Marshmallows, Wordplay, and a School Garden: Poetry Collections for Newbery Medal Consideration
When JOYFUL NOISE by Paul Fleischman won the 1989 Newbery Medal it marked the first win for a poetry collection. [Correction: it was the second poetry collection, after A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN (1981)…thanks to Elizabeth for the correction in comments below – se] 33 years later, it’s still the only example. A couple of novels in verse have won, but not a traditional collection of children’s poems. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen this year, though. I’ve read a few pretty intriguing poetry collections this year, including one that really stands out:
MARSHMALLOW CLOUDS by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek
This is one of my top books of the year. It consists of 28 short poems, loosely grouped by the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Most, but not all, involve nature. I’m most impressed by the effortless and creative ways the poets use imagery and metaphor.
In “Barn,” they assume the building’s point of view, claiming that it hasn’t missed anything, though “it has never been anywhere else.” It starts with tangible, specific images:
…No way. It likes what it has, its peace
and quiet, the things it’s collected, buckets
of bent nails one day to be straightened,
a tractor that hasn’t started for years,
the softening cardboard cartons of parts
for machinery it barely remembers.
Then it shifts into more figurative language, personifying the building more, and finishing with a clever parted hair metaphor:
Day in and day out it wakes and pulls on
its patched-up underwear of rotten boards
beneath its coveralls of corrugated metal,
and looks out over what’s always the same,
and combs its roof straight down the middle.
Form and structure are lightly varied. “Why Pets Don’t Write” introduces the premise in its title, then offers clever, and very different answers from five different creatures. The creative metaphors seem just right for a child audience: Fire is a growing wolf pup; a harp is a moth; and a tadpole is a comma (“the liveliest of all punctuation”). There’s clever wordplay (“Flyswatter” and “Book”). There’s even creativity in the grouping by element, where you sometimes have to look twice to see how a poem fits. You wouldn’t think a plow on the prairie would go in the “Water” chapter, for example, but the poem (“Spring”) portrays the furrows in the field as “a wake of black waves foamy with pebbles.”
This only has one nomination so far (mine), but I know I’m not the only one who likes it: It’s also on Betsy Bird’s Newbery Predictions over on Fuse #8.
AWAY WITH WORDS by Mary Ann Hoberman
The sub-title hits the strengths of this book exactly: “Wise and Witty Poems for Language Lovers.” It’s arranged alphabetically, though some letters get more than one entry. Lots of clever wordplay and rhymes, and a lot of the creative language is about language itself, as in “High”:
Walking up the hillside,
Climbing very high,
I meet another climber,
And we both say, “Hi!”
He is in a hurry,
And so indeed am I,
So we hasten on together
As up the hill we hie.
I like the playful tone, the alliteration, and especially how it starts with the familiar homophones “high” and “hi,” then finishes with the less common example of “hie.” Or this short four-liner, “Over,” which shows how one phrase can have two meanings:
The light is all over –
The day is so bright.
The light is all over –
And now it is night.
My favorite is probably “Take Sound,” is a dazzling and delightful exploration of a single word (“sound”).
I don’t know that this is quite at the Newbery level, especially when I compare it to MARCHMALLOW CLOUDS, but it’s playful, fun, and smart…a book teachers and parents should know about for sure.
BEHOLD OUR MAGICAL GARDEN by Allan Wolf
This collection takes us through the creation of a school garden, from the beginning…:
We plotted out our garden
when the new school year began.
We were looking to the future.
We were dreaming of a plan….
To the end…
in fresh white snow.
Cardinals sing from barren branches,
“Gardens come and go!”
The combination of figurative language and factual information is very effective at times, like this excerpt from “Germination Celebration.”
…An embryo’s an unborn sprout
who dreams a dream of getting out.
Insider her coat she sleeps and waits
until the day she finally breaks
the seed coat with a single root.
And new leaves quickly follow suit…
There’s a fun mixture of styles and formats, and the poems effectively to convey information and the story of the garden, but I don’t feel like they’re as strong in terms of poetic language when compared to MARSHMALLOW CLOUDS or AWAY WITH WORDS.
Douglas Florian’s ZOOBILATIONS and David Elliott’s AT THE POND are also excellent examples of poetry collections, both more for younger readers/listeners. But I still see MARSHMALLOW CLOUDS as the one that stands out as a possible Newbery contender, and would love to hear if others think that that title, any other 2022 poetry collection, stands a chance at winning the Medal.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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