May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Painting Pictures with Words | Books for National Poetry Month

These recently published poetry offerings will captivate elementary age students with their enchanting blend of eloquent words and eye-grabbing images. Shared in the classroom, these books can be used to introduce curriculum topics, encourage effective listening skills, and initiate discussion of language usage. With less emphasis on grammar rules and a more playful point of view, poems can also help youngsters find their voice, and these examples provide inspiration for writing projects and encouragement for reluctant writers.

A Magnificent Moment in Nature
among a thousand firefliesAs female firefly “steps into a flower” on a star-filled summer night, the lights of other insects flicker on and off all around her, “One flash./Three./Seven./Eleven./Twenty./Hundreds./Thousands./Countless bright flashes.” How will she find her mate Among a Thousand Fireflies (2016; K-Gr 4)? Helen Frost’s simple yet lyrical free-form poem and Rick Lieder’s stunning photos artfully convey how these two creatures are drawn to each other, their lights signaling and “pulsing through the night,” until, “At last,/they meet.” The handsome photographs blend crisp close-ups of these surprisingly expressive beetles framed by softer-focus backdrops of blossoms, grass, and purple sky, mingling sharp realism with an imagination-stirring sense of wonder. The fireflies’ lights make dazzling focal points—shining sun-bright against the insects’ darker bodies, painting streaks of yellow motion across a nighttime forest, reflecting off a pale-pink flower petal. Time seems to stand still as youngsters are drawn into this mesmeric, magical, miracle of nature. This breathtaking book can be shared as part of a study of insects (an author’s note provides more info about fireflies and their flash), an example of the importance of looking closely at small marvels, and impetus for thinking about the interconnectedness of living things. Be sure to check out Frost and Lieder’s two other outstanding offerings, Step Gently Out (2012) and Sweep Up the Sun (2015, all Candlewick).

Season by Season
when greenJulie Fogliano and Julie Morstad chronicle a year’s worth of sights, sounds, and surprises in When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Roaring Brook, 2016; K-Gr 4). Dated entries begin and end on March 20, when a lone bird sings from a snow-dappled tree, “each tweet poking/a tiny hole/through the edge of winter/and landing carefully/balancing gently/on the tip of spring.” The short poems, written in a variety of styles, evoke the essence of each season, fusing concrete descriptions of discernable outdoor transformations with relatable references to the emotional reactions wrought by each time period. Much of the language incorporates the senses, making the imagery delightfully accessible to readers (spring means tasting “…the sunshine/and the buzzing/and the breeze/while eating berries off the bush/on berry hands/and berry knees”). Other poems urge youngsters to open their minds to broader ideas (in summertime, “if you want to be sure/that you are nothing more than small/stand at the edge of the ocean/looking out”). Filled with soft colors and exquisite details, the gouache-and-pencil-crayon illustrations depict a dark-haired girl and her friends as they observe, experience, and react to their ever-changing world. This lovely collection of poems can inspire children to look more closely at the seasons and nature, and serve as an example for writing and illustrating poetry or personal-narratives.

Word Paintings
wet cementBob Raczka explains in his introduction to Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems (Roaring Brook, 2016; Gr 2-6): “I like to think of poems as word paintings. A poet uses words like colors to paint picture inside your head.” He succeeds with this collection, masterfully concocting 21 concrete poems (words are presented in a shape that complements the poem’s meaning) and providing each with a one-word title that arranges individual letters to the same effect. The offerings are both visually clever and compellingly kid friendly. For example, the title for “Clock” has been arranged so that the “L” is moved atop the “O” to make it look like a clock face with hands set to three, while the poem, also laid out in clock shape, reads, “The/ clock/ on/ the/ wall/ says/ it’s/ five/ ‘til/ three/ but/ the kids in my class say/ it’s five ‘til free.” Though still decidedly concrete, some of the selections are more fanciful; for “Lightning,” printed in white across a night-black backdrop, the “L” and “I” of the title have been arranged into a bolt shape, while the similarly formatted poem reads: “from a bad mood sky,/tears,/then a jag-/ged/slash-/ing flash of anger,/ear-/splitting,/obnoxious/a cloud tantrum.” Readers will enjoy decoding these inventive selections, viewing familiar words with fresh eyes, and creating word paintings of their own.

Mesmerizing Myths
echoIn Echo Echo: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths (2016; Gr 3-7), Marilyn Singer revisits the ingenious poetry form that she created and utilized for two fairytale-themed volumes, Mirror Mirror (2010) and Follow Follow (2013, all Dial). These poems can be read from top to bottom and then in reverse order with the same wording but slightly different punctuation and a completely different meaning. Mostly treating pairs of characters (“Perseus and Medusa,” “Theseus and Ariadne,” “Eurydice and Orpheus,” etc.), the selections effectively tell two sides of the same story, playing with word usage, highlighting parallels, and exploring point of view. Shimmering with rich blues, greens, and golds, Josée Masse’s full-page acrylic paintings utilize symmetry and mirror images to echo and expand the nuances of the poem pairings. In one scene, vain Narcissus, “the most beautiful of youths—/a flower among men,” gazes elatedly at his own reflection in a pond, while a shadowy Echo covers her eyes in despair. Another spread shows a callously triumphant Athena holding up one corner of a tapestry, her symbolic owl regally adorning the material, while the other half of the wall-hanging, made of loose-woven cobweb, does little to obscure a terrified Arachne, her limbs already transformed into spider form. A brief summary of the featured myth is included on each spread, providing enough detail for comprehension and enticing youngsters to read further. In addition to powering imaginations and introducing Greek mythology, these gems can be used to study narrative sequence, wordplay, and point of view.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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