April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Poetry of Earth and Stars


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What could be better for training for close observation than science and poetry in combination? Here are a handful of picture books with poems and illustrations that illuminate nature and science both far away and in our own backyards.

Otherworldly Rhymes

Out of this World: Poems and Facts about Space by Amy E. Sklansky, illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Knopf, 2012; Gr 3-5) begins on Earth with “Countdown” (“T-minus: 10/9/8/Seat belt tightening./7/6/Knuckles whitening…”) and an illustration of a spaceship’s blastoff as a child peeks through a porthole window. Next, author and illustrator move to the rings of the atmosphere, cleverly demonstrating their outward trajectory from the closest layer (“Troposphere”) to the farthest (“Exosphere/(I’m outta here!)/S P A C E”).

A fact appears on a sidebar for each of the volume’s 20 poems. Children learn, for instance, that the thermosphere is where the International Space Station orbits the Earth. The humorous and fascinating “Vacation Destination” imagines the pros and cons of a getaway on each of the planets (“It rarely rains on Mercury,/and I enjoy the Sun./Then again, there’s not much air,/and burning up’s no fun”), while the sidebar fills in the details for each (e.g., the average surface temperature on Mercury is 800° Fahrenheit).

A haiku contemplates a comet, while a swirling concrete poem describes a black hole, and the five verses of “Stargazing,” and the accompanying facts help readers locate key constellations. There’s plenty here to consider for both budding poets and scientists.

Animals of Extreme Climes

Back on earth, the animals that star in Marilyn Singer’s A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals that Call Them Home (Chronicle, 2012; Gr 4-8), may make children feel as if they’re living on an alien planet. Penguins in Peru? Monkeys that live in snow? Flamingos foregoing palm trees for salt flats? In these 14 poems, readers discover seemingly hostile habitats for animals known and unknown.

Most children are aware that mountain goats live where the atmosphere is thin, but Ed Young’s breathtaking collage-art pictures a furry fellow mid-leap, which can be as high as 12 feet, according to the author’s endnotes. Singer wittily pairs “A Fish in the Air: Mudskippers”—about a tropical fish that can walk on land due to bendable fins—with “A Bird in Water: Dippers,” the only songbird that can dive, swim, and feed underwater (“Gray as wet slate,/bathtub-toy small,/the dipper dares/the waterfall/ to snatch a mayfly”).

In “Down in the Depths,” children will be fascinated by tube worms, which can grow to eight feet long and thrive near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Young’s marble-blue backdrop shows their dramatic scale by featuring the giant worms next to a vent crab, one of its few predators. In addition to the informative endnotes, Singer provides a guide to the poetic forms she’s used, including a cinquain and villanelle, along with the well-known haiku and sonnet.

Plumbing the Depths

David Elliott and Holly Meade’s In the Sea (Candlewick, 2012; K-Gr 4) invites readers on a deep dive into the ocean. Children may consider the subject of “The Sea Turtle,” which swims for 30 years before returning to its birthplace, in a new light when they read Elliott’s meditation on it: “Rare instrument of nature,/fair compass in a carapace.” The poet uses similarly lyrical phrasing of fact to ponder “The Shark,” whose cavernous mouth in Meade’s woodblock print and watercolor illustration drives home the impact of the poem’s last lines: “The fin,/the skin,/the brutal grin…/The terror/of the dark within.”

Like Singer’s exploration of the symbiotic relationship between tapeworms and the bacteria they host in “Down in the Depths,” Elliot emphasizes the interconnectedness of sea life in a trio of poems about coral reef, anemone, and the clown fish, which is “not an enemy/of anemone;/in fact, it is anemone’s maid,/for which anemone/stings its enemies./And that’s how friends are made.” In the Sea builds to a climax with “The Blue Whale,” which dominates the horizon line in Meade’s illustration, as it “sings a chanty deep and slow/of winds that rage and storms that blow.” In one brief selection, Elliott and Meade demonstrate how this “largest animal alive” has earned its place as the stuff of legends.

Close-Up Photos

Photographs of ubiquitous creatures paired with poems prompt us to take a closer look in Bug Off!: Creepy Crawly Poems by Jane Yolen, photos by Jason Stemple (Boyds Mills, 2012; Gr 3-5). The mother-son team behind Birds of a Feather (Wordsong, 2011) here turns their attention to oft-overlooked insects and spiders. Even children who take pains to avoid these creatures will appreciate the tiny beings’ roles in these often humorous rhymes and their beauty in these stunning close-up images.

Yolen does for her subject what Sklansky does for space; she uses a variety of poetic forms, and couples each selection with brief facts. She helps readers differentiate between insects, spiders, and in-between species such as a daddy longlegs (“How do you know/Which leg goes first?/Are all your walking moves/Rehearsed?”). Alongside her first poem, “Oh, Fly” (“[o]h you are/ a lovely fly./Just/do not go/and multiply”), with its photo of a house fly with a shimmering pair of wings, the author helps readers distinguish between the orders of a species. Flies in the order Diptera, meaning “two” (di) “wings” (ptera), are known as “true” flies, while others, despite the “fly” in their names (such as dragonflies and mayflies) are not. Later in the volume, a poem (“Dragonfly Lights”) coupled with Stemple’s photo of a dragonfly’s four wings “of dark-stained glass,” reinforces her point.

Yolen also touches on the relationship between science and myth with “Spider to the Poet”: alongside a glorious photo of a green and yellow arachnid spinning a web against an emerald green background, she includes a succinct summary of the Greek myth of Arachne.

A Child’s Guide to Nature

Divided into seasons, Nicola Davies’s Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature (Candlewick, 2012; PreS-Gr 3), celebrates nature at our fingertips. Davies begins with spring, urging children to notice the icicles melting (“Drip! Drip! Drip!”) and bulbs sprouting, as Mark Hearld’s mixed-media illustration depicts shoots emerging from soft tufts of grass, blue stalactite-like ice formations melting under an orange ball of sun, and a cat watching life emerging all around him from the confines of his yard. Davies describes how rain can “unmix the colors” in sunlight to form a rainbow. In summer, the poem “Flowers” appears opposite “Honey,” connecting how “the bees bring nectar from the flowers/for miles around”—an ideal pairing about the interconnectedness of species to examine alongside both Singer’s “Down in the Depths” and Elliot’s trio of poems about coral, anemones and clown fish.

Davies gently suggests independent activities for children. She points to the worlds to be discovered through “pond dipping” with a net, “tide pooling” at the beach, a garden of delights that can be cultivated on a balcony, a recipe for berry crumble alongside her poem “Berry Picking,” and a guide on how to compost, save seeds, and make fodder for bird feeders. The volume also reinforces the cycle of the seasons, with “little birds” that migrate back in the spring, and geese that go “somewhere warmer” in the fall. Hearld imagines an autumn poem about the importance of worms just beyond the yard where that same black cat watched the icicles melt in the spring. Together they take budding scientists and poets full circle.


The titles and activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:

RL.K.4. Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

RI.K.7. With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the text in which they appear (e.g., what person, place, thing, or idea in the text an illustration depicts).

RL.1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

RL.1.4. Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

RL 2.4. Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

RL 2.6 Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.

RL 3.5 Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

RL 6.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.

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  1. And don’t forget NASTY BUGS (Dial), illustrated by Will Terry.

  2. Another excellent book is Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, with illustrations by Rick Allen.

  3. Fran Holtzman says:

    When it comes to bugs/insects I feel Lee Bennett Hopkins’s Nasty Bugs is the best on the subject.
    My classroom won’t leave the book alone for a minute!