Poetry Round-Up: Newbery possibilities featuring wordplay, wit, and poetic insights for kids
This week’s Wednesday Round-Up looks at poetry that might contend for the Newbery Medal. To be more specific, poetry collections. So we won’t be covering novels in verse…we’ll do that on November 8th. And for now we’ll skip poetic picture books, like ALL THE BEATING HEARTS or HOW TO WRITE A POEM…we’ll save those for the Picture Book Round-Up on October 18th. (Here’s our schedule of Wednesday Round-ups).
All of the books below have some really good individual poems. But the Newbery hardly ever goes to poetry collections. JOYFUL NOISE (1988) and A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN (1982) are the only Medal books so far. So what would it take for a poetry collection to win? The Newbery Terms and Criteria offer some guidance, but it’s still tricky. Most of the literary elements that committee members are instructed to look for are often not relevant to poetry, including plot, characters, setting, and (sometimes) presentation of information. So that mainly leaves us with “appropriateness of style” and “interpretation of the theme or concept.” Also, right below that list of literary elements, there’s the ever-important “excellence of presentation for a child audience,” which is also a big one for poetry. Those are the three phrases I’ll try to keep in mind as I look at some of the best poetry collections of the year:
MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE by Chris Harris
I feel like this is the one that has enough to be a top contender (of course I thought that about MARSHMALLOW CLOUD last year and about I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING a few years earlier…). The collection is very strong on child appeal, with a great mix between clever, goofy, and sometimes even tender. Funny page numbers and back matter are added bonuses. Here are portions of one of my favorites, “The Okay House” (p 54-56). It starts with a slow pace and regretful tone as the narrator shows the house she’s leaving to the boy who’s moving in:
It’s an okay house.
We don’t have a pool
It’s far from my friends
It’s close to the school.
Then it gradually accelerates and the tone gets more positive as the girl gets more enthusiastic, with questions and exclamation points.
My elbow cracked one of those side windowpanes.
The gutter makes noises whenever it rains…
But look in my closet! This panel in back…
…Leads to my brother’s room! Great sneak attack.
The ending is perfect: she slows down and shows that she’s come to terms with the transfer:
You’ll love it right here.
So make it your own.
It’s an okay house [repeating the first line]
But it’s an awesome home [shifting the impact of that ‘okay house’ phrase]
The “interpretation of theme or concept” is strong throughout the book, too. There’s a neat mixture of clever wordplay and silly humor that contrasts (but not jarringly) with the more thoughtful, but still lighthearted poems, such as “I Open My Eyes“ (12); ‘The Most Disobedient Kid in the World” (32-33), “The Dance of the Misfits” (74-77)), and others. So it’s not just one joke after another. Continuity and unity come through in recurring themes about individuality, wordplay, and parents/child dynamics, (including the section where Dad the poet leaves the book and the kids take over (126-134)). MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE was one of my first three nominations.
THE RED EAR BLOWS ITS NOSE by Roberth Schechter
This is another accomplished collection with strong child appeal. The poems are often funny, the wordplay is clever, and many are built around fresh and creative perspectives about everyday things. Like “The Thing about Breezes” (77):
On a hot summer day
when you feel a breeze blow,
is it saying goodbye,
or saying hello?
Is it saying “I’m here”
or saying Ï’m gone”?
Does it mean “I’ve arrived”
or “I have moved on”?
You can’t pin it down.
A breeze will not say.
A breeze can’t arrive
without racing away.
It’s natural to compare this collection to MY HEAD; of the two I think MY HEAD has even stronger child appeal and more distinctive elements.
ANIMALS IN PANTS by Suzy Levinson
This is a really fun collection of short poems about how animals would wear pants if that was something they did. Here’s “Penguin Suits”:
Penguins loathe formality
although their tails are black.
If penguins could, they’d put on jeans
and send those tuxes back.
The premise is equal parts absurd and intriguing, and the ways in which each animal does wear pants are varied and inventive. The illustrations are equally delightful, though those won’t factor into a Newbery discussion. This should be a popular book and will be much appreciated by children. Is there enough here to bring it into a Newbery finalist conversation?
WELCOME TO THE WONDER HOUSE by Rebecca Kai Dotlich & Georgia Heard
The “presentation of theme or concept” works really well in this one. Each of the 12 chapters highlights a room. There are rooms of “time,” “quiet,” “nature,” and more, each with two or three poems. Here’s one from “Room of Creatures”:
Bodies loose and limp –
No wonder you squish and squirm –
Creatures with no inner skeleton,
wriggle and bob and twist like gelatin [the words in this line are not aligned, to suggest wriggling]
There’s a nice variety of form, length, and style, with the unifying concept of the sense of wonder that comes from looking at the world with curiosity and imagination. I like the idea and the overall feel of this one, but didn’t see quite enough striking or memorable poems for me to put it at the Newbery level for me.
CHAMPION CHOMPERS, SUPER STINKERS AND OTHER POEMS BY EXTRAORDINARY ANIMALS by Linda Ashman
This is a great example of how to mix poetry and information in a presentation with very strong child appeal. Each “mask poem” gives clues to the identity of the superlative animal describing itself. A page turn reveals the animal and adds a paragraph of factual information. Here’s “Catch Me If You Can” by the Pronghorn (“Best Long-Distance Runner”):
When you’re seen as someone’s dinner,
It’s risky to be slow.
But I can outrun anyone.
Just watch me:
Certain cats are quicker – [the preceding poem was by a cheetah]
They’re good for one short burst.
But when the race is longer,
I will always come in first.
High marks for “interpretation of theme or concept” and the individual poems are excellent, providing information and different voices for the animals.
Comparing poetry collections to each other, with that focus on style, theme, and child appeal, can help us to evaluate them in Newbery terms. The next step would be to use those same criteria when comparing a top poetry book (MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE in my case) to non-poetry titles. For example:
- Is the child appeal of MY HEAD as strong as that of MEXIKID or THE MONA LISA VANISHES?
- Does the writing style measure up to the use of language in BUFFALO FLATS or WHEN CLOUDS TOUCH US?
- Are the themes and concepts presented as effectively as those in THE SONG OF US or HERCULES BEAL?
Those are the five strongest collections I’ve read so far. I haven’t got to PUSH-PULL MORNING yet, which made our “Suggestion List.” What else did I miss? I think you can make a case for MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE. Let us know in the comments if you agree that this, or any other poetry collection from this year, should be in our Mock-Newbery conversations.
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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