One-Minute Book Reviews

May 12, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Sports Poems for Young Children

The new “Children’s Poet Laureate” serves up rhymes about karate, skateboarding, gymnastics and other sports

Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages: See below.

By Janice Harayda

This book of sports rhymes has a gold medal on the cover identifying its author as the “Children’s Poet Laureate” of the U.S. But don’t confuse that honor with that the one bestowed by Library of Congress, most recently on the Donald Hall. The title of “Children’s Poet Laureate” was created by the Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awarded it for the first time last year. And while the foundation may have had admirable goals in creating the post, you wish that Good Sports had been worthier of that medal on its dust jacket.

Jack Prelutsky is best known for The New Kid on the Block and other collections, including Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young. And it’s easy to see why the Poetry Foundation wanted to honor him: At his best, he’s a hilarious, and he’s probably done more to foster an interest in poetry than any living children’s author.

But Good Sports seems designed more to fill a market niche than to delight children. There’s an obvious need for more good children’s books about sports – their publication hasn’t kept pace with the rise in participation. And many of the children’s sports books that do exist are cheesy celebrity biographies that promote hero-worship instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of sports.

Prelutsky sprinkles a few drops of water this parched landscape with a picture book of 17 rhyming poems about girls’ and boys’ individual and team sports – soccer, baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, swimming, figure skating, skateboarding, karate and Frisbee. Some of the poems are mildly amusing, such as a ballplayer’s lament: “I had to slide into the plate, / It was my only chance. / Though if I hadn’t slid, then I / Would not have lost my pants.” But most lack the zest of Prelutsky’s best work and sometimes descend into the breathless clichés of the broadcasting booth.

A larger problem is that the audience for Good Sports is unclear. School Library Journal recommends the book for grades kindergarten through five, and, on one level, that makes sense. Some poems show children getting clobbered in football or taking part in other competitive team sports that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend for children under age 6.

But Good Sports has the form of a typical picture book for 4-to-8-year-olds. It’s the size and shape of the hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are, which appeals to many 2-year-olds. The book has just one or two poems per spread and large watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings by Chris Raschka, who illustrated the 2006 Caldecott Medal winner, The Hello, Goodbye Window. And the pictures, though spirited, resemble finger-paintings more likely to appeal to preschoolers than children at the upper end of the K–5 range. The poems might have had much more appeal for children beyond kindergarten or first grade if they had been packaged as a chapter book and illustrated by an artist who really knows how to reach that audience, such as Quentin Blake, the genius behind the art for such Roald Dahl books as The B.F.G. and The Twits.

As it is, Good Sports is another book, like Greg Foley’s recent Thank You Bear, that panders to library story hours with large fonts and pictures (and a price tag driven by that format) instead of serving parents who want to read their children poetry without paying $16.99 for mostly so-so rhymes. It’s sad to see the Poetry Foundation lending its imprimatur to this racket instead of bringing attention to gifted children’s poets who have had less attention than Prelutsky, a writer whose latest book would no doubt have sold well without a medal on its cover.

A much better choice for ages 8 and up is Ernest L. Thayer’s classic sports poem “Casey at the Bat,” available in many editions, including the Caldecott Honor book Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 (Handprint, 2000), illustrated by Christopher Bing. Children may soon forget Prelutsky’s trendy poems about karate and skateboarding. But who can ever forget Thayer’s tragicomic tale of the day there was “no joy in Mudville” because “Mighty Casey has struck out”?

Best line: Quoted above: “ … would not have lost my pants.”

Worst line: Sports clichés like, “The competition’s tough” and “I’ve saved the day.”

Published: March 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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