Writing poetry for the very young is a tough balancing act: How to be simple, yet not simple-minded, playful, but not coy? You’re probably familiar with the poetry books of award-winners Joyce Sidman and Jane Yolen. If not, you’ll find blissful inspiration by checking them out. Poetry is a tough sell in any era, but poetic books about nature, especially those with an informational component (most often in the back matter) have a better shot at getting published today.
One long, lyrical poem, wonderfully illustrated, can make a delightful picture book. For older readers, themed collections (especially if you have an unusual topic or a new angle on a familiar theme) are viewed more kindly than a collection of poems on a range of topics, unless it happens to be laugh-out-loud funny.
For the pre-school set, there’s no need to work on your stand-up act. Just use your eyes, ears, head and heart, inviting children to do the same. A poet, Helen Frost, and a photographer, Rick Lieder, have created a series of books that is fast becoming a franchise. In their latest collaboration, they ask children to Wake Up! (Candlewick, 2017). Close-ups of startling, luminous beauty— of mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and plants— are pared with a spare, poetic text: Sun says, Wake up—/Come out and explore./New life is exploding/outside your door!
The questions that follow invite the child to wonder about what Walt Whitman called the miracles all around us. (Who’s inside these eggs?/What catches the breeze?)
You may be wondering, Do we really need this? Getting children to wake up is no problem. We have trouble getting them to sleep! And yet, in this digital era, sometimes they have to be coaxed into noticing the world around them. I took two bright six-year-old girls, hardcore Minecraft addicts, on a walk around a reservoir in San Diego a few years ago. They got very excited about some purple wildflowers. “Look!” Minu said to her cousin, Darcy, “they’re just like the ones in Minecraft!”
Before we all find ourselves living in a world made by Minecraft, you might want to look at other books by Frost and Lieder: Sweep Up the Sun (Candlewick, 2015) about birds in flight) and Step Gently Out (Candlewick, 2012), where Lieder’s portraits of garden bugs are accompanied by lyrical lines: Step gently out,/be still and watch a single blade of grass./An ant climbs up to look around./A honeybee flies past./ A cricket leaps and lands, then sits back and sings…
Even children who’ve seen everything (or think they have) will be slack-jawed before Lieder’s stunning photos in Among a Thousand Fireflies, where you see what you can’t see with the naked eye in such detail at night. The clarity of the images is astounding. How did he do that?
The book doesn’t answer that question, but it will tell those who read the back matter what makes fireflies flash and whether heat is produced as well as light. It’s an audacious topic for a picture book, the perennial problem of finding a mate: Here I am. She sends a silent call…Look! I’m here.
Look, indeed. And look again. Like all of the Frost/Lieder books, this one gives off a cozy warmth with its low-wattage light that might, on a summer’s night, flickering with firefly ardor, even lull a wide awake child to bed.
Orel’s fourth picture book, Thelonious Mouse (FSG), won a Crystal Kite, 2012, from SCBWI. Her third was a Bank St. Best and the second made the NY Times Ten Best-Illustrated list. A Thousand, Peaks, Poems from China (with Siyu Liu) was selected for the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list. A Word’s a Bird, her animated, bilingual (English/French) poetry book for iPad, was on SLJ’s list of ten best children’s apps, 2013. Her book for teachers, Metaphors & Similes You Can Eat (Scholastic) has inspired great poems from children in grades 4-8. Orel won the Oberon poetry prize in 2010 and commendation in other reviews and anthologies. She teaches at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, Huntington Station, New York. www.orelprotopopescu.com
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