Until recently, I was on the nominating panel for the CYBILS poetry award, which kept me from telling you my top ten favorite poetry books of 2007. (I know I said twelve the other day, but I've edited myself down to a mere ten.) But now that the discussions are over and the finalists are in, I'm embargoed no more. Oh, and I should note before I start that I've not yet read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd and Tina Schart Hyman, nor did I get my hands on Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by Bryan Collier, both of which come highly recommended by readers I tend to trust.
Here they are, in alphabetical order by title. Those that made the CYBILS top 7 have an asterisk before the title:
*Animal Poems by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems by John Grandits
Do Rabbits Have Christmas? by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies
Faith & Doubt: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Patrice Vecchione
*Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color: Poems by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
*Poems in Black & White, written and illustrated by Kate Miller
Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Istvan Banyai
*This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
*Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephenie Hemphill
*Animal Poems by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Steve Jenkins. I reviewed this one during National Poetry Month. I loved it then. I loved it as much or more now. The poems are gems. Written in free verse, the poems are about 23 different animals. Some of the animals Worth wrote about, like the Elephant and Jellyfish, are staples in collections of animal poems; others, like the Star-Nosed Mole are decidedly uncommon. In order to keep this post from becoming ridiculously long, I will simply repeat the link to my prior review, which includes sample poems and artwork.
Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems by John Grandits. I loved the sassy main character in this collection of individual concrete poetry. Jessie is a teenage girl who is facing issues at high school, and who has built a wall to protect herself from others. The wall is protection, but it's also prejudice and isolation, as becomes clear through the poems and through the later poem that features the wall once Jessie's perceptions start to change. The prejudice I discuss is not racial, btw, but is the result of Jessie's snap judgments and stereotyping. I really wish I could find a scan of the poem "Bad Hair Day" to share with you, but thus far, no dice. However, you can "Look Inside" the book over at Amazon. For another blog review that loves this one, check out Jules's post from September 21, 2007 over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. This one is perfect for the middle school and high school set, and that's based not just on basic demographics but on specific research by a mother with one middle schooler and one high schooler. For relatability (is that a word?) and content, I'd put this as a must-buy for teen poetry collections.
Do Rabbits Have Christmas? by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies. If I have a quarrel with the words in this book, it's the title selection, which (a) makes it sound like it's only a Christmas title, (b) could be interpreted as being about anthropomorphic animals, which it isn't, and (c) makes it sound like it's for even younger readers than it truly is. The book opens with a poem called "Fall Wind", a song-like poem in rhymed couplets that tells of winter's approach. Other poems discuss snow (what animals and people think of it, how it looks, how it feels, footprints, etc.) and winter, although there are seven poems about Christmas. Final tally? Six winter poems, seven Christmas poems and two winter poems that mention Christmas. There are a couple of stand-out poems in this collection. My particular favorites: "December", "Sparkly Snow", "My Christmas Tree". Here's an excerpt from "My Christmas Tree":
I'll make me a score
of suet balls
to tie to my spruce
when the cold dusk falls.
And I'll hear next day
from the sheltering trees
the Christmas carols
of the chickadees.
Faith & Doubt: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Patrice Vecchione. An anthology for teens that grapples with the questions so many teens face every day: what is faith? is there room for belief? disbelief? if I have doubts, what does that mean? Vecchione has assembled an outstanding collection of poetry from a wide variety of poets, many of whom are familiar to adult readers. There are a lot of heavy-hitters in this book, from Emily Dickinson ("My Worthiness is all my Doubt") to Shakespeare ("Doubt thou the stars are fire" from Hamlet Act 2 scene 2, but you won't get the Hamlet cite in the book, which I find curious) to Whitman, Rumi, Neruda, Rilke, Shelley and more, including modern-day poets such as Marilyn Nelson and Charles Simic. The poems don't all speak about religious faith and doubt, as the introductory note makes clear. Lines attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, entitled "The Doubt of Future Foes" discuss doubt in a political sense, and "The Girl at Five" by Anna Paganelli talks about the loss of faith that comes from sexual abuse as a child, for example. Heavy topics, yes, but these are the sorts of Big Issues and Big Questions that I remember spending hours mulling and discussing with friends and writing really bad poetry about when I was a teen, so I think this one is a must for teen poetry collections.
*Here's A Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I first reviewed this book during National Poetry Month, when I said "If you have a toddler or preschooler who needs a poetry book, this is the one to buy. It is a beautiful book in all the right ways, and it's perfect for adults to share with kids." I stand by my earlier words, including the ones about the need for adult assistance - this is a BIG book of poems for little people. One of the things I love best about this collection is the number of "new" poets in it. Yolen and Fusek have selected poems from all over the English-speaking world, and they've insisted on printing the poems exactly as they were originally written, spellings and all. So the word "favor" might be in a poem by an American author, but "favour" from a Brit (as a hypothetical illustration). The illustrations are completely darling, and this book positively screams High Quality Production! at every turn, from paper weight to typsetting to artwork to the excellent assortment of poems, all of which are well-arranged. If you take another look at my review from April, you can see some of the pages and poems to get a better sense for yourself. Or just go buy it.
Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color: Poems by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This poetry collection pieces together the story of Miss Prudence Crandall's decision to open and run a school in Crandall, Connecticut in the 1830's. Initially, Miss Crandall taught local (white) schoolchildren, but she allowed "colored" girls to attend as well. The townspeople went from unhappy to full-out ugly, taking actions that ranged from legal actions to ruining the well to hanging a dead cat on the gate outside the school to setting the building on fire. The idealism and enthusiasm of Miss Crandall and some of her students, as well as their dismay and disgust and fear as events turned obscene, are depicted movingly in twenty-four sonnets: twelve by Alexander, twelve by Nelson. The authors' note at the end of the book makes clear that Alexander likes to take a modern approach to the sonnet and stretch the form, whereas Nelson follows a more classical approach. I have to say that overall, I preferred Nelson's poems, which had an additional tautness to them that I can only guess, based on my overall reaction, is the result of her adhering to a more rigid form than Alexander. An excellent addition to middle school and high school libraries and a good supplemental text for any studies of racism.
*Poems in Black & White written and illustrated by Kate Miller. I will have to write a separate review of this book to do it complete justice. Miller decided to create images in black and white, but trust me when I say that the book feels like it's in technicolor. From the baby feet depicted for "First Steps" (which you can read, along with the second poem in the book - and one of my favorites - "Comet", over at this review post from Laura Purdie Salas. Today, I'll share with you "The Cow", although I'm really wishing I had a ppage scan so you could see the thoughtful Holstein on the page and the recreation on the text page of a black patch on the cow's side in which the poem appears in white. The text meanders as well, adding to the poem's appeal, but I'm not going to approximate that here:
a bristly map
of milkweed shite
and midnight black
to carry continents
upon her back
and islands on her
Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Istvan Banyai. What's not to love? An excellent poet, wonderful, whimsical illustrations, and oh, by the way, A NEW FORM! And you all know how much I love forms, yes? I reviewed this book back in October, and I love-love-love it now just as I did then. I predict it will win other awards, but unfortunately not a CYBILS award this year - it didn't quite make the cut (sorry, Linda!), but not for lack of appreciation or interest in it. By all means, read my review, but here's the text of "Word Watch" to intrigue you:
Jittery seems a nervous word;
snuggle curls up around itself.
Some words fit their meanings so well:
Abrupt. Airy. And my favorite——
which means: having lots of syllables.
I've met Linda Sue a couple of times now, and in my mind, I can literally hear her voice in this poem, as if she were hear, speaking assuredly into my ear. Linda Sue, you had me at sesquipedalian.
*This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. A confession: When I first began to read this book, I was a bit shruggy about it. Fictional teacher, fictional students, all writing poems to apologize for something they did as part of a fictional class exercise based on William Carlos Williams's poem, "This is Just to Say", sometimes referred to as "the plums". *shrug* The first "kid" apes Williams's form, apologizing to the teachers for eating their jelly doughnuts. *shrug* A girl apologizes to a statue for rubbing its nose. *cute, but shrug* Two boys write poems to one another about dodgeball. *boys! eyerolling shrug* And then a girl apologizes to the teacher for insulting her, and I stopped shrugging and my eyes filled with tears and I couldn't put the book down, even when I was done reading it, because I was too busy hugging it. Not shrugging. Hugging. Tightly. Sidman eases you into the apologies, but once you're into them, you are STUCK IN THIS BOOK. And then.
Then there are the poems of response (and in many cases, forgiveness), that come in the second half of the book, where even the poem written on behalf of Florence P. Scribner's statue contains magic and heart. Just glancing at some of the poems now has caused my eyes to fill again, because they are so strong and warm and wonderful. They are funny and sad and true. They are, in short, miraculous. A must-buy for upper elementary and middle-school kids and teachers. Here's an excerpt for you:
"How Slow-Hand Lizard Died"
I stole him.
Took him home in my pocket.
Felt the pulse beating
in his soft green neck.
Had no place good to put him.
He got cold, I think.
Watched his life wink out,
his bright eye turn to mud.
Brought him back,
stiff as an old glove.
Hid him in the bottom of the cage.
Left the money on Mrs. Merz's desk.
(Stole that, too.)
Won't touch the new lizard.
Don't like to touch
Ode to Slow-Hand
the way his heart beat in his throad
the way his toes whispered on our hands
his skin: rough green cloth
the color of new leaves
his belly: soft as an old balloon
his tongue: lightning's flicker
the sad way he left us
the sad way you feel
we forgive you
Crap. Now I'm crying again. While I compose myself, by all means check out Elaine Magliaro's post at Blue Rose Girls from back in March.
*Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephenie Hemphill. You may recall that I first raved about this book back in March when I reviewed it for my blog. And then, I repeated my enthusiastic rave in May as part of Wicked Cool Overlooked Books. I still love it for all the reasons I stated. This book is fun to discuss, by the way, because the reasons I love it — it keeps a bit of distance between the reader and Sylvia Plath and it presents a kaleidoscopic image of her by showing her through the eyes of many different acquaintances as well as by guessing at what was in her own mind (based on her journals, etc.) — are the same reasons that some other folks don't particularly care for it (they found the many attributed voices distracting and/or didn't care for the distance between the reader and the subject (or is she the object?) of the book. Highly recommended for teen readers. This one was, in fact, teen-tested here at my house, and got two thumbs up and some tears from my older daughter. An excellent book for a book report for middle school- and high school-aged kids, and an excellent supplement and research tool for anyone interested in Plath (middle school through adult), on account of the copious bibliography and source notes in the back of the book.