your every color.
I'll toss you in storm or breeze.
I'll say, say, say you,
taste you sweet as plump plums...

Note that the poems are sprinkled throughout with Spanish words like so much—yes, confetti!

Seasons: A Book of Poems by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Erik Blegvad

There aren't many books of poems in the easy reader category, and even fewer that succeed. I assume most of you have come across this I Can Read Book (Level 3), but if you haven't, track it down! The very simplicity of the language makes what Zolotow accomplishes all the more impressive, e.g., in "Singing Birds":
...Oh springtime is springtime is wingtime
is growing time
warm and yellow...

We get a satisfying 9-11 poems for each of the seasons, and each is perfectly complemented by Blegvad's gentle illustrations. You'll find that some of the poems are not so much seasonal as they are small commentaries on the life of a child, with topics such as a quarrel with the speaker's mother or shadows or even the meaning of life (see "The Puzzle").

The Great Frog Race and Other Poems by Kristine O'Connell George, illustrated by Kate Kiesler

This is a book that blew me away, shooting the poet to the top ranks of children's poets in my little mental list. You will find some perfect metaphors in this collection. For example, I'm pretty sure George has written the quintessential tadpole poem with her "Polliwogs." Watch how it begins:
Come see
What I found!
Chubby commas,
Mouths round,
Plump babies,
Stubby as toes,

Then there's her back-to-school poem, "September." I will restrain myself from giving away the key metaphor, so you'll have to look for it. I like her other books, but this one's still the best: it thrills me every time I read it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

National Poetry Month

Hooray! It's April, and that means National Poetry Month! Let me start off by posting something of my own, a spring poem written in honor of two weeks of rain:


Rain talks outside my window.
I can't sleep, so I listen.
Apparently the storms
in the desert are full
of hot air, while monsoons,
billowing like bruises,
think they're better than all
the other rain. My rain,
with its silver throat
and its tip-tapping gossip,
may complain, but
I'm fond of it. Who else
will water my garden?

—Kate Coombs, 2011, all rights reserved

Happily, a number of blogs in Kidlitosphere are dedicating themselves to special poetry projects and posts this month. Here's the line-up, which was carefully collected by author Irene Latham:

Susan Taylor Brown will post Lessons Learned (Mostly About Me) in a Poem-a-Day.

April Halprin Wayland will be writing and posting an original poem a day during April.

Liz Garton Scanlon will give us her third year of a Haiku-a-Day every day in April!

Jone MacCulloch will post 30 Days-30 Students: A poem a day from students.

Or check out A Poem A Day: A Personal Journey. Poetry Postcard Project: Have a student written and decorated poem sent to your home. Email your request to macrush53 @yahoo. com.

[Highly recommended] Gregory K. will present 30 Poets/30 Days - a whole month of never-before-seen poems by a slew of fabulous poets writing for kids.

Jama Rattigan will present her 2nd Annual Poetry Potluck (original poem and favorite recipe by guest bloggers). [I'll be featured one of these days, not sure of the exact date.]

Irene Latham will host a month-long Poetry Party: poetry quotes, trivia, craft tips, publishing resources & free books.

Andromeda Jazmon will be doing her fourth year in a row of haiga (original haiku + my photos) at A Wrung Sponge.

Janelle at Brimful Curiosities will host a National Poetry Month Kids Poetry Challenge in which kids are invited to create pictures for the poems she posts each Friday. Click here for details.

Biblio File will be featuring a poem or review of a novel-in-verse every day in April.

Anastasia Suen has set up a blog and a Twitter account for students (of all ages) to write haiku (about what they leaned at school that day).

Tricia Stohr-Hunt will host a Poetry in the Classroom series, which will highlight a topic, theme, poet, or book and talk about uses in the classroom.

Stasia Kehoe will be including poetry links, a giveaway of signed arc of debut YA verse novel Audition and reviews every Thursday of verse novels.

The Poem Farm will introduce a different poem idea-strategy or poetic technique for children and teachers every day. Each idea-strategy/technique will be followed by links to a few poems from this past year. The blog will also feature poem sharing ideas through "Poetry Peeks" into classrooms.

Lee Wind will present sprinkled-throughout-the-month GLBTQ poetry posts.

Mary Lee Hahn will be writing a poem a day again this year, and posting them at A Year of Reading.

National Poetry Month Poetry Friday schedule:

—April 1 at Poem Farm
—April 8 at Madigan Reads
—April 15 at Random Noodling
—April 22 at Book Aunt (right here!)
—April 29 at Tabatha Yeatts

Today's Poetry Friday is at Poem Farm. Take a look at all the links!

Note that I'll be hosting Poetry Friday on April 22nd. Every April, I luxuriate in all this poetry—and you can, too. Please celebrate with us!