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Pages Aflame with Poetry

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Good poems are words on fire on the page. They don't need art to lend them glow and heat. Even a 10-year-old can "see" Tennyson's eagle without a visual assist: "The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls./He watches from his mountain walls./And like a thunderbolt he falls." It's different, of course, for younger readers, for whom pictures really can open doors to the grandeur of words. Yet every April, the challenge is to find among the many strikingly illustrated (and pricey) books published for National Poetry Month even a handful in which the poems are as memorable as the art. Here are three that stand out this year:

ON THE FARM By David Elliott | Illustrated by Holly Meade | Candlewick. $16.99 (ages 3-7)

The concept couldn't be simpler, but the balance between word and image is subtle. After an opening panorama showing an old-fashioned farmhouse with outbuildings and assorted farm-dwelling animals dotted about, each double-page spread zooms in on a particular beast, bird or bug, allotting them a portrait and a quirky poem apiece. Meade's big, bold woodcut prints are the attention-grabbers, but Elliott's little verses pack a deceptive punch. "The Bees" is summer in a quatrain:

Tell their story,

sweet and old.

It begins in clover;

it ends with gold.

BLACK STARS IN A WHITE NIGHT SKY By JonArno Lawson | Illustrated by Sherwin Tjia | Wordsong. $16.95 (ages 10-14)

These playful verses pass the true-poetry test: They show the world in a new light. As even his titles prove, Lawson likes to turn words and ideas inside out and upside down, roll them around and see what surprises shake out. Who could resist dipping into "The Maple Leaves That Mabel Leaves" or "Frog on the Cob"? But he also shows an unexpected range of feeling. Some poems simply have fun showing off: "Pat a snake, pat a snake,/fakir's man,/wake me a snake as fast as you can." Some hide a sting. A poem that begins jauntily -- "Humpty Dumpty/hid himself/underneath a chicken" -- wends its way to an alarming conclusion. Some poems are basically just music, charming songs without sense:

Merciful Percival

took his submersible

down

where the killer whales weep.

But others, like "Bringing Baby Home" or the mysteriously titled "How Without Arms," turn quietly serious:

How, without arms,

did the sun

climb over the trees?

And without knees

to sink on,

how did it sink behind them?

And without eyes,

how did it peek

through the leaves?

And without

being wakened,

how did it rise?

The black-and-white drawings scattered throughout are amusing, but the poems are so good you don't really notice or need them. For the age group Lawson aims at, that is just as it should be.

KEEPERS Treasure-Hunt Poems By John Frank | Roaring Brook. $17.95 (ages 7-10)

Frank had the bright idea of writing poems about the idiosyncratic treasures, from polished stones to old baseball cards, that as they wait to be unearthed at the beach, in the attic, at the flea market, in the desert and elsewhere. Someone then had the even brighter idea of pairing his efforts with the jewel-like photographs of Ken Robbins. As with any treasure hunt, there are finds and duds. In "Globe," for instance, the photo outshines the verse. isn't exactly words on fire.) But sometimes the match just ignites, as in the lovely "Geode":

I cracked a stone egg

dark as smoke,

and found, inside,

a crystal yolk

as purple as

a sheet of sky

pulled over twilight's

closing eye.

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

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