He’s Actually Really Good at Rhyming
Chris Harris’ I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING AND OTHER NONSENSE FOR MISCHIEVOUS KIDS AND IMMATURE GROWN-UPS is a strong collection of funny poems. Which might not be enough for Newbery consideration, but there’s a little more here. For one thing, the poems work together to create a sort of unified world of wordplay that’s larger than the individual pieces. Also, many of the poems have an extra level of complexity that adds levels to the humor, yet is still very accessible to young readers.
The title poem (p 2-3) is one example:
It starts: “I’m just no good at rhyming. / It makes me feel so bad. / I’m just no good at rhyming, / And that’s why I’m so blue.” That’s funny, tricky, and surprising.
Then: “My teacher asked if I could find a word that rhymes with ‘hat.’ / It’s something that a dog might chase. / ‘Aha!’ I said. “A car!” There are two more failed rhyme attempts after that one….Except: His answer to number three (“A lizard!”) actually does rhyme with the question in number two (“…a word that rhymes with ‘wizard’ was mis-rhymed with ‘puppy’). So there is a subtle rhyme that readers might spot, but the narrator misses it.
The poem ends with a tricky variation: “I’m pretty good with meter, / And with spelling and with timing. / But I’ll never be a poet, / ‘Cause I just can’t rhyme words at all.” So it’s another funny mis-rhyme…plus a subtler added joke where he messes up the meter too (he claimed he was good at it; he’s not). The basic mis-rhyming premise would have been fine, but he plays with that concept in ingenious ways. That’s one example of the kind of creativity and playfulness that I really appreciate in this book.
Beyond their individual excellence, many of the poems in this collection work together to build recurring themes and overall cohesiveness. It’s not like we’re just reading one funny poem, then another, then another. The poet’s voice is distinct, almost as if he’s a character; though sometimes it seems like he’s the “mischievous kid” of the subtitle and sometimes the “immature grown-up.” He appreciates nonsense, wordplay, and the interplay between kids and adults. We get a sense for how he sees the world and are invited in.
Absurdity and extreme logic are at the heart of many poems (some examples: p 33, 46, 57, 65, 105, 132, 144, 150, 189, 200, 202). Several poems are interactive, where the reader is addressed directly or prompted to action (p 15, 45, 51, 94, 122, 130, 172, 196).
There are some concrete poetry and poems with visual elements (p 11, 24, 55, 131, 165). In “Trapped” (131), a wall surrounds the words until the ending when the last line, “a way to get out” appears on the next page (because it escaped through a drawn hole in the page….you kind of have to see this one to appreciate it). Lane Smith’s excellent illustrations make a big contribution throughout, and there’s some fun interplay between poet and illustrator (“They told me, ‘Lane is great!’ but man, I really think I hate her!” (147)), but it’s still the words that carry the book.
Short poems with a single one-liner kind of punchline are interspersed. They provide balance and pacing to the more complex poems: “Somebody stole my bagel’s hole. / Now breakfast just isn’t as fun. / It once was a treat that I wanted to eat… / …Now it’s a hamburger bun.” (54) (It took me a minute to get that one….)
“Let’s Meet Right Here in Twenty-Five Years” (211) is a longer poem that looks at that recurring theme of growing up with wistful humor. It almost wraps the book up in a tender way…except there are three more short poems because the poet can’t get the reader to go away (“Go play outside. Go eat some cheese. / There’s nothing left but indices”). Plus after the Index there’s a funny “Outdex (of Titles That Did Not Make the Final Cut”); example: “Old Mother Hefrigerator (Went to the Refrigerator).”
Nikki Grimes’ ONE LAST WORD cleverly links classic poems from the Harlem Renaissance with excellent new poems; each poem in OUT OF WONDER is inspired by a poet from the past.. And we have some strong novels in verse this year too. Those all seem like more typical Newbery poetry fare, but I’M JUST NO GOOD is my poetry standout so far.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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