When we survey the poetry written for young readers, the best stuff seems to fall into two categories–verse novels for young adults such as WICKED GIRLS or BORROWED NAMES–and picture books like UBIQUITOUS or MIRROR, MIRROR. Additionally, the longer poetry collections that we do see are not always written by a single author, and even then, not always entirely new material. Which is disappointing.
Take Joyce Sidman, for example. Her excellent poetry has already graced a pair of Caldecott Honor books, SONG OF THE WATER BOATMAN and RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS. This year she has two excellent books, UBIQUITOUS (which reunites her with Beckie Prange, the illustrator of WATER BOATMAN) and DARK EMPEROR. Sidman is such a good poet that I can’t help but wonder whether she would improve her Newbery odds if we could squeeze 48, 64, or 96 pages out of her rather than 32, but it’s a moot point for this year.
UBIQUITOUS is more visually stunning (and has racked up more starred reviews), but I actually think the poetry in DARK EMPEROR is stronger (and thus a better Newbery contender). Here’s the first couple stanzas from one of my favorite poems, “Ballad of the Wandering Eft.”
Come all you young efts,
so brave and so bold,
and don the bright colors
of scarlet and gold.
Step out from your puddles
to breathe the sweet air
and wander the woodlands
with hardly a care.
In MIRROR, MIRROR, Marilyn Singer has created a new form she calls the reverso in which the same poem can be read down–and up. For this book, Singer has taken classic fairy tales, and when read down the poems represent one viewpoint (e.g. Cinderella at home), but when read up they represent a different one (e.g. Cinderella at the ball). Adults and children alike will find these poems very clever and intriguing, perhaps even inspiring them to write their own, but the success of the poems depends as much (if not more) on their form as on their language. I think that presents a formidable obstacle in Newbery consideration. Concrete poems face the same problem. As clever as they may be, are they brilliant enough to be the most distinguished writing?
Finally, I want to put in a good word for HALLOWILLOWEEN by Calef Brown. It’s the best Halloween-themed poetry collection since FRANKENSTEIN MAKES A SANDWICH by Adam Rex (although not quite as good). Brown’s earlier collection, FLAMINGOS ON THE ROOF, remains my favorite, but this one contains his trademark combination of nonsense, wordplay, and humor. Here are the first lines of “Jack,” just to give you a taste.
Jack is a rare wolf.
A covered in hair wolf.
A crouch in the doorway
to give you a scare wolf.
A big as a bear wolf.
A devil may care wolf.
A constantly burping
and fouling the air wolf.
Nina found some good poetry books last year, but they were all considered darkhorses at best. Similarly, I do not think we will see a poetry book recognized come January, but if I had to bet, I would place my money on DARK EMPEROR. What did you think? What am I missing? Does anybody want to make a case for any of the verse novels–WICKED GIRLS, BORROWED NAMES, THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, or THREE RIVERS RISING?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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