Poems and Rhymes for Children

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

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Last Updated 10/25/10

Picture Books

(Click for Middle Grade books or YA books.)

The Candlewick Book of First Rhymes. Candlewick, 1996 (0-7636-0015-6) $17.99

This lively anthology features illustrated rhymes and poems selected from a number of sources--most, but not all of them, Candlewick picture books. Along with classic nursery rhymes illustrated by popular artists like Michael Foreman, Arnold Lobel and Maurice Sendak, there are original poems and a few complete stories-in-verse. Even with most of the illustrations cut, the stories work very well in this format (sometimes better than they worked as picture books), and the pages are so well designed, you'd never guess that they weren't originally illustrated this way. With text and pictures that convey a variety of different moods, this is a delightful introduction to rhyme, as fun to read aloud as it is to listen to. (2-6)

Pio Peep! selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English adaptations by Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Vivi Escriva. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-688-16019-0) $14.99

If you, like me, dutifully read your children English-Spanish word books, while trying to stifle your yawns, take note! This collection of traditional Spanish nursery rhymes is how it should be done, offering English speakers a chance to discover Spanish the way children first learn to love language, through delightful sounds and rhythms. Some of the longer rhymes will challenge non-native speakers reading aloud, but most of us can manage verse like "Pito, pito, colorito, donde vas tu, tan bonito?" and have a wonderful time doing it. When the Spanish pronunciation becomes too much for me, I turn to the English adaptations--very free translations that try to keep the sense and feeling of the originals, although the rhythm is often lost.

Of course, this book is not just for English speakers; Spanish speakers can also enjoy it just as a collection of traditional verse. Colorful illustrations, using images and motifs from Spanish and Mexican culture, give additional context for the rhymes, many of which are used in children's games. (2-5)

black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff. Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-028776-4) $15.95; HarperTrophy, 2004 (0-06-443644-6) $5.99 pb

Originally published in 1973, this landmark lyrical poem about an interracial family has been updated with glowing and tender new watercolors by the original illustrator, based on the author's family. Warmth, humor and love live in each line as Adoff tells readers, "this is the way it is for us/this is the way we are." (3 & up)

No Hickory No Dickory No Dock written and collected by John Agard and Grace Nichols. Illustrated by Cynthia Jabar. Candlewick, 1995 (1-56402-156-4) $15.95

This collection of Caribbean nursery rhymes--some traditional, but most original by the authors--reveals and continues an oral tradition that encompasses skipping songs, folktales, and playful borrowings from English nursery rhymes. The result is a lively bunch of songs that are almost familiar yet uniquely different. In these rhymes, the queen is visited by a scary pumpkin rather than a pussycat, and Humpty Dumpty's great fall is cured with a little super glue; children are warned about Doctor-Kill-and-Can't-Cure ("if you have a sore he'll give you some more") and they count from one to ten with the trickster spider Anancy. Cynthia Jabar's scratchboard illustrations are cheerful and expressive accompaniments to the rhymes and songs. (4-8)

Agard and Nichols are also the editors of A Caribbean Dozen, a stimulating anthology of poems by 13 Caribbean poets. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-339-7) $19.95 (4-10)

All Creatures Great and Small selected and illustrated by Isabelle Brent. Little, Brown, 1994 (0-316-10869-3) $14.95

Ten jovial poems about animals, including Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat" and Carroll's "The Crocodile" are an enjoyable old-fashioned showcase for Brent's exquisitely designed and gorgeously colored illuminations. Mosaic patterns, jewel tones and gold leaf somehow combine attractively with the natural or exotic settings suggested by the text; these aren't the typical humorous pictures you would expect with lighthearted animal verses, and they are too elaborate and still to really illustrate the lively poems, but readers with an eye for beauty will be rapt. (4 & up)

Polkabats and Alphabet Slacks written and illustrated by Calef Brown. Read by Daniel Pinkwater. Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-13304-6) $18.00 book and CD

Brown's tribute to such antic characters as Kansas City Octopus, the Lonely Surfer and Funky Snowman get a little extra jazz here with the inclusion of a CD. Children's author Daniel Pinkwater reads the 14 poems with pizazz, against a dixieland background.

Animal Fair illustrated by Anthony Browne. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1831-4) $14.99

The cover describes this book as "a spectacular pop-up" but "creepy" and "baffling" are words that come more readily to my mind. Based on a nonsense rhyme, the ridiculous words about an animal fair actually seem to make more sense than the surreal pictures which attempt to illustrate them. There are some wonderful images though, including a haunted house decorated with skulls whose blank eyes sneakily change color, and a fabulous merry-go-round which changes, with the pull of a tab, from an ordinary carousel with people riding on wooden horses, to a macabre vision of animals riding on (wooden?) people. Probably a treat for the right reader.

The Baby's Bedtime Book selected and illustrated by Kay Chorao. Dutton, 1984; Puffin Unicorn, 1994 (0-14-055384-3) $5.99 pb

This is a warm and soothing collection of traditional lullabies and poems, dreamily illustrated in pastoral pen & ink and watercolor drawings. Designed to be read in a sitting, the book starts out with some livelier verses and then gets more and more sleepy, in both words and pictures, as it progresses; by the time the reader reaches "Now I Lay Me..." (a nonthreatening version) and "Day is Done," any listeners should be ready to nod off. (Yaaawwwwn.)

Dog Poems by Dave Crawley. Illustrated by Tamara Petrosino. Wordsong, 2007 (978-59078-454-9) $16.95

Twenty-four vignettes in verse makes up this lighthearted collection of love poems to dogs. There's a description of the unbeautiful but loyal and gentle bulldog, showing that beauty is only fur deep, a glimpse of a wolf and hunter beginning to bond in ancient times, and and a story about a pure white puppy named Snowball who unexpectedly develops into a Dalmatian who has to be renamed Dotty. A strong affection for the foibles of dogs shines through the book, culminating in a tender poem about a girl and puppy growing old together:

And as we walk this well-worn path
no longer running free,
I hope I was as good to you
as you have been to me.
I have a limited tolerance for poetic whimsy and any poem called "Snuggle-Wuggle" that uses the phrase "ruzzle-wuzzle" is really pushing it; nonetheless, I like this book. The poems in it are sometimes silly, frequently obvious and unabashedly sentimental, but even after several rereadings during the Cybils nomination process many of them made me smile; reading it again now, they still do. The poetic forms used are familiar, but frequent changes in mood and tempo keep the book from getting that stale feeling common to collections of verse. Even the illustrations, which are on the shallow, cartoony side, work surprisingly well, keeping the mood of the book light and playful. With pictures like these, you don't expect lyric profundity and it's okay that you don't get it. Although I see a fair bit to criticize in Dog Poems, I think many readers will enjoy it for its warmth and easy humor. (4-8)

Tomie's Little Mother Goose illustrated by Tomie dePaola. 1985; Philomel, 1997 (0-399-23154-4) $7.95

Concentrating mainly on the shorter Mother Goose rhymes, this is an appealing first collection. The uncluttered colored pencil illustrations stick mostly to traditional themes; their simple lines have an almost formal style, relieved by the pleasant, lighthearted expression on almost every character's face. (2-6)

Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Harcourt, 2007 (978-0-15-205676-6) $17.00

A string of anthropomorphic numbers merrily beboppin' across the end pages sets the tone for this deliciously nonsensical Mother Goose collection. All of the rhymes include numbers, from the well-known "Baa baa black sheep" to more obscure verses like "1-ery, 2-ery, tickery, 10," but it's not really a counting book--in fact, young children who truly want to count may find some of the longer numbers a bit frustrating. (Four and twenty very thin hairs in a wig, for example.) Mostly this book is about imaginative images and movement: the strange, often masked characters cavort across the pages almost as if in a whimsical parade. A clock strikes its own bell, fish strut in boots, potatoes dance in fezzes, the four-and-twenty blackbirds willingly trot into the pie. Except for a few bright splashes, the color scheme is largely muted, as if to keep all the attention on the odd inhabitants of this friendly world. The effect is very engaging, for both young and adult readers. * (2 & up)

Animal Crackers written and illustrated by Jane Dyer. Little, Brown, 1996 (0-316-19766-1) $17.95

At first glance, this book of poems and nursery rhymes immediately evokes a very old-fashioned aesthetic, with text and pictures stylishly interwoven, and many classic images such as boys in nightshirts and smiling moons. Closer inspection however, shows that along with old favorites like "The End" (Now I am Six) by A.A. Milne and "Winken, Blynken, and Nod" by Eugene Field, the book includes African and Brazilian lullabies and poems by authors like William Carlos Williams--and the babies drawn floating on clouds come in many colors. The mix of old-fashioned charm and modern values works beautifully; neither seems soppy or overdone. Dryer's watercolors are very attractive: sometimes soft and dreamy, sometimes bright and glowing, with each piece of text illustrated in a distinct, appropriate style. * (2 & up)

Moon Frog by Richard Edwards. Illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-116-5) $16.95

A nice collection of animal poems, stressing humorous verse but with some more serious and evocative poems as well. As in most children's poetry collections, quality varies from poem to poem, but most are at least good and some are excellent. Edwards uses word play to good effect in the funny poems - for example, the comparison between the worker ant and the eleph-ant in "Large and Little"; his more serious poems are simple but stirring. The attractive watercolor and pencil illustrations work well, complementing the mood and spirit of the poems without overwhelming them. Overall, a good introduction to poetry for younger children.

The Kingfisher Nursery Rhyme Songbook compiled by Sally Emerson. illustrated by Colin and Moira Maclean. Kingfisher, 1995 (1-85697-635-1) $9.95

A terrific resource for parents or teachers, this book offers the words and music for numerous songs that children love, some very familiar, others much less known in American culture. More than a songbook, almost every page includes games to play as you sing or ideas for other ways to make music part of a child's life. The piano and guitar arrangements are quite simple, but even those who can't play a note may find this a valuable guidebook and memory aid. Light, colorful pen & ink illustrations add to the book's general appeal. *

Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon. Illustrated by Anne Mortimer. HarperCollins, 1996 (0-06-027334-8) $12.95; HarperTrophy, 1999 (0-06-443554-7) $5.95 pb

The title page of this book shows a cat sleeping with its paw resting on a piece of paper, upon which a hand is drawing an exact replica of the sleeping cat. That first picture captures the meticulous yet witty style of this picture book, which brings out the tender humor of Farjeon's poem to the utmost. A fondly knowing celebration of imperious cat nature, the poem describes how cats will sleep anywhere they choose; Mortimer's pictures demonstrate the truth of that statement by showing a cat sleeping on a pool table (hugging a billiard ball), in a hammock, and even on top of an occupied doghouse. Mortimer uses an intriguing combination of framed and frameless pictures, thematically connected by recurring designs--but the real stars of the illustration are the beautifully rendered cats, lovingly created to the last whisker. The perfect realism of their smug, sleepy expressions is astonishing and enchanting. * (2 & up)

Beast Feast written and illustrated by Douglas Florian. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-295178-4) $14.95; Voyager 1998 (0-15-201737-2) $7.00 pb

This feast of beasts features poems about real animals, but takes a sprightly approach to the facts. The primarily short, unsophisticated poems are pleasant, humorous read-alouds that beginning readers may also be able to handle. Florian's muted illustrations forsake realism for many funny touches: his chameleon holds an artist's pallette, his sloth has flowers growing out of its head, his firefly comes complete with an electric plug. Each picture has an intriguing or amusing detail worth looking for. (4-8)

Bing Bang Boing written and illustrated by Douglas Florian. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-233770-9) $15.95; 2007 (978-0-15-205860-9) $8.00 trade

Although I've enjoyed Florian's work in the past, it's always seemed a bit overwhelmed by the "one poem, facing one illustration" picture book format. This much larger collection (144 pages) has a more comfortable, balanced feel, with poems and pictures fitting into each other on the pages and working together harmoniously. The result is a very enjoyable book that expresses the many moods of nonsense poetry: some pure whimsy, some ghoulishness, and some convolutedly revealing looks at life and people. With clever rhymes and a twisted sense of humor, Florian gives us some new ways to look at familiar things.

In Bing Bang Boing we find horrible creatures that turn out to be teachers, robots that write poems, and pease-porridge that, after nine days in the pot, might eat you. We also learn what cannibals prefer to noodles and cheese ("noodles and knees"), the real problem of the old lady who lived in the shoe ("Pew!") and the best way to swallow ones pride ("fried.")

We also see some sharp contrasts between the child world and the adult world. The poems written from the point of view of children are mostly delightfully silly and carefree, like "If I Eat More Candy," in which the narrator imagines the horrible fate that will be befall him if he eats more candy, ending with "the stench of my breath/Will kill birds in the air--But This candy's so good/That I really don't care!" Views of the adult word, however, can be somber, filled with pathetic people like "Mrs. Mary Musty" who covered the sea so it wouldn't get wet and covered the sun so it wouldn't set. To sum up the overall attitude:

Don't wanna be a grown-up,
A fat and overblown-up.
'Cause grown-ups always eat their peas,
Hide their mouths each time they sneeze.
Wear big woolen suits that itch,
Work all day so they'll be rich.
Mind their minners, act polite,
Always smile, never fight.
Talk about the things they've done,
And never ever have much fun.

(That is, unfortunately, only one of a considerable number of negative images of fatness in the poems.)

The mood of the book is is mostly lighthearted, however, and the surreal black and white sketches that go with the poems add some extra bite to their humor. (5 & up)

Mary Middling and Other Silly Folk by Rose Fyleman. Illustrated by Katja Bandlow. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-38141-4) $16.00

A man so thin he's mistaken for a pin, a lady in a bonnet with radishes, lettuce and carrots upon it and a King and Queen who are total opposites are the sorts of familiar folk found in this collection of original nonsense poems. Short and rhythmic, these verses are a good place to turn when you've run out of Mother Goose, or if you prefer a gentler form of nonsense than Lear--though a few characters do come to possibly sticky ends. The illustrations feature bold outlines and cheerful expressions. (1-3)

Poems Go Clang! a Collection of Noisy Verse illustrated by Debi Gliori. Candlewick, 1997 (0-7636-0148-9) $13.99

Filled with clickety clicks and clackety clacks, Cows going Bong! and Monkey's saying Boo!, this anthology of verse revels in the joy of sound. Some of the poems are sheer nonsense, others create vivid images of a time, place or feeling--all are deliciously nimble, rhythmic and noisy. Gliori's lighthearted watercolors connect the poems through the bedtime visions of a little boy and his dog, making some interesting juxtapositions; a particularly evocative pairing has two poems about music in the city leading to a fantasy about the earth's first Walkman--a seashell on each ear, five million years ago. * (3-8)

Fold Me a Poem by Kristine O'Connell George. Illustrated by Lauren Stringer. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-202501-4) $16

From waking up a piece of paper by folding it into a Rooster, to "hearing papery whisper-thumps" as he lies in bed at night, a little boy spends a day creating a fantastic world of origami animals and shapes. This interconnected collection of short poems--some in recognizable forms like haiku, others free-form--shows that words, like oragami paper, can create something more solid and alive than the sum of their parts. In the painted illustrations, inventive posing gives expression to the seemingly faceless origami animals, while still keeping them utterly plausible. * (3 & up)

Not a Copper Penny in Me House by Monica Gunning. Illustrated by Frane Lessac. 1993; Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 1999 (1-56397-793-1) $8.95 pb

The back of this book describes it as a collection of poems that give a glimpse of "some of the hardships and joys of a Caribbean childhood." What interests me about that is that I saw very few hardships in the simple word pictures of this book--mostly joys. Even when Grandma sighs, "'Chil, me stone broke. Not a copper penny in me house,'" things are still okay--because Maas Charles at the corner store "never says no./He knows everyone in the village by their first names."

Rather than a book about hardships and joys, this seems to me to be a book about values and attitude. When there's no soap in the house, it works fine to use velvet leaves. When it's too hot to breathe inside, the children in the one room schoolhouse recite their lessons under the cool trees, hearing "twittering birds/recite theirs, too.". And walking on the hard roads is no hardship to Nana, because it spares her most precious treasure: "Walking faster/she stubs her toe hard./Hugging her shoes/Nana says 'Thank you, God,/ it wasn't me Sunday shoes.'"

The illustrations also emphasize joyfulness, with plenty of vibrant colors and bold, active figures, in a traditional, primitive style. The cool blue of water contrasts with the hot yellow of the sandy shore in one scene, drawing us into the pleasure of a picnic by the seashore. Tropical flowers are everywhere; plants and color make seemingly bare homes inviting. This is a lovely look at a people making the most of everything they have--and showing that, despite poverty, they have a lot worth envying. (8-12)

This Land is Your Land words and music by Woody Guthrie. Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen. Little, Brown, 1998 (0-316-39215-4) $15.95; 2002 (0-316-06564-1) $19.95 book and CD

"This Land is Your Land" has certainly been illustrated before, but perhaps never as honestly or as movingly as here. A tribute to Woody Guthrie, as well as an illustration of his most popular song, this book does justice to his work as a social activist by including the more sombre and usually censored lyrics ("As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?"), as well as images of America that include homeless people and CIO strikers. But like most of the song itself, the mood of the book is generally upbeat, showing that America is a wonderful land that can get even better, if people care enough.

Woody himself is our guide through the verses of the song, walking that ribbon of highway, seeing that endless skyway, in delicate, precise folk-art style paintings. For the many choruses, Jakobsen shows a multitude of American images, from a placid Iowa cornfield to a jewel-like Mardi Gras float; the lavishly designed pages also include framed quotes from Woody and verses of his other songs. Many events from his life are included: one of the most memorable is a scene of Woody playing his guitar, depicted accurately with its slogan, "this machine kills fascists." If there's a flaw in the book, it's that images from the past and present are mixed indiscriminately, making it difficult for us to know if we're seeing an image as Woody saw it or as it exists today. Dates would have been helpful.

This is a book that will captivate adults interested in folk music, who can enjoy playing spot the folk legend in its pages; an especially satisfying spread shows Woody and many of the folk artists he sang with (Leadbelly, Phil Ochs, Odetta, etc.), while underneath a tribute concert to him includes John Wesley Harding, Country Joe McDonald and Bruce Springsteen. (Both, of course, include Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.) Young readers may not have the same appreciation for this historical reference, but can certainly enjoy the wealth of images and the thoughtfulness the words and illustrations engender.

This edition comes with a CD of nine of Guthrie's best loved children's songs, including "Bling-Blang" and "Riding in My Car, " sung by Guthrie and his son Arlo Guthrie; I think the older recordings by Guthrie have been overdubbed, in order to give a more consistent sound to the CD.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep: Lullabies and Night Poems selected and illustrated by Michael Hague. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-10877-6) $18

Both the poems and the pictures in this collection of lullabies are decidedly old-fashioned, with angels and fairies prominently featured and many classic pictorial allusions: a jolly winking moon, children in nightcaps, babies being carried by storks and so on. It's a beautifully designed book, with the poems placed as part of the warm, glowing illustrations and "frames" of shining stars around each page; some of the individual pictures are less appealing however, particularly the strange and grotesque faces of many of the children. (Perhaps this is also a visual allusion, but not an attractive one.) The lullabies and poems are largely traditional or by traditional favorites such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling; the few contemporary offerings are well chosen to fit in with the sentimental atmosphere. The last section offers clear, usable musical arrangements of the lullabies. This book won't be to everyone's taste, but overall it's a bountiful collection that could well become a family favorite.

Little Robin Redbreast: a Mother Goose Rhyme. Illustrated by Shari Halpern. North-South Books, 1994 (1-55858-247-9) $14.95

A lilting Mother Goose rhyme about a cat chasing a wily bird makes this simple but exciting book an easy, fun read aloud. The large detail of the bold, vivid cut-paper collages (given extra depth and visual appeal by subtle, interesting textures) make it especially appropriate for story hours, where everyone will be able to enjoy the whimsical expressions of the cat as it is outwitted.

A First Picture Book of Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Elizabeth Harbour. Viking, 1996 (0-670-85030-6) $17.99

This slim collection of nursery rhymes may have some interest to Americans, for its inclusion of a several verses which are rarely seen in our collections. Other than that though, there is little to recommend it: the flat, pale, formal illustrations may be artistically interesting in themselves, but they give the simplest, least expressive interpretations to the rhymes. The combination is colorless and dull.

Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard. Roaring Brook, 2009 (978-1-59643-220-8) $16.95

They say some people would be entertaining reading the phone book. Poems of lists don't sound very promising, but get the right poets and you have a wonderful concept and a wonderful collection. An excellent design doesn't hurt, either.

This is a smallish book--no illustrations, but it doesn't need them. Most of the poems run vertically/sideways, to feel more like reading a list; one is to be read bottom to top, one with four voices. The titles of the poems are all done in different styles, which adds some visual variety: for example, "What is Earth?" by J. Patrick Lewis and "Spinners" by Marilyn Singer are both appropriately round, while "In My Desk" by Jane Yolen is scattered down the side of the page in a a random feeling way and "Creativity" by Eileen Spinelli has leaning and upside down letters. The design adds to the poems without taking attention away from them.

I love how the poems takes a theme that may seem mundane--the contents of a desk, rocks, clay--and find... well, poetry, in them. Thought, sound, imagery, meaning. It's hard to pick one poem to showcase, because I liked each one better than the last. But since it's Poetry Friday, I'll go with this one:

Why Poetry by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Why poety?

Why sunsets?
Why trees?

Why birds?
Why seas?

Why you?
Why me?

Why friends?
Why families?

Why laugh?
Why cry?

Why hello?
Why good-bye?

Why poetry?

That's why!
If you love poetry, put checking out this book on your things to do list. * (6 & up)

Winter Lights written and illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines. Greenwillow, 2005 (978-0-06-00817-8) $16.99

Glowing, twinkling, flaming... the "lights" in this gorgeous book almost seem alive. Brilliantly crafted quilts use shapes and sharp contrasts to turn plain cloth into stars, fire and moonlight. The illustrations are paired with short, evocative poems about all aspects of Winter: the excitement of festive celebrations, the frustration of too-short days, the quiet beauty of shadows on snow. Teachers will like Winter Lights for its inclusion of many diverse Winter holidays and customs, and for its use of several different poetic forms; almost everyone will love its beauty and marvel at its craftsmanship. * (3 & up)

Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty translated by Minfong Ho. Illustrated by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng. Lothrop, 1996 (0-688-12044-X) $15.00

This lovely picture book introduces readers to an ancient world, in both words and illustrations. Exquisitely crafted watercolors in the "classic Chinese manner" accompany poems from the Tang dynasty; traditionally used in China to teach children to read, these poems are simple enough for most beginning readers, yet offer a unique flavor and a sophistication of thought that few beginner books can match. Readers can enjoy the exotic differences of the poetry and art while also appreciating the universal emotions they express, as in this poem: "My little pine tree is just a few feet tall./It doesn't even have a trunk yet./I keep measuring myself against it/But the more I watch it, the slower it grows." (5 & up)

The Llama Who Had No Pajama by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illustrated by Betty Fraser. 1998; Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205571-1) $8.00 pb

This book gathers 100 of Hoberman's much anthologized poems, for an easy-going collection that's easy to enjoy. At its best, it finds the wonder in ordinary things: an entire poem about the potential for fun implicit in a bowl of applesauce, or a vision of a "Magic Hand" that can "cover anything,/No Matter what its size." The view of childhood as fresh and innocent inevitably dips into archness, ala A.A. Milne, but not often enough to be unbearable. Small, colorful illustrations make good use of the space in and around the poems, decorating them without overwhelming them. (3-8)

My Song is Beautiful selected by Mary Ann Hoberman. Little, Brown, 1994 (0-316-36738-9) $15.95

Subtitled "poems and pictures in many voices," My Song is Beautiful is a feast of multicultural variety. Each first person poem celebrates the individual spirit, each with its own uniquely different illustration. The poems range in style from Karla Kushin's playfully silly "Me" ("My face is like a soup tureen. I look just like a lima bean. I'm very very lovely.") to the serious intent of a Chippewa Indian "Song of Greatness" ("I too when my times comes shall do mightily.") The illustrations include delicate watercolors by Keiko Narashashi, a wood-engraving by Dale DeArmond and a striking silk-screen print of the world as a tribal drum by David Diaz, along with more conventional children's book fare. Some of the translated poems are rather stiff, but overall this is quite a successful effort, with a surprisingly unselfconscious tone. I also like its relatively small, intimate size. (4-8)

Blast Off! edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-024260-4); HarperTrophy, 1996 (0-06-444219-5) $3.75 pb

The beauty and mystery of outer space makes a terrific theme for this collection of easy-to-read poems. Simple but evocative, the poems pack exciting images and ideas into their short lines: "Who knows what giant worlds are spinning round a star? Who knows if a distant people wonder where we are?" The accompanying watercolors offer spirited and whimsical interpretations of the text. (5-8)

Days to Celebrate edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Greenwillow, 2005 (0-06-0007656) $16.99

A curriculum in a book, this anthology brings together poems, facts and descriptions of notable accomplishments to make each day of the year one to celebrate. Divided by months, each section includes a calendar of notable events and birthdays (with an emphasis on poets) and an eclectic sampling of poems that relate in some way to that calendar: for June, for example, we have a poem by Gewndolyn Brooks (birth date June 7), a father's day poem by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, a poem by Christina Rossetti about the first day of Summer, a poem by John Anthony Ciardi (birth date June 24) and a poem by J. Patrick Lewis about the legendary female athlete "Babe" Zaharias (birth date June 26.)

As you can expect from a Hopkins anthology, every poem included is an individual pleasure to read, and the juxtaposition of fact and poem is sometimes inspired: dictionary compiler Noah Webster's birth date is lovingly honored with another poem by Dotlich, "Treasure Words,"

Words are magic--
quiet, loud.
Steady, strong,
slow, proud.
Whisper, shout--
let them--
hold words close,
toss afar,
see them sparkle--
each a star.
Thread words on
a silver chain.
let words touch you
warm as rain.
Written, read, said, heard--
delight in, sip on
treasure words.

Illustrations that use a folk-art style flatness and a pale, pastel palette of colors make this book slightly less inviting to look at than to read, though there are some intriguing personifications and visual metaphors: a plant grows rainbow-colored hearts; a boy fishes with a giant key while sitting on a bridge made of clasping hands; Harriet Tubman breaks chains binding her wrists as a train puffs out of a tunnel in her chest. (That one might possibly cross the line between "intriguing" and "creepy.") Overall, this is a valuable and highly readable collection, one whose potential for usefulness is matched by its potential for enjoyment. (7 & up)

Small Talk edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Susan Gaber. Harcourt Brace, 1995 (0-15-276577-8) $14.00

This collection of short poems is a lovely introduction to poetry for beginning readers, showing how much imagery and emotion can be captured in just a few words. Focusing mainly on the natural world, the exquisite poems reveal many small wonders: a caterpillar spinning itself a fairy-tale; foghorns crying the city to sleep; kings and knights marching through the sand between your toes. Aside from a few full-page spreads, most of the illustrations are delicately colored decorations, adding to the small book's overall feeling of simple, unintimidating elegance. (5-12)

Weather edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Melanie Hall. HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-021463-5) $14.00; HarperTrophy, 1995 (0-06444191-1) $4.95 pb

Weather is one of the strongest emotional influences in a child's life and this anthology of poems (featuring children's favorites Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Charlotte Zolotow and many others) celebrates that connection with evocative reflections on the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings that come with sun, wind, rain and other types of weather. The poems are short and simple and the design of the book, like all "I Can Read" books, is carefully non-intimidating, but it's the rhythms, rhymes and stimulating uses of words that really make this collection perfect for beginning readers. The beautifully colored, vibrant, yet delicately drawn illustrations are also just right, in a low-key, old-fashioned style that complements but never overpowers the poems. * (4-8)

Wonderful Words edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Karen Barbour. Simon & Schuster, 2004 (0-689-83588-4) $16.95

"I'll plant in you 
      a spring-seedling
      with bursting life
      while you are reading

I am the book
You are needing."

Words rise and dance and spin; are piled like blocks; pierce the darkness; and wear long boots, hard boots in this collection of poems. Books, poems, writing, talking and even listening are what the words are about... and just as they should, they dazzle, warm and satisfy the ear when they're read aloud. The illustrations have a primitive, folk-art flair that occasionally crosses over into garishness, but most are good companions to the whimsical, wise and childlike moods of the wonderful words. (4 & up)

Secret Places edited by Charlotte Huck. Illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George. Greenwillow, 1993 (0-688-11699-8) $15.00

Special, secret places are one of the joys of childhood and, as this collection of thoughtful and evocative poems shows, they can be found almost anywhere: on rocks, under trees, in bed or even in the pages of a book. Adults may enjoy this book as much as children: it brought back many happy memories for me. The illustrations didn't appeal as much, with a jarringly-colored and unattractively pseudo-realistic style, but they are carefully and imaginatively designed to go with the poems.

Rhymes for Annie Rose written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Lothrop, 1995 (0-688-14220-6) $16.00; Candlewick, 2006 (0-763-62940-5) $18.99

The daily world of a small child--from tea parties under the table to imaginative night flights in the crib--is the subject of these whimsical and tender original nursery rhymes featuring Hughes' popular characters Alf and Annie Rose. Most of the verses star Annie Rose, an adorable, lively toddler with "two brown eyes, one pink nose, ten busy fingers, ten pink toes," as drawn by her older brother Alf. Whether splishing, splashing in the rain or watching a bird's tiny footprints in the snow, Alf and Annie Rose seem to exemplify what we most cherish in children: their uninhibited joy, their wonder at things we've forgotten how to notice. Some of the rhymes are overly sentimental for my taste, but the overall picture of two happy, loving siblings is one to treasure. Hughes' expressive, softly shaded illustrations complement and amplify the mood of each verse, whether humorous or reflective. (3-6)

Dirty Laundry Pile edited by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-688-16251-7) $15.99

A snowflake prays for a quick death on the "hot tongue of some shivering child," a scarecrow dreams of ending bloodshed and creating a Peaceable kingdom though establishing diplomatic resolution with the crows, a waddling hippopotamus embraces the lithe and graceful secrets of poetry. Giving voice to the possible thoughts of animals, objects, and weather, the surprising and exciting images in this collection of poems are a wonderful enticement to practice seeing another's point of view. Though some of the poems are funny, the tone of the collection as a whole is rather sober and might be better matched with something richer than Sweet's lighthearted, whimsical watercolors. Nonetheless, teachers, librarians and poetry readers will embrace this pile. (4 & up)

A Kick in the Head edited by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-0662-6) $17.99

Subtitled "an everyday guide to poetic forms," this collection of poems demonstrating those forms is blessedly free from self-importance. Janeczko keeps his editorial voice out of the way here, aside from an introduction, a brief description accompanying each form (in teeny-tiny-eyestraino-vision) and a more thorough description in the back. What's important here are the poems, which are all chosen to be both descriptive of a form and enjoyable in their own right; for extra "economy," a number of them, such as "Haunted Poem Pantoum" by Liz Rosenberg, "There Once Was a Limerick called Steven" by Steven Herrick and "Is There a Villian in Your Villanelle?" by Joan Bransfield Graham, are even self-referential.

The illustrations, splotchy blobs of color and textures, are more variable here than the verse: some are vibrantly lighthearted, some are witty (check out the grave under "Epitaph for Pinocchio") but others, particularly the depictions of people, feel inaccessibly strange. For me, that keeps A Kick in the Head from being a perfect book... which just makes it a very, very good one. (4 & up)

A Poke in the I edited by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-0661-8) $15.99

Concrete poems--poems in which design or typeface are used to add meaning to the actual words--are, in a sense, already illustrated, but this picture book collection shows that a little more certainly doesn't hurt. Jazzy collages add colorful backgrounds to the poems, sometimes just providing an extra flavor, other times really expanding on the original: "Tennis Anyone?," for example, a poem which requires reading back and forth across two pages, is much stronger with the addition of of Raschka's turning heads, and "Joy Sonnet in a Random Universe" really cries out for its accompanying dancer. Very clever and lots of fun.

I Have a News collected by Walter Jekyll. Illustrated by Jacqueline Mair. Lothrop, 1994 (0-688-13367-3) $15.00

Thirteen Jamaican folk rhymes fairly leap off the pages in this vibrantly and generously illustrated book, reflecting the vitality and humor of the Caribbean. Musical scores are included, so that those who aren't familiar with the rhymes and songs can appreciate them. Background notes provide insight into the meaning and origins of the rhymes. This is an excellent addition to a multicultural library, and will bring back fond memories to those who have already encountered these playful and expressive rhymes. (5-10)

Oh Theodore! by Susan Katz. Ilustrated by Stacey Schuett. Clarion, 2007 978-0-618-70222-0) $16.00

This story in poems traces the developing relationship between a boy and his guinea pig. It starts off somewhat inauspiciously--when mom rejects the idea of a dog, a snake and a horse, "All I could get, was a guinea pig." And timid little Theodore takes quite a long time (ten poems!) to warm up to the boy. Until

At Last

I offer Theodore
an apple slice

He lets me pet
his head,

then purrs.
Hello, friend

I had no idea guinea pigs purred!

Theodore and the boy learn how to appreciate each other, playing with grocery bags and going out for a sit, instead of a walk. Then a ringing phone sends Theodore scurrying out of the room and he can't be found. The boy is heartbroken:

All Day

Nobody squeaked.
Nobody scurried.
Nobody nibbled.
Nobody smiled.

But all ends happily, when Theodore appears inside a cooking pot. "Theodore! Suddenly, I'm hungry."

These poems are short and direct, concentrating more heavily on conveying emotion than on wordplay; there's not a whole lot of read-aloud excitement, but Katz enlivens the free verse somewhat with varying rhythms, an occasional rhyme and a strong use of repetition, as in this poem:


the kitchen door:
Theodore sits.

the cupboard door:
Theodore sits.

But open
the refrigerator door:
Here comes Theodore!

Watercolor illustrations bring a touch of silliness to the story, giving Theodore big, expressive eyes and the impression of lively movements.

I think Oh, Theodore is overall more enjoyable read alone than aloud, but it would be a good resource for classrooms with guinea pigs or for a unit on pets. It should also be noted by anyone looking for everyday depictions of Hispanic families. (5-10)

Talking Like the Rain edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy. Illustrated by Jane Dyer. 1992; Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-38491-7) $9.95 pb

After Animal Crackers (see above) has been outgrown, this is an ideal follow-up, 90 pages of funny, cozy or wondrous poems for children, set amidst exquisite but inviting illustrations. As in Animal Crackers Dyer's watercolors gently mix illustrative styles, with nods to both classic and contemporary modes, and provide a variety which feels seamless. A must for a home library. * (4 & up)

There Was an Old Man... by Edward Lear. Illustrated by Michele Lemieux. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-10788-5) $15.00

This little anthology of Lear's nonsense limericks is an gorgeous, extravagant production, possibly more suitable to collectors than children. Almost anyone could enjoy it, though: even I, never much of a limerick fan, found it very funny. Lemieux pays tribute to a number of artistic styles--surrealism, Escher-like optical illusions, and many I can't place--in absurd, witty caricatures that bring out all of the whimsical humor inherent in the rhymes. Her imaginative embellishments are particularly fine: an "Old Person" who sat in the dust is drawn as a mouse-size man sitting on a dustpan; the "Old Lady of Chertsey" who "twirled round and round til she sunk underground" is drawn as a ballerina whose skirt and legs have become a giant screw. The watercolors are also beautifully colored, as attractive as they are humorous.

Sing a New Song compiled and illustrated by Bijou Le Tord. Eerdmans, 1997 (0-8028-5139-8)

This imaginative introduction to the beauty of Psalms skillfully weaves lines from different Psalms into one joyous poem celebrating nature and the seasons, beginning "The Lord is like a sun, shining on the universe. Let the earth be happy." Gently blended watercolors in soft, subtle hues depict a family tending their farm and enjoying the wonders of their world.

Cow Moo Me by Stephen Losordo. Illustrated by Jane Conteh-Morgan. Harper Growing Tree, 1998 (0-694-01108-8) $5.95

Short rhymes, strong rhythm and a surprisingly sensible form of nonsense make this book a real pleasure for readers and listeners. Each page has a rhyme for an animal, written in what sounds like a fun, sassy, babble: "frog croak lily/frog croak hop/frog croak pond/frog croak plop!" Put together with the pictures though, each rhyme also tells a silly little story. The brightly colored collage illustrations are particularly expressive, showing the frog joyfully plopping into the pond, a happy pig wallowing in mud and a very surprised hen watching her egg hatch. (6 months-2)

Over the Hills and Far Away illustrated by Alan Marks. North-South, 1994 (1-55858-285-1) $19.95

Nursery rhymes are part of the cultural literacy of childhood and a good anthology of traditional rhymes is a valuable part of a child's book collection. This beautifully designed and highly visually exciting anthology is simply ideal, almost sure to become a family favorite. Large, lovely watercolor paintings offer comical yet subtle interpretations of the rhymes, leaving lots of room to wonder about their meaning; white space around the text is complemented by crisp black silhouette drawings which link text and illustrations, thereby preventing the lack of intimacy so common to picture books of verse. The rhymes are traditional English favorites, most familiar in America. A companion volume to Ring-a-Ring O' Roses and a Ding-Dong Bell. * (1 & up)

Blackberry Ink by Eve Merriam. Illustrated by Hans Wilhelm. 1985; Mulberry, 1994 (0-688-13080-4) $4.95 pb

These nonsense verses, absurdly and joyfully playing with rhymes and rhythms, are a fun way to turn young children on to poetry as sound. Each poem reads aloud wonderfully, with irresistibly catchy phrases: "Gooseberry, juice berry, loose berry jam" and "Latch, catch, come in free, catch a ball but you can't catch me." I didn't enjoy this collection quite as much as Merriam's Higgle Wiggle (see below): perhaps the paperback design is off, but it seems under-illustrated rather than simply light and uncrowded. It's also, in general, rather more cutesy. Still, some of these poems are not to be missed. (2-5)

Higgle Wiggle by Eve Merriam. Illustrated by Hans Wilhelm. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-11948-4) $15.00; Mulberry, 1997 (0-688-14547-7) $4.95 pb

An ideal first poetry book, this collection shows how words can make the most familiar objects and actions seem exciting and wondrous. Merriam finds word-play in everything: in the smells from a kitchen, the sand that gets in your shoes on the beach, the sound of keys in your pocket. Her rollicking rhythms and somehow sensible nonsense words are a joy to read aloud. The illustrations, which follow a little pink pig throughout the pages, are a bit cutesy, but their light, airy look is pleasantly uncluttered, never getting in the the way of the words. (2-5)

The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash. Illustrated by James Marshall. Little, Brown, 1991; 1994 (0-316-59883-6) $4.95 pb

Nash's wickedly funny poem about an unusually intrepid young girl meets its match--perfectly--in the illustrations by Marshall, beloved creator of "George and Martha" and "The Stupids." Isabel, who deals with giants, witches and nightmares with equal ease by neatly turning the tables on them, is a perfect role model for the timid; Marshall's absurd, rollicking drawings provide her with just the right touch of carefree nonchalance. *

The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. 1936; Little, Brown, 1995 (0-316-59880-1) $14.95; 1998 (0-316-59031-2) $5.95 pb

Like Nash's The Adventures of Isabel (see above), this humorous poem-turned-picture book takes an unexpected look at the cowardly and the brave. Custard, a "realio, trulio little pet dragon," is sneered at by his owner Belinda and her other pets, Ink, Blink, and Mustard, because he longs for a "nice safe cage." When a pirate climbs in one day, it's cowardly Custard who comes to the rescue, serenely gobbling the villain up. But though Belinda embraces him in gratitude, the other pets insist they'd have been twice as brave if they hadn't been flustered--and Custard still longs for his nice safe cage.

Nash's funny wordplay keeps this story moving briskly and his surprising revelation of the hypocrisy of the pets will both amuse young readers and give them something to think about. Munsinger's pen & ink and watercolor illustrations are very much in the spirit of the poem, giving appropriately smug and scornful expressions to Belinda and her pets and a shy, sweet diffidence to the cuddly Custard. (4-8)

Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight by Ogden Nash. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Little, Brown, 1996 (0-316-59882-8) $14.95

Custard, the sweet, shy hero of The Tale of Custard the Dragon (see above)) returns to prove that even a cowardly dragon can be brave. When maiden Belinda is kidnapped by the wicked Sir Garagoyle--who's twice as big as a big gorilla and covered in armor like an armadilla--her swaggering pets Ink, Blink and Mustard are suddenly extremely busy elsewhere. It's up to Custard to tackle the fierce knight and rescue Belinda from his dismal dungeon.

Once again, Munsinger's witty pen & ink and watercolor illustrations bring the lovable dragon, stuck-up pets and (usually) unflappable Belinda to life. The depiction of Belinda is especially charming--an ordinary little girl whose fairy-tale maiden status is denoted by the princess headdress she always wears, tied under her chin. (A spare can be seen on her hat stand.) Nash's hilarious verses paint vivid images on their own, but now that they've been matched with these pictures, it's hard to imagine them in any other context. *

My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Candlewick, 1996 (1-56402-620-5) $19.99

Intended for the youngest listeners, this big, bountiful collection of Mother Goose rhymes expresses the coziest, silliest and most joyous elements of the verses. Well's very child-friendly illustrations, which incorporate traditional Mother Goose images with her own lovable animal characters, are ideal for this purpose: in her vision, Jack has a somewhat bemused smile after his tumble down the hill, and Humpty Dumpty is just an egg accidentally-on-purpose knocked off the table by a mischievous bunny. Even the little mouse frightened under the queen's chair is defiantly sticking out his tongue at the cat. An uncluttered design, with a large typeface, reinforces the purpose of the book--this is no excuse for an artist to show off, this is the real thing, meant for real kids. * (1 & up)

Land, Sea, and Sky: Poems to Celebrate the Earth edited and photographed by Catherine Paladino. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-68892-4) $15.95

This beautiful collection of poems by authors such as Lilian Moore, Emily Dickinson, Aileen Fisher and Langston Hughes is filled with images that show the earth in a new light: the sea, wrinkled by the wind, breathing in and out upon a shore; the sky as the top of a hill. Concentrating less on humor and more on evocative imagery than many collections for children, it is wonderful to read. Unfortunately, the illustrating photos are not the perfect match for the poems I'd like to see: most of them are too colorful and postcard-perfect to express the subtle beauty of the words.

Hot Potato selected by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Claire Henley. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-31554-3) $16.00

A tasty collection of fun food poems, with an emphasis on rhymes and silliness. Henley does a nice job of putting well-known rhymes into a new context: "Beautiful Soup" by Lewis Carroll is sung by little girl adoring a tureen on a pedestal. (But surely depicting Mary Jane, from A.A. Milne's "Rice Pudding," as throwing a very deliberate tantrum after consulting books such as Mother Management and How to Be A Princess is missing the point?) The unsophisticated acrylic paint illustrations are most appropriate for preschoolers. (3-6)

Praise for the Singing: Songs for Children arranged by Greg Pliska. Illustrated by Madelaine Gill. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-52627-4) $18.95

This songbook of hymns and spirituals is designed to be appealing to children, with carefully chosen songs and attractive little illustrations. According to the preface, the arrangements attempt "to bridge the traditional and the contemporary. A livelier rhythm, a new harmonic twist, an expanded accompaniment pattern - all are intended to provide new perspectives on familiar melodies." Chosen from various cultures - African-American, Shaker, Jewish - most of the songs are already a familiar part of American culture. The attractiveness of the book makes it most appropriate for home use, since children will want to keep looking at the charming little pictures, but almost anyone who works with children would find it useful and fun.

Halfway to Your House by Charlotte Pomerantz. Illustrated by Gabrielle Vincent. Greenwillow, 1993 (0-688-11804-6) $14.00

The lovely illustrations are the highlight of this book: dreamy, airy watercolor sketches that evoke the ethereal beauty of trees, beaches, snow and other outdoor scenes. The poems are far more varied in quality: some are amusing or stirring but many are overly babyish: "We will take a train that goes choo-choo and see the little zebra in the zoo." Such verse may have its place but it will not give the broadening of thought and language of a really good book of poetry.

Good Sports by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Knopf, 2007 (978-375-83700-5) $16.99

Short, mostly unrelated, first-person verses give little glimpses into the hearts of kids as they run, skate, swim and play sports. There are triumphs:

My legs are sore, I pant and pant,
I can't keep up this pace--
But now I cross the finish line,
And I have won this race.


The batter hits the ball my way,
I watch it sail aloft.
I miss the catch, it hits my head--
A softball isn't soft!


I'm a gymnast,
I can vault,
Swing and spring
And somersault,
Even balance
On the beam--
Someday soon
I'll make the team.

and also questions:

Seconds later
We're all done
And out of breath...
Who won? Who won?

I found Good Sports more fun to look at than to read. Raschka is an inspired choice as illustrator: his loose-limbed, dabs-of-paint-formed people naturally suggest movement, throwing, catching, dancing, falling through the pages. Playing with perspectives and proportions--a tense basketball throw is shown from above, the leg of a karate kick smashes onto the second page--the illustrations squeeze every possible bit of excitement out of the text. But there isn't a whole lot to squeeze. With almost every poem written in ABCB format (with two or three in AABB, for a smidgeon of variety) the voices of the poems lose any distinctiveness, making the book a sluggish read-aloud. (The absence of titles doesn't help.) And there's not much in the way of exciting imagery, thoughtful insights or even sharp rhyming to help the poems spring to life.

Kids may still enjoy this book for its straightforward expression of emotions and its occasional broad humor, as well as its bold and exuberant illustrations: my eye keeps coming back to a football pile-up, with bodies flying madly through the air, and a an almost balletic baskbetball game, full of leaps and swirls. But adults asked to read it aloud more than once may find it hard to be good sports. (5 & up)

Spider on the Floor by Raffi. Illustrated by True Kelley. 1993; Knopf, 2002 (0-375-82220-8) $6.99 board

Illustrator Kelley faced a challenge here: to turn a fairly uneventful song about a spider crawling up a woman's body into an entertaining picture book. Kelley met the challenge with verve, adding a hilarious layer of action to the song: each new step entangles yet another creature in the spider's web, in addition to the woman herself. At the end we discover the spider has been entangling people and creatures for some time, including an aggrieved dinosaur. The song is easy to sing, even if you don't know the actual tune--I find "it you're happy and you know it" works quite well--and there's lots of silliness to enjoy. (10 months-3)

Three Little Kittens and Other Favorite Nursery Rhymes selected and illustrated by Tony Ross. Henry Holt, 2009 (978-8050-8885-4) $16.95

Despite a brief framing device of a grandfather reading to his granddaughter, at first glance this collection of nursery rhymes seems familiar. The rhymes are well known, and the watercolor illustrations are very much in the traditional, old-fashioned mode, with animals wearing bow ties and women in mob-caps. What sets it apart from similar books is the expressiveness of the characters, and an edginess that's not often found in books for very young children published in the United States. (This was originally published in Great Britain in 2007.)

I enjoyed the emotion that comes through in the pictures. The "rock-a-bye" baby falls into the arms of a terrified Puritan woman, while behind her a Puritan man looks on and anxiously bites his nails. Mary and her little lamb play together with warm affection. Old Mother Hubbard is visibly perturbed by the state of her cupboard, and her dog even more so--though the cat and mouse that ran off with all the bones are mighty pleased with themselves.

Some of the touches are witty, such as the dismay of the little girl who picked up sticks and laid them straight, only to have them squashed by a good fat hen. And some are unexpectedly macabre: as children play ring around the rosy, in a scene obviously inspired by the urban legend about the origins of that rhyme, the "fallen down" children look quite dead. Little Tommy Tucker is literally blue as he sings for his supper in the snow. And a boy ponders the "want of a nail" after seeing soldiers felled by arrows on a battlefield.

With large lettering, ample illustrations and lots of white space, this book is nicely designed for toddlers. Whether they should be exposed to some of the grittier elements associated with the old rhymes is really a personal choice. (1-4)

Busy in the Garden by George Shannon. Illustrated by Sam Williams. Greenwillow, 2006 (0-0600-0464-9) $15.99

Dig a little.
Dig a lot.
Dig a brand-new garden spot.

Plant a little.
Plant a lot.
Plant the seeds and bulbs you bought.

Wait a little.
Wait a lot.
Wait much longer than you thought.

Pick a little.
Pick a lot.
Share the best bouquet you've got!

There's so much freshness and playfulness in this collection of gardening related poems, it's easy to understand why the illustrator chose to fill the pictures with images of toddlers. That may limit its appeal to older children... but no matter, some of these clever poems are clearly destined to be anthologized later. Meanwhile, younger children can enjoy the bouncy rhymes and word play, even if they're too young to appreciate many of the jokes. ("...the scarecrow--what a stuffed shirt!") The busy toddlers, happy animals and even smiling vegetables all add to the friendly air of the book, with light pen & ink pictures that never crowd out the words. (2 & up)

Where Is the Night Train Going? by Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Cyd Moore. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-171-2) $14.95

This pleasant but unremarkable collection of verses looks at a child's view of events like stormy days, when friends "hide under the covers, Shiver and giggle," and moonlit nights, that serve up light like a plate of cream. Some of the poems are funny, some evocative, but there are only a few really fresh images or emotions. The accompanying colored pencil and watercolor illustrations are a suitable match, being also pleasant and unremarkable. (4-8)

Families selected by Dorothy S. Strickland and Michael R. Strickland. Illustrated by John Ward. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-288-3) $14.95; (1-56397-560-2) $7.95 pb

Subtitled "Poems Celebrating the African American Experience," these poems by well-known black poets take a loving and stimulating look at happy families. Some of the poems, like "Go Away!" and "Seeing a New Sister," are about universal childhood experiences; others, like "Aunt Sue's Stories," and "In Both the Families" touch directly on what it means to be African-American, showing a sense of shared history and of pride. Natural and unaffected, the simply worded poems convey some powerful sentiments, as in Lucille Clifton's "Thursday Evening Bedtime": "Afraid of the dark/ is afraid of Mom/ and Daddy/ and Papa/ and Cousin Tom. 'I'd be as silly/ as I could be,/ afraid of the dark/ is afraid of Me!'" and Nikki Giovanni's "The Drum": "daddy says the world is/ a drum tight and hard/ and i told him/ i'm gonna beat/ out my own rhythm."

Acrylic paintings in a soft-edged realistic style go nicely with the poems, well-designed to enhance their effect without overpowering them. (5-8)

Fiddle-I-Fee adapted and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Little, Brown, 1994 (0-316-82522-0) $5.95 pb; 2002 (0-316-75861-2) $5.95 board

Simple repetitions and droll animals noises have made this nonsense song a traditional favorite. The appealing illustrations for this version--light watercolors, which though obviously contemporary, have some of the flavor of old-fashioned Mother Goose characters--add a bit of a story to the song, showing a child going to feed the many farmyard animals, who all end up following behind in a whimsical parade: stepping over stones in a brook, walking on top of a fence and finally hitching a ride back to the farmhouse, for a very silly feast. A nice book to sing along with; glimpses of each animal in the illustrations, right before it's introduced in the text, also encourage active participation. (2-6)

Juba This and Juba That selected by Virginia Tashjian. Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. 1969; Little, Brown, 1995 (0-316-83234-0) $14.95

Originally published in 1969, this classic anthology of songs and games has been reillustrated with lively pen & ink drawings; although intended primarily for adult reference, children may also enjoy it on their own. The contents are divided into chants, poems and limericks, stories, action rhymes, riddles, songs and tongue twisters; all are designed for use with groups of children, whenever a change of pace or break in a story hour is needed. This is a fun, unsophisticated collection. Despite the age of the book, most of its contents were new to me, so even longtime storytellers may find fresh materials and ideas here.

Gingerbread Days by Joyce Carol Thomas. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-023469-5); HarperTrophy, 1997 (0-06-446188-2) $5.95 pb

In twelve poems, a young boy celebrates the year-round joys of life with his family, starting with "A Gingered January," in which Grandma makes a gingerbread boy as brown as he is, and ending with "December's Song," which glorifies the work-roughened hands of his father: "Rough with knowing/How to keep a family from freezing/How to keep a young mind growing." These poems sometimes feel a bit forced and determinedly ingenuous, but they also contain some elegantly simple and beautiful expressions of emotion, such as this vision of the mother's hands, quite different from the father's, yet in another way quite similar: "My mother's hands already know/The temperature of my head/The weather of my heart/How do they know to be cool when I'm hot/And warm when I'm not?" Rich, glowing paintings continue the seasonal motif and reflect the warmth and spirit expressed in the text. (5-12/7-12)

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars collected, written and illustrated by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-26353-5) $12

Heavenly bodies are ripe with potential for imagery and this collection of poems, though short, does them justice. From Frank Asch's fantasy of sleighing through sundrifts and sunbanks of sunflakes, to Patricia Hubbell's vision of a tambourine moon reflection making fish dance, it is a lovely, fresh and beguiling work. Simple collage illustrations featuring gentle rabbit-people seem a surprising but ultimately effective choice.

The Lady with the Alligator Purse adapted and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. Little Brown, 1988 (0-316-93136-5) $6.95 pb

Sparkling illustrations turn this favorite rhyme into a hilarious picture book. As everyone knows, when Miss Lucy's baby drank all his bathwater and ate all his soap (failing to eat the bathtub only because it wouldn't go down his throat), Miss Lucy frantically called for the doctor, the nurse, and the lady with the alligator purse. The lady--whose alligator purse bears a striking resemblance to "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile"--is the heroine of this adaption: only she knows that the cure for Miss Lucy's voracious baby is not penicillin or castor oil, but pizza. And having stuffed the baby, Miss Lucy, the doctor, the nurse, the baby's sister and assorted family animals with pizza, she cheerfully sails out, down the bannister. The zany, crowded pictures are imaginative and fun, showing the baby burping up endless pink soap bubbles, the doctor and nurse offering their nasty medicines with toothy smiles, and Miss Lucy frantically trying to talk on three phones at once. * (4-8)

The Teddy Bears' Picnic illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Song arranged and performed by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. HarperCollins, 1996 (0-06-027302-X) $14.95 book and tape; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-443655-1) $5.95 pb only

The perfect gift for a Mom or Pop Deadhead, this illustration of "The Teddy Bear's Picnic" is a delectable, slightly offbeat interpretation of the popular, slightly offbeat song. Whatley does his best to show "every bear that ever there was," including all kinds of soft, cuddly looking teddies--even a few wearing vests, beads and tie-dyed clothes, and a strangely familiar, chubby, guitar-playing bear that will bring tears to a few adult eyes. My favorite bear, however, may be the malevolent looking one that glares off the page to remind us "it's lovely down in the woods today/But safer to stay at home"--the song is always more fun when it's a little creepy. (3 & up)

My First Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Bruce Whatley. HarperCollins, 1999 (0-694-01205-X) $9.95

Although supposedly aimed at very young children, this book is more likely be enjoyed by a slightly more sophisticated audience. At first glance it appears to be a fairly typical Mother Goose collection in the traditional old-fashioned mode, but closer inspection reveals some slyly witty touches: Little Bo-peep's sheep are not actually lost, but disguising themselves as furniture; the mouse which ran up the clock clings to the hour hand in fear; the black sheep which provided three bags of wool is demurely clothed in a barrel. There are few obvious frills to the watercolor illustrations, which use minimal backgrounds and lots of white space, but the speaking expressions of the subjects, whether human, animal, or inanimate (so to speak), give charm and character to each little scene; even the dish runs away puffing with eager intentness, darting a glance behind. I'd give this book to children who already know the familiar rhymes, to look at on their own or to share with a sibling. (3-6)

Alphabeastiary edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Allan Eitzen. Wordsong/Boyds Mills, 1995 (1-56397-222-0) $16.95

From Yolen's "Anteater" to Isak Dinesen's "Zebra," this collection of poems shows some of the diverse perspectives writers have brought to the subject of animals, with humorous verses about animal oddities, satiric comparisons between animals and humans, and thoughtful, introspective poems that attempt to portray the animal from the inside out. It's a fresh and vibrant collection: some of the expected old favorites are included--William Blake, Ogden Nash--but there are also many less-anthologized poets and a number of contributions from non-Western cultures. The watercolor illustrations are not especially distinctive, aside from some interesting collage textures, but the overall design is very nice, striking a pleasing and non-distracting balance between poems and illustrations.

Animal Fare by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Janet Street. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-203550-8) $14.95

Any child--or adult--with a taste for nonsense will be entertained by this collection of pun-icious poems about a most unusual menagerie. Filled with clever and whimsical wordplay, Animal Fare describes the habits of such almost-familiar beasts as the Whysel, the Rhinocerworse and the Mustanks (be sure to hold your nose when they gallop by!). Each poem gives the reader some new verbal twist to enjoy: with no signs of "writing down" for children, they offer a sophisticated vocabulary which will be a satisfying challenge for word-lovers.

Nonsense afficionados will also appreciate Street's airy watercolors, which evoke the memory of Edward Lear with their oddly proportioned figures and strange shapes. The inevitable comparison of these poems to Lear's that this brings up is rather unfortunate, however, as the clever humor found in this book seems rather anemic when compared to the pervasive love of rhythm, sound and nonsense for its own sake that make his best works so unforgettable. Still, this is a fun read in its own right.

Once Upon Ice edited by Jane Yolen. Photographed by Jason Stemple. Boyds Mill, 1997 (1-56397-408-8) $17.95

For this companion volume to Water Music, Yolen asked renowned writers of poetry for children to examine Stemple's "eerily wonderful" photographs of ice formations and "write whatever the photos inspired." The resulting photo/poem combinations make up this stimulating collection.

As editor, Yolen got to pick some of the best photographs for herself: a wave of ice dotted with holes, almost inevitably suggesting a face, led to the dynamic poem "Ice Can Scream." Yolen also found fascinating imagery in a jagged but supple-looking ring of ice that could be a jeweled necklace; Kathi Appelt, meanwhile, saw the same photo as the teeth of imaginary "Iceosaurs." In another intriguing combination, animal prints in ice suggested a dog creating his own form of artwork to J. Patrick Lewis and a weasel, "dancing in the moonshine snow" to Ann Turner. Perhaps the most evocative, imagistic poem is Lee Bennett Hopkins's vision of icicles putting on a "mighty show," never knowing that "tomorrow's tad of sunshine-prey/will stalk to take your breath away."

With the exception of one doggerel rhyme that adds nothing of value, this is a powerful, thought-provoking and very eye-catching collection, excellent for classroom use or for pleasure reading. * (8 & up)

Sleep Rhymes Around the World edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by various artists. Boyds Mills, 1994 (1-56397-243-3) $16.95; Wordsong, 2000 (1-56397-923-3) $8.95 pb

"When I started to collect rhymes for this book--from books and from friends who had been brought up in countries all over the world--it was with a sense of recognition that I came to these poems. For even if I had never heard them before, they were familiar" Yolen writes in the introduction to this book. Indeed, this international collection--illustrated by native artists--shows that the soothing words of loving parents are pretty much the same everywhere, with recurrent images of a precious treasure being guarded as it sleeps. There are some differences that keep this book interesting though: a reminder to the child to protect his parents when they're old in a Finnish lullaby; a commentary on the importance of loyalty to country and parents in one from Korea. Many of the lullabies have a conspicuous note of impatience: "if this child doesn't sleep, what a night I'll have!" says one from Venezuela. This highly understandable element doesn't seem to be found much in the lullabies common in America; perhaps the strong element of violence we seem to favor is a form of passive-aggression.

Sleep Rhymes may be more interesting as multicultural literature than effective as a lullaby book: most of the poems don't translate that rhythmically, although a creative parent could probably adapt them for use. Original or transliterated version of the lullabies are included. The art, unsurprisingly, varies wildly in style; none of the pictures are particularly distinctive, but most capture the tone of the lullabies well.

Street Rhymes Around the World edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by various artists. Boyd Mills, 1994 (1-56397-243-3) $16.95; 2000 (1-56397-894-6) $9.95 pb. Reviewed by Marilyn Rowland.

A collection of 32 street rhymes from 17 Latin American, European, Asian, African and North American cultures, this book offers a wonderful array of bouncing ball rhymes and jump rope chants that will entertain children and adults. Rhymes are given in both English and the native language, and the accompanying illustrations show children in the act of playing games that go with the rhymes. A delightful feature of this book is that it has been illustrated by 17 illustrators, each native to the culture represented by the rhyme it portrays. The book not only enriches our repertoire of play rhymes, it also shows how much alike children's games are, all around the world. I would have liked to have seen a few words about the origins or meaning of each rhyme, to help make them a little more meaningful,

Middle Grade Books

Classic Poems to Read Aloud selected by James Berry. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Kingfisher, 1995 (1-85697-987-3) $16.95; 1997 (0-7534-5069-0) $7.95 pb

Although it includes numerous modern poets and aims for multicultural representation, Classic Poems. . . has a pleasantly old-fashioned feeling to it, recalling scenes from nineteenth century children's fiction in which children happily learn to recite epic poems like "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and "The Lady of Shalott." Unlike most other anthologies of poetry for children, it is expansive and generous in scope, largely ignoring issues of style and complexity to focus of its primary goal: to feature poems that are wonderful to read aloud. Here is poetry found in unexpected places: in psalms, in proverbs, in speeches by Sitting Bull and Martin Luther King, Jr. Here also are poems which wouldn't usually be considered for a children's anthology, like Robert Browning's "Meeting at Night" and Shakespeare's love sonnets. The unifying thread among them all is the powerful and elegant synthesis of language and meaning which makes the poems come to life as they are read aloud; it's pleasing to think of parents or teachers sharing this book with children, encouraging them to discover both the joyful nonsense of Ogden Nash's "Adventures of Isabel" and the silken grace of Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty." Note: the hardcover edition has both line drawings and several color plates; the paperback includes only the line drawings, not always well-reproduced. Take your pick: the words are what really matter here. (5 & up)

The Whispering Room: Haunted Poems selected by Gillian Clarke. Illustrated by Justin Todd. Kingfisher, 1996 (0-7534-5024-0) $15.95

Readers might expect this book to be filled with verses about ghosts, witches and Halloween, but although those topics are certainly represented, most of these poems were obviously chosen less for their subject matter than for their evocative imagery. Theodore Roethke's "The Bat" reminds us that "Something is amiss or out of place When mice with wings can wear a human face," Lilian Moore's "In the Fog" describes how "The Fog wraps you up and no one can find you," and Stevie Smith's "Fairy Story" tells a chilling tale about encountering a little creature in a dark wood: "He said if I would sing a song The time would not be very long. . . I sang a song, he let me go But now I am home again there is nobody I know." The best parts of the book combine the poems with illustrations that reflect their most "haunted" elements: for example, Christina Rossetti's poem "Who Has Seen the Wind?" might have a completely different flavor in another collection, but here, paired with a dark, twisted tree that forms the shape of a rearing horse, it's right at home. Not all of the illustrations are as effective: some are more self-consciously clever than atmospheric. But overall this is a very intriguing collection, an excellent choice for classroom reading. (7-12)

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. Knopf, 1982; Puffin, 1995 (0-14-037533-3) $4.99 pb

Irreverent, bloodthirsty, scatological and even a touch racy, these rewrites of well-known fairy tales are definitely not just for children anymore. With surprise endings and some unusual moral lessons--Cinderella learns that a decent man is better than a prince; Jack (of the beanstalk) learns the value of daily baths; Snow-White and the Dwarfs learn that gambling's not a sin--provided that you always win--these cleverly rhymed verses are very funny. Ironically, Dahl's postmodern versions may in some ways be closer in spirit to the originals than the sanitized versions that have been popular for so long--which means that some parents won't approve of them, but most kids will. Blake's pen & ink and watercolor illustrations combine the perfect amounts of wistful naivete and sly wit to accompany the verses. * (8 & up)

Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994 (0-688-12073-3); Mulberry, 1997 (0-688-15471-9) $6.99 pb

Bursting with such exuberant life that the illustrations almost fly off the pages, Meet Danitra Brown tells the story of Zuri Jackson and Danitra Brown, two best friends who face life together with brave hearts and joyful spirits. Zuri narrates in carefree, colloquial verse, describing "the most splendiferous girl in town," who always wears purple because she might be a princess, and is going to win the Nobel Prize someday. Danitra is also a good friend, as Zuri finds when other kids tease her about her skinny legs and black skin, or when she feels lonely because "it's Mom and me only" on Parents' Night. Centered around the theme of friendship, Meet Danitra Brown is also about having the courage to be yourself in a sometimes hostile world. Cooper's soft-edged but vibrantly alive illustrations don't just complement the poems--they complete them, making Zuri and Danitra utterly real. * (5-12)

A Thousand Cousins: Poems of Family Life by David L. Harrison. Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-131-3) $14.95

Like families themselves, these light verses have their ups and downs: at their best, they are delightfully absurd and funny; at their worst, they just fall a bit flat. Sibling rivalry is the theme of the most successful poems, which star brothers and sisters who are all annoying in their own particular ways. "Here I stand, forlorn and bare/My brother hid my underwear," begins one; perhaps the reason for the brother's hostility can be found in this later poem:

"Mama says that I'm as good
As any son could be,
And Daddy tell my brother
To try to be more like me,
Which makes my brother crazy,
Which makes me sweetly smile,
Which makes him scream,
'I'll get you for this!'
Which makes being good worthwhile."

Lewin's energetic watercolors use sharp, erratic lines for expressive and humorous accompaniments to the text. (6-10)

Been to Yesterdays by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Charlene Rendeiro. Boyds Mill, 1995 (1-56397-467-3) $14.95; 1999 (1-56397-808-3) $8.95 pb

Starting with a photographer's image of "The five of us--A picture-perfect family," Been to Yesterdays traces, in poetry, the poignant story of a boy whose world is falling apart, yet who holds on to his dreams and memories in order to "make this world a whole lot brighter," someday. Based on Hopkins' own childhood, these poems--some almost doggerel, others much more sophisticated--have an immediacy and believability that makes their simple words very vivid, as in his first realization that his family is in trouble: "Something wrong is happening/ An aching/burning/ something-thing./ I don't know/what it is or why--/it won't leave me along/ no matter/how I try."

That first awakening of fear is soon followed by "another long drawn-out night/another bitter, brutal fight," and "the dreaded word--divorce."

Hopkins' poems about having to move to new, desolate places, about his mother's drinking and his father's complete desertion, and about his grief for his dead grandmother beautifully capture the wistful, lonely voice of an unhappy child. And luckily there are good memories among the bad, those which helped him to survive his difficult childhood with his dream of becoming a writer intact. Despite its sadness, this is an inspiring book: reading it is a reminder that suffering may wound, but does not always have to cripple. * (9 & up)

I Thought I'd Take My Rat to School: Poems for September to June selected by Dorothy M. Kennedy. Illustrated by Abby Carter. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-48893-3) $15.95

This is one of the most interesting collections of poems I've seen lately. Produced in a pleasingly old-fashioned style, with droll black & white drawings mingling with the text, the anthology is definitely not old-fashioned in its selection, concentrating on many lesser known poets with a strong multicultural emphasis. The beautifully written poems cover every aspect of school life, from the obvious things like hating homework to the more subtle emotions, positive and negative, felt by students as they try to learn what school is all about. A wonderful introduction to mature poetry that goes beyond verse.

Please Bury Me in the Library by J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-216387-5) $16.00

This collection of poems about words and books is uneven, but the poem above easily justifies the entire book. I love the image, the wordplay, and the way it reads aloud so easily, the scansion making each line pour out in a graceful rhythm. In fact, the entire book reads best aloud (as poetry should,) so will be more enjoyed when shared with children (or adults) than as a silent read. The pictures, by a debut illustrator, are an oddly succesful mix of comic lines and rich textures; I like their moody, dark colors and imaginative derivations from the text. (4-8)

Come and Play edited by Ayana Lowe. Photographed by various. Bloomsbury, 2008 (978-1-59990-245-6) $16.95

As a reviewer, one of the things I think about as I evaluate a book is, who is this book for? In Come and Play, I see a rare book that could almost be answered "for everybody." Generally speaking, teachers will love it, parents will love it, librarians will love it... even kids will love it.

To make this book, schoolchildren were shown photographs of children from all over the world at play: tag, sledding, dancing, chess, just jumping. They then wrote poems about the photos, creating a truly integral mix of illustrations and words, each adding so much to the other. We get to see the thoughts of an eager French baby being held at the beach:

I want to kiss the water.
Let me go.
And a Moroccon girl leading a group of children on an obviously secret errand entices us:
They don't know we are here.
I like to play pranks.
I like to be very sly.
Follow me.

Occasionally the poems feel a little too much like mere narrative of the pictures--but then there might be a surprise twist or unexpected image, like in this poem about a little girl, seen from the back strutting down "Brixton Road:"

Outside, afterschoolish.
Or a list to go to the store?
She feels famous.

Of course, we think--that's exactly how she feels!

Here's another that takes description to a different level, of two children playing on rocks near a waterfall:

Two people.
Different places.
Rocks rough and smooth.
Water fast and slow.
One calm.
One excited.
Wait, I'm coming up!
Wait, I'm coming down!

The photos are wonderful, so intriguingly diverse in the children's faces and backgrounds and clothes, yet utterly familiar in their depictions of fun and joy. And the poems only make the photographs even better. The only complaint I have is that the individual authors aren't given credit with their poems, though some are pictured in an afterword and children, presumably the authors, have autographed the end papers. Also, the explanation given for how the poems came to be written is a little ambiguous; I was left uncertain that these specific pictures were actually the ones that inspired the poems. (Although they certainly do seem to be.)

If you're looking for a book about how different children live... or a book of poetry by children... or an exciting read-aloud... or just something really fun to read... well, come and play. * (5 & up)

Making Friends With Frankenstein written and illustrated by Colin McNaughton. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-308-7) $19.95; 2001 (0-7636-1552-8) $4.99 pb

The gross, grisly, subversive and wickedly amusing atmosphere of children's playground verses is perfectly captured in this original collection of "monstrous poems and pictures." By turns gruesome, malevolent and cynical--but always gleeful--Making Friends With Frankenstein is delightfully shocking and hysterically funny. The cartoony pictures are an excellent match for the verses: neither are for the weak of stomach. American readers may be baffled by occasional references to English expressions and culture, but that's no big deal--they'll still devour this book and scream for more.

Singing America: Poems that Define a Nation edited by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Viking, 1995 (0-670-86150-2) $19.99

Almost a course in American life through poetry, this anthology brings together traditional and modern poems that explore what it means to be an American, from a traditional Navaho song about the coming of the First Man and Woman to Robert Creeley's short commentary about the typically American response to despair, "I Know a Man." Some of the poems relate specifically to events in American history ("The Days of Forty-nine"; "No More Auction Block"), others simply embody the spirits of American poets (Elinor Wylie's "Wild Peaches"; Millay's "Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies.") For those specifically interested in American poetry as a genre, there are many poems that relate and refer to previous poems, particularly to those of Walt Whitman. Dark, woodcut-like drawings are a strong but non-obtrusive accompaniment to the poems. (10 & up)

Paint Me a Poem by Justine Rowden. Wordson, 2005 (1-59078-289-5) $16.95

My first reaction to this book was to wish for a control knob so I could turn it down a bit. It may be illustrated with "Masterpieces of Art" but there is nothing sedate or dignified about it: the design roars at you with images and fonts, insisting that you must, you will see what the poet was trying to achieve. Luckily, what the poet achieves here really is worth seeing.

Looking at various works of art, Rowden has written poems that find a special essence in each one and draw it out for us to enjoy. A portrait of a woman by Renoir leads to a memoir about a little girl's special days with her father, perfectly matching the pleased, yet slightly wistful nostalgia in the woman's face. The poem on a box of plums painted by Joseph Decker finds the movement inherent in the picture, seeing the plums as "rockin' and rollin'... Ready to swing their stems,/Moving in rhythm/To a juicy tune." My favorite poem-picture combination is a portrait of a young man by Goya, accompanied by a poem which talks about secrets and surprises... like that of a black silk hat which is unexpectedly red on the inside. Suddenly, in this thoroughly realistic portrait, we see a hint of anthropomorphism--just a suggestion that the hat is gently laughing to itself.

Enjoyable though they are, most of these free-form verses don't read aloud as well as they read silently, so it's best to look at this book primarily as a visual experience. Maybe it doesn't need that control knob after all. (6 & up)

Mother Earth, Father Sky edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Jennifer Hewitson. Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 1995 (1056397-414-2) $17.95

This exceptionally strong and moving anthology could be thought of as a book of love poetry, expressing feelings that are universal yet often unacknowledged: the love of our planet, our world. Against a background of scratchboard paintings, reproduced in gentle grey and white, the poems express the beauty of the earth, the pain of its continued devasation, and the hope for its renewal. The drawings show a Native American influence, but the poems themselves are from many cultures and traditions. What they all share is an awareness of how much we have to treasure--and to lose; in this context, even Ogden Nash's doggerel commentary on billboards takes on an unexpected poignancy. Expressive, evocative and sincere, this is a simply beautiful reminder of what poetry is all about. * (10 & up)

Young Adult Books

Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States edited by Lori Marie Carlson. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-7616-6) $14.95

A companion to 1994's Cool Salsa, with poems in English and Spanish by writers including Gary Soto, Luis J. Rodriguez and a number of young students. (12 & up)

I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Illustrated by Trisha Rafferty. Henry Holt, 1993; 1997 (0-8050-5545-2) $6.95 pb

Although the title of this collection almost seems designed to emphasize the stereotype of feminists as rigid and humorless, the poems themselves are anything but stereotypical. Written in strong, vibrant language, these are funny, sad, angry glimpses into the varied lives and experiences of women, all kinds of women. Some of the poems are very accessible, others make readers work for understanding--but their work is usually well rewarded

You Hear Me? : Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys edited by Betsy Franco. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-1158-1) $14.99

Things I Have to Tell You: Poems and Writings by Teenage Girls edited by Betsy Franco. photographs by Nina Nickles. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-0905-6) $15.99

I'm longing to quote from these books, but I can't find anything that would really serve as a sound bite, to convey the power of each piece and the impact of them taken as a whole. These writings about love, loneliness, body image, death and the ineffable emotions of growing up are a side of teenagers most of us rarely get to see; they made me feel very old at first, because I've managed to forget that young people can think so fiercely. There are a very few cliches here, amidst a blossoming of creative and passionate images that can tear a heart open with empathy. (12 & up)

More Than Friends: Poems from Him and Her by Sara Holbrook and Allan Wolf. Illustrated by Sara Holbrook. Wordsong, 2008 (978-1-5078-587-4) $16.95

More Than Friends is currently a finalist in the Cybils poetry catagory; the big announcement is Valentine's Day and I would so love to wake up tomorrow and discover that it won. It's the most captivating book of poems I've read since last year's winner, This Is Just to Say.

More Than Friends is told in two voices, those of a teenage boy and a teenage girl, and it had me from "His" first words:

What Do You Do When She Looks at You?

Become unglued
and crimson-hued?
Turn away,
afraid to stare?
Bury your face in your biology book?

Or return the look?

(I wondered if the similarity in form to Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred" was deliberate; after seeing the obvious nod to Dylan Thomas in the later villanelle, "Do Not Bolt Screaming, Clutching All Your Stuff," I'm pretty sure it was. And of course it makes total sense for teen-aged characters to be thus poetically inspired.)

The poems take us through a relationship as it gingerly moves from "just friends" to dating, love, problems, arguments and a bitter-sweet ending. Several different forms are used: free verse, villanelle, sonnet, terza rima, a rather heartbreaking poem for two voices ("The Argument,") and a complex Vietnamese form called luc bat which works perfectly to create the sound of a teenage girl at her boldest and sassiest. Tankas (similar to haiku but slightly longer) are scattered throughout, like conversational sound bites capturing a short piece of each character.

The frequent change in forms helps keep momentum and excitement building throughout the story; the poems also build on each other, as "he" and "she" quote both their own past words and those of the other.

It's such a pleasure to read narrative poetry that is truly poetry, showing genuine care for rhythm and imagery, rather than just prose chopped up into short lines. I've gotten leery of free verse published for young adults, but then most of it isn't like this:

I estimate the distance to her knee
at about... three football fields.
And suddenly I'm thinking
of my football moves.
My soccer moves.
My hands moving on a chessboard.
My feet moving on a skateboard.
My family moving out of state.
Moving to another universe. To the Outer Rim,
to the dead planet Dagobah where Yoda hides.
What would Yoda do? I ask.
Use the Force I would, the master replies.

So I close my eyes and mentally
shift all resources to my comatose hand.
The life-force begins to drain from me
yet my massive arm moves--
a quick robotic lurch--into the air.
With all the grace of a John Deere backhoe,
the arm swings up and out and drops,
crash-landing for the touchdown.
Neil Armstrong, successfully landing on the moon,
could not have felt the same fear and awe.

(This is about as sexually explicit as the story ever gets, by the way. The poems are equally accessible to younger and older teens.)

Form and feeling--in More Than Friends we are so lucky to have both, so beautifully rendered. * (13 & up)

Walking on the Boundaries of Change: Poems of Transition by Sara Holbrook. Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 1998 (1-56397-737-0) $8.95 pb

Changes, emotions and questions of adolescents growing up are movingly chronicled in this collection of short poems. The first person poems show us a world of feelings, as their subjects muse about truth-or-dare games that go painfully wrong, finding a better option to "Just Say No," and friends who give "fast love"--like fast food, not very nutritious, but what else can you do when you're out-of-stock at home? Holbrook economically conveys the complex ideas through sharp rhymes and simple but resonate imagery, as in the poem "Homecoming": "Look here./I'm talking football./ And you?/ You're talking dance./ I hope we cream the Bears./You're looking for romance./ I say we give it up./ We're like a mustard/jelly sandwich./ Homecoming?/You kidding?/ You don't even speak my language."

Another poem, "Getting Told," sums up one of the root causes of teen pregnancy in just a few words: "My mama, she told me, "Be careful."/ The boy, he told me he loved me./ My teacher said, "Don't be a fool, you stay in school."/ The boy, he told me he loved me./ The TV says, "Practice safe sex."/ The boy, he told me he loved me./ My dad said, I get pregnant, he's going to kick me out./ The boy, he told me he loved me."

Holbrook is convincing as the voice of her characters, seeming to articulate what many young people would say if they could find the words. The result is a powerful collection that enhances understanding of the growing up experience. (12 & up))

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Illustrated by Murray Kimber. KCP Poetry, 2005 (1-55337-425-8) $16.95

This classic narrative poem gets a dazzling new setting, as a "highwayman"--now a masked bandit on a motorcycle--comes riding to visit his secret lover Bess, promising that the next day, "I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way." When the lovers are betrayed, Bess, "the landlord's black-eyed daughter," sacrifices her life to warn him that "the redcoats"--now FBI agents--await him. The new interpretation has a stylish 1930's art-deco/noir setting, primarily sepia except for dramatic touches of red; it easily overcomes any dissonance created by the change of details, and nothing of the breathless romance of the original is lost. (12 & up)

War and the Pity of War edited by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Clarion, 1998 (0-395-84982-9) $20.00

"The purpose of poetry is to remind us/How difficult it is to remain just one person,/For our house is open, There are no keys in the doors." This line by Czeslaw Milosz, quoted at the beginning of a poem called "The House that Fear Built," sums up the impact of this gut-wrenching anthology of poems about war. Along with poems like "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which celebrate war as a source of honor and glory, are poems from a far different perspective, written to express a feeling that "Neither race had won, nor could win. The War had won, and would go on winning." (Edmund Blunden.) These intensely personal works, taken from many different cultures, reveal a commonality of bitterness, fear and loss that transcend time or situation.

The narratives are often in the first or second person, grabbing readers and drawing them into the harsh realities they describe; some of the simplest are the most effective: "So many times I've seen hand-to-hand combat./Once for real, and a thousand times in dreams./Whoever says that war is not horrible,/Knows nothing about war." (Yuliya Drunina, translated by Albert C. Todd.)

This collection is an eye-opener for readers who think that protests against war are a fairly recent thing, and that all American wars before Korea were "good" wars. Although the introduction focuses on World War I as the impetus for a new kind of war poetry, the book includes poems that show that ambiguity about war was expressed much earlier: Stephen Crane's words in 1899, "Do not weep/War is kind," are filled with irony, and a Chinese poem from 800-600 B.C. bemoans "How few of us are left, how few!/Why do we not go back?" A bleak design of bold-faced words, occasionally interrupted by an even bleaker scratchboard drawing, give this book a feeling of purposefulness that belies the inclusion of some positive, even jolly ballads. It is "the pity of war" that we are meant to remember--and we do. * (12 & up)

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich written and illustrated by Adam Rex. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205766-8) $16.00

The subtitle of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich is "And Other Stories You're Sure to Like Because They're All About Monsters, and Some of Them are Also About Food. You Like Food, Don't You? Well All Right Then," and you might well think that tells you everything you need to know about this book. But you'd be wrong, because a silly subtitle doesn't do anything like justice to the breadth of its humor and the extraordinary stylishness of its design.

Vignettes in verse describe incidents in the lives of some famous and lesser known monsters, with some of the verses hard-pressed to live up to the inspired hilarity of their titles, which include "Count Dracula Doesn't Know He's Been Walking Around All Night with Spinach in His Teeth," and "The Mummy Won't Go To His Eternal Rest Without a Story and Some Cookies." The wacky/absurd/gross appeal to kids is obvious, but you probably have to be older to truly appreciate the full visual impact of these rich and richly allusive illustrations, which draw on numerous sources and styles. My favorites are a running gag in which the Phantom of the Opera, drawn in dramatic, silent-movie black and white, is portrayed in intense, bone-twisting anguish--because he can't get the tune "It's a Small World" out of his head. (6 & up)

Frankenstein Takes the Cake written and illustrated by Adam Rex. Harcourt, 2008 (978-0-15-206235-4) $16.00

From the cover illustration of "Frankenstein" eating the groom off his wedding cake, to the back cover's "Haiku About Adam Rex"--"He knows Frankenstein's/the doctor, not the monster./Enough already"--this book of monster poems is undeniably funny, with jokes lurking in every tiny area, even on the copyright page and under the jacket flap. (Library workers are going to go crazy processing this one.) And like Rex's previous book, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, it could take hours to fully appreciate the astonishing illustrations, filled with sly visual allusions and tributes. "Dracula Junior" is a perfect take-off on Charles Shultz, a vampire Charlie Brown, with bat instead of zigzag on his shirt. A running gag about Edgar Allen Poe is a black & white, big-headed, gothic extravaganza. And doctored photographs of the pumpkin-headed Headless Horseman and other of his ilk are superbly done and hysterically funny; I love the Horseman trying to nonchalantly slouch by a throng of "grandmas" who "hound me with piecrusts and poke at my head" with wooden spoons.

But--you could tell there was a but coming, couldn't you?--even more than the previous book, this one is heavy on the jokes for adults. The cultural focus this time seems less on the appreciation of old monster movie characters and more on the Internet age: The Headless Horseman keeps a very familiar looking running blog called "Off the Top of My Head,"; messages from extraterrestrials turn out to be classic spam. And a lot of the jokes from "Frankenstein's" wedding are about irritating mothers-in-law and the bride's last minute cold feet, again more adult arenas. Not that there's anything wrong with that!--just keep it in mind if you're choosing this book for a child. I've seen it recommended for teens, and certainly more literate middle graders could enjoy it. Here's a thought: any kid who enjoys the "Simpsons" Halloween specials would probably love it.

As with the previous book, I was more blown away by the pictures than the verses, but though they have some flaws of scansion and meter, they're also entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the running parody of Poe's "the Raven"; the raven's ending line--"what a bore," "Tipper Gore" "Get the Door! (Ya stupid poet)" gets funnier every time it appears. (8 & up)

The Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Illustrated by Genevieve Cote. KCP Poetry, 2005 (1-55337-874-1) $16.95

Another beautifully designed title in the "Visions in Poetry" series. Tennyson's narrative poem about a cursed woman in a tower has often been illustrated in lush paintings; here it's drawn in a much lighter, more intimate, yet sophisticated style; some images evoke the mood of a "New Yorker" cartoon. The Lady herself is believably "half sick of shadows," as she stands in front of the window she is forbidden to look out of--rather than a fairy-like creature, she is the image of a vital woman whose true abilities have gone unused. Cote explands this idea throughout the book, visually suggesting that the Lady's death is actually a rebirth; the panels of her gown transform to ethereal wings, with which she flies away, free from her tower at last. It's an unusual and potentially valuable interpretation. (12 & up)

The Body Eclectic edited by Patrice Vecchione. Henry Holt, 2002 (0-8050-6935-6) $16.95

A sophisticated collection of poems and prose pieces dealing with thoughts and feelings about bodies. Topics are as diverse as elbows (Minnie Bruce Pratt), scars (William Stafford), and semen (Paublo Neruda). (14 & up)

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