Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Poetry Book Reviews


Franco, Betsy. 2009. Messing Around on the Monkey Bars and Other School Poems for Two Voices. Ill. by Jessie Hartland.  Massachusetts: Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-0-7636-3174-1

Plot Summary:
Messing Around on the Monkey Bars is a picture-book poetry collection by one author, Betsy Franco, who has published more than 80 books. The theme of the book revolves around the routine of an elementary school day, from riding the bus in the morning, classroom activities, recess, lunch and finally, to the final bell as the school day ends.  Though the rhyming poems can be read silently by one person, or aloud to an audience, the author has written the book in such a way to be enjoyed by two voices reading aloud and alternating parts of the poems.

Critical Analysis:
Franco’s book is a delightful journey through a typical school day for children, with the poems arranged to take you from the morning bus ride to the final bell, and all the school activities in between.  All of the poems rhyme, some every other line, others every fourth, creating meter and a rhythmic reading experience, with spare arrangement of words on the page.  None of the poems cause you to pause and question the word choice, or appear to be forced. The poems describe events, conversations, places and actions, using words that make us feel like we are in school ourselves, getting through our day.

What stands out in this volume in many of the poems is the author’s playful tone and the use of descriptive sounds to describe objects, actions and events.  The bus anthropomorphically snorts and squeals, screeches and coughs as it picks up the children.  Students in the library “snicker, snicker, ouch, eek, burp, snort, and tee-hee,” instead of reading quietly.  A girl’s pencil tap, tap, taps on her desk until all the children are “bopping, hopping, snapping, clapping, drumming, thumping and tappity-tapping,” representing a strong use of consonance.  And a classroom comes alive using with the author’s use of onomatopoeia in the whir of a fan, the zap of a rubber band, the thud/bonk of a book, and the “grrr” of a pencil sharpener.

Hartland’s illustrations are colorful and childlike, appearing as if drawn and painted by children, which compliments the school-age feel of the book. Most of the drawings express movement of the characters symbolizing the fidgety mannerisms of school children, and the passing of time throughout the school day. A line-up after recess shows children racing as they “bunch up and bump, wiggle, giggle, trip, tease, push, pull, jab, grab, poke, pinch, squish and squeeze” to get to the front of the line. Added details across the page delight the eye, such as various school accessories like pencils, calculators, paper with writing, open picture books and children’s artwork. In one poem, “Anatomy Class,” the author uses anthropomorphic references to classroom objects, such as chair arms, kite tails, book spines, shoe tongues, clock faces and tack heads.  Hartland illustrates these objects with human-like faces and appendages, causing the reader to look at typical classroom accoutrements in a new and fresh way. The illustrator has successfully matched the drawings on each page to the author’s words, giving the poems unique visual imagery along with the sensory imagery from Franco’s word choices.  

Reference aids compliment the arrangement of the book and include a table of contents, an author’s note about using two voices to read the poems aloud, and an addition at the end of the book describing adventurous ways to read the poems.

Reviews and Awards:

Best Book of the Year, 2010. Bank Street College of Education; KC3 Book Award Nominee, 2011-2012. 

“Though readers could tackle the poems alone, differences in typeface cue the possibility for two readers to share the poems aloud in Joyful Noise fashion, alternating lines and sharing others in a clever script that reflects children's school-day experiences.  Hartland's energetic gouache illustrations adopt a naive style that matches the playful spirit of the text while serving as a splendid complement to its evocation of children's voices. This book gets high marks.”– Kirkus Reviews

“There's plenty of univocal poetry for young people, but it's still rare to find a volume geared to shared readings, and established author Franco provides a useful addition to the genre.” – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

 School-themed books abound, and this poetry collection could be used in conjunction with other picture books for a story-time about school activities.  It could also be used with a unit on figurative language as an example of the use of anthropomorphism and onomatopoeia, and children could be encouraged to write their own versions of school sounds and personification of classroom objects.  Finally, the choral reading aspect of the book would make it a fun activity to break up the pressure of more intense school work. 

Personal Response:
This is the first poem picture book I have read in many years, and I enjoyed experiencing the arrangement of the poetry to reflect the chronological activities of a school day.  The descriptive language of the author abounds, as she uses copious adjectives and a plethora of sounds that bring back memories of school days gone by.


Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. Messing Around on the Monkey Bars by Betsy Franco. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780763631741  (accessed October 1, 2013).

Sidman, Joyce. 2007. This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. Ill. By Pamela Zagarenski. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 978-0-618-61680-0

Plot Summary:
Joyce Sidman has created from her imagination a picture book collection of poems of apology and forgiveness, as if written by a students in a sixth grade class for an assignment.  The recipients of the poems then write the students back in heartwarming poetic reply in the second half of the book.  The poems of apology are inspired by “This is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams written in 1934, apparently in response to a note written by his wife about his lunch that day.  The poems cover light hearted incidents such as stolen donuts from the teacher’s lounge and school-age crushes, to much more serious situations such as the leaving of a parent and the euthanasia of a beloved pet.  Sidman handles both with a light touch, and creates the feel of tween-age writing and emotions in this collection.

Critical Analysis:
After reading all of the poems of apology and forgiveness in this short poetry collection, I can see why it won so much acclaim.  They are not typical poems of rhyme and rhythm, though there is a pantoum, a haiku, and a choral read poem in the mix. Most of the poems are in free verse form.  The power from the poems comes from reading the apology and response together.  The boy who stole the donuts from the teacher’s lounge finds out he is stealing their hearts, too, and they still care for him.  The girl who rubs the nose of the statue of Florence P. Scribner before each spelling test for luck finds out the statue enjoys the warmth of the girl’s hand on her cold nose.  The boy who writes of having to euthanize his beloved dog is comforted by the response from the school janitor about his own such experience when he says that the dying dog “was smelling you, feeling your touch. You were loving him, and he was loving you back.  That’s how he went and that’s how a dog should go.” 

School crushes, hurt feelings, insults regretted, unbeknownst offences, disappointments and guilt are all explored in these poems, mostly written like regular narrative broken up in free verse. The words of the poems are typically aligned at the left margin of the page, though there are some that have more creative indentions to reflect movement.  Figurative language is used in phrases such as the simile in “the silence seemed like a hundred crushing elephants” and personification as the brownie pan “gaped like an accusing eye.”  We see symbolic imagery such as one student “wading into the river of forgiveness,” and visual and sensory imagery is used to describe an accidentally broken window:  “…the weight of the gritty rocks/the shiver of tinkling glass, the wild joy blooming in my chest/ the fear, the running away.” 

Reference aids include a table of contents for Part 1 (apologies) and Part 2 (responses), and an “imagined” introduction by a sixth grade boy explaining that the apology poems were created for a sixth grade class.  

Zagarenski’s artistic use of mixed media in the illustrations cleverly compliments Franco’s collection of poems.  She uses a combination of painterly techniques, such as charcoal and color filled pen and ink, along with graphic techniques, such as photos of notebook paper and a printed collage taken from a dictionary definition of the word “apology,” which is seen in the some of the characters’ clothing.  The illustrated faces of the characters in the book reflect the various emotions felt by the students in their apologies: sorrow, slyness, anger, surprise, satisfaction and guilt, to name a few.  Many of the drawings reflect movement on the page, symbolizing that an apology should be an active, not passive, experience.

Reviews and Awards:

Best Book:
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2008 ; Bank Street College of Education ; Outstanding Merit
Choices, 2008 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center
School Library Journal Best Books, 2007  
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, May 2007  
Teachers' Choices, 2008 ; International Reading Association

Awards, Honors and Prizes:
Claudia Lewis Award, 2008 Winner United States
Cybil Award, 2007 Winner Poetry United States
Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, 2008 Honor Book United States


“Joyce Sidman's wonderfully imagined collection is full of humor and tenderness, expressed in poems that offer brief yet exacting portraits of the diverse children she's created, as well as glimpses into their lives”. – CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices 

“Packed with the intensity of everyday pain and sorrow, kids and adults exchange the words that convey grief, delight, love and acceptance of themselves and others.” –Kirkus Reviews

 This book could be read with the more light-hearted Forgive me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine during a unit on poetry.  Children could try their hand, as the characters in Sidman’s book do, at writing a poem of apology to someone in their life, and requesting a reply. A story-time unit could be created for younger children which includes a group discussion about what it means to apologize, and then be forgiven.

Personal Response:
One negative aspect of this book of poetry is the arrangement of the apology poems and the forgiveness poems in two separate sections, which causes the reader to have to shuffle back and forth to gain the full experience of the conflict and resolution.  It would have been more impactful to have them on facing pages, though I am sure that some thought did go into the arrangement of the poems by the author or publisher.  In addition, the introduction causes some confusion (to this novice poetry reader) because the reader has no way of knowing these are not really the writings of a student class, unless one reads the author information on the back flap of the book! I suppose this indicates that the author did a great job of writing her poems in a style that reflects the adolescent dialect.

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. This is Just to Say by Joyce Sidman. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=1&isbn=9780618616800 (accessed October 3, 2013).

Wikipedia. N.d. This is Just to Say. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_Just_To_Say (accessed October 3, 2013).

Hemphill, Stephanie. 2007. Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-83799-9

 Plot Summary:
Stephanie Hemphill has written a mesmerizing fictional verse novel interpreting the life of Sylvia Plath, but it is grounded in a great deal of research.  The author used actual published biographies, letters, journals and Plath’s poetry itself to construct the poems in her book which tell the story of Plath’s life from her birth through her death by suicide at the age of 31.  The poems are written in the voices of family members, neighbors, friends, colleagues and doctors, and through those voices the reader witnesses the life of a talented, driven and at times, emotional unstable, poet whose work influenced a generation.

Critical Analysis:
“She could not help burning herself/from the inside out,/Consuming herself/Like the sun…She could not know how long/Her luminary would map the sky,/ Or where her dying would lead the lost.” 

 In an ambitious undertaking, author Stephanie Hemphill has written a book of history and character, imagining the life of Sylvia Plath through verse poems written from the perspective and voices of the people who orbited the poet throughout her short life.  From her mother’s love, her father’s indifference, her neighbors’ and friends’ affection, her teachers’ acclamations, her lovers’ attractions to her husband’s love, obsession and ultimate betrayal, we come to know Plath’s struggle with abandonment, perfectionism, identity, her art and her heart through Hemphill’s thoroughly researched and vividly portrayed writings. 

The author places a poem on each page, with a title, the name of person “writing” the poem, the date, and a footnote with historical information that helps the reader better understand the content of the poem.  The author also re-imagines some of Plath’s own poems throughout the book, and has managed to capture the poet’s confessional style and unique voice. In “The Arrival of Poetry,” Hemphill writes a poem describing Plath’s most prolific month of writing in 1962: “….she cannot /Stop her pen writing./ Her words arrive, a box to be opened./…She feels like a medium./She catches lines like a sieve./She slices a vein and poetry flows,/Blood dark, blood dirty,/A river into Hades.”
Though most poems are in non-rhyming verse form, there are examples of a villanelle in “Why she Writes,” something similar to a pantoum, where words, instead of phrases are repeated in subsequent lines, in “August, 1953,” and the very creative “Abcedarian” in which each line of the poem begins with a letter from the alphabet, from A-Z.

The most profound aspect of this book is the author’s use of descriptive language and sensory imagery in her writings and the emotional impact they leave on the reader. The writing seems at times almost "cinematic in style, as a succession of scenes are presented to the visual imagination with the voice-over heard simultaneously in the mind" (Alexander 2005).  In “Crocketteer,” a poem from the perspective of Plath’s high school English teacher, Hemphill writes metaphorically that Sylvia “radiates, uranium strong…[her] wings are luminous and large, her name will be known…[she] sculpts poems out of air.”  In “August, 1953,” the author writes a poem, again using metaphors, about Sylvia’s depression, electroshock treatment and first suicide attempt: “Her summer is a winter -/…Her wintering is a glass bell -/frozen crystal tongue without tingle/without chime./Her glass bell suffocates fireflies, honeybees,/Jars them in heat, turns off their little minds./Her fireflies must be shocked, relit./Depression oozes from her fingers, softens her brain.”  Sylvia is described, using similes, in one poem by an acquaintance like “a woman possessed by demons and angels, a muse to herself…Her voice like the pied piper, raw and wicked, draws me in.”  
Hemphill ends her last poem with the descriptive and figurative lines, “But for those who gaze heavenly/Or into the reflected pool of night,/She is fuel. She is dust. She is a guiding star.”  The author has taken us on a deeply emotional journey through Plath’s life, with vivid and evocative words, and leaves us both satisfied and disturbed.

Reference aids include footnotes to each poem, which help explain its context, some black and white photographs of the poet with family and friends, a “dear reader” section where the author includes background information on how and why she wrote the book, and source notes of all the research done in constructing the book.  

From the first poem, “Owning Sylvia Plath” by a “reader,” all the way through to Hemphill’s final statement -“Sylvia was given the night sky’s brilliance so her writing can be a light for all of us,” - the author has created a book that has a huge emotional impact and leaves the reader stunned at the beauty and tragedy of the life of Sylvia Plath.

Reviews and Awards:

Cybil Award, 2007 Finalist Poetry
Michael L. Printz Award, 2008 Honor Book
Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry, 2008 Winner
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008; American Library Association ; Top Ten

“…an intimate, comprehensive, imaginative view of a life that also probes the relationships between poetry and creativity, mental fragility, love, marriage, and betrayal”. – Booklist

"Hemphill's verse, like Plath's, is completely compelling: every word, every line, worth reading." – The Horn Book Magazine

Hemphill’s book could be used in conjunction with a unit on Sylvia Plath’s poetry, Ariel or Colossus for example, or her novel, The Bell Jar.  Students could be given an opportunity of writing their own attempt at confessional poetry.
Personal Response:  
The book is classified as juvenile, but probably belongs with the young adult collection due to containing content about depression, suicide, and a couple of graphic sexual references.  As an adult reading this novel, I was put through an emotional wringer, and it will resonate with me for a long time.  A brilliant and tormented poet, Plath’s life was tragically cut short, and we feel that loss in this book. 
Alexander, Joy. 2005.  "The verse-novel: A new genre." Children’s Literature in Education. Vol. 36, no. 3. 

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. N.d. Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill. http://ezproxy.twu.ed/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=1&isbn=9780375837999 (accessed October 7, 2013).


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