Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Love that Poem

Most books of poetry for young readers are collections of silly poems. Sometimes they relate to a specific topic, other times the poems have a similar feel. "The Swamps of Sleethe," "Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks," and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" come to mind. Granted, Shel Silverstein was a genius with words, rhythm and creativity so his works stand above most. But even with fun rhymes in hand the process of introducing poetry to young readers can be very difficult. Many young readers think of boring, mushy stuff, or limericks they won't be aloud to recite when it comes to poetry. So what is the trick? Are there any books of poetry that young readers will actually enjoy? Absolutely.

Aside from the late Shel Silverstein and and Calef Brown there are a few other writers creating superior works of poetic literature for young readers. Two of my favorite books are "Love that Dog" and "Hate that Cat." And they are both excellent introductions to poetry that young readers won't want to put down. I can't recommend them highly enough.

"Love that Dog"
By Sharon Creech
For ages 9 – 12
Jack doesn't like poetry. As far as he is concerned he doesn't understand it, it's too mushy and only girls write it. For some reason though his teacher, Miss Stretchberry keeps giving her class poetry assignments. 

Creech uses free verse disguised as a poetry journal to tell Jack's story. And in a particularly believable stretch of poems Jack finds an appreciation for certain poets, including William Carlos Williams. Jack tries his hand at his own interpretation of their work. The more he writes the more Jack discovers he has something to say. Miss Stretchberry encourages Jack by posting his work on the bulletin board and offering advice. Jack is especially taken by the poetry of Walter Dean Myers, which leads him to write about the issues in his life. One particular poem is about Jack's beloved dog. 

Creech uses less than 100 pages  of short free verse to convey a story of a young boy with a big heart trying to find his voice and his way in the world. Jack learns to use his poetry journal as a therapist and Creech manages to make it all very believable. It is risky to use a " gimmick," as a vehicle. Sometimes they can bog the story down or distract a reader. This is not one of those unfortunate cases. The free verse works seamlessly with the story and exposes young readers to forms of poetry in an wonderful story of hope and love.

"Hate that Cat"
By Sharon Creech
for ages 9 – 12
At the end of Creech's "Love that Dog," Jack had learned to accept the passing of his beloved pet dog. This was a long process involving a poetic journal and a very understanding teacher. "Hate that Cat" catches up to Jack during his next school year and Miss Stretchberry is, once again, his teacher. Jack has kept up with his poetry journal and Miss Stretchberry is very worried about a series of anti-cat poems he has been writing lately. She helps Jack and encourages him to continue working through his "problems." Pretty soon Jack's uncle begins to give advice as well and his view of poetry is quite different from Miss Stretchberry's. He insist that good poetry consist of long lines, symbolism, and rhyme, alliteration, consonance and more. It's enough to make Jack hate poetry almost as much as he hates cats.

However, Jack is able to use his poetry in a away that most adults would envy. He can discuss everything in his life, from his mother's deafness to his uncle's ideas of poetry, to pets. Jack soon learns to love poetry again and his relationship with cats changes one Christmas morning as well.

Creech does an amazing job of having a purpose for her poetry within the realm of this fiction story. There is never a point at which you wonder why Creech decided to write this tale in poetic entries. Her use of language to create visual images with words and creative expression set Creech apart in the literary world. 

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