December 17, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReading

A Last-Minute Shopper’s Guide to Children’s Poetry

Before my son was born, I memorized a poem. I know how this must sound to parents and non-parents: another hopelessly sentimental exercise that’s more about the papa than the kid. Like baby yoga. Like turning a placenta into a pate. Still, I couldn’t help myself. We poets can be sentimental fools sometimes and besides, it seemed like a good idea to borrow speech on a day when speechlessness would be assured. Thus, the following:

The Grass so little has to do,
A sphere of simple Green –
With only butterflies, to brood,
And Bees, to entertain –

And stir all day to pretty tunes
The Breezes fetch along,
And hold the Sunshine, in it’s lap
And bow to everything

These are the first eight lines of Emily Dickinson’s 379th poem, which R.W. Franklin dates to the fall of 1862. I’m happy to report that I had the full 20 at the ready when I became a dad. Why this poem? I had simple reasons. It is short, metrical, and American. Its practiced naiveté feels childlike, honing in on details a kid might really see: grass, butterflies, bees. These are some of the same traits I look for today when I read poetry to my son. He’s five now and the following books have all been, at various times, his bedtime favorites. They’re our recommendations for the best children’s poetry to slip under your tree.

 

Science Verse (2004). Written by Jon Scieszka. Illustrated by Lane Smith. Viking, 40 pp. $17.99; $9.99 (paper).

I am a sucker for a good parody poem, and pleased as punch when the parodist takes aim at Robert Frost. As a man, he was churlish and insecure. As a poet, he had few rivals—at least as formal poets go—but his most anthologized pieces have grown tiresome through repetition. They’re slapped onto posters and passed off as pablum. They’re always ripe to be mocked:

Which world this is I do not know.
It’s in our solar system though.
I’m thinking that it might be Mars,
Because it has that reddish glow.

But you know it could be Venus.
And if that’s true, then just between us,
It might be wise to leave before
Any locals might have seen us.

Could be Pluto. Might be Neptune.
Don’t they both have more than one moon?
I’m running out of oxygen.
I’d better figure this out soon.

Yes space is lovely, dark and deep.
For one mistake I now do weep:
In science class I was asleep.
In science class I was asleep…

This poem—a parody of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—is typical of Science Verse. The book follows a bow-tied child as he sleeps his way through science class. He dreams his way through famous poems, nursery rhymes, and songs. In “The Senseless Lab of Professor Revere” we’re told to “Listen, my children, and you shall hear, / Of how loud noises go in your ear.” The joke’s on Longfellow, but Jon Scieszka, the book’s writer, smuggles a lot of learning into the laughs. The “Senseless Lab” teaches kids about the five senses. “Astronaut Stopping by a Planet on a Snowy Evening” reminds them that in space no one can hear you flail.

There’s a lot of winking then that goes on across the tops of these poems. Scieszka winks at the parents who are in on the joke, and we wink back, happy to share a smile with another adult. He winks at the kids too, giving scientific cover to the grossness they love the most. “I think that I ain’t never seen / a poem ugly as a spleen,” Scieszka writes, a fine improvement on Joyce Kilmer’s treacly poem, “Trees.” A long poem, “Dino-sore,” parodies “The Raven.” In “Scientific Method at the Bat,” Scieszka returns to Ernest Thayer’s 1888 ballad about Casey. A new take on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” gives the starring role (excuse the pun) to a black hole:

Twinkle-less, twinkle-less
Spot of black,
In the starry
Zodiac.

Sucking in all
Matter and light.
Turning sunshine
Into night.

Twinkle-less, twinkle-less—
LOST CONTROL!
Now we’re trapped in
the black hole.

Whether you fell asleep during science class, poetry class, or at your child’s bedside as you read one more story, Science Verse is for you. It does what Sir Philip Sidney once asked of all poetry: “to teach and delight.” If that’s not enough, it also parodies a poem that tends to linger at this time of year. “’Twas the night before Any Thing, and all through deep space, / Nothing existed—time, matter or place.” Clement C. Moore never sounded so good.

 

Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale (2012). Written by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Andrew Glass. Feiwel and Friends, 40 pp. $16.99.

My efforts to inculcate my child in classical American Literature have, I’m happy to report, been mostly successful. He recognizes Emily Dickinson’s only confirmed photo and retains a unique fondness for Walt Whitman. It helps, of course, that the latter is his namesake, and that—come Christmas time—he can jokingly refer to Santa as Whitman and Whitman as Santa. (Both loved to take photos with other people’s kids.) An interest in Melville, however, was harder to pique until we came across these lines:

His head rose high above the waves,
a Matterhorn of white.
The angle of his sickle jaw
gave everyone a fright.

We threw a harpoon at the whale
‘fore he had time to blink.
He smacked our whaleboat with his tail
and tossed us in the drink.

The pleasure of Moby-Dick is its mixture of cetacean minutiae and high seas adventure. (Well, that’s one of its many pleasures.) The pleasure of Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale is the rollicking ballad meter that pares the story down. Eric Kimmel’s choice here seems fitting. Ballad meter—four beats, three beats, four beats, three beats; iambic with an ABCB rhyme—has been used for narrative poems from “Sir Patrick Spens” (13th century) to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Here it tells the story of a boyish Ishmael, a tattooed Queequeg, and the mad Ahab, taking care to hit the high points of Melville’s plot. Of Ahab’s call to catch the whale, Kimmel writes

He nailed a doubloon to the mast
and said, “Look sharp and bold.
Whoever spies the White Whale first
will earn this Spanish gold.”

This is a famous scene, given a somewhat longer treatment in the 99th chapter of Melville’s epic novel. For a kid, however, it makes tangible sense: catch a whale, receive your allowance. This isn’t to say that Kimmel dumbs Melville down. He gives us the coffin that’s a lifeboat and the gam with the Rachel, but takes care to skip the stranding of Pip or the scene where a sailor wears a whale penis like a cassock. The poem, in short, makes good use of elision, turning a notoriously insurmountable book into 89 lines of rhyming verse. It ought to be 88 of course— ballads move in quatrains—but Kimmel had to use the most famous first sentence in American Literature, even if it didn’t scan.

Call me Ishmael…
When days start getting long again
and time is moving slow,
I set out for New Bedford town,
a’whaling fore to go.

Long days and slow time: this is a more kid-friendly justification for whaling than the one Ishmael gives us in the novel: “whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses […] I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” The book is perfectly suited then for little sailors, and won’t disappoint the Melville purist. My son and I read it nightly until he’d learned the meaning of “blubber,” “Davy Jones,” and “in the drink.” (There is a glossary for all the landlubbers to consult.) When we visited Depoe Bay, Oregon last summer—one of the premiere spots on the West Coast to spot a whale—he was already in the know about spermaceti, whale oil, and 19th century lamps. These are the things that make a father proud.

Also, it’s worth mentioning Andrew Glass’s oil paint illustrations. Smudged and expressive, vibrant and coarsened, they make Ishmael’s sunburn hot to the touch. You’ll not find better on this list.

 

Bats at the Ballgame (2010). By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp. $16.99; $6.99 (paper).

A successful children’s book begets more children’s books. Kids love repetition and the balm of the familiar. Publishers like a sure thing. I don’t know which of Brian Lies’s Bats books first hit it big—Bats at the Beach dates back to 2006; the latest, Bats in the Band, came out in 2014—but my son and I first encountered his little blind friends when they took up our favorite sport: baseball.

We show our tickets, find our places,
watch the grounds crew lay the bases.
They roll the foul lines, rake the mound,
shape the field, and smooth the ground.

Sudden silence—then a cheer:
Hooray! The baseball bats are here!

Lies writes and illustrates his Bats books, so it’s no surprise that cleverness—“the baseball bats are here”—carries over from the verbal to the visual. That grounds crew rakes the diamond with plastic forks and drops sugar packets at its corners. They form the foul lines by rolling saltshakers down the grass. (You can guess what epithet the crowd hurls at an umpire who blows a call.) There is, in short, a whole world at the ready when you open up Bats at the Ballgame, from the way Lies imagines the grandstands—bats hanging upside down from carnival tents—to the bat-ified photos from baseball games of old. We see a bat version of Willie Mays’s famous over-the-shoulder catch. Pete Rose looks no less guilty of gambling when given floppy ears and wings.

How, though, is Lies’s poetry? Can he really hit from both sides of the plate? He can, and the verse here is as seamless as either of the aforementioned books. Take a look at the first stanzas to follow the batty pun above:

Something changes with those words.
We feel a magic shift,
and ride the currents of the game
as time is set adrift.

At first, we’re full of reckless joy—
their batters strike out fast.
But when our batters strike out too,
our laughter doesn’t last.

The shift is more than magical or topical—it’s metrical too. Though Lies opens his book with rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter, he dips into ballad meter for the play by play. The change quickens the poem and connects it to a narrative tradition older than the baseball itself. More importantly, though, it just sounds good. Lies is a confident and playful poet, happy to toy with the sights and sounds of baseball. A flying vendor sells “Mothdogs” and “Infield Flies.” (The pun, as you might imagine, is the book’s preferred trope. This is fitting for a man named Lies.) “Raise a wing and catch a snack,” he advises, “Perhaps you’d like some Cricket Jack?” His penultimate stanza can’t help but drop another pun:

Safe at home, we settle in
and talk about our thrilling win,
till one by one, we slide away
and silently relive each play.

Lies narrates the poem in the plural first-person, an appropriate choice for a sport that revolves around family, community, and pastoral bliss. Even bats it seems will eventually fly home.

Like Kimmel’s Moby Dick, Lies’s Bats at the Ballgame demonstrates how useful ballad meter is to children’s poetry. The self-contained stanza lends itself nicely to illustration. A quatrain or two is just enough for a page. This means that the page turns come quickly and the pictures as often. The pace doesn’t slow. Lies rarely illustrates more than eight lines at a time. Kimmel is the same. Still, there are some climactic moments in Bats at the Ballgame where an unfinished stanza will leap from one page to the next. This gesture adds to the anticipation. It is also tactile reminder—for any kid who can follow a parent’s finger under the words—of how a poem turns.

Stay tuned to KROnline for more books of children’s poetry, must-haves really for all the junior readers on your holiday list.