For Young Readers

(From "Knee-deep In Blazing Snow")
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Poetry Books

Who says kids don't like po'try? They may not like all poetry (who does?), but if they respond at all to rhythm and rhyme, there are poems out there for them. A child who couldn't care less whose snowy woods Robert Frost stopped by may be charmed by Ogden Nash's duck ("Behold the duck./It does not cluck./A cluck it lacks./It quacks.") -- and vice versa. Five new books show the possibilities:

Babies should ideally cut their teeth on Mother Goose and Woody Guthrie, but a delightful addition to the nursery bookshelf is Newbery winner Sharon Creech's Who's That Baby? (HarperCollins, $15.99). Sixteen bouncy, schmaltzy poems reflect a newborn's busy day, from "Football Baby" and "Leaky Baby" to "Two Big Grandmas" and "Books," which nails this one's appeal: "They plop me on their laps/and open up the books/and read-read-read/in up-and-down voices.//I have no idea/what they are saying/but I like the sounds/of the up-and-down voices." David Diaz's bright, swirly paintings feature large-eyed infants of both sexes and every hue, all with a Buddha-like sweetness.

There are already two preschool classics combining poetry and bears: Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt and Bill Martin Jr.'s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Now there's James Mayhew's Can You See a Little Bear? (Frances Lincoln, $16.95; ages 3-7), which reminds us that poetry probably started with a lullaby. "Elephants are big, mice are small,/Can you see a little bear standing on a ball?" it begins, with font sizes to match. Our hero is a polar bear cub, and the idea is to spot him doing his thing as a crowded, colorful story unfolds across an Arctic landscape, depicted in meticulous detail by Jackie Morris. Exoticisms abound -- giraffes and guinea pigs, mosques and circuses -- but the little bear carries on unflappably until the moon appears, and he begins, ever so gradually, to wind down. "Camels like the desert, dolphins like the sea,/Can you see a little bear going home for tea?" And bath. And sleep. Beautiful.

A while back, Jack Prelutsky, doyen of American poets for kids, posted the first few lines of some poems-in-progress on a Web site and invited visitors to finish them. He called them "poemstarts." The response was so overwhelming he turned the idea into a terrific book, Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme (Knopf, $16.95; ages 5-8), featuring three "real" poems and a poemstart, complete with hints and rhyme lists, on each of 10 topics, including dogs, food, bugs, snow, turtles and rain. The poems are by such luminaries as Dr. Seuss, Karla Kuskin, Shirley Hughes, J. Patrick Lewis and more, but Prelutsky avoids the usual stale anthology picks. Ogden Nash even checks in with a first-rate cow poem: "The cow is of the bovine ilk;/one end is moo, the other, milk." A bonus is Meilo So's watercolors, by turns whimsical, exuberant and pensive as the topic dictates.

In 2002, the anthology Poetry Speaks astonished its publisher, Sourcebooks, by cracking the bestseller lists. Its secret? Three CDs on which poets from Alfred Tennyson to Sylvia Plath could be heard reading their own work. Now Sourcebooks has put out Poetry Speaks to Children , edited by Elise Paschen ($19.95; ages 4-up). There are other anthologies for children -- from Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry to Scott Elledge's Wider Than the Sky -- that are more wide-ranging. There are many that are as engagingly illustrated. But this one beats all with its knockout companion CD, featuring 52 poems read aloud, 29 of them by their creators. Parents will sneak the CD to hear Carl Sandburg read "On a Flimmering Floom You Shall Ride" (with that irresistible opening line: "Nobody noogers the shaff of a sloo."), J.R.R. Tolkien read "Frodo's Song in Bree," James Berry read "Okay, Brown Girl, Okay," Roald Dahl read "The Dentist and the Crocodile," and Langston Hughes read "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." (The last makes your hair stand up.) And yes, Frost is here, sonorously intoning "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And so is Nash, gaily giving us not ducks but bears in "The Adventures of Isabel." Indeed, something for everyone.

Finally, for older kids hooked on poetry, there is the quietly lovely Knee-Deep in Blazing Snow: Growing Up in Vermont (Wordsong, $17.95; ages 12-up), X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy's pick of poems by the little-known James Hayford. A student of Frost's at Amherst in the '30s, Hayford spent almost his whole life in Vermont, leaving close to 800 lapidary poems on his death in 1993. This selection has been made with younger readers in mind and is divided by season. Here's one I like, "Goats in Pasture," from the Summer section: "Their bony heads untaxed by need of moving,/Changing, repairing, laying by,/Goats keep a comprehensive eye/On the condition of the sky --/Such store they set on keeping dry --/And live attentively, without improving." Wood engravings by Michael McCurdy reflect the economy and dry humor of the poems.

-- Elizabeth Ward

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