Before poetry month comes to a close, I want to highlight some novels written in verse. Through a series of short poems, an author can tell an amazingly rich story, despite the limited scope for details and dialog.
Most recently, I read A Girl Named Mister, by Nikki Grimes, who is coming to KPL on May 9. The book combines sections in the voice of the title character with poems in the voice of the Virgin Mary, which are in a book Mister is reading during a challenging time.
One of my favorites is Sharon Creech's Love That Dog, which is written as the diary of a boy who is learning to love poetry. The title poem pays homage to a poem by Walter Dean Myers, and others throughout the book are modeled after other famous poems. Speaking of dogs, God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee imagines what it would be like if God had a life like an ordinary human.
All the novels in verse I've come across are written for children and young adults, but there is much in them to be appreciated for any reader. They seem particularly well suited to addressing difficult topics such as grief and the darker chapters of history, such as Jacqueline Woodson's memoir of growing up during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, Brown Girl Dreaming. Dana Walrath's Like Water on Stone takes place during the Armenian genocide.
Other authors who frequently write in verse include Kwame Alexander and Margarita Engle. Novels in verse are not a replacement for regular fiction, but like graphic novels, you can read through them quickly for the basic story, or better yet, you can linger to enjoy the nuances of language.
I suppose that one of the primary elements of a “classic” work is that it feels unsullied by the bearing of time, that it defies the swings of fashion, that it transcends the circumstances of its historical origin, and resists and survives the ideological checks often imposed upon its vision by contemporary optics. These works, while not encased in perfection or untouchable to fair and leveling criticisms, feel lively and relatable even as they grow distant from their author’s original conception. One of these books for me is Walt Whitman’s epoch poem Leaves of Grass.
Years after I first wandered through its sprawling breadth, I can still pick it up today and it will have something profound to say about me and about us. Whitman’s scope was both grand and granular, personal and universal, going where no American writer had previously gone and where few have tread since. His project was to mine the American project with both questions and answers, to boast of its unique exceptionalism and to expose its deeply woven flaws with beauty, intelligence and reverence. As a modern work, birthed over a half of the 19th century, it still holds up as a broad, crowded work of lyric genius that you can pick your way through, hopping around to ignore certain sections while zeroing in on others.
She’s been around a long time. She’s done her time and
speaks her mind. I heard her speak last spring and now whenever I read her works
I hear her voice while reading it. I can picture her talking about Amos ‘n’ Andy and why the show was popular as well as important to
Black families. In her book Chasing Utopia I can hear her
reaffirming my feelings about how fantastic Nina Simone was. Ms. Giovanni talks
about meeting Nina Simone in a bookstore in Harlem and that even though she was
famous she (Ms. Giovanni) invited her to a party. Her mother told her Nina
Simone is not coming to your party and Nina Simone came.
The best thing about poetry is that you can do a hit and run.
You can touch on a topic and move on to hit on another one and Nikki Giovanni
does that well. In her poem Werewolf Avoidance, she suggests “that our poems
should be strong in our emotions and our words that might make us difficult to
live with”. She’s not talking "namby-pamby poetry" when she talks about Sarah
Palin in her poem, The Lone Ranger Rides the Lonesome Trail Again. Sometimes she's spicy, sometimes she's sweet. Nikki Giovanni does it well.
Concrete Poetry is poetry where the visual elements and typeface match the topic of the poem. In his latest poetry collection, Wet Cement, Bob Raczka shares the cleverest concrete poems (also called shape poems). Young poetry fans and their caregivers will be delighted by the topics, humor, wordplay, and imagery. It’s a perfect poetry collection for sharing with new readers and is oft requested at our house. It will make you laugh and think and hopefully inspire you to write some concrete poems of your own. My favorite line describes the Big Dipper constellation as a “vessel of stars, my brim overflowing with night.” For a more thorough review and information about writing and learning with concrete poems, visit School Library Journal.
Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."
When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.
The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.
American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.
Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.
Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.
In The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera tells the story, in verse, of a pivotal time in his childhood when his mother and father moved their family to the city so that he could attend school. He tells the story of how his third grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson, invited him to the front of the class to sing a song. He sang “Three Blind Mice” and Mrs. Sampson told him “You have a very beautiful voice”. The book is dedicated to Mrs. Lucille Sampson, Herrera’s third grade teacher, who, at age 95, was present at the Library of Congress when Herrera was inaugurated as the United States Poet Laureate in 2015. You can hear Herrera tell this story in front of an audience at the Kansas City Public Library on New Letters On the Air.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes
is a Pura Belpré
author honor book.
My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.
Keep Climbing, Girls was written by Beah Richards, the great actress. In LisaGay Hamilton’s introduction of the book she refers to Beah Richards as an actress, a poet, a dancer, and a political activist. Miss Hamilton mentions a collection of poems that Beah Richards had published entitled A Black Woman Speaks, where Beah encourages us all to reach far beyond society’s expectations and to fight for a world that embraces freedom and equality for all.
“The moral of this story is: to keep climbing, girls, and let no one prevent you.”
Julie Paschkis, the author/illustrator of “Flutter & Hum: Animal Poems”, is a painter who has won awards for her artwork accompanying other picture books. Here, her illustrations depict folk art patterns that are both colorful and vivid; the perfect complement to the simple yet reflective poems. The poems appear in English on one page, and in Spanish on the opposite page. Despite her considerable abilities in constructing beautiful verse, she states that she is not a poet per se, nor a native Spanish speaker for that matter.Nonetheless, this slim volume depicts wonderfully all sorts of animals in motion- fluttering, slithering,leaping,stretching and the like.
A beautifully illustrated poetry book that is both fun and playful. Be prepared for young readers wanting to reread this many times over!
To say that Ashley Bryan has been around for many years is
an understatement. After all, he is only 92. His work has been recognized by
many and he has been the recipient of many awards. The book Ashley Bryan’spuppets: making something from everything is not only full of amazing, clever
and unique puppets but also full of great and thoughtful prose.
Ashley Bryan grew up in NYC during the depression. He and
his sister started salvaging for things they could reuse at a young age. He
made his first puppet at age eleven. His puppets are made from tangled fishing
nets, weathered bones, sea glass, and driftwood….whatever else he can find. He sees
possibilities in all things. His characters and poems include Anansi: the
trickster and storyteller, Kwesi: conquering strength (who looks like an
elephant) and Animata: good character (made of shells and an upside down champagne
glass as a crown).
Jojo: his storyteller
In every finger of my glove I tap
tall tales of peace and love
The fingers of my well-gloved
hands store stories told in foreign lands.
I wish I could share every amazing and unique picture. But
that would get me into trouble so I will suggest that you read this or one of
his other fantastic books and you’ll see what I mean.