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Review of the Day: Inside Out – Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work

Inside Out: Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work
Edited by JonArno Lawson
Walker Books
ISBN: 978-1-4063-0814-3
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

Poetry Friday!  Go to The Well-Read Child for the round-up.

Recently a couple children’s literary bloggers decided to celebrate all things Canadian in a grand showing of literature born via our neighbor to the north. At the time I decided to celebrate graphic novelist Kean Soo and I do not regret the choice. Yet thinking back on it, if I’d had another chance, I might have also picked out a poet by the name of JonArno Lawson. Mr. Lawson is one of those children’s poets that works in a quietly beautiful way. His poems tend to be small delicate things. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of perusing his The Man in the Moon-Fixer’s Mask will know what I’m talking about. I knew he could write verse. What I didn’t know was that he could also cajole a group of 23 other poets into pinpointing exactly why it is they write the poems they do. In Inside Out, Lawson has poets as familiar as Jack Prelutsky or as unfamiliar to Americans like myself as Souvankham Thammavongsa submit one poem and then explain why they wrote it or how it came into being. The result is a brilliant cross-section of style, levels, and reasons why people write poetry for children and what both they and their audiences get out of the experience.

In his Preface, Jonarno Lawson asks, “How does a poem work? No one seems to know, really, but in the commentaries, some very interesting insights into the making of certain poems are offered by those who wrote them.” How better to answer the question of what makes a poem work then to get the poets themselves to fess up? The variation is the really the lure of the entire enterprise. Some authors indulge in lengthy explanations and stories. Others are tight-lipped and succinct. Carol Ann Duffy’s explanation is less than two paragraphs while Sally Farrell Odgers prefers to use three pages. Many draw on interesting family stories while others delve into far more personal territory. That isn’t to say that Lawson’s request for poems and explanations meant that there wasn’t also a surprising amount of repetition though. I found it kind of cool that Philip Devos mentioned his poem’s “s” and “sh” sounds “which suggest the sound of water splashing”, while Jackie Kay mentioned her poem’s, “ ‘ssss’ sound, snake sound.” And then later Naomi Shihab Nye says that the ‘s’s’ in her poem, “create the hissing tide or sleep washing up on two kids in bed who don’t really want to go to sleep yet.” My favorite moments were when the authors would bring up aspects of sentences and sounds that you wouldn’t normally think of unless your occupation was of the poetic persuasion. Mr. Lawson himself discusses his poem “The Octopus and the Seahorse” and then says of the term “aquatic quasi-equestrian” that it contains the rare “kw” sound not once, not twice, but three times.

The look of the entire book reminded me of nothing so much as a good old-fashioned zine. Remember those packets of poems and pen lines teens used to put out before the internet took over their lives? The design of this particular book alternates between white pages with blue illustration and poems in black text and blue pages with white typed words explaining why they wrote this or that. On top of all this, Lawson has illustrated around the poems in a freehand style that, in a way, reminded me of Calef Brown’s work. At first it struck me as a kind of drawn stream of consciousness, but after a while I picked up on the fact that the pictures would sometimes contain information that you’d read in the author’s explanation of the poem.

Everyone will have their favorite poems in this collection, I suppose. Mine was “Colours Crackle, Colours Roar,” by Pat Mora. Her attempt in the poem is to give colors tangible descriptions. Things like “Black crackles like noisy grackles,” and “Verde rustles leaf-secrets, swish, swish.” That’s great stuff. This book is particularly ideal for anyone teaching a class of kids or teens about poetry. The explanations that come with the poems are always interesting, and if the kids don’t like one then they can look about and find another that’s more their style. You could easily turn this into an assignment where a kid takes a poem of their own and explains why they wrote it and what inspired them. All in all, this is just a wonderful collection. Great, grand stuff.

Blog Reviews:
Educating Alice

Other Reviews: 
Write Away

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. cloudscome says:

    This sounds like a good one for our library. I can’t wait to read it myself. Thanks!

  2. laurasalas says:

    This sounds like a fantastic book. I love reading about the poetic process. Thanks!

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    JonArno also has another collection of poetry out here: Black Stars in a White Night. And another book, A Voweller’s Bestiary, is out in May.