Nests Within Nests, Cast Away Trash, and Creatures of the Woods: Poetry Possibilities for the Newbery Medal
The Newbery Medal has not gone to a poetry collection since Paul Fleischman’s JOYFUL NOISE (1989), but poetry has not been ignored. Recent years’ honored titles have included solid representation for novels in verse, including OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga (2020 Honor), LONG WAY DOWN by Jason Reynolds (2019 Honor), and Kwame Alexander’s CROSSOVER (2015 Medal), as well as Jacqueline Woodson’s verse memoir, BROWN GIRL DREAMING (2015 Honor). Last year saw Alexander’s picture book poem THE UNDEFEATED with an Honor. And we’ve had two poetry collections earn Honors in the past decade: FREEDOM OVER ME by Ashley Bryan (2018) and Joyce Carol Sidman’s DARK EMPEROR (2011).
Keeping in mind the Newbery Criteria’s direction that “the committee shall consider all forms of writing – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry,” here are three especially interesting collections that have caught my attention this year:
IN THE WOODS by David Elliott, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
In his collection of fifteen short poems about woodland animals, Elliott uses wordplay, evocative language, and humor at a level that’s just right for younger readers. Poems vary in tone, length, and form. A few address a creature directly, as in “The Opposum”:
Your rattish snout, your naked tail
dragging on the woodland trail:
you’re not a classic beauty.
You bump along the woodland track,
your babies clinging to your back:
there’s beauty, too, in duty.
He manages “The Moose” in two words:
Within the rhymes there is also key information about each animal: The fisher cat is “fierce”; when the bobcat leaps “all the world is spotted grace.” Metaphors are solid and clear: the beaver is a “Jack-of-all-trades;” the deer are “a troupe of dancers;” the hornet’s nest a “buzzing tenement.”
Animal poem collections are a standard in children’s literature, so it can be challenging to find a new way to capture an animal in verse, but some of Elliott’s are remarkably original:
The Wild Turkey
Is a lesson in the language arts;
so much to learn from him:
with his waddle and his wattle,
he’s a walking homonym.
WIth just fifteen short poems (plus a “Notes About the Animals” spread), it’s tricky to compare this to the longer collections below. It’s almost easier to think of OVERGROUND RAILROAD and other picture book texts to assess the level of excellence in a book like this.
THIS POEM IS A NEST by Irene Latham, art by Johanna Wright
In this collection, the “interpretation of…concept” is especially impressive. The poet challenges herself to use all of the words in her opening poem, and only those words, to create 161 more poems. And those words have to appear in the same order as they do in the first poem. She groups these into themed chapters like “Animals Among Us” and “Places Seen and Unseen.”
It’s a fascinating exercise in found poetry, and could be a great learning tool for teachers. On their own, some of the poems are excellent. Here’s “What a Poem Should Be”:
for the world (95)
As she points out in her introduction, “titles are one area where you can be particularly imaginative, because they need not be found inside the source poem” (6). One example of that:
“On Pluto No Longer Being Named a Planet”
It’s an itch:
dark stone nest
The poems don’t always stand out when you disregard the process required to create them, though, so this was difficult to evaluate. Can an average poem be seen as excellent when created within the guiding concept of nesting poems? I admire the author’s imagination and the way she completes her challenge, and I think this will be a very useful book for young poets and educators, but I’m not sure it would fare well in a Newbery discussion.
CAST AWAY: POEMS FOR OUR TIME by Naomi Shihab Nye
Nye’s collection is much longer than Elliott’s, but also built around a theme: the many ways in which we interact with trash, and what that says about us as people and as a society. It’s amazing how many different paths she explores within the broad concept. Among the 84 poems, topics include trash talk (88), taxes (111), the death of a neighbor (93-94) and this one called “Anger”:
It must have lived in the back pocket
of those jeans with the frayed cuffs you didn’t wear
for more than a year
then suddenly flared
you can twist your back
by the smallest bend or
sitting strangely in a chair.
Drop it drop it drop it.
Stand up, stretch
into the can
into the drain
It cannot serve you now (42)
There’s also a lot about actual trash that she sees and thinks about:
Two white buttons
in hot white gravel
The author’s strong personal opinions come into the poems too, so we get a clear sense of what she cares about, what she admires, and what makes her angry. This might not be what we’re used to seeing in a poetry collection for children, but it fits with the concept and the style. Her voice is an adult one, but I feel like her words are clearly addressing kids and teens…maybe 10-11 and up. I would like to see this in a Newbery discussion, partly because there’s not another book like it this year (that I’ve seen at least) and also because I believe it achieves excellence in “interpretation of theme or concept.” I’m not sure, though, that I would use one of my seven nominations…
Do any of these collections, or any other works of poetry, stand out for you this year?
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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