One-Minute Book Reviews

November 15, 2007

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans / Can’t sustain wonder … “ Quote of the Day From Robert Hass’s ‘Time and Materials,’ Winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Poetry

Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, deals with an unusually wide range of subjects for an 88-page collection — trees, a mother’s alcoholism, the war in Iraq. One of its best poems is “State of the Planet,” which marks the 50th anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. It includes this memorable sixain:

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could. But soon enough
We’d have fashioned sexy little earrings from the feathers,
Highlighted our cheekbone by rubbings from the rock,
And made a spear from the sinewey wood of the tree.”

From Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet” in Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005 (HarperCollins/Ecco, $22.95) www.eccobooks.com and www.nationalbook.org.

November 10, 2007

‘Hey, You!’ — A Picture Book Collection of Recent and Classic Poems for Children Ages 6 and Up

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?

– From Ogden Nash’s light verse classic, “The Octopus”

Hey, You! Poems to Skyscrapers, Mosquitoes, and Other Fun Things. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko and Robert Rayevsky. HarperCollins, 40 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The thirty short poems in this picture book all speak to somebody or something — a shell, a horse, an astronaut – or use the literary device known as apostrophe.

Editor Paul Janeczko has chosen a mix of rhymed and unrhymed and comic and serious verse by living and dead poets, including Ogden Nash, X.J. Kennedy and Karla Kushkin. And some of the entries have an unexpected timeliness, such as Emily Dickinson’s “Bee, I’m Expecting You!,” which begins: “Bee, I’m expecting you! / Was saying yesterday / To somebody you know / That you were overdue.” (Could there be a better bedtime poem for a first or second grader who loved Bee Movie?) But the dark and heavy-handed illustrations – which hang over some pages like thunderclouds — are no match for the high quality of the poems. So this is a book to use selectively: Instead of reading straight through it, look for the pages most likely to appeal to a particular child. And just try to keep a straight face if they include Nash’s classic, “The Octopus,” which begins: “Tell me, O Octopus, I begs, / Is those things arms, or is they legs?”

Links: www.harpercollinschildrens.com, www.pauljaneczko.com, www.rayevsky.com

Furthermore: Janeczko is a Maine poet who also edited Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices, a companion to Hey, You!. Rayevsky lives in Parksville, NY, and illustrated Caroline Stutson’s Pirate Pup and other books for children.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. They often deal with poetry for ages 2 and up. You can find other reviews of children’s poetry books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category at right (below the “Recent Posts” and “Top Posts” listings).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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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