I don’t know about kids in other parts of the country but in New York City kids get a particular assignment, usually around their second or third grade year. When the leaves have long since fallen but spring is still a long ways away we’ll get parents and children alike stomping into our libraries with specific requests: “I need a book on wetlands.” “Deserts”. “Arctic tundra”. “Do you have anything on woodlands?” I’m never entirely certain what to call these assignments. Searches for natural environments, perhaps? Whatever the case, our shelves begin to deplete and we search in vain for new titles to purchase for when the next round of requests pour in the following year. All this was in the back of my mind as I read Susan Blackby’s book of understated natural poems in Nest, Nook and Cranny. It’s a book that was accidentally shelved in my library system in the habitat and ecology section of my library, before someone noticed and reassigned it to the poetry section. It is indeed a series of poems, but I’m not so sure our kooky catalogers weren’t right in the first place. Teachers of the habitat assignments should consider using poems like Blackaby’s to bring to life the environments they are required to educate their students upon. With her words as an aid, kids won’t just the facts about a place. They’ll get the feel, the sounds, and the veritable smells as well. Here’s to poetry with a purpose then.
Desert, Grassland, Shoreline, Wetland, and Woodland. Meet five different habitats, home to an untold wealth of animals, bugs and variegated critters. In the “Before You Begin” section at the start, Ms. Blackaby freely acknowledges that the animals she ascribes to one environment or another sometimes mean bupkiss. “Thanks to accommodations or adaptations or both, some creatures can live anyplace.” That taken care of, she plunges into the poems. Using everything from villanelles to free verse, triolets to cinquains, Blackaby gives each habitat its own special feel. We read about a “dreamy home for beavers feeling dozy” or secluded places from “sandy strand to rocky scarp”. There are great lumbering bears emerging in the spring and coyotes that “hunt for jumpy prey” before becoming “jumpy prey” themselves. The end of the book contains a section of facts on different habitats and a Writing Poetry section that takes each poem and describes it at length.
Near the end of the book Blackaby explains that her poem about a bat is based on a Burmese poetic form called a “than-bauk”. She explains how it works and how in the third line “the second syllable rhymes with the third syllable in Line 2″. This is followed closely by a confession that “I cheated a little bit in line 3 by leaning on assonance and ignoring the word ending, which bends the rule without completely breaking it.” Blackaby’s fondness for assonance over rhyme was something I’d noticed long before I read this note of hers, but it was nice to hear her say it straight out. When I was a kid I was a very particular child with a definite sense of how poems worked. They rhymed. End of discussion. Over the years I’ve had to beat that belief out of myself, and for the most part I’ve been successful, but there are moments when the literal-minded eight-year-old that resides in my gut pops up again to declare with a surety worthy of a mini-Javert, “That doesn’t rhyme!” A lot of Blackaby’s poems don’t rhyme, and that’s okay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. She more off-putting to me, she may be rhyming along and then suddenly follow up the word “notion” with “oceans”. Again, that’s allowed. Still, there’s something about how close the almost-rhyme is that will incense a certain kind of child reader. Be wary and warned, then.
One of the things I like best about Blackaby’s notes at the end of the book is that she not only names the various poetic forms she uses, but also points out when a piece utilizes assonance, figurative language, similes, metaphors, sibilance, etc. On a first reading I didn’t notice many of these. Rather, I found myself gradually sinking into the beauty of the language itself. Though they must have been the devil to write, you have the distinct impression that the poet was having fun as she wrote this book. Few could write such fun lines as hawks, “slicing spirals in the sky” or to begin a poem with the term “Skinks sneak”.
Illustrator Jamie Hogan’s work looked vaguely familiar to me but it wasn’t until I read her little bio at the back of the book that bells started to ring. A couple of years ago Hogan did the illustrations for a different Charlesbridge title, Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. Like Nest, Nook and Cranny, Rickshaw Girl took a fictional story but included non-fiction illustrated elements. In the case of Blackaby’s title, Hogan includes black and white endpapers packed full of crabs, pinecones, snakes, and various flora and fauna. The pictures inside the book are rendered accurately without even so much as a sniffle of anthropomorphism or cartoonish emotion. Hogan’s preferred method of madness is to render her images in pastels and charcoal pencils on Canson paper. The results are thick black lines and creatures where the texture of the paper itself pokes through the images. This is particularly effective when Hogan has created the dappled scales of a fish in a pond. She tones it down when she wants to be detailed though, as with a delicate hermit crab or fur of a bee. And if I don’t miss my guess, sometimes Hogan uses the paper to its best natural advantage, as when she creates an instant honeycomb by merely outlining the already existing hexagons of the paper.
Poetry for children enjoys a freedom that poetry for adults lack. Adults may enjoy the way that language trips off the tongue, but in the course of these pleasures they are rarely allowed to teach and inform through verse. In the realm of children’s literature, however, there’s a freedom. If a poet wanted to, they could cover any subject they wanted to and teach about it accordingly. Of course, it’s only the accomplished poets who strike the right balance between being instructive and being poetic. Susan Blackaby, with the help of artist Jamie Hogan, manages this difficult balance. Nest, Nook and Cranny is therefore a slim little title, but one that in some ways covers the subject of different natural environments better than many of the rote, dull, fact-filled tomes that line library shelves nationwide. A delightful collection, no matter if you shelve it in your environmental section or your poetic one.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy borrowed from library.
- Newbery Honor winner Kirby Larson interviews both Ms. Blackaby and Ms. Hogan over at her blog Kirby’s Lane.
- Check It Out interviewed just Ms. Blackaby.
- For additional fun, check out this review complete with activities for kids over at the SimplyScience Blog.