Poetry for Kids

By Jabari Asim
Sunday, May 14, 2006

So many things rhyme with spring: ring, sing, wing, bling -- even the youngest of readers will catch the notion after leafing through this season's richly rhythmic offerings.

Blazing Words

Cool and blustery days still linger on the edge of summer, and, during such times, Marilyn Singer's new volume can be counted on to warm things up. Central Heating: Poems About Fire and Warmth (Knopf, $15.95; ages 9-12) examines various forms of combustion, from the reassuring glow of a blazing bonfire ("Toasting Marshmallows") to the frightening force of a timber-devouring inferno ("Forest Fire"). Fire is both awe-inspiring and puzzling, Singer writes, and "from that wintry blue part/to its jagged golden crown/. . . has contradiction/at its heart." Meilo So's red-on-white paintings capture the book's subject at its most explosive, such as when its ravenous flames consume a house, and at its most subtle, atop the tiny candles on a birthday cake. Singer's vision also includes fanciful ponderings. She explores, for example, what it would feel like to be a dragon. Who wouldn't care to be such a fearsome and magical beast, she asks, "To wander through a field or two/torching ricks of hay?/To take to the sky and declare you're there/with a fireworks display?"

Down in the Valley

Warmth is also on Gary Soto's mind. The flames he invokes in this revised and expanded edition of A Fire in My Hands (Harcourt, $16, ages 12-up) are mostly metaphorical takes on the hazy incandescence of youth. July, for instance, was "that ring of heat/We all jumped through." His poems, accompanied by brief explanatory notes, recall scenes from his childhood in California's Central Valley, such as moments spent wistfully watching on the sidelines while older boys starred at sports, and December days when fog hung "like old/Coats between the wintry trees." Among the best is the poem from which the title derives -- about his first boyish attempt at romance -- which refers not to flame but to an orange "so bright against/The gray of December" that from a distance "Someone might have thought/I was making a fire in my hands."

Don't Miss the Sun-dried Tornado

Whereas a bright nostalgia colors Soto's fine poems, Calef Brown takes a completely playful, even rascally approach in Flamingos on the Roof: Poems and Paintings (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 9-12). His poems are boisterous romps in language, full of percussion and onomatopoeia. Some of them you can even dance to. "Combo Tango" advises readers to "Boogie to the banjo" and "Bop to the bongo," after which they should "Drop like a yo-yo" and "Swing like a golf pro." In "Birthday Lights," a cantankerous grandpa rejects a suggestion to replace the candles on a cake with light bulbs. His reasoning sounds similar to the thoughts expressed in Singer's "Central Heating." He asks, "Where's the magic?/Where's the flame?" There's plenty of both here, in the poems and in the terrific paintings.

Perfectly Pitched

Fire, Marilyn Singer reminds us, sometimes arrives as "the bolt of lightning/that splits a summer sky." Similarly inspired, Charlotte Pomerantz observes "The brightening/of lightning/is sudden, swift,/and strong," in the title poem in Thunderboom! Poems for Everyone (Front Street, $17.95; ages 9-12).

The author of more than 30 books for children, Pomerantz writes with complete confidence and has worked out all those riddles about how to write in a way that appeals to children without condescending to them. The 40-plus poems in this collection smoothly blend the irreverent, the whimsical and the philosophical. "Here They Come," about a children's band, has a sing-song charm typical of many poems included here: "That's who's making/That hullabaloo,/That rackety-clackety/Bing-bang noise --/It's a ragtag, boodlebag,/Ragamuffin crew." By contrast, "Is There One Who Understands Me?" offers a brief slice of melancholy. Rob Shepperson's evocative illustration shows a girl standing in a crowd of other children gathered around a posting of some sort. They are waiting important news -- a cast list, perhaps -- but the girl has turned around as if she can't bear to look. "In a thousand years of days,/I did the best I could," she reflects, "And in the whole big widey world,/no one understood."

Forgotten Beauties

Any collection of poems from the Harlem Renaissance is likely to include certain familiar names such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. They are all here in The Entrance Place of Wonders (Abrams, $16.95; 9-12), but it's to Daphne Muse's credit that they are not represented by the same ol' poems. Sure, Hughes's "Dream Variations" is here, but so is the less-familiar "To You" and "Winter Sweetness." Ditto for the repertoires of Cullen and Johnson, from which Muse has chosen judiciously. Even so, the most refreshing selections are from nearly forgotten poets such as James Alpheus Butler Jr. and Alpha Angela Bratton. The latter's "Slumber Song," rich with historical resonance, is also a lovely lullaby. "See how the big moon dips and swings," she writes, "Shaking the stars from its silver wings." Charlotte Riley-Webb's splashy illustrations are wonderfully exuberant, as is "Rhapsody," by William Stanley Braithwaite, the poem from which Muse takes her title. Braithwaite's thoughtful gratitude is a fitting coda for the collection itself: "I am glad for my heart whose gates apart/Are the entrance-place of wonders, Where dreams come in from the rush and din/Like sheep from rains and thunders." ยท

Jabari Asim is deputy editor and children's book editor of Book World.

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