by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Whenever I do a column centered around a theme, like a holiday or a season of the year, instead of focusing on a specific author, I am confronted with reams of truly awful poetry written for children. Writing down to kids happens in far too much of kidlit and poetry.
Even the committee for the ALA’s prestigious Newbery Medal, given for the best in children’s literature since 1922, has come under criticism from children’s literary expert Anita Silvey, in a 2008 School Library Journal article, for choosing books “too difficult” for children to read.
I believe she failed to take into account how most children are first exposed to books. Parents and teachers read books to them. I was very fortunate that my book-loving mother read all kinds and levels of books to me. Her favorite author was Charles Dickens, so I heard A Christmas Carol every December of my childhood, and she read all of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop to me when I had the measles at age eight. Did I understand every word? Of course not, but I could understand enough to be enthralled. Richard Burton often said he got his love of words from his father, who started reading Shakespeare and the Bible to him when he was still in the cradle.
Once children fall in love with hearing stories, they start wanting to read the storybooks for themselves. My favorite book of all remains The Wind in the Willows. This kidlit classic has a vocabulary that’s definitely on the level of a well-read adult – no easy read for children. Yet it is still in print 110 years after it was first published, in editions illustrated by a number of notable artists, a testament to the enduring appeal of Mole and Ratty, Mr. Toad and Badger.
If words become classified as “preschool through first grade” words, or “middle school” vocabulary, then writers start limiting the words in their books aimed at young readers to get them published. I still remember the first time I read the word “azure” in Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, and the word “spoor” in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core. The context made “azure” clear to me, but I had to look up “spoor.” They are lovely words, and I would be the poorer if I had never learned them.
So I was delighted when seeking a subject for this week’s post to discover the works of Joyce Sidman (1956 – ). She writes both prose and poetry for children, and sometimes for adults. Her poems have been dubbed “accessible,” but she uses words like collossal, ubiquitous and porcupette which probably are new to her audience. Porcupette was certainly new to me – it’s the name for a baby porcupine.
As she explains it, “As soon as I found out that baby porcupines were called “porcupettes”, I knew I had to write a poem about them. They are brave souls, spending a lot of their time alone while their parents roam for food or sleep far above them in treetops.”
I am a baby porcupette.
My paws are small, my nose is wet.
And as I nurse against my mom,
we mew and coo a soft duet.
I am a baby porcupette.
I cannot climb up branches yet.
While mom sleeps in the trees, I hide
beneath a log till sun has set.
I am a baby porcupette.
I nibble in the nighttime wet:
a sprig of leaves, a tuft of grass
in hidden spots I won’t forget.
I am a baby porcupette
My fur is soft, my eyes are jet.
But I can deal with any threat:
I raise my quills
This poem seems very simple, but she’s using imagery like “nightime wet,” “a sprig of leaves” and “I raise my quills and pirouette.”
“Porcupette” from Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, © 2010 by Joyce Sidman – Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Sidman often writes about nature, especially animals in the wild. Her questions about what the crow is doing and thinking make you wonder just what this crow is really up to. These birds in a group are “a murder of crows” – a sinister name indeed.
A single crow against the sky:
where do you wing your way, and why?
What message do you cry out shrill
to treetops cloaked in autumn’s chill?
With coal-black eyes and strutting feet,
what private councils will you greet?
What secret orders were you given?
What deeds to do? What plots to thicken?
What grand, colossal, crow-filled schemes
take shape in your collective dreams?
“Crow” from Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, © 2010 Joyce Sidman – Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Joyce Sidman was born on June 4, 1956, in Connecticut, and grew up there. She earned a BA in German at Wesleyan University. Sidman teaches poetry writing to schoolchildren, and says this about herself:
“I live in Wayzata, Minnesota, with my husband and our dog, Watson, whom we
both dote on beyond reason. Minnesota is a good place to live, because it has lots
of lakes and trees, and gets so cold in the winter that you can drive on the ice (I’ve
only done it once).
My husband and I have two sons. They are grown up now, and always doing
interesting things. I learn as much from them as I ever learned in school. Other
facts: I love to take walks and notice things, details that often end up in my poems.
I love talking to kids, because they are honest and funny. I love sunny mornings, which make me feel as though I can do anything. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I always dreamed of: creating books.”
Her collections of poems for children include her Newbery Honor Book Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, and two Caldecott Honor Books, Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors.
There many poems about the seasons, but I can’t recall any other poem which views the changing of the seasons as a tiny war carried out by plant troops against an unnamed foe.
The Season’s Campaign
We burst forth,
crisp green squads
bristling with spears.
We encircle the pond.
Brown velvet plumes
bob jauntily. On command,
our slim, waving arrows
rush toward the sun.
All red-winged generals
desert us. Courage
clumps and fluffs
like bursting pillows.
Our feet are full of ice.
Brown bones rattle in the wind.
Sleeping, we dream of
seed-scouts, sent on ahead.
“The Season’s Campaign” from Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, © 2005 by Joyce Sidman – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
each note dropping
like a cherry
into my ear.
the maples feathery,
sprouts in rhubarb spears;
Red squirms on the road
Sidman says her favorite color is the soft green of early spring.
“Spring” from Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, © 2009 Joyce Sidman – Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
If there’s a dog in your family, this poem will be very familiar to you.
Dog in Bed
Nose tucked under tail,
you are a warm, furred planet
centered in my bed.
All night I orbit, tangle-limbed,
in the slim space
allotted to me.
If I accidentally
bump you from sleep,
you shift, groan,
drape your chin on my hip.
O, that languid, movie-star drape!
I can never resist it.
Digging my fingers into your fur,
How do you dream?
What do you adore?
Why should your black silk ears
feel like happiness?
This is how it is with love.
it steps in gently,
and takes up as much space
as you will give it.
“Dog in Bed” from The World According to Dog, © 2003 by Joyce Sidman – Houghton Mifflin
A lot of people seem to look down on “children’s books” as somehow easier to write than books for adults, but I think writing an outstanding book for children is at least as challenging as producing the Great American Novel.
Joyce Sidman’s poems are fun to read at any age, one of the best reasons I know to pick up a book and read to kids.
Poetry for Adults
- Like the Air, Finishing Line Press 1999
- Just Us Two: Poems about Animal Dads – Illustrator Susan Swan, Millbrook Press 2000
- Eureka!: Poems about Inventors – Illustrator K. Bennett Chavez, Millbrook Press 2002
- The World According to Dog: Poems and Teen Voices – Illustrator Doug Mindel, Houghton Mifflin 2003
- Song of the Water Boatman: Pond Poems – Illustrator Beckie Prange, Houghton Mifflin 2004
- Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry – Illustrator Michelle Berg, Houghton Mifflin 2006
- Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow – Illustrator Beth Krommes, Houghton Mifflin 2006
- This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness – Illustrator Pamela Zagarensky, Houghton Mifflin 2007
- Red Sings From Treetops: A Year in Colors – Illustrator Pamela Zagarensky, Houghton Mifflin 2009
- Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night – Illustrator Rick Allen, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010
- Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors – Illustrator Beckie Prange, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children 2010
- Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature – Illustrator Beth Krommes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011
- Boy reading big books
- Baby porcupine
- American Crow in flight, photo by Ian Barker
- Joyce Sidman with Watson, photo by Katherine Warde
- Plants at the edge of a pond
- Dog hogging the bed
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud