31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Children’s Poetry
There is no ALA award for comics. Though I might not agree with the idea, I can at least understand its origins. After all, librarians’ dislike of comics has been longstanding and well-documented. How then to explain the fact that ALA gives out no award for children’s poetry? Or for poetry of any sort? I can think of few better ways to appeal to our loftier instincts than with stanzas and villanelles. Certainly poetry is capable of winning major awards (and many times it has) but it is a true pity that the bulk of great children’s poetry published in a given year fades away without even one shiny little medal to adorn its book jacket.
Let us celebrate them ourselves then! Here is my list of some of the best, brightest, loveliest poetry of 2020. Do not let them escape your notice! These books are best read every month of the year (and not just April!). An ode to the 811s . . .
2020 Children’s Poetry
Cast Away: Poems of Our Time by Naomi Shihab Nye
“I couldn’t save the world, but I could pick up trash.” Without wasting a word, poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes words of waste. Don’t be surprised if they make you want to clean up afterwards. This is a thick little sucker, coming it at a whopping 147 pages. Don’t worry, it reads quick and along the way it gives you a lot to think about. Naomi Shihab Nye can’t pass a piece of trash without wanting to pick it up. And sure, the stories behind the discards appeal to her poetic sensibilities, but this book is about far more than just refuse. It’s about the people our society tries to “throw away”. It’s about our individual responsibilities, and what we teach our children. I’ll tell you, for a book about environmental collapse (to a certain extent) this book never guilts you. Instead, you come away from it feeling newly inspired. It made me want to walk the block with a trash bag in my hand. Heartening (and the poems are pretty amazing too!).
A Hatful of Dragons: And More Than 13.8 Billion Other Funny Poems by Vikram Madan
What a delightful surprise! I feel so bad that I put this book off for as long as I did. Don’t make the same mistake I did. The members of my library’s 101 Great Books for Kids committee came to this book one by one and each time someone read it they’d start proselytizing like the newly converted. These poems are fantastic! So inventive and funny. The tongue twister rivals anything you might find in something like Fox in Socks. Plus, how can you resist a poem that has 13,841,287,207 possible answers? It’s incredibly funny, so hand this to your Silverstein/Prelutsky fans.
I Wish by Toon Tellegen, ill. Ingrid Godon, translated by David Colmer
I am putting this book in the poetry section. I am putting this book in the poetry section because that is where the press materials indicate it best belongs. Elsewhere Editions writes, “I Wish pairs 33 poems …” But are they poems? Let me back up a little. What we have here are portraits “inspired by old-fashioned photographs”. The Belgian illustrator, being of sound mind and body, created these portraits because she was inspired by “the Flemish Primitives, the great Italian Renaissance painters, and the photographer Norbert Ghisoland.” Then, at some point in the process, they were handed to the Dutch writer and poet Toon Tellegen who got all kinds of wistful on us. Each person that gets a story receives something wholly unique and strange and wonderful. As I read these poems, they struck me as mini monologues. To be frank, I think that would be an excellent use of this book. Hand it around the room to a class of kids. Have them each read aloud one of these first person narratives. “This is my last request. When I die, I want them to check how long someone’s still thinking of me.” “If I ever saw an ad like this: ‘Wanted: secretive boy for secret duties.’ I would apply.” “If I think about it, it’s actually pretty weird that I’m me.” I defend American children’s literature all the livelong day, but let’s just face facts. A book as introspective, smart, and thoughtful as this one could not possibly have come out in the States first. And if we have Elsewhere Editions and the Dutch to thank for it then thank them we should. Loud and strong and proud.
Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Each poem in this collection is a mini-story of a girl. She might be a drummer, a little sister, shy, or a “door buster”, but each one has something important to say, so you better sit back and listen. I had no idea Ms. Brantley-Newton was as adept at poetry as she was until I picked up this book. What a lovely surprise! The professional reviews journals are using words like “uplifting” and “empowering” to describe this, but so many books are trying to be published in that vein. How many stand out? I’d argue that this one does on a number of levels. From the wistful “A Wish for Daddy” that speaks to a deep abiding sadness to the goofball positive “Weird” to “Sundress Blues” where a girl complains that “My sundress and I are no longer friends” (but ends “the wind began blowing my dress here and there / and showing off my underwear / Well . . . / at least they were cute”) I just really dug the tone of this book. I also liked that the artistic style employed changes a LOT. We already knew that Brantley-Newton was capable of a wide array of different styles, but I don’t think she’s ever collected them into one book before. Extra points for making the first poem in the book “I Am a Canvas” which is all about how others perceive and define you.
Leave a Message in the Sand: Poems About Giraffes, Bongos, and Other Creatures with Hooves by Bibi Dumon Tak, ill. Annemarie van Haeringen, translated by Laura Watkinson
Would you care to hear a little secret? It clues you in on how I pull these lists together. All year long I read as many books as I can and for the ones I find particularly nice I write out little descriptions and thoughts about them. Then, when the time is right, I pull everything together for these lists. But once in a while there’s a big stack of books that I didn’t get to and in the last days before the list is done I start reading like I’m engaged in a kind of book triage situation. Yesterday I worked my way through a stack of poetry titles that I’d missed and soon discovered that almost all of them were forgettable. Almost all. This import from the Netherlands (original title: Laat een boodschap achtr in het zand) is a funny kind of fiction/nonfiction mix. If you have hooves, you may well find yourself on these pages. But these poems aren’t satisfied with boring you with the same old, same old. One poem is done in the style of an interview. Another as a complaint to an editor. One is a personal ad from a Wild Bactrian Camel (“Male seeks female(s)”). And one is live reporting ala Howard Cosell. The translation is remarkable. You’d have no clue it wasn’t originally published in English if you stumbled upon it. And the watercolors straddle the line between whimsy and a deep and abiding respect for nature that I found quite intoxicating. Plenty of nature poetry books exist. This just happens to be one of the standouts. One that I found just in the nick of time!
A Little Called Pauline by Gertrude Stein, ill. Bianca Stone
Plucked from Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book Tender Buttons, artist Stone gives form and plot to a poem of pure whimsy. A unique way to introduce kids to Stein’s illogical logic. Don’t mind me, I’m just going to plant my flag in Weirdo Country over here. This book has an uphill battle to fight. It has taken a Gertrude Stein poem, and attempted to put a narrative over it. Then the illustrator has used a style that wouldn’t fly with one of the big publishers, I can tell you that. As I am the defender of all things peculiar, I would like to speak in favor of this book. Ideally, this is for kids like my daughter. She loves writing and books but is a practical child to her soul. With this poem I can kind of break through the shell she’s already built up around herself of sense and reason. In the back of the book Stone writes, “Take lines from this poem and make your own drawings to accompany them! I call this Poetry Comics.” I call this book, incredibly cool.
The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane, ill. Jackie Morris
Last year Macfarlane and Morris pooled their mutual creative talents and brought into this world the book The Lost Words. It was a uniquely clever collection of those words excised from children’s dictionaries in recent years. This year they return with The Lost Spells, which feels more British than its predecessor, but you’re so wrapped up in the pretty language that you may hardly notice at all. The book tells you that this is where you will be able to find incantations and summoning charms. But what are you summoning? Moths and egrets. Woodpeckers and daisies. Lovely lush watercolors bring Macfarlane’s marvelous poems to life. Many are serious but the aforementioned woodpecker is a hoot and a half. This is for the child that likes to dive into words, or maybe likes to dive into nature. Both would be ideal. Pretty. Fantastic. Pretty fantastic.
No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, ill. Jeanette Bradley
I like books that show kids in active roles (Kid Blink only gets you so far) but often the books that talk about them are so dull. I like a book that dares to try to be literary as well as informative. Is that so wrong? In this collection of poems about young heroes, fourteen different poets write sixteen poems in total. Some of the subjects you know well (Marley Diaz, Jazz Jennings, etc.) and some are complete surprises. In terms of inclusion, I was impressed by the presence of Judy Adams, the Down syndrome activist, and at least two Indigenous kids. My sole objection, honestly, is that Bradley’s beautiful art has been drawn on sepia-toned paper. And sepia, as as kid will tell you, means “boring” to them. Otherwise, it’s hard to find anything cooler than that image of Viridiana Sanchez Santos in her quinceañera gown, fist raised high.
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ill. G. Brian Karas
“Under a spreading chestnut tree / The village smithy stands.” Longfellow’s classic paean to blacksmiths is updated to the 21st century with this informative look at smithing and what the job entails today. My brother-in-law is a major contributor to his local makerspace, so this particular edition of a 21st century blacksmith range really true to me. I was also surprised at how contemporary Longfellow’s poetry sounded to my modern earns. Apparently this poem originally appeared in the New York Monthly Magazine in 1840, which is kind of neat in and of itself. Karas is a great complementary artist to the words. My sole objection might be the fact that having visited the aforementioned makerspace, I know that safety is taken incredibly seriously. The scene where three little unaccompanied kids (the blacksmith’s kids, it now occurs to me) linger in the doorway while the one wearing gloves tries to pick up a spark just made me a tad nervous. Presumably they’ve been taught to come in no further, but that’s not clear on a first read. Cool facts about the tools of a blacksmith’s trade appear at the end, and how neat is it that Karas thanks, “Marsha Trattner of She-Weld for showing new blacksmiths the way and keeping this art form alive”?
Wannabe Farms: Where Dreams Never Come True at Least Not the Way They Usually Do by Brian McCann, ill. Meghan Lands
What happens to a dream deferred? Well, when you’re a chicken, it goes a little haywire. Farm animals indulge in truly terrible ideas in pursuit of their misguided dreams. Laugh out loud humor combines with wacky poetry to indication the direction of the redirected hopes. You know what? I LIKE this goofy little book! It really benefits from reading it aloud, though, so consider doing that before you judge. Plus, I’m just so desperate for anything legitimately funny these days. We NEED some humor and this book fits the bill.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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.
SLJ Blog Network