2021 Poetry: Versification for the Masses
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Poetry. The creator of and solution to of to all our librarian problems*. I have found in my travels that children’s books of poetry slot neatly into two categories: Good and forgettable. Let it be made clear then that there is a LOT of perfectly decent poetry out there. Perfectly decent, completely forgettable poetry. 2021 has been particularly egregious in this area. I’ve read through loads of the stuff, and I suspect it is but the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the marked decrease in physical galleys, I don’t even know what poetry to even try to look at anymore! Fortunately, I’ve a committee at work of dedicated librarians that are very good at directing my attention towards poetry books I might otherwise miss.
Today’s list is not particularly long, but it’s a fun encapsulation of some of the Can’t Miss Poetry of 2021. Take a gander and then read ’em up for yourselves:
2021 Poetry for Kids
Beautiful Day! Petite Poems for All Seasons by Rodoula Pappa, ill. Seng Soun Ratanavanh
“Look in the sky / they blossomed again, / the kites!” Delicate, succinct poems summarize the seasons from Spring to Winter, accompanied by beautifully patterned art. And that subtitle promising “Petite Poems” is right. I’m not really used to a poetry book that doesn’t brag about how it’s written entirely in obscure poetic forms or that it upsets normal expectations. This is just . . . poems. About seasons. That’s the long and short of it. It’s banking pretty heavily on the charm of Seng Soun Ratanavah (whom you may recall from Roxane Marie Galliez’s charming “Miyuki” series). Lovely and simple.
Dear Treefrog by Joyce Sidman, ill. Diana Sudyka
Slip into the secret spots of your garden and meet a coy creature unafraid to be silent and stealthy. This book contains lovely poems and delicious facts about the tiny treefrog. Oo! It is just wonderful! On so many levels too. Not only is this illustrated by a local Evanston artist (local to me anyway) but it’s some of her best work. Look at that image of the greenery in the poem “Such Quiet Feet”. It’s like a lush river of foliage. And Sidman’s poetry is at top form as well. The book takes care to feature factual captions about tree frogs in the corners of each two-page spread. As such, it manages to not simply convey facts but work a little wonder in there as well. Very successful.
The Dirt Book: Poems About Animals That LIve Beneath Our Feet by David L. Harrison, ill. Kate Cosgrove
Take a deep dive into the dirt you walk upon and meet the myriad creatures that collect there. A title packed full of clever info and even cleverer verse. You know, a science-related work of poetry can have all the best intentions in the world but unless those poems really sing, it’s never going to be anything more than science wrapped in lightly coupled verse. It’s books like this one that really remind you how pleasant it is to read GOOD poetry about nature. Like MEL FELL, this one reads vertically (and, also like MEL FELL, there’s a reason for that). The poems go through the wide range of animals that occupy the space beneath our feet and, while I don’t want to give anything away, I would like to state for the record that Mr. Harrison is NOT a fan of grubs. Nor am I after reading the scientific backmatter at the end. Loved the Bibliography and I’m still blown away by that information about bumblebee queens. They are HARDCORE. Read the book. You’ll see why.
Girls and Boys Come Out to Play by Tracey Campbell Pearson
“Girls and boys come out to play / the moon doth shine as bright as day.” Nursery rhyme characters flock outside to party alongside a pack of happy children and a bespectacled Mother Goose. The thing to know about me is that I get a little goofy about nursery rhymes. When my kids were itty bitties I indulged in every nursery rhyme collection out there (and there are a LOT to choose from). This book puts the bulk of the rhymes on the endpapers and then focuses on the single rhyme for “Girls and Boys Come Out to Play” as the central storyline. My daughter took a look at this book while it was in our home and commented that it was unfortunate that the language was as gender exclusionary as to limit itself to “girls and boys” which is a fair point. Beyond that, I like what Pearson has done with the text.
Honey for You, Honey for Me: A First Book of Nursery Rhymes collected by Michael Rosen, ill. Chris Riddell
Our youngest readers will bounce with glee when read this array of rhymes both old and new. Big beautiful art is sure to entrance toddlers far and wide. Man. Remember what I just told you about how when my kids were small I must have read them every single nursery rhyme book I could get my hands on? Seriously, I read the Arnold Lobel one and the Tomie dePaola ones to death. There is nothing better for a small child than the rhythmic fun of nursery rhymes. Now Rosen and Riddell, who have done books of rhyme together before, have put together a seriously cool collection. This is perfect for small children! The picture are big and the rhymes are really fun. I knew a bunch but there were a couple in here that surprised me (always key to a good collection). Some of these you can sing, and some you can chant, and some just rhyme on their own. Absolutely adore it. Come read!
Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty by Charles R. Smith Jr.
“Shimmy, shake, spin, stride / dribble in, step back, dribble out, slide.” Meet 12 of today’s hottest basketball champs as Charles R. Smith Jr. makes their poetry on the court into poetry on the page. Oh, thank god. I needed a jolt of fun in the Poetry section this year. Nothing had really been doing it for me, and then Charles R. Smith Jr. came to the rescue. If you’ve read his Hoop Kings or Hoop Queens then I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how Mr. Smith has upgraded his visual style. For those of you worrying that this is a sequel, rest assured that that’s in name alone. The original Hoop Kings, which praised individual professional players, came out in 2007, so it’s been a while. This book is fast and tight and I love the explanations at the end for why the poet went in one direction with a player’s verses or another. This is a must have for any basketball fan, since all the guys featured here are current. Plus the poetry is really good. I’d call this one (forgive me but I have to say it) a slam dunk!
The Last Straw: Kids Vs. Plastics by Susan Hood, ill. Christiane Engel
Seventeen smart poems introduce readers to the activists and science working hard to combat our problems with plastic. From jellyfish snot to a call to arms, you don’t want to miss this smart read. Absolutely. And while the science is great, I’d like to point out that the poetry itself is actually incredibly strong. It scans beautifully.
Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes
Award-winning poet and author Nikki Grimes introduces the poems of women from the Harlem Renaissance then answers them with poems of her own. I agree that there’s a level of sophistication to some of the poems you’ll find in this book, but overall I came away with the impression that it was definitely more children’s than YA. Older kids, sure, but still kids. I think a teen would look at some of the images inside and balk anyway. The selection of original Harlem Renaissance poets was keen, and I thought Nikki’s “Golden Shovel” poetry (which I’ve seen her use before in other books) made a great amount of sense here. A poetry boon.
Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile by María José Ferrada, Ill. María Elena Valdez, translated by Lawrence Schimel +(BB)
Thirty-four poems honor the thirty-four children killed during the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Poignant, loving, beautiful words display each child full of life and hope and wonder. It can be difficult figuring out how an author could make the lost children of Chile an appropriate topic for kids to learn about. But Ferrada’s clever because she doesn’t concentrate on their death but on their life. At the beginning she writes, “… we tell this story knowing that at this moment, many children feel afraid, suffer tragedies, and even lose their lives because of political violence. To those children, and to the memory that helps us defeat monsters, we dedicate this book.” 2021 is a good year for defeating monsters, I think. And the poems found here are just wonderful. In a lot of ways this reminded me of last year’s I Wish. Only, perhaps, with quite a bit more poignancy.
The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park, ill. Robert Sae-Heng
While this book could most certainly be called a verse novel, many of my colleagues have argued for its inclusion on poetry lists instead/as well. Said one, it’s “an emotionally balanced collection of poetry.” And why not? After all, it’s written in the form of a traditional Korean poem called a Sijo (with some modern twists). One librarian of my acquaintance found reading this cathartic, particularly when one thinks of how hard this year-long pandemic has been. As she put it, “It seems like many adults took stock of what mattered most (who and what do I give my time and energy to, money to, attention to..). What things have you chosen to save?”
The Poet of Piney Woods by Bob Raczka, ill. Kevin & Kristen Howdeshell
A sensitive wolf poet, with a penchant for crisp pears, yearns for the other animals to read his work. Short, elegant poems tell the tale of not judging a book by its cover. Seems to me like a lot of books this year are straddling the line between Poetry and Picture Book. Raczka’s been in the children’s poetry game for a number of years, and while this book does tell an overarching story, each page contains at least one self-sustaining poem (for the most part). I like the tale but I was particularly impressed by the art of the Howdeshells. This is their debut and they do a stellar job of rendering each page and image. It’s an interesting combination of cartoony and thoroughly artistic.
*With apologies to Homer Simpson
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2021
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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