Swing into Spring With Poetry.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, April 8, 2007

It's April again, time for poetry -- and for a lot of pulpy doggerel passing itself off as poetry. As usual, some of the prettiest children's books hitting stores for Poetry Month are surprisingly short on actual poems, those little word grenades capable of rearranging the world.

In Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More (Knopf, $16.99; ages 5-10), Chris Raschka's jazzy watercolors far outstrip Jack Prelutsky's insipid verses: "I race toward the hoop/ And I catch a good pass./ I throw the ball up/ And it banks off the glass." Any more of that, and kids will be racing toward the door. In Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings (Harcourt, $16; ages 5-10), Douglas Florian's pictures -- done "on primed brown paper bags" -- are a riot of color and wit, but his rhymes have all the verve of a mnemonic: "Counting up planets,/ Uranus is seven./ Named for the Greek god,/ Uranus of heaven." Behind the Museum Door, richly illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen (Abrams, $16.95; ages 6-12), falls short of its promise, since of the 14 poems Lee Bennett Hopkins picks to "celebrate the wonders of museums," only four don't topple into platitude. (I especially like Kristine O'Connell George's poignant "The Moccasins" and Alice Schertle's jaunty ode: "O trilobite, there are a few,/ here in the Fossil Room, of you. . . .") Then there's the letdown of Bobbi Katz's Trailblazers: Poems of Exploration (Greenwillow, $18.99; ages 10-up). Katz had the bright idea of honoring, in verse, dreamers and explorers from Egypt's Queen Hapshetsut to the Mars rovers. But her poems about her heroes prove less interesting than her notes on them. "The map of Africa was blank,/ or very nearly so./ When a place is quite unknown,/ that's where I want to go./ So I trekked to Bechuanaland/ and took a look around./ The Zuga River, Lake Ngami -- / those are what I found." Was Livingstone that bland?

Fortunately, several new books, some featuring very old poems, do succeed in showing kids what a real poem is -- and does.

For the very youngest, Here's a Little Poem, edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters (Candlewick, $21.99; ages 2-5), mostly delivers on its title. Wendy Cope's opening flourish in the "Me, Myself, and I" section sets the tone nicely: "Here's a little foot./ What shall we do with it?/ Lift it up/ And into a shoe with it." Other gems, from the likes of Margaret Wise Brown, Langston Hughes and Spike Milligan, are shoehorned into sections titled "Who Lives in My House?"; "I Go Outside" (including what must be the world's shortest poem, Paul B. Janeczko's nod to an August ice cream cone: "Lick/ Quick"); and "Time for Bed." A standout is Colin McNaughton's wail of woe: "Mum is having a baby!/ I'm shocked! I'm all at sea!/ What's she want another one for?/ WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH ME!?" Polly Dunbar's pictures are as brisk and joyous as the poems.

William Blake, the latest title in Sterling's acclaimed Poetry for Young People series (edited by John Maynard, $14.95; ages 8-12), is a must for children drawn to poetry. The selections from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience aren't, of course, as simple as they sound, to say nothing of the snippets from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and "Jerusalem," but once lodged in the mind, they will nourish it for a lifetime. Alessandra Cimatoribus's angular illustrations are occasionally brilliant, as in her unnerving vision, all eerie violet and olive, of the "Priests in black gowns . . . walking their rounds."

In Today and Today (Scholastic, $16.99; ages 4-8), G. Brian Karas arranges translations of 16 haiku by the 18th-century Japanese poet Issa to show a year unfolding in one family's life. Each captures what Blake called "a World in a Grain of Sand," from "The spring day/ lingers/ in the pools" to a winter epiphany: "Here/ I'm here -- / the snow falling." Karas uses traditional materials such as rice paper and wood, as well as pencils and paint, to illustrate these instants of compressed experience. The effect, playing off the tiny electric jolts of the barely-there words, is truly beautiful.

At the other end of the spectrum is Joshua Prince's I Saw an Ant in a Parking Lot (Sterling, $14.95; ages 4-8), sequel to last year's I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track and also graced by the zany, computer-generated artwork of Macky Pamintuan. There is absolutely nothing profound about this saga of a parking-lot attendant who saves an ant from death by mini-van. It would have flummoxed Issa. But there surely is word-wizardry. "The van pressed on -- our ant was caught/ 'tween rolling steel/ and pavement hot/ Between a mom, her van, her tot,/ his trot, her turn, their fate, a spot. . . ." For all his silliness, Prince is a man in love with the language, its rhythmic possibilities and lurking double meanings. And that, people, makes Prince a poet. ยท

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@washpost.com.

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