Spider Verse and Golden Shovels: Poetry Collections for Mock Newbery Consideration
This has been a big year for novels in verse, with titles like STARFISH, RED, WHITE, AND HOLE, and AMBER AND CLAY receiving lots of attention from Heavy Medal readers. I haven’t been as focused on tracking picture book poetry; RUNAWAY: THE DARING ESCAPE OF ONA JUDGE is the one standout for me so far. I didn’t find many poetry collections this year, though. In my county library’s collection, I only identified nine eligible titles. Of those, here are two that I rate highest:
LEGACY: WOMEN POETS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE by Nikki Grimes
As she explains at the beginning, Grimes uses the “Golden Shovel” form, in which you “take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from the poem…to create a new poem using the words from the original.” (7) The achievement of creating poetry within those constraints is impressive, and the best examples shine as poems on their own and also in the way the reflect or expand on the words of the original.
It the first poem, for example, the source is three lines from “Heritage,” by Mae V. Cowdery:
Our dark fathers gave us
The gift of shedding sorrow
In a song.p 15
From this, Grimes creates “Before,” building a new poem around the relationships between fathers and daughters. She creates a short stanza from each of those three lines, and each of these brings an inspiring spirit. First she demands that the daughters be asked about the gifts:
Before we were women, we were our
Daddies’ daughters, the dark
princess who stole our fathers’
hearts. A single story says they gave
us little, except disappointment. But ask us.
That “ask us” is powerful, and the next stanza offers answers, while also shifting it to a personal viewpoint:
Ask me and I’ll chronicle the
currency of love Dad splurged on me, the gift
of “yes you can,” and modeling dignity in the face of
vile attacks on his manhood without ever shedding
his humanity or surrendering to sorrow.
Finally, she expands on the “song” of the last line of Cowdery’s poem, tying that to the father-daughter relationship:
Like many dark fathers, he’d reclaim his soul in
the sweet strains of music, a
lesson we daughters learned: siphon sadness through a song.p 16
That leap from the original to new, with a nod back to the original’s themes, is executed very well throughout the collection. In “Room for Dreams,” for example, she takes the oppressive words from the first lines of the original and flips them into defiant, assertive independence (23-24). In Blanche Taylor Dickinson’s “Four Walls,” the poet wonders what breaking free of walls might be like; in the companion poem, the narrator sees the walls and completely rejects them (83-84). As with most collections, not every poem is equally stellar, but this is probably my top poetry choice of the year…if it’s eligible.
As Emily noted in an earlier post, Newbery eligibility for LEGACY is not clear cut. The Newbery Criteria require that a book be “original work,” but the Newbery Manual notes that “This does not mean that some minor portion of the work cannot have appeared elsewhere. It does mean, however, that no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work.” (p 67). In this case, half of the poems have been previously published. I would argue that the “significant part of the book” is Grimes’ own poems, and that the others appear more to set the stage for hers. It’s hard to imagine any Golden Shovel collection that would not include the source material. The real Committee may decide otherwise, and because of confidentiality rules, the only way we might learn what they decided is if it does win Newbery recognition (that happened with UNDEFEATED a couple years ago). For our Mock-Newbery purposes, though, we’ll assume that LEGACY is eligible.
SPI-KU: A CLUTTER OF SHORT VERSE ON EIGHT LEGS by Leslie Bulion, Illustrated by Robert Meganck
The poems in this collection are clever and fun, but also informative. They’re paired with fairly detailed prose paragraphs that provide background facts to the arachnids featured in the poems and to spiders in general. The two styles work together, sometimes almost inextricably. For instance, here’s a bit from the prose section about fishing spiders:
Fishing spiders can also row, using their second and third pairs of legs like oars, or raise their first pair of legs and sail across the water.p 12
The poem recreates that in a playful manner:
Row, row, row my legs,
Pairs two and three are oars,
My first leg feels the way ahead,
Which do no work? My fours!p 12
You need to know about the leg functions for the poem to work. In “Australian Social Crab Spiderlings,” you figure out from the poem the unusual way in which the spiderlings interact with their mother (“When frost kills Mom’s deliveries / In fall, we drink blood from her knees”…) (35), but the accompanying text clarifies this just enough.
The poems are mostly short and include a variety of forms. I like the wordplay in “Desert Blond Tarantula,” especially the double meanings of “split” and “swell.”
on her silk pad
tarantula bursts her
tight exoskeleton and splits –
all’s swell!p 11
Other favorites include the two-voice verse between “The Orbweaver and The Wasp Larva” (spoiler: it’s a “spider blood buffet.”) (28) and “Green Ant-Hunter Spider,” a concrete poem in the shape of an ant (because the spider uses “ant perfume” as a disguise) (21).
The interplay between poetry and straight text is effective, but at times I felt a little unbalanced. On the smoothest pages, it is clearly evident which facts are tied to which poems. Sometimes the prose is a little more dense with information…it’s well-written and interesting, but disrupts the balanced flow that exists between the two parts on some spreads. Overall, though, SPI-KU is successfully demonstrates the potential of the always challenging poetry/prose mix in an informational book.
I also looked at DELICIOUS, HARD BOILED BUGS FOR BREAKFAST, HELLO EARTH, HOOP KINGS 2, THE LAST STRAW, MY MAGIC WANDS, and MY THOUGHTS ARE CLOUDS. I’d love to hear if others have strong support for any of these, but for me the strongest poetry collection contenders of the year are SPI-KU, and especially LEGACY.
Filed under: Book Discussion
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 email@example.com.
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