Apr 21, 2017

Revisiting MYRA COHN LIVINGSTON, an Amazing Poet

Myra Cohn Livingston
If that's not a name you recognize, click on it and get a brief  introduction to a remarkable poet, teacher, and literary icon. Selections from her poems are featured on countless poetry websites, ranked alongside works by other timeless and amazing poets. The quality of poetry she produced in her lifetime is breathtaking. They stand up well over time and many titles become favorites of new readers.

One collaborator who produced memorable poetry picture books with Livingston is painter Leonard Everett Fischer. Together, they created themed titles, including the SONG series:
EARTH SONGS, SEA SONGS, SKY SONGS, and SPACE SONGS. All were published during the 1980s by Holiday House but are now out-of-print. Fortunately, copies of several titles are still offered online as used books and many remain on library shelves, so they can be accessed and explored. 
I hope many readers here will seek out these titles. With increased interest, perhaps a publisher would consider reissuing the collection. It would be a timely pursuit, since Livingston was decades ahead of the current trend in creating  picture book content for established readers that is based on content area subject matter. 

In the case of this series, the topics are evident in the titles. Fischer's paintings are deeply saturated double-page spreads with intense eye-appeal. They enhance the depth and scope of Livingston's free verse creations, which sometimes take specific forms and patterns (shape/concrete poems, limericks, etc.).

The books are designed to feature one poem per double spread, often using white text on the dark paintings. Each selection merits full attention, offering  a range of reflections within each broad topic. 
For example, in SKY SONGS, the poems progress as follows: Moon, Stars, The Planets, Shooting Stars, Noon, Clouds, Coming Storm, Storm, Tornado, Smog, Snow, Rain, and Sunset. 

Even those poem titles reveal that these provide a feet-in-the-sand perspective on the atmosphere in which we live. That approach yields a surprisingly emotional and personal response to the life above the crust in which we are all immersed.

Here's one example:

STORM

You must
be so angry
when you grumble and growl.
Even the wind breathes heavily
along

the ground
as you boil the
black clouds in steaming pots
to feed the skinny white creatures 
fighting

over 
the earth, stretching
out their crooked legs to
touch the trees, hurling down sharp forks
of fire.



Livingston was a noted teacher and literary guide for those learning to write poetry. Her book, POEM-MAKING: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry, is a small but thoroughly detailed guide to the nuts and bolts of poetry forms, structures, and writing as well as offering exercises and examples for beginners to explore. Her collections offer countless examples of mentor text and quality that inspire both novice and expert writers.
Many others have followed in her poetic feet, directly or indirectly. This approach to creating compilations of superb poems on a particular subject can be found in  FRESH PICKED POETRY: A DAY AT THE FARMERS' MARKET, featured here, or FREEDOM OVER ME, featured here. Joyce Sidman's  work, like UBIQUITOUS and SWIRL BY SWIRL, and books by many other poets assure that Livingston's legacy lives on.

Apr 18, 2017

Sunny, Springy Selections: Fruits, Veggies, and Farmers' Markets

The sun is shining, temperatures are rising, and my in-box just announced that the local farmers market will open in two weeks. As it happens, this lovely selection happens to be on the top of my ever-growing stack of poetry to share. There's no better time to share it than this very moment! 


Charlesbridge, 2017

FRESH-PICKED POETRY: A Day at the Farmers' Market was written by Michelle Schaub and illustrated by Amy HuntingtonWith humor, delightful word choice, colorful  and diverse illustrations, and a variety of poetic forms, this day-at-a-Farmers' Market poetry collection unfolds with huge appeal. Forms vary, providing multiple mentor text samples, and each is an impressive poem of intricate rhythm, rhyme, and rationale. 

The poems are as rousing as the sun-rising start, romping kids and dogs, and the tempting fruits, veggies, and bakery on display. The ongoing visual narratives of multi-generational and diverse two- and -four-footed folks offer rich invitations to browse the action as thoroughly as shoppers peruse the produce. 

Beach Lane Books, 2011
Pair this with other treats for the tongue, rollicking romps celebrating healthy, natural foods that please the ear as well as the palette. I recommend April Pulley Sayre's poetry in all it's variations, but especially urge you to explore GO-GO-GRAPES: A Fruit Chant,  and RAH, RAH, RADISHES: A Vegetable Chant.  Her rhyming text is as crisp, patterned, rhythmic, and symmetrical as the fruit and veggies it celebrates.
Beach Lane Books, 2012



 Her photography combines color, shape, patterns, cultures, numbers, comparisons... and more in vibrant books that even include brief end matter, as does FRESH-PICKED POETRY.  

Bon Apetit!

Apr 13, 2017

Voices of Joy, Voices of Freedom

After several posts about some of my "old-timey" poetry favorites, (here, here, and here) let's flip the focus to more-recent  poetry publications. There are plenty of blogs that make this their core mission, including suggested activities and lessons. One example you'll want to know about is THE POEM FARM, by children's author and writing teacher, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.

As for this blog, I've featured poetry collections and reflections in the past, but I'm approaching this series with more frequent and varied poetry posts. In this case I'd like to share two different collections of poems for children by African-American artists. In the first case, the anthology was released in 1991 A quarter century later, in 2016, a book in which the voices of slaves are interpreted was created by author/artist Ashley Bryan.


Scholastic Anthology, 1991
MAKE A JOYFUL SOUND: Poems for Children by African-American Poets, was skillfully edited by Deborah Slier, and delightfully illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. In the past few years there has been widespread attention to the very real, even urgent, need for books by diverse creators. This collection, released in 1991, decades before that movement, includes poems by African-American authors whose copyright dates stretch as far back as 1956 (Gwendolyn Brooks), 1951 (Langston Hughes), and even 1927 (Countee Cullen). 
In Ruby Dee's introduction she says..."(poetry is)....sharing our most profound and personal living spaces with people who then go from being strangers to being co-travelers on life's marvelous excursions into better understandings. It can lead to action. It can lead to love."
If you are somehow unaware of the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS movement within the creating/publishing/circulating world of books for young readers, this is from their website:
OUR MISSION Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children. 
OUR VISION A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.

This is often paraphrased as providing ALL readers with books that can serve as both windows and mirrors. 

What I love most about this collection is that the language, illustrations, topics, and emotional experiences are a thousand-percent universal, demonstrating clearly that the human race is the underlying status of all races. Here's an example:


September
By Lucille Clifton
I already know where Africa is
and I already know how to 
count to ten and
I went to school every day last year, 
why do I have to go again?

For every child who eagerly lays out a back-to-school outfit and supplies, maybe even days in advance of school resuming, there are equal numbers of kids who share the sentiment in the above poem. 

With many formal book structures (table of contents, title index, author index, first line index,  and brief bios of poets, MAKE A JOYFUL SOUND should be included in every classroom and home collection. At a minimum, it should circulate out of libraries at a furious pace, leading to additional explorations of original works and collections by the various featured authors.
A Caitlin Dlouhy Book
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016

Then there's FREEDOM OVER ME: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by ASHLEY BRYAN.  "Brought to life by" is a perfect description of this creation by multi-award-winning author/illustrator Ashley Bryan. 
In his author's note, Bryan describes having acquired a collection of slave-related objects. He chose one from among them-- a legal document that outlines the estate of a man named Fairchilds.
Bryan drew from the very spare content in that document, one which referred to enslaved people as "boy" or "girl" regardless of age, one which enumerates those lives as possessions in the same categories as cows, cotton, and hogs. Each human life was listed with a name and price, but no other reference to age or description or special talents were described. 

That spare content and Bryan's knowledge of history became the foundation for eleven portraits, ones in which he infused life into those who had no control over their own destiny. He then studied and listened to the persons he had envisioned, imagining their daily lives and inner voices. Documents and clippings of those times are embedded within the free verse voices and images of those lives. 

So, one very recent collection dips further back in time, and an older anthology rises to prove itself timeless and timely in a pro-diversity landscape. Both merit attention, sharing, and some eager encouragement. 

Celebrate this NATIONAL LIBRARY WEEK by seeking these out in a library near you, then thanking those library workers for the amazing ways in which they keep old and new books alive, waiting to reach you when you arrive.





Apr 10, 2017

More Timeless Poetry Collections: John Ciardi

My previous post referenced the powerful role of Edward Lear's poetry and line drawings in my early reading life, particularly in my library habits (here). That leads naturally  to this post about another of my favorite poets, John Ciardi. 

Like Lear, Ciardi wrote for a wide range of audiences, but his poetry for  the young was written directly for his own children. Unlike Lear, who often inserted delightfully unexpected and challenging word choices, in at least one collection Ciardi set out to create poems using fewer than five hundred of the earliest sight words for beginners. He was on a mission to become his own children's favorite author, drawing on some of the same elements that made Lear's poems a hit more than a century earlier. Ciardi's poems demonstrate mastery of those elements: rhythm, rhyme,  humor, and wry irony.

YOU READ TO ME, I'LL READ TO YOU, by John Ciardi, with drawings by Edward Gorey, is one of my favorites from among his collections. Gorey's line art is as fanciful and intricate as Lear's, enhancing the comic and compelling storytelling within Ciardi's work. Here's a cheeky example, which is  a screenshot of only one side of a double page spread. You'll have to get the book to see what the Shark is doing on the facing page.


Of all the poems I've shared with kids (of any age), ones from this specific collection continued to be favorites across many decades. They feature young characters with a tongue-in-cheek, cautionary tone, balancing a fine line between being sassy and sublime. 




Other titles offering Ciardi gems are I MET A MAN, illustrated by Robert Osborn (1961), and DOODLE SOUP, illustrated by Merle Nacht (1985).

In I MET A MAN, poems range from three lines to double page spreads. They offer a simple, gentle humor, but are nonetheless charming and they invite recitation. Here's an example:



THE SLEEPY MAN
I met a man that looked about
As sleepy as he could without
Falling over and starting to snore.

If he ever wakes up, I'll tell you some more!

The poems in Doodle Soup tend toward longer, more complex, perhaps aiming for a slightly older audience. Even so, the flawless rhyming and driving rhythms appeal to all ages. An example:

SOMETIMES IT PAYS TO BACK UP
It doesn't do to push too hard
     Against an elephant or a mule
When it's pushing back. If it gains a yard
     You lose one, as a general rule.

If you lose two, it's on top of you,
     If you stand fast. And that
Could weigh on your mind until you find
    You feel like nothing in nothing flat.

Irresistible, right?  I sincerely hope that's how you'll feel about it. These collections have been so popular for so many years that some have been republished in paperback and book club editions, while older copies are readily available from secondary markets. Add them to your family and classroom collections. If you know these and use them with young readers, please chime in with your opinions! If not, get to it, folks. 






Apr 6, 2017

A Poetry Throw-Back-Thursday: Edward Lear

I plunged into this series of poetry posts with some personal notes. In that post I mentioned childhood memories of the limited and outdated poetry section of my public library. The meager offerings in the  children's fiction and nonfiction sections held little temptation for rereading. Not so for the poetry "section". I must have signed my name on the check-out line of some of those poetry books a half-dozen times or more. The few shelves of poems were filled with collections by long-dead or aging poets, but  the life in their words generated smiles and tickled my ears even after multiple readings.

I also enjoyed collections by Ogden Nash but, by far, my favorites were those of Edward Lear. I recently purchased a tattered copy of a compilation of Lear's nonsense poems, including his original A BOOK OF NONSENSE (1846). His humorous limericks and comical line drawings were hugely popular when first published. I found them every bit as appealing more than a century later as I sat, knees near chin, on a tiny,splintered, hard-wood chair under buzzing fluorescent lights in the corner of the library allotted to children. 

Thankfully, even by the mid-fifties, the children's versions were reprinted in bi-color with larger print and  illustrations enlarged to reveal the intricacies of what should not be seen as incidental detail. Each decade that followed enhanced and colorized Lear's collections further. Kids DO judge books by their covers, and the updates allowed them to find and explore these classics across countless generations.

Limericks were Lear's specialty. His prolific offerings were published in a variety of collections, emphasizing everything from the alphabet to botany to music. 
Perhaps his most famous limerick is "There Was An Old Man With a Beard." It has been re-illustrated and recited in countless ways, and still elicits giggles from children who hear it for the first time. 
It's hard to imagine any illustrator surpassing the appeal of his original work:

Lear's work remains popular and invites reinvention and interpretation in contemporary publishing, more than two hundred years after Lear's birth. 
1998


THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT by Edward Lear ,with pictures by James Marshall offered a delightful approach in 1998. It includes an thoughtful afterward by Maurice Sendak. Perhaps because of my exposure and early dedication to Lear's original style, I tend to prefer his clever line drawings above the more recent adaptations. Yet some, like this one, are unquestionably winners.


2011

Another even more recent reinvention (2011) comes in the form of HIS SHOES WERE FAR TOO TIGHT by Edward Lear, masterminded by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Calef Brown. I wrote about this magical intersection of three geniuses in one of the earliest posts on this blog, here.

The centuries-long endurance of Lear's poetry appeal, in original states and in reinterpretations across decades, is a testament to their value. Anyone who wants to "hook" readers on poetry should consider starting with Lear, whose wry humor, witty word choices, and musical meter set a high bar for all who followed, including kids' favorites like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

If you have LLear favorites or memories, please share them in the comments.

Apr 1, 2017

Picture Book Perspectives on Poetry Classics

Screen shot of some of the series covers from www.sterlingpublishing.com
A remarkable series was developed by Sterling Publishing in the 1990's: POETRY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. Soon after, Scholastic Books began offering a paperback edition of each title, and they've continued to sell well ever since. 
The concept is brilliant: 
Each picture book title features works by a well-known, well-respected poet.
Each title has its own editor and illustrator. 
Each opens with a few pages of solid text, offering a brief biographical and historical reflection on that poet. Those pages are followed by richly illustrated double page spreads that enhance the featured poems. The editors present a few lines of background about each poem, followed by specific/challenging vocabulary words, noted and simply defined below the body of the poem.



Each makes the poet featured an accessible, empathetic writer whose work is suddenly relevant and engaging. 

A few of the more recent releases have focused on themes with anthologies from various poets: THE SEASONS, ANIMAL POEMS.

I urge everyone, but especially educators for any age, to explore and use these books. Poetry, with it's very low word count, shares powerful ideas. It requires the deepest and most intense cooperation from readers, along with an emotional investment. 

That need not be a solemn experience, nor a struggle. I've never yet met a reader who could encounter a Jack Prelutsky or Shel Silverstein poem without becoming an immediate fan. That "humor hook" is only one of the many emotional lures that are provided to readers in the pages of this collection. The illustration elaborations suggest those emotions and provide clues for interpretation when reading aloud, singly or in choral groups. 

My previous post on the importance of nursery rhymes was much longer than my typical posts. I'll compensate by keeping this one short. That allows more time for you to get your hands on these books. While you're at it, you might want to stop by The Poetry Foundation's  audio link, POETRY OFF THE SHELF, at which you can select from podcasts about a wide range of poets, many of which work well with the individual titles in this series. Their brief broadcasts provide simple background about the poet(s) during their own lives, and also suggest links and relevance of the poem's sentiments to our current lives.

Stay tuned for a Throw-Back-Thursday post about some of my classic favorites.



Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.