Poetry Month Ain’t Over Till I Sez It’s Over: The Shockingly Good Verse of 2019
Yeah yeah yeah. Poetry Month is April, you say. That’s the only month the 811s in the library even move, you say. Once the first of May arrives a concrete slab falls and cuts off all future mentions of poetry until the next year rolls around, you say.
Well, you know what? Poetry doesn’t obey your rules, man! And if we want to talk about the stuff in 2019 that’s amazing (and, quite frankly, some of it isn’t even out yet) then that’s what we’re going to do. So gather round me, ye children. I know we’re in May, but poetry can shine every day of the year if it wants to. Plus, this is all the new good stuff. You know you wanna know what’s worthy.
Behold . . .
Top Children’s Poetry of 2019
Blooming Beneath the Sun by Christina Rossetti, ill. Ashley Bryan
On a whim I picked this up to read with my lunch yesterday and was floored to discover (A) That this was an Ashley Bryan book (a fact that I’d somehow missed) and (B) I had no idea that Rossetti did so many child-friendly poems. I guess I always thought Robert Louis Stevenson cornered the market on nursery rhyme-esque verse. Rossetti, it just so happens, adapts pretty perfectly to Mr. Bryan’s style. There is one king/queen poem that probably hasn’t dated as well as the rest of the book, but for the most part I love how fresh and bold Ashley has become with his art here.
Clackety Track: Poems About Trains by Skila Brown, ill. Jamey Christoph
From sleeper cars to bullet trains, from pantographs to locomotive snowplows, this little work of train poetry goes above and beyond the call of duty. Choo-choo-choose this one. In my day I’ve read a LOT of train poem books. They all kind of run together (no pun intended). This one, though? It’s got class. It’s got style. It’s got clever wordplay. Dare I say it? Best train book of poetry ever.
The Day the Universe Exploded My Head: Poems to Take You Into Space and Back Again by Allan Wolf, ill. Anna Raff
Can we start saying we’re tired of outer space yet? I’ll admit that when I found this in my To Be Read pile I let out a groan of despair. Oh goody, says I. Another book of poems about planets n’ junk. Just what I needed. So I was walking into this with lowered expectations, sure, but also a pretty clear sense that if Wolf and Raff were going to impress me they’d need to step up. The first poem about the Sun was fine, but it was the poem, “The Sun Did Not Go Down Today” where I started paying attention. Then “A Moon Buffet” impressed me with its cleverness and the piece on the Meteorite of 2013 in Chelyabinsk was fascinating. Great backmatter explains the different kinds of poems at work, from sonnets to blues to spoofs to double dactyls. The poetry isn’t superfluous in this book or incidental. It’s central to the premise. I do wish it didn’t lean as heavily as it does on female stereotypes (Venus as maneater, Earth as mother, Saturn as fashion diva), but that’s not a dealbreaker for me. Maybe because Miss Mitchell was included in the book (and she’s also in Hayley Barrett’s What Miss Mitchell Saw, so clearly she’s having a moment). Are you ready for YOUR head to explode? In a good way.
Mother Goose of Pudding Lane, told by Chris Raschka, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
Tying classic nursery rhymes tightly to the story of Elizabeth Foster (who married Isaac Goose and became you-know-who) this clever little collection presents these old chants in a fun, fresh new way. I had no idea that Mother Goose could be attributed to a specific person. Raschka does a very good job of tying in her life’s story (what little we know of it) to a variety of different classic nursery rhymes. When my daughter was little I read a LOT of nursery rhyme collections. This one, with its additional information for older readers and parents, would have been greatly appreciated back then. Love the art and love the order in which the rhymes appear. I mean, basically Raschka has wrangled a plot out of children’s rhymes. A unique and creative approach.
Predator and Prey: A Conversation in Verse by Susannah Buhrman-Deever, ill. Bert Kitchen
Not your usual predators. Not your usual prey. Natural selection like you’ve never seen it before, with killer poetry (literally) to match. The cover didn’t excite me but when I opened it up and read one of the poems, I was instantly hooked. Buhrman-Deever isn’t interested in the boring stories of natural selection. She’s much more interested in highlighting moments kids might not have heard about before. Everything kicks off with a bang with the poem for two voices “What Webs We Weave”, in which the assassin bug tricks a spider into becoming ITS meal. Then you have bats eating frogs, fireflies that eat their mates to get make their poisonous chemicals their own, and lizards that do push-ups. Crazy thing is, the poems are really good too.
The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems, selected by Paul B. Janeczko, ill. Richard Jones
Everything you ever needed to know in one little poetry book! How do you tell goblins from elves? Make a snow angel? Toast a marshmallow? Thirty-three poems by twenty-five poets give you the skinny on how to conquer the world. Oh, the compilation poetry book made up of different poems is such a strange little beast. So much of it relies on the selections. It can be interesting, but too often is not. Meet the exception that proves the rule. I do like that these are all “How-To” poems, which ties in rather nicely with those “How-To” teaching units kids sometimes get. Plus the art of Jones really is very lovely. Well worth a gander.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, ill. Vivian Mineker
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” If you take one path, what have you left behind? Robert Frost’s famous poem is adapted perfectly to a picture book celebrating life, love, and the choices we make, alongside vibrant, stirring art. I suppose we should determine at some point when a rhyming picture book constitutes inclusion in the picture book section vs. the poetry section of my lists. To my mind, if it began life as a famous poem, I think it qualifies as Poetry. This particular book is just gorgeous, and a little more philosophical than your average everyday children’s work. It’s big picture thinking with autumnal colors to boot.
Superlative Birds by Leslie Bullion, ill. Robert Meganck
If nature were a competition, what bird would win for Longest Toes? Biggest Nest? How about Most Gruesome Prey Collection? Poems and facts collide in this kicky look at the biggest and best. At first I was completely ready to dismiss this one as yet another poetry-filled-with-facts book (a.k.a. booooooring). And I do have some issues with the design and layout (those Science Notes are awfully tiny) but not with the writing. It’s a cool selection of some birds I’ve never heard of (two words: iridescent blue eggs) and others I know all too well (see: the peregrine falcon poem).
Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler, translated by Sarah Ardizzone
“Toes clinging to the ceiling / kite-fingers folded like a blanket, / the bat dreams upside down…” Vibrant yet calming images showcase animals tucked in, ready for slumber, offset with soothing evocative poetry. Takes the whole “bedtime book” concept and ratchets it up to eleven. Dear lord, this is beautiful. Though, I’ll admit, it broke my heart a little to see that it was digital art. No matter. I want to give all the kudos to the translator because all of these poems sound like they were originally written with English in mind. It’s evocative and gorgeous and one of the best bedtime tales I’ve ever seen.
Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield, ill. Ehsan Abdollahi
It’s definitely a story told in individual poems and it skews younger. A good gateway drug for getting kids into loving poetry and making up their own. None of the books I’ve included here today consist of a single over arching plot. This is the exception. Interestingly, it felt as though Greenfield were prepping kids for verse novels. It comes in on the early chapter book edge of things, but has rising and falling action, a hero with a mission, and a great grasp on language.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, ill. Kadir Nelson
Sumptuous portraits of great Black heroes illustrate a poem celebrating the brave, worthy, audacious, and undefeated. This is pure Kwame and pure Kadir mixed in the best possible way. It’s a poem extended into a book, which could be completely prosaic but instead ends up gorgeous and meaningful. I feel like the author and the illustrator did exactly what they set out to do. Plus, check out how Kadir changed up his style in some of these spreads! I absolutely love the list of “Historical Figures and Events Featured In The Undefeated” at the back, because there were a couple people here I didn’t recognize. Yeah. Consider this gold.
Anything that’s blown you away this year that I’ve missed?
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Booklists
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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