31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Poetry for Kids
Oh poetry, you funny little beast, you. You don’t get an ALA Award. You do get a Young People’s Poet Laureate but if you ask the average person on the street to name you some children’s poetry, do you know what they say? Shel Silverstein. Like, seriously, that’s the only person that they can come up with off the top of their heads. It would be disheartening if there weren’t also so many dang wonderful poetry books for kids out in 2021.
Here then are the titles that made my little poetry lovin’ heart go pitta-pat this year. Hopefully they’ll do the same for yours.
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) but you can’t begrudge it that. Lovely and simple.
Bright Brown Baby: A Treasury by Andrea Davis Pinkney, ill. Brian Pinkney
“Sparkling eyes blink hello / Bright brown baby, you will GO!” Five sweet rhyming poems celebrate Black babies, making this treasury the perfect lapsit book. Here, Andrea Davis Pinkney has constructed fun rhymes. These are then couched between big chunks of text aimed at new parents. You can see the need but you should probably be aware that these inclusions do make the experience of reading the book a little tricky, particularly if you’re reading it to a bouncy tot. Have no fear, though. Some of these rhymes are also published as board books (which you can find here). And look for the board book PEEK-A-YOU! in 2022. Hey! That rhymed!
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. It is just blooming 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 in 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 the rote information but also works 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. This is 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. Those dames 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 (there are fewer to choose from than you might think). This book puts the bulk of the rhymes on the endpapers and then focuses on the titular rhyme for “Girls and Boys Come Out to Play” as its 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
Your 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. 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 in a good collection of nursery rhymes). 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. You know, I needed a jolt of fun in the Poetry section this year. For a while, 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. At my library we’ve started a new book committee that will focus primarily on science-related children’s books. Guess which book I’m proposing to them first…
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. 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 will get more out it, I’ll admit, though. But I think a teen would look at some of the images inside and balk. 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
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.
Photo Ark ABC: An Animal Alphabet in Poetry and Pictures by Debbie Levy, photographs by Joel Sartore
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
The delightful animals of Photo Ark are paired with playful poetry to show off the alphabet in all its abecedarian glory. I’m a sucker for photography and a sucker for baby animals, so perhaps I’m not the best judge of character when I read this book. The poems themselves are good, if a bit inconsistent. I think Levy’s trying a variety of different styles, including poems that don’t rhyme. They’re serviceable though, and more than made up for by the photography of Sartore, the Photo Ark guy. It’s an alphabet/poetry book too, and it’s quite lovely to see something for “X” that isn’t your same old X-ray fish (no shade on the fish, but you’d think that they were a much bigger deal than they are, considering how often they show up in children’s books). Here X is for “Xenarthra” which is an animal with joints in its back (including sloths, anteaters, and armadillos). The poem with that one is quite clever too. This reminds me a lot of that gorgeous alphabet/photography book called Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman. I think they’d pair together particularly well.
Poems from When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne, selected with pictures by Rosemary Wells
Hm. Two pandas on two covers in a row. Guess it’s going to be that kind of a list. You know, frankly I’m a little surprised that Wells was the first person to re-illustrate Milne. I guess nursery rhymes and poetry for the very young aren’t considered a big moneymakers in the world of book publishing. As a result, I see very few in a given year. One can only assume that it was because Rosemary Wells is a big name that she was able to persuade Norton Young Readers (NOT one of the big five publishers, you’ll note) to put this out. Now a whole book of all the poems in When We Were Very Young would be a bit much for anyone. Wells selects the ones that have the most 21st century appeal for the youngest of readers and then goes to town on them with her familiar bunnies and foxes and mice and such. She also includes humans, and that’s a new one on me. I’m sure she’s done humans before, but seeing them on the page was a bit of a shocker. For the most part she does a decent job of diversifying her cast. Alas, the colors on the skin tones of “Christopher Robin” in the poem “Buckingham Palace” have a very strange tendency to lighten and darken between page turns. I was also a bit surprised to see that while the text of “Disobedience” (or, as you might know it “James James Morrison Morrison”) is untouched, while the pictures give it a happy ending. Now that poem is one of the greatest bouncy rhythms in the annals of children’s poetry, and I suppose I should be miffed that James gets his mom back, but honestly I always found it a bit of a downer at the end there (“James Jeams Morison’s mother hasn’t been heard of since”) so if Rosemary Wells wants to have mom home safe and sound, I say let her. A strong addition to any nursery collection.
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 encourage young readers not to judge 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.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, ill. Nikkolas Smith
A class assignment to “trace your roots” leads one Black child to ask her grandmother about their family history. Grandma tells the story of Black pride and what it means to come from a resilient people that have loved, resisted, and persevered. I’d argue that with its mix of history alongside a fictional framing sequence, this book is more poetry than anything else. Each section is a poem, and the author even calls it as such in the back. This first came to my attention all thanks to our friends at New York Public Library. They were highlighting it first and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. What I found was an engrossing history of Black Americans from 1619 onward. But as author Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson say in their Author’s Note at the end, the intention here was to, “show that Black Americans have their own proud origin story, one that does not begin in slavery, in struggle, and in strife but that bridges the gap between Africa and the United States of America. We begin this book with the rich cultures of West Africa and then weave the tale of how after the Middle Passage, Black Americans created a new people here on this land.” The poems are strong, the history good, and the art is extraordinary. Definitely a good strong book for this section.
The World Below the Brine by Walt Whitman, ill. James Christopher Carroll
Taking a poem and adapting it to a picture book format is a risky proposition. After all, poems rarely adapt to the 32-page format particularly well. Yet small independent publisher Creative Editions has always prided itself on doing precisely that. Sometimes it’s a gamble that doesn’t pay off, and sometimes you get something like this book. Here, artist James Christopher Carroll apparently decided that Marc Chagall was the way to go with his artist style. Chagall by way of Peter Sis, I should say, since the technical artistry on display here is highly detailed. I’ve been very good this year and limited my use of the term “luminous” as much as humanly possible, but I’m afraid I may have to pull it out for this particular book. The story (such as it is) watches as a boy and his sea creature pal dive deep down below the titular brine, seeing all the strange sites, and dangers, that lurk there. It’s a remarkably lovely bit of storytelling and must have taken ages to finish even one of these paintings. A different kind of poetry book, but a worthy inclusion to any shelf.
Interested in previous years’ poetry? Then check out these beauties:
And here’s what else we have happening 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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.
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