Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat
Edited by Nikki Giovanni
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.)
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now
Credit Sourcebooks Jabberwocky with knowing a good thing when they see it. When Poetry Speaks to Children came out it was a brilliant collection of poems for kids with an accompanying CD of poets, both alive and deceased, reading their poetry straight out. And in this day and age if you put out a book of poems for kids then it shouldn’t be that much more difficult to put out a book of hip hop and rap as well. Or, as the new collection Hip Hop Speaks to Children calls it, “poetry with a beat.” Collected by the eminently skilled and knowledgeable Nikki Giovanni (activist, poet, multi-award winner, etc.) the book establishes a rock solid connection for kids between the rhythms they hear on their radios and MP3 players and the poetry they encounter in books. Drawing upon both history and contemporary stars (and with an accompanying CD to boot), Giovanni’s collection is the best book of its kind for a younger readership/listenership at this time.
In the introduction to this book “Stories in Rhythm”, Nikki Giovanni writes, “Thirty years ago, kids invented a new sound. They took old music, added their own new poetry, and found a way to have their creative voices heard. The Hip Hop Nation was born, sharing a courageous story of their hopes and promise with the world. And is the world evermore glad.” Right from the start Nikki Giovanni is looking parents, librarians, teachers, and other skeptical adults in the eye and saying that this is important. This matters. This is art. The introduction sweeps through the African and African-American history that led to contemporary Hip Hop. Everything from caps to the Harlem Renaissance to hamboning. Contemporary rap videos with their gold chains and loose ladies? Forget ‘em. That’s not the real stuff. The raps found in this book have history, humor, and a delicious awareness of the feel of a word. 51 poems/speeches/raps find their way into this collection with an accompanying CD of some of the hip hop, and an in-depth series of small biographies of all the performers.
Watch someone page through the book and make note of their little reactions. How they offer a little “Hmft!” of surprise when they hit the Kanye West selection (a pity THAT’s not on the CD). If they’re a librarian they might coo to finally get to hear Calef Brown (an author/illustrator of whom I’m particularly fond) laying down a track to “Funky Snowman”. And certainly kids of my generation will do a double take when they get to the selection from “Rapper’s Delight”. Plucking out "selections" is how the book gets around a lot of the lines in some songs that might be seen as not entirely kid-friendly. But I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’s gonna object to “i dont mean to brag i dont mean to boast / but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast.” The beauty of the selection is how it works in contemporary names with historical ones. You might turn the page and find yourself getting down to a little Mos Def right before dwelling on some Langston Hughes. It’s not just hip hop artists or poets of the past either. There are people like contemporary poet and children’s author Charles R. Smith whole tackles his own poem “Allow Me to Introduce Myself” on the CD. And I was relieved to find that Ms. Giovanni includes a couple of her own near the end as well.
The selections in here are great too. I’ve heard artist Ashley Bryan do Eloise Greenfield’s “Things” and it’s a poem that rings resoundingly in the ear. A great way to begin any collection, I can tell you. Then to follow it directly up with Jacqueline Woodson’s “Hip Hop Rules the World”, a poem that links the beat with the fact that it really IS poetry, that’s keen. Really, the pairings here can be inspired. Who else would think to put Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” alongside Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”. Both discuss our mortality, one as a disregard for life and one as a full-throttle objection against death. No one has come up with a truly great Harlem Renaissance compendium for children yet, but if they did they might want to take a page out of Hip Hope Speaks to Children so as to determine which selections to choose.
The selected performers are ideal and really there was only one gap that I could see. I was a little surprised not to see any poems or raps by Sonia Sanchez in this book, truth be told. Hip Hop certainly owes as much to Ms. Sanchez’s raw energy and eclectic beats as it does to any Young MC or Tribe Called Quest. Particularly when you take into account Ms. Giovanni’s history with Sanchez, it seems a funny omission in an otherwise encompassing collection. Other missing raps are fine by me. I half-wondered when picking this book up for the first time whether or not Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” would make the cut. Then I remembered the line about the girl in his car moving her hand slowly up his thigh and… riiiiight.
One of the highpoints of any Sourcebooks’ title is the accompanying CD. The audible element to the book is integral to the enjoyment. Literature can be an entirely visual experience but poetry, rhyme, and rhythm are best enjoyed when the ears get in on the action as well. The book will say what the track selection is for each poem featured on the disc, which is ideal for both teachers and kid readers alike.
I’ve discussed books by this company with other librarians in the past and we’ve all agreed that the only problem with Sourcebooks’ titles are the illustrations. They’re serviceable, no doubt. Get the job done, they do. But while the illustrators they got for this book are perfectly nice, they don’t match the text. You may be reading the sharpest minds and pens of the 20th and 21st centuries, but they are paired with pictures that are merely nice, not extraordinary. I don’t blame the artists necessarily because maybe this isn’t indicative of their best work. The problem is that it should be. For future publications I do hope the Sourcebooks put as much effort into the art as the poetry/raps. The pictures here are more reminiscent of an illustrated elementary school Reading textbook than a groundbreaking book for kids.
As rap and hip hop slowly gains acceptance into the school and reading curriculum (I don’t think it hurts matters any that the generations that grew up with it is now teaching our children) we need more books that kids can relate to. There are high school teachers sharing Tupac’s poems with the students, which is certainly a nice enough start. But I think that it will be books like these that make the most impact in schools and at home. This is a great collection, woven together by an expert, and crafted with the best possible accompanying CD. Purchase of this book isn’t optional. It’s obligatory. And I, for one, am looking forward to more.
On shelves now.
Afterword: I don’t usually get to include one of these, but this review actually ran on Amazon before appearing on this blog. Editorial Director Todd Stocke answered some of the questions that come up in this review. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at what he had to say (with his permission, of course):
"I thought you might be interested in a few ‘behind the scenes’ tidbits on the book. Among the items trimmed from the collection late in the game was indeed Parents Just Don’t Understand. It’s just aimed at an audience a little too old for the book. Pity. Likewise, you might note that the selection from Rapper’s Delight is a nice excerpt that trims around less appropriate language, and thank heavens there was that wonderful clean section, because it would’ve been a tragedy not to include it. And we were this close to being able to include Kanye’s Hey Mama on the disc, but ultimately couldn’t manage the rights clearances (after six months of trying). There’s a reason these kinds of projects aren’t done by every publisher – they’re ridiculously complex and expensive on the rights front. Finally, Sonia Sanchez. God bless Sonia Sanchez. Ultimately Nikki didn’t select anything by Sonia for this collection, though it was certainly under consideration. At Sourcebooks, we’ve been working for 2 years now on developing the right, appropriately revolutionary book/CD for Sonia and I do hope to be able to make that happen. That woman is a wonder."
Other Blog Reviews: Dolce Bellezza, The Children’s Book Review, Shelf Elf, Becky’s Book Reviews, A Year of Reading, Practically Paradise, Bowllan’s Blog, HipWriterMama, Biblio File, The Friendly Book Nook, OMS Book Blog, Please Come Flying, My Readable Feast, Cafe of Dreams, and Bees Knees Reads
Other Web Reviews: Publishers Weekly and Blog Critics
Poetry Friday, y’all. Picture Book of the Day has the round-up.
Listen to Nikki Giovanni discussing the title on NPR.
You can hear her read The Girls in the Circle here.
A Tribe Called Quest fans will enjoy their Ham ‘n Eggs here.
And finally, here’s a YouTube vid of her talking about this book.