Poetry in the Air
By Stuart Mitchner
I still have the bound volume containing the first 20 issues of Classic Comics my parents gave me on my 7th birthday. Along with vivid graphic renditions of the likes of Moby-Dick and Gulliver’s Travels, I found poetry, everything from “Ojibwa War Songs” to Emily Dickinson’s “Railway Train,” pictured in the style of “The Little Engine That Could.” I also found Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” where “each sings what belongs to him or her and to none else,” and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which told me the world “which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams” has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
I doubt if Arnold’s message got through to me at 7 (what’s “certitude”?), but when I was moved by the poem years later in college, the feeling that I’d been there before deepened the experience. Poetry seemed to be a primal element, as much a part of life as the air we breathe. I felt it again at the same age during the singing of Christmas carols, breathing in the beauty of “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by” in “Little Town of Bethlehem.” Ten years later, when I discovered Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” there was a chill of recognition as I read “And little town thy streets for evermore / Will silent be.” I’d been there before, long ago, in another little town.
Issues of the Day
In this pandemic-haunted year, a number of new poetry books for children reflect issues ranging from slavery to social justice to environmental awareness.
One of the most appealing expressions of a time of loss, loneliness, and togetherness is Patrick Guest’s Windows (Starry Forest 2020), illustrated by Jonathan Bentley. Guest wrote the rhymed story at a time when he was forced to isolate from his family as a medical worker. The book begins: “Out the window, I can see a new world looking back at me. The streets are still, there are no crowds … but looking up, I see the clouds.”
A physiotherapist by day and a children’s book author by night, Guest lives in Melbourne, Australia. An award-winning illustrator of over 30 children’s books and the author and illustrator of four of his own, Bentley grew up in West Yorkshire, England.
The Wind of Slavery
Notable among recent releases is BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom (Candlewick Press 2020), a 2021 Newbery Honor Book by poet Carole Boston Weatherford, with illustrations by Michele Wood. Included are historical records and an introductory excerpt from Henry’s own writing as well as a timeline, notes from the author and illustrator, and a bibliography. The stanzas are six lines each, as here:
An autumn breeze blows maple leaves
While I sit on my mother’s lap.
Slavery is a cruel wind, she says,
Sweeping children away from parents,
Scattering families far and wide.
She shivers and holds me close.
A starred review from Kirkus says “Brown’s story never gets old, and this illustrated biography is rich in context and detail that make it heavier on history and better for slightly older readers than, for instance, Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson’s Henry’s Freedom Box (2007). Heartbreaking and legendary.”
A New York Times best-selling author and poet, Weatherford was named the 2019 Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award winner. Wood is an illustrator, painter, filmmaker, and designer whose numerous honors include a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
Marjorie Maddox’s I’m Feeling Blue, Too! (Resource Publications 2020) is a series of untitled poems on the color blue, accompanied by Philip Huber’s detailed, multi-textured illustrations. A blueberry becomes a “miniature morsel of midnight that pops” and a dragonfly “hums to the blue firs,” “strums with cicadas,” and “hovers by still lakes.” The book would be “a lovely addition to a library, according to School Library Journal, which lists it as a 2021 NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Notable Poetry Book.
A professor of English and creative writing at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, Maddox has published a dozen poetry collections, a story collection, and four children’s books. Huber is a Fulbright scholar and professor of art, also at Lock Haven.
Science, Nature, Poetry
Poet Leslie Bulion and illustrator Robert Meganck perform another cross-curricular celebration of science and poetry in Amphibian Acrobats (Peachtree 2020), which includes feats by frogs, toads, and salamanders. In a starred review, Kirkus finds it “a completely satisfying package” in which Meganck’s “wry cartoons amplify the humor. The backmatter, strong as the main text, serves young readers well .… Child readers and educators will find themselves enthralled by short, punchy poems and the science behind them.”
Nature is the subject of New Green Day by Antoinette Portis, with illustrations by the author (Neal Porter Books 2020). On each two-page spread, children can solve riddles about the animals, plants, and the weather encountered during a day outdoors. A New York Times review comments, “This poetic conversation with nature over the course of a new green day is friendly and familiar and fresh and surprising, and Portis’s evocative illustrations made with sumi ink, vine charcoal and leaf prints are as elegant and perfectly composed as a snail.”
New Green Day is a NCTE Notable Book in Poetry, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Junior Library Guild Selection. Portis is the author of many books for children, including Not a Box, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.
On Being Woke
Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Roaring Brook Press 2020) is a collection of poems edited by Mahogany L. Browne, a Cave Canem, Poets House, and Serenbe Focus Fellow alum whose books include Swag and #Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters or Less. The book’s purpose is to inspire kids to stay woke and become a new generation of activists. Contributing poets are Elizabeth Acevedo, the New York Times bestselling author of With the Fire on High and National Book Award-winning novel The Poet X and Olivia Gatwood, who has received national recognition for her poetry and writing workshops. Woke is illustrated by artist, designer, and photographer Theodore Taylor III, with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author, and Newbery Award Honoree, Jason Reynolds.
Vogue says, “This collection of poems by women of color covers topics relating to social justice, activism, discrimination and empathy, focusing on the need to speak out and inspiring middle-graders.”
Given my first Classic Comic reading of Walt Whitman, it was nice to see the continuum of poetry reaching from the 19th century to August 2021 in The World Below the Brine (Creative Editions), with illustrations by James Christopher Carroll. The poem was first published in 1860 in the group “Sea-Shore Memories,” later included in “Sea Drift” in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Using a single stanza format, Whitman pictures life within the ocean: “Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water.” Carroll’s other picture books include A Song, also published by Creative Editions.
Any time I want to revisit the days when poetry and songs and stories came together in tales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk, I pick up The All About Story Book (Cupples & Leon 1927) with illustrations by John B. Gruelle. Some other classics of the genre that come to mind are Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses with the Jessie Wilcox Smith illustrations and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, strikingly illustrated by the author himself.