Children's verse that celebrates playful wonderment
These two posthumously released collections recall pleasures for the child in each of us.
Poetry surprises. Perhaps not children as often, who can find a distant planet in the glowing, fiery-skinned orb of a peach, or Cinderella's glass slipper in the translucent, pointy-toed body of a creeping snail. But for those of us less accustomed to seeing the world through the lens of our imagination, poetry surprises.
And delights, I should add, as two new collections of poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks's Bronzeville Boys and Girls and Valerie Worth's Animal Poems, so readily demonstrate.
"Bronzeville Boys and Girls" was initially released in 1956. This 2007 reissue, published after Brooks's passing, not only introduces a new generation of readers to her poetic observations and deft use of language, it also offers up 40 pages of lush illustrations, newly imagined by Caldecott Honor artist Faith Ringgold.
Although "Bronzeville Boys and Girls" has an urban setting in Brooks's own Chicago neighborhood, what is so appealing about this anthology of 34 poems is the way it captures childhood's universal moments, from curiosity over a new neighbor to waiting for a seed to sprout.
Brooks's strength as a poet lies in her ability to place these simple moments in a larger social, cultural, and, at times, even philosophical context.
Her poem about an outdoor tea party, for example, moves from "Pink cakes, and nuts and bon-bons on/ A tiny, shiny tray" to "It's out within the weather,/ Beneath the clouds and sun./ And pausing ants have peeked upon/ As birds and God have done."
And when little Ella leaves her oatmeal to chase winter clouds, "Mother-dear went following/ But reprimand was mild./ She knew that clouds taste better than/ Oats to a little child."
Although Brooks's poems do tackle some of the problems of the inner city – poverty being the most prominent example – her lively, inventive language, in combination with the warmth of Ringgold's illustrations, counterbalances any occasional heaviness. Instead, this collection feels like a celebration not only of a time and a place, but also of childhood itself, when big news can make a kid "peacock up and down" and a star is not a star but "a dancy little thing."
Valerie Worth's "Animal Poems," also released posthumously and illustrated by another Caldecott Honor winner, cut-paper artist Steve Jenkins, brings a similar creative observation to the animal kingdom.
Don't be fooled by the picture-book format of this 23-poem masterpiece. Worth's poetry is nuanced, sophisticated, beautiful – and often profound. Her bat, "cleaves to/ The cave roof / Like a grim/ Flake of flint,/ Or flings out/ Like a surly/ Stone thrown/ After the sun."
While her spider weaves a web "to wait out/ Her purpose of flies;/ But at dawn, when/ It hangs spangled/ With silver water, frail/ Crystals of wet light/ Caught so neatly and/ Needlessly, it is not/ Her web, but ours."
Indeed, inventiveness in this collection doesn't just infuse the poet's language; it extends even into the subject matter itself. Sure, these are all poems about animals. But Worth's poem about a hummingbird reaches back to touch on the origins of creation. And her poetic commentary on the cockroach reveals her own particular aversion, as she writes that it "plots to stalk/ And startle me better –/ Today I dart from/ Behind the sugar, tomorrow/ I skulk in her sneaker/ And twiddle her toes ... "
Suitable for early readers who still enjoy being read to, this collection seems an even better choice for the middle-to-late elementary crowd who, when forced to slow down and savor Worth's eye-opening descriptions, may be inspired to think about their own writing in new ways.
Even the generous cut-paper illustrations call for pause. There's the groundhog, complete with bristly whiskers and two nibbling front teeth, who is suitably rumpled after his long winter's nap. And the jellyfish, whose pale peach and purple tentacles both beckon and say "stay away."
Whether it's the art that captivates, or the language – or, as in the case of this reader, both – "Bronzeville Boys and Girls" and "Animal Poems" are worthy additions to any bookshelf. They're the kinds of collections that are best appreciated together, and again and again – by kids, of course, but by adults, too.
Jenny Sawyer regularly reviews children's books for the Monitor.