Tackling complex topics with poetry may seem counterintuitive, but this may just be the off-center approach students need when trying to gasp big ideas and concepts. These selections employ a variety of styles and techniques to provide information while imparting a deeper truth—a less tangible and definable narrative. Argueta likens those seeking refuge to clouds, Bryan uses portraiture to reconstruct the lives of those lost to slavery, and Kaneko’s verse inspired nearly one million volunteers to come to the aid of tsunami victims. All these works are a call for empathy and compassion and necessary reads for students engaged with our nation’s past, the refugee experience, and the power of self and nature.
Argueta, Jorge. Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds. tr. from Spanish by Elisa Amado. illus. by Alfonso Ruano. 36p. Groundwood. Oct. 2016. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781554988495. BL
Gr 3-6 –Argueta likens the spirit of refugee and immigrant children from Central America and Mexico to the movement of clouds in this collection of bilingual poetry. Some of these poems successfully evoke the fear and anxiety generated by this exodus from violence and privation. The portrayal of the tattooed Salvadoran gangs in “El barrio la campanera” is particularly visceral. But most of the poems skirt the edge of urgency, creating an emotional disconnect. Apprehension by the U.S. border patrol is a dreaded terror refugees pray to avoid. But the poem “Nos presentamos a la patrulla” (“We Introduce Ourselves to the Border Patrol”) couches the nightmare in terms of an innocuous meet-and-greet. In an introductory poem, “Mi barrio,” the author describes a rooster eating a Popsicle (“paleta”), but Ruano features the rooster with a lollipop—the alternate definition of the word. This misinterpretation disrupts the cyclical nature of the Popsicle motif carried forth into the concluding poem. Furthermore, the brutal march across the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts claims countless lives every year, but the image depicted implies that the crossing is nothing more onerous than a day hike. VERDICT Despite flaws, this is a jumping-off point for elementary classroom discussions of refugees and immigration.
Bryan, Ashley. Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan. illus. by Ashley Bryan. 56p. reprods. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481456906.
Gr 4-6 –Using real documents from an estate appraisal dated July 5, 1828, Bryan has created beautiful portrait paintings for 11 people who were named and priced as property on the Fairchildses’ estate (the documents are reproduced fully in the endpapers and in segments throughout the work). Relying on narrative poetry to explore each figure’s inner and outer life, Bryan gives voice to their history, their longing for freedom, and their skills as artisans, cooks, musicians, carpenters, etc. Each person has two visual portraits, with each accompanied by a poem (on the opposite page). Collaged historical documents of slave auctions fill the negative space of the first portrait frame. The second portrait depicts that person in a private dream, often a dream for safety, family, community, or the freedom to create. Peggy, a self-taught expert herbalist and cook for the Fairchildses, knows that although she works hard, everything goes to the estate. She dreams of her Naming Day ceremony and her parents calling to her, “Mariama! Mariama!” Each portrait reflects the role of song, call-and-response, ceremony, spirituality, community, and griots in living a double life—doing what was demanded while keeping close in their hearts the “precious secret,” the constant yearning for freedom. Expertly crafted, these entries will deeply resonate with readers. Referenced in the poems are slave independence in Haiti, the drinking gourd, the North Star, and songs such as “Oh, by and By,” “This Little Light,” and “Oh Freedom.” VERDICT A significant contribution to U.S. and African American history that will elicit compassion and understanding while instilling tremendous pride. A must-purchase for all collections.
Kaneko, Misuzu. Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. tr. from Japanese by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, & Michiko Tsuboi. illus. by Toshikado Hajiri. 64p. Chin Music. Sept. 2016. Tr $19.50. ISBN 9781634059626. BL
Gr 3-7 –This sensitively crafted picture book offers a glimpse into the life and work of Japanese poet Kaneko (1903–30). Accompanied by colorful, soft illustrations, the first half recounts Kaneko’s short life along with a selection of her poems that thematically complement the text. The second half is a larger (also illustrated) collection of her poems in English and Japanese. Young Misuzu is described as a sensitive, inquisitive child; her family encouraged her love of reading and education. When she was 20, her first poems were published and were well received. She would go on to write more than 500 poems. The narrative covers the many challenges Kaneko faced. (She committed suicide at the age of 26.) Framing Kaneko’s life story is the account of Setsuo Yazaki, who worked tirelessly to track down and preserve her poetry after it fell into obscurity. Kaneko’s brief poems express kinship with the world: sleepy telephone poles, fish, grieving orphaned whale calves, and more. Poems like “The Cicada’s Clothes” and “Dewdrop” convey a childlike sense of wonder: “Let’s not tell anyone./In the corner of the garden this morning,/a flower shed a tear.” Even in translation, her work has an elegant simplicity and clarity. VERDICT This wonderfully illustrated book stresses the positive legacy of Kaneko’s tragic life. A recommended purchase for all collections, especially those with an interest in international poetry.