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.

April 5, 2007

Robert Cording’s ‘Common Life’: Poems for Easter and Beyond

A distinguished poet explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions”

Common Life: Poems. By Robert Cording. CavanKerry, 105 pp., $16, paperback. [Note: The template for this site does not allow for the correct indentation of the lines quoted from “Pigeon Man.”]

By Janice Harayda

One of the poems in the Robert Cording’s elegant Common Life tells of a man who, every Easter, would bring a truck full of caged pigeons to a town green, then release them and drive home to await the return of his flock. “The pigeon man” put on his display for residents who felt an odd mixture of spirits:

High on resurrection hymns, yet dampened by
Nagging reminders – Jim’s young wife dying of cancer

And their two boys who would be
Motherless in a month; a divorce ot two members
Loved by everyone; a suicide bombing in Jerusalem;
And soldiers occupying the church at Bethlehem.

“Pigeon Man” adds that though the release of the birds took only a moment, the townspeople looked forward

To the pigeons which must have suggested,
Whether we believed or not, and even if we knew
The movement in the opposite direction was far
More common, that grief could suddenly turn to grace.

That flash of grace amid tragedy is typical of the poems in Common Life, all rooted in the epigraph from Psalm 37:7: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” A professor of English at Holy Cross, Cording has said that he explores “possible answers to unanswerable questions.” And the 43 poems in Common Life radiate a sense of the mysteries of life that, like those of the rosary, can be joyful or sorrowful.

Some of the most memorable poems have their roots in practices you might find in Ripley’s Believe It or Not but that are transmuted in the book into something higher. Cording meditates on a petrified fetus that lived for 15 years in a Brazilian widow’s uterus, the 19th century tradition of photographing the dead and a man who wanted to kill himself when doctors restored his sight after a lifetime of blindness, an event that might have overjoyed others:

But now the most familiar objects lurch at him,
Irrationally, maddeningly.
They bear so little resemblance to his blind conception
Of them, the man actually wishes to be blind again …

Several poems besides “Pigeon Man” relate directly to Easter, including “Lenten Stanzas” and the title poem, which begins:

Like Christ on the Emmaus road concealed
From his disciples by his ordinariness,
The commonplace is sometimes hardest to see –

Yet if “the commonplace is sometimes hardest to see,” Cording evokes it with exceptional skill and mastery of form (which includes an occasional rhyme). He opens with “A Prayer to Adam,” a fine example of sprung rhythm and its strongly accented first syllables. And in “Rosary Bead, Netherlands, c. 1500” he recalls a medieval rosary in five ten-line stanzas that echo the form of the rosary itself.

For all their sacred imagery, the poems in Common Life never read like tracts or veiled exercises in proselytizing. They are poems first and “religious poems” second. Cording has said that he tells his students that the readers of a poem must feel that they are “making contact with a real human being, not simply with arguments and opinions.” In this collection, readers make that connection on every page.

Best line: Many. Here’s one from “Skellig Michael,” about a visit to a monastic ruin: “ … More than half / My life already over, I have come to know lately / How little I know, and how even that gets in my way, / My mind trafficking in perfectly managed confusions, / In creating comfort and security where neither truly exist.”

Worst line: “Much Laughter” is a good poem about the melancholy Samuel Johnson. But to say that Johnson entrusted Hester Thrale with “with a padlock/ And chain to restrain his fits when the time came” may be an oversimplification. Some scholars would argue that he had sexual reasons for doing this.

Published: March 2006

Furthermore: Cording’s poems have appeared in magazines that include the Nation, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, American Scholar, The New Yorker. Among those in Common Life, “Parable of the Moth” appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and “Advent Stanzas” in Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Links: www.cavankerrypress.org

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous Page

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 385 other followers

%d bloggers like this: