Strong children’s poetry books lend themselves to helping young people write their own poems. Here are three such books with writing prompt suggestions for each one.
BookSpeak! Poems about Books by Laura Purdie Salas
One of the best things about this collection is that it gives voice to books and parts of books in ways that will compel readers to think about words, books, and stories afresh. Josée Bisaillon’s illustrations support the creative, slightly funky feel of the book. For example, on a page with a poem called “Skywriting” we see black ink birds perched on a set of five gray wires (that could also be a musical staff, and why not?). Inkblots are scattered off from the birds, and each line of the poem below is written in a different font. The poem reads:
Line after line of inky black birds
forming the flocks that shift into words.
Page after page of tales winging by,
singing a story against a
Which is just marvelous. The birds are letters, then flocks that become words, and stories that fly. Isn’t that what a story does, lifting our minds and hearts into flight with its words and images?
A couple of Salas’s poems touch philosophically on the idea that stories and characters aren’t alive unless the book is opened and read: “If a Tree Falls” and “A Character Pleads for His Life,” respectively. A journal speaks in the poem “Top Secret,” whose illustrations feature a flight of strange butterflies pouring out of a red diary with a small key. Note that most of the poems are written in first person: we hear from the index (“I can tell you the page number/of anything you’re looking for.”), the tree whose paper makes the book (“My limbs wrote on the sky with orange leaf pens.”), and the cliffhanger (“Please, author, write/a sequel fast!”).
One poem even veers off to make a book metaphor in another setting. Here’s “Written in Snow”:
dipped in black.
Through the blizzard
They tiptoe bravely
out, then home.
At least, the illustration suggests that the book imagery is used by real feet in real snow. But wait—isn’t the poem another metaphor like the one about birds? It works either way.
In Book Speak! we hear from the illustrations, from conflict, from the beach book, and from the books that party late at night in the bookstore. Perhaps best of all, we get in on an argument among the Beginning, the Middle, and the End about who is the most important. Maybe the End should be declared the winner because this collection really does finish off with a poem called “The End.” Although the poem invites us back to the beginning—and why not read this book again?
Laura Salas’s poems are light and easy, bright and breezy, yet at the same time they manage to be thought provoking. Or metacognitive, anyway. What is a story and why does it matter? What parts do the physical and literary components of a book play in our experience as readers?
Then again, you might as well just enjoy the poems. Though you may think a little differently about a book next time you read.
Poetry Prompts: What part of a book haven’t we heard from? Students can write their own mask poems giving voice to other book components, e.g., setting, the author's bio, or the title page. Or just the book itself—what does each student think a book will say? They might even give voices to specific books like Charlotte’s Web, The Lightning Thief, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If those books could talk about themselves, what would they say?
Stardines Swim High Across the Sky by Jack Prelutsky
Jack Prelutsky is a bigger fan of word play than I am, and in recent books he has shown himself to be especially enamored of inventing portmanteau words or perhaps portmanteau creatures. This new collection presents 16 new “species” from the poet, all animals combined with a quality or habit—in many cases an irritating one. Here’s a list of the new creatures:
And a few excerpts for your reference:
When other creatures are in bed,
STARDINES still twinkle overhead.
In silence, these nocturnal fish
Are set to grant the slightest wish.
CHORMORANTS are busy birds
That toil from sun to sun.
They labor over senseless chores
They’re certain must be done.
They work at this, they work at that,
And never think to ask
If they accomplish anything
With any pointless task.
To tattle repeatedly—
Truly you’re mean.
You’re nosy, annoying,
You’re venomous, vile.
You don’t mind your business,
We don’t like your style.
The most interesting poem to me is the last one, "Bardvarks," which I will include in its entirety:
BARDVARKS think they’re poets
And persist in writing rhyme.
Their words are uninspired
And a total waste of time.
But BARDVARKS do not know this,
So not only do they write
With unbearable pretension—
They incessantly recite.
BARDVARKS have no talent
For composing simple verse.
They don’t improve with practice
And in fact are getting worse.
Undeterred, they keep on writing
And reciting every day.
That’s why BARDVARKS are a problem—
You can’t make them go away.
One wonders if perhaps the poet is being ironic about his own work, but then, I’m more inclined to think that he is genuinely picturing certain people who are determined to write poetry but are too proud to make needed improvements to their work. A poor use of rhyme is a common problem. I will just tell you that the note I’ve put at the top of the new poetry collection I’m writing is “Less rhymey-rhymey thump thump.” Ahem.
At any rate, Pretlutsky’s poems are a lot of fun, though I think most kids will need a little help identifying some of the root animals and habits, particularly the wapiti and the cormorant. But I know they'll like finding out.
It’s important to note that Carin Berger’s artwork is utterly intriguing. Each creature is treated as an item in the catalog of a natural history museum. That is, each poem is printed on a card that is pinned to a board with four actual pins and given a neat label. The fonts on each card and label have the look of old card catalog listings. On or across the page is a specimen in a display box—but each specimen is created from mixed media and is in fact a nice mixture befitting the portmanteau word. For example, the stardines are cut from gold paper and look like fish crossed with shooting stars. These are physically elevated, shown soaring above a star map.
The nice thing about word play is that it is a challenge both creatively and intellectually. Children will no doubt enjoy reading this collection, but they should also take up the challenge for themselves.
Poetry Prompts: Of course students can come up with their own portmanteau creatures, poems, and artwork. They might want to apply the somewhat cautionary tone of some of the poems here. This task is more difficult than it might seem at first glance. I would suggest starting with a list of possible qualities or activities and then finding animal names to match rather than the other way round.
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis
The other two books are playful, but this book is grand in tone. This is not to say that the poems are inaccessible, and you will find a few flashes of humor. But each poem tells about a civil rights leader or leaders, so for the most part the poems have a dignity and weight that suit their topics.
Lewis uses a variety of poetic forms that I’ll admit I can’t identify at a glance—I did see a couple of sonnets, a villanelle, and a few free verse poems. Like the poetic forms, the artwork varies in that there are five different illustrators: Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonoya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So. This creates a rich feel to the series of page spreads. I especially like Meilo So's illustration for "The Auntie," Jim Burke's illustration for "The Slugger," Tonya Engel's illustration for "The Innocent," John Parra's illustration for "The Captive," and R. Gregory Christie's illustration for "The First."
The following is a complete list of poem titles and topics:
“The Activist”—Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife and civil rights activist
“The Auntie”—Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese pro-democracy activist under house arrest for many years; Nobel Peace Prize 1991
“The Slugger”—Josh Gibson, outstanding black Baseball Hall of Famer who played in the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier
“The Innocent”—Mamie Carthan Till, mother of young murder victim Emmett Till, who was killed in Mississippi in a hate crime in 1955
“The Voice of the Voiceless”—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, great leader for India’s independence and an advocate for women and the oppressed “untouchables” class
“The Captive”—Mitsuye Endo, a Japanese American woman interned during WWII
“Freedom Summer”—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers ambushed and murdered by the KKK in Mississippi in 1964
“The Journalist”—Helen Zia, Chinese American activist and journalist
“The Astronaut”—Ellison Onizuka, Japanese American (and first Asian American) astronaut who died in the Challenger accident
“The Long Walker”—Dennis James Banks, cofounder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Anishinabe political activist
“The Crusader”—Harvey Milk, first openly gay man elected to public office in California; assassinated in 1978
“Banker to the Poor”—Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi banker who launched the micro-loan program in Asia to help the very poor; Nobel Peace Prize 2006
“The Statesmen”—Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for nearly 30 years for being an activist in South Africa; eventually freed and became the country’s first black president; Nobel Peace Prize 1993
“The First”—Jackie Robinson, first African American playing baseball for the major leagues
“The Child”—Sylvia Mendez, who as a child helped win the case against segregated “Mexican schools” in California in 1946, paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education
These are amazing stories, and the poems have to be powerful to tell them. J. Patrick Lewis has done justice to this list of heroes—and make no mistake, these are heroes. The book ends with an author’s note telling more about each civil rights leader.
But I should give you some excerpts. In “The Auntie,” about imprisoned Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Lewis contrasts her imprisonment with the General and his life of ease:
When I refused food to protest my detention,
the new General stuffed himself on mangoes
and banana pudding.
When a cyclone flicked off the roof of my prison
like the Queen of Hearts, turning my life to shame
and candle, the General had a mole removed.
Lewis’s poem about Gandhi focuses on his work in behalf of the outcast “untouchables.” The poem concludes majestically:
For we are not the ones to say
What will erode and what endure,
Where the iron, where the clay,
Who the foul and who the pure.
And here are the last few stanzas of Lewis’s poem, “The Child”:
Aunt Sally took her there once.
Eyes sharp as icepicks pierced
the windowpanes as if seeing
a Mexican for the first time.
Every door was locked with a
secret combination of frowns.
How can anyone ever get in?
Sylvia asked. Someone must know
who has the right key…
She looked up at her mother.
These poems will help young readers find the key to becoming people who really can change the world. They will show them what true heroes are like.
Poetry Prompts: Students can find out about other activists and write poems about them. Or they can learn more about these heroes and write new poems about different aspects of their lives. They could also try the different poetry forms from the collection. Or they could write poems about their own reactions to the collection, or just poems about what it means to be a hero.
Note: In general, I recommend having students write in free or blank verse rather than in rhyme. Rhyme tends to distract young writers from what they would like to say and is easy to botch (see note about Prelutsky poem above). It's more productive to help young writers focus on strong metaphors, nouns, verbs, and, in the case of biographical poems, incidents than on rhyme.