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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B.Toklas. Written by Evie Robillard and illustrated by Rachel Katstaller. Kids Can Press, 2020. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"Pablo studied her with his wild,
dark eyes.
Eyes that took in everything.
And then
he began to paint,
Eighty times during the winter
of 1906,
Gertrude climbed that hill
and sat quietly
while Pablo painted
and painted ... "

Gertrude Stein lived very close to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris after she left the United States to live abroad; it is fitting that this tale of her life begins there. In the first of eight short chapters, Evie Robillard describes the place where Ms. Stein lived, first with her brother Leo, and then with her partner Alice B. Toklas. It was a home filled with the art that she and Leo loved and bought once they were settled.

"Matisse, Cezanne, Gaugin, 
Marie Laurencin, 
Georges Braque, Juan Gris. 
And, of course, Picasso. 
The one and only Pablo Picasso."

Each of the seven chapters that follow begin with a Stein quote, and tell of their life lived in the early to mid 1900s. As an adult, Gertrude had her portrait painted by Picasso. As well, she used words to paint her own personal life views. Anyone who wanted to visit and see the art collection was met by Alice at the front door, and offered tea. If the visitor met with Alice's approval, entrance was allowed.

"Look at all these people!
Sipping tea and drinking wine
and oohing 
and aahing
and trying to say intelligent things
about the paintings on the wall."

In charming text, the reader is made aware of the idiosyncrasies of the two women who so clearly represented modernism. Brilliant in their own ways, yet often misunderstood, theirs is a story that intrigues in a book that informs interested readers. Using gouache, colored pencil, and graphite in shades of blue and green, and also yellow and pale pinks, Ms. Katstaller offers a historical perspective and adds context for the story told.

A timeline, snapshots, a list of sources and an author's note are included in back matter. The author's note explains more clearly what life was like during World War II in France and the connections the two women made during the invasion.

Monday, April 6, 2020

16 Words: William Carlos Williams & "The Red Wheelbarrow", written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Chuck Groenink. Schwartz & Wade, Penguin Random House. 2019. $23.99 ages 8 and up

"Stepping around his chickens,
he turns the soil,
pulls weeds,
harvests greens.

He plucks ripe vegetables
and carries them to his

The first line of this book about a doctor whose poetry has inspired many is a perfect invitation to all of us as we harbor in place in a bid to 'flatten the curve' and stop the spread of Covid-19.

"Look out the window. What do you see?"

We have the time to take close looks outside our windows these days, and think carefully about what we are seeing there. If you are homeschooling, it is a perfect opportunity to encourage your kids with the power of observation for their writing. That is one of the truly wonderful lessons poetry written well teaches us.

William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and an aspiring writer. He spent his days caring for his patients, and eking out time to consider what he saw around him. Those close observations became the subject of his poetry. As he watched his neighbor, Thaddeus Marshall, work diligently to grow a garden that would supply his neighbors with fresh produce, Dr. Williams also went about the work that endeared him to all who received his medical attention. He carried with him the tools he needed to do his work, just as Mr. Marshall did when tending to his garden.

Between visits, and whenever else he found time, he wrote.

"He chooses the words for
his poetry as carefully as he
examines his patients.

If he's making a house call, he scribbles
poems on his prescription pad.

He writes about his town and the people who live there." 

Written with clarity and perfect word choice, Ms. Rogers makes this story a stellar picture book debut. Chuck Groenink's rich digital artwork brings Dr. Williams' world to full life and allows readers to clearly see all that he saw, helping them realize the power to be found in words. Leaving the 'red wheelbarrow' poem to the final page is an ingenious denouement.   

There was a time when I was conducting poetry workshops in schools. I love the power it has to stimulate thought, the senses, the creative juices that young learners have. One of my favorite poems by William Carlos Williams encouraged writers to consider an apology for something they should not have done:

"This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold"

Is there anything you have done lately that deserves a poetic apology? Why not try?

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Soccerverse: Poems About Soccer, written by Elizabeth Steinglass and illustrated by Edson Ike. Wordsong, Penguin Random House. 2019. $23.99 ages 5 and up

"Find me.
I'm under the bed.
Sure, I smell
like something dead,
but who cares?
Wear me.
Wear a pair of me.
Tuck me
in your sock,
and let's get out of here.
I want to be kicked.
It's why I exist." 

Kids love soccer. Any other year, the school playground across the street from my house would soon be teeming with little ones four days a week from 5:30 until 7:30. It won't be like that this year. I will miss it. Kids will miss it, and so will their parents.

Those kids who love to play soccer are sure to find any number of poems to enjoy as they pore over this book that deals with all aspects of the game. There are 22 from which to choose. It is a real celebration; each poem is written from the perspective of those children who have a passion for playing.

The table of contents invites attention to its many aspects, allowing readers a chance to choose what most interests them whether it is defence, passing, dribbling, teammates, goals, or the handshake as the game comes to a close. I wanted first to read the poems about an apology and its acceptance.


I got too mad.
I tried to hard.

I crossed the line.
I got a card.


I saw he was sorry.
I knew he felt bad.

I sat down beside him.
I didn't get mad."

Ms. Steinglass has knowledge of and a love for the sport. That is evidenced in the variety found in this collection. The poems are written from different perspectives, and in a wide variety of poetic form. A list that describes each of those forms is included in back matter. Edson Ike's digital artwork is boldly colorful, energetic, and embodies all of the action.

If you have a soccer player in the family, this is a perfect book to give prior to the new season, whenever that might be this year. It certainly is an excellent addition to classroom and school libraries, making it available to anyone wanting to better understand the game they want to play. Or, have the team sign it and gift it to the coach as the season comes to an end.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

On The Horizon, written by Lois Lowry with illustrations by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Raincoast. 2020. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"When he was made commander
of the entire Battleship Division,
he became an admiral.

Admiral Kidd ran to the bridge
that morning in December.

His Naval Academy ring was
found melted and fused to the mast.
It is not an imaginary thing,
a symbol of devotion so vast."

It will come as no surprise that renowned author Lois Lowry's first book of poetry is beautifully written. In it, she recalls life in Hawaii and Japan as a child. She had played on the beach at Waikiki with her nanny and her father, a short distance from where the Horizon often sailed. She rode her bike through her neighborhood where she saw reminders of the war. In this poignant account of the lives of sailors at Pearl Harbor and children in Hiroshima, she articulates the horrors and the humanity of war.

She begins on one horizon, the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Focusing attention on the place, the people, and the unbearable losses on that day, she introduces readers to the band, the captain, and the sailors who were aboard the ship, as well as memorabilia. Each poem is a powerful reminder of love and loss. The other horizon is Hiroshima, and is described in the second part of this collection. She presents stories of the morning of the bombing, the cloud, of children affected including Sadako, and memorabilia.

"Soon four years old! A big boy!
Shinichi Tetsutani
played that morning,
riding his red tricycle.

When his parents found him,
he was still gripping the
handlebar. He was so proud
of his red tricycle.

Shin-chan, they called him.
They buried him in the garden,
and with him, they buried
his red tricycle.

He had called it his friend.

Finally, in the third part, Ms. Lowry writes about the post-war years and her family's return to Tokyo, where her father was a doctor. She shares memories of life there, and tells the story of a schoolyard, the children there, and one boy she would meet much later in life, when both were living in the United States.

The poems reflect suffering and promise, are written in a variety of forms, and offer a reminder that by learning from past experiences we can make our world a more peaceful and empathetic place. Kenard Pak's graphite artwork is emotional, historical, and reflective of the remarkable words penned by Ms. Lowry. An author's note is touching and revelatory. A bibliography is included.


Friday, April 3, 2020

Construction People. Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Ellen Shi. Wordsong, Penguin Random House. 2020. $23.99 ages 8 and up

"We lay pipes
Straight and round.
Inside. Outside.
Up and down.

From the basement
To the top.
We plumb, plumb, plumb.
We never stop.

               - Charles Gigna"

It is apparent that teachers and their students will not be spending futher time in the classroom this year. It is an unprecedented situation for each and every person around the world. Perhaps some of the books that I will continue sharing with you daily will find a place in your home, your library or your classroom when life returns to our new normal. Be safe, stay in, and stay healthy.

Shown above are the opening two verses of Charles Gigna's excellent description of the many tasks plumbers perform while being a part of a huge construction project. As with each of the workers included in this fine book, new buildings would not be possible without their professional expertise and necessary hard work.

Each of the fourteen poems written describe the work that so carefully takes place, from first day to last, when building a skyscraper. Rebecca Kai Dotlich starts the reading with a pertinent question:
"What Will I Become?"

"A skeleton of rods and steel,
built by muscle and brain -
through rain, wind, and snow

          I will rise."

Each new poem, written in various forms and by notable poets, is shown on a double-page spread and grants readers a detailed look at the work it takes to bring this new building to completion. From the architect's vision and planning, to the many skilled laborers whose work goes into the construction, readers are able to follow along and watch it rise. Everyone has an important role to play.

The writing is filled with rhyme, rhythm, and appealing and descriptive language. The illustrations spread across each new turn of the page provide detailed context for the jobs required. The last image shows the architect and her daughter admiring the building that began at her desk many months ago. What a sense of accomplishment!

The final poem by Ms. Dotlich is inspired, and voiced by the building itself - now that it knows the answer to the question it first asked.

"Majestic with steel spine;

once known

                 as blueprint

now part of a


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Dictionary For a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z, written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, with illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini. Carolrhoda Books, Thomas Allen & Son. 2020. $26.99 ages 10 and up

"Pink light
winks through
blue curtains,

house silent,
save Mama's
hacking -

so I leap up,
my sister."

That is the beginning of a poem called Compassion. It continues the story of a young girl and her sister comforting their mother and wishing her well before the two head to the bus on their own. At the bottom of the page we are told the poem is an aubade: a morning song.  The facing page features a quote from Julian Lester (This Strange New Feeling: Three Love Stories from Black History). It is followed by a note from Irene that speaks to the meaning of compassion for her, and ends with the following;

"Compassion needn't be a grand gesture. In fact, it is often
the smallest moments of connection that carry us through
tough times."

Further to that, there is a prompt for readers to TRY IT! She suggests looking around to find someone you can help with something. Then, do it!

What a rare, and lovely dictionary this is. It begins with an abecedarian written by both authors that clearly states the premise for this new collaboration. They then move forward with 48 words described in quotes, prompts, meaningful remembrances, and a wide variety of poetic forms. They range from that first abecedarian to villanelle. Each is described in a concise caption. Both poets pen personal stories that relate to the word being considered. Their encouragement to try something new is accessible to their audience in both word and deed.

Reading this book more than a few times makes me hopeful for the future - something we sure need now more than ever. The language is inspirational, the suggestions meant to improve our communities and make a connection with the people who live in them. Most letters suggest two words, some just one, and a few more than two. Each is meaningful and worthy of being here.

The final poem has an abundance of meaning for these trying times:

"The Etymology of Progress

After gathering these words,
we discover
our dictionary is endless!
What makes the world
a zinger
is remembering
we're all in this


Mehrdokht Amini's mixed media artwork is wonderful, adding much to the tone of the book. Back matter is extensive. There you will find an author's note, a list of books, poems, and speech referenced, an extensive list of books for further reading, a list of poetry resources for readers wanting to know more, an alphabetized index of poetic forms, and a gratitude list.

It will be on my bedside table for a long while. Bravo!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

What To Do With A String, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by C. F. Payne. Creative Editions, Raincoast. 2019. $26.99 ages 3 and up

"You can hang up
a hammock
in the hold of a boat.

Or pull up a sail
so the boat stays afloat.

Of if there's a gale.
hitch a ride on a whale."

In this follow-up to What To Do With a Box? (2016), Jane Yolen considers the many things you can do with a piece of string - large or small. In doing so, she sparks imagination in her readers and encourages them to think about the many ways that strings come in handy.

It is a terrific book to share when asking kids to use their imagination while thinking about everyday things they might encounter. Who knows where it might lead for classroom writing, or for penning poems of their own?

The format is similar to the first one ... a new idea from this prolific author, a rhyming text. This time, however, the illustrator is new to the collaboration. That being said, C.F. Payne does a spirited job of making the author's words come to life. Filled with exuberance and detail in form and action, kids will very much enjoy seeing the many ways a string can be used.   

                                         LET'S CELEBRATE!