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“I Am the Book,” poems illustrated by Yayo

Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins
Illustrated by Yayo Holiday House.
$16.95. Ages 5 and up
Celebrating words and books, this collection of poems is also a visual treat, showcasing fantastical scenes by the Colombian-born illustrator Yayo. Ever-playful, he takes beguiling metaphors literally. On one page, for example, a giant book doubles as an above-ground swimming pool to dive into. The poets here include both veterans, like Jane Yolen and Naomi Shihab Nye, and lesser- known writers, together capturing a world of moods. There’s calm on one page (“When I read, I like to float / Like the gull that trusts the sea, / The ebb and flow of tidal words / Easy under me”) and rollicking adventure on the next, featuring a windswept pirate ship whose figurehead is deeply engrossed in a book.

These poems and pictures will draw in readers and rouse them to write verse of their own, as will another inspired new book: In Bob Raczka’s Lemonade (Roaring Brook, $16.99), only the letters contained in a single word can be used, so that “Bleachers” delivers this succinct summary: “Ball / reaches / here / bases / clear / cheers.” Young wordsmiths will love the challenge of squeezing poems from the words they choose.

Abby McGanney Nolan

By Betsy Franco
Illustrated by Michael Wertz
Tricycle, $16.99. Ages 5-9
Every dog has his day in this lively canine collection that unleashes an array of buoyant colors, bouncy rhymes and sprightly typography. Some entries rely on ingenious placement of words within the illustration. In “Misleading Sign,” the lines appear in the form of an acrostic on a picket fence: “Beware of dog / but Willy rarely ever growls / that harmless beagle only / yooooowls!” Two “Circling Poems” invite readers to turn the book around and upside-down. “The Words Waffle Hears” graphically refers to the illuminated crossing signs that guide pedestrians through intersections: “Sit / Walk / Treat / Squirrel / Down / Bad / Good / Girl!” “Emmett’s Ode to His Tennis Ball” is written in the form of — what else? — a drippy half-squashed ball in the mouth of a yellow lab: “Slobbery, sloppy, slimy / Sphere — Oh, tennis ball, / I hold you dear. You bounce, / I bound up in the air. / We make the most / inseparable pair.” Kids with dogs — and kids who want dogs — will delight in this energetic, appealing peek into their furry four-footed (and fleet-footed) world.

For more beastly ballads, dip into Around the World on Eighty Legs , by Amy Gibson, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri (Scholastic, $18.99, ages 7-10), and What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World , by Katherine B. Hauth, illustrated by David Clark (Charlesbridge, $16.95, ages 8-10).

Kristi Jemtegaard

By Thanhha Lai
Harper. $15.99. Ages 8–12
Spring 1975 brings two things to a Vietnamese girl named Ha: “green fruit / shaped like a lightbulb” on her beloved papaya tree and the “red and green flares” that pierce the Saigon night. As the communists march into the city, Ha, her mother and three older brothers flee on a boat to Guam and then journey to the United States. Even in the midst of worry and hardship, Ha hangs on to her 10-year-old brio. She pithily comments on the tricky English language, her middle brother’s martial-arts obsession, and the family’s sponsor, whose cowboy hat and shiny teeth make him, in her eyes, the quintessential American: “good-hearted and loud.”

To write this moving novel in poems, author Thanhha Lai drew from her girlhood in Vietnam and Alabama. The poems chronicle a year of incredible change, and Ha’s voice feels wholly authentic as she schemes against school bullies and mourns the loss of sweet papaya, so reminiscent of her homeland. Lai’s rhythmic free verse is rich with images both humorous (a Thanksgiving turkey “the size of a baby”) and poignant (the portrait of Ha’s “tall, thin” father, who has been missing in action for nine years). These unforgettable poems offer a child’s perspective on the fraught nature of starting anew. Ha’s story seems especially apt this month, the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Mary Quattlebaum



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