National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!
Edited by J. Patrick Lewis
On shelves now
Animals make for good poetry. That’s just common sense. When humans get misty eyed and start thinking their great grand thoughts, they tend to be inspired by some form of nature. Naturally, some animals in particular are replete with awe-inspiring tendencies. Bald eagles, say. So where does that put your average hamster or flamingo? Not all animals are built to accompany great grand thoughts after all. Some of them are best suited to small, sly, clever verses instead. Taken as a whole, there are probably more animal poems in the world than a person could imagine. That’s why it’s rather clever of J. Patrick Lewis to pair with National Geographic’s talented photography department to bring us a gorgeously designed book of animal poems. You name the animal, the man has found (or perhaps solicited?) a poem to fit. Containing everything from limericks to haiku, this collection of two hundred poems and who knows how many photos is a visual feast for eye and ear alike.
“If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the chicken hatching,” reads the first poem in this book. It’s “The Egg” by Jack Prelutsky and it starts off National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry‘s “Welcome to the World” section. Split into eight different sections, the book categorizes its contents not by genus or species but by only the grandest of terms. There are “the big ones”, “the little ones”, “the winged ones”, “the water ones”, “the strange ones”, “the noisy ones”, and “the quiet ones”. Each poem is accompanied by a photograph, and sometimes the photograph is accompanied by more than one poem. There are verses poignant and funny, thought provoking and wild. Finally, at the end of the book, there is a section on “writing poems about animals” that aids kids by giving them a range of different forms to try. This is followed by a two-page spread of resources and four indexes at the end, one by title, one by poet, one by first line, and one by subject.
What is unclear to me is the ratio of poems Lewis knew about and found verses the poems he went out and asked for. I noticed quite a few contemporary children’s poets between these pages. Janet S. Wong, Jane Yolen, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Michael J. Rosen, Bobbi Katz, Betsy Franco, etc. And I could not help but notice that those contemporary poets tended to write for some of the more difficult animals. The anemone, the blue jay, or the raccoon, for example. Here’s another question for you: Which came first, the photograph or the poem? Did Mr. Lewis plow through untold hundreds of National Geographic photos, old and new, cull the best and then find the poems, or did he find the poems first and then match the photos to fit? Certainly some of the National Geographic’s better known images are in this book (the picture of the flamingoes standing in the shape of a flamingo, for example). Sadly no note exists in this book telling us what Mr. Lewis’s process was.
There is a form to the chapters of this book but not so much form within the chapters. You might wonder at this at first, but since it’s easy enough to locate your favorite critter by using the subject index at the end of the book, it’s understandable why you might want to take the advice Mr. J. Patrick Lewis proffers at the beginning of the collection and know that “This book is not for reading straight through.” You dip in and find old favorites and new with ease. One librarian commented to me her surprise that the tiger poem in this book wasn’t William Blake’s “The Tyger”. True enough, but the anonymous poem with its classic limerick about the lady from Niger is rather well known within its own right. I was also amused in a very fifth grade boy kind of way by Michael J. Rosen’s blue-footed booby poem. You’ll have to see it for yourself to understand why.
There are a couple times when the poem paired to the photo is a bit misleading or confusing. For example, for the picture of a butterfly still within its chrysalis, the poem is instead about a cocoon. I suppose cocoons are significantly less impressive photography-wise than chrysalises, but I’ve little doubt that kids will find the terms interchangeable now. Similarly there’s a poem about a sea horse that is inexplicably paired with an impressive but very different image of a weedy sea dragon. Credit where credit is due, each photograph is accompanied by a very small written description of its subject matter, but nine times out of ten the child reader will be relying on the poem to explain what they’re seeing. Probably because nine times out of ten that would be the right move.
I can only imagine the sheer amounts of blood, sweat and tears that went into the collection and design of the book itself. It has its little quirks here and there, but if you’re seeking a poetry book for kids that children would willingly pick up and flip through, even if they have hitherto professed to not like poetry in the slightest, this is your best bet. A gorgeous little number that has the occasional slip-up, it is nonetheless a magnificent collection and book that is well worth the space it takes up. Add a little natural wonder to your poetry shelves. Because if we’re talking about the best possible compliment to your eyes and ears alike, few have as many perks and grand moments as this.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- African Acrostics: A Word in Edgewise by Avis Harley
- Poetry for Young People: Animal Poems by John Hollander
- Birds of a Feather by Jane Yolen
Other Blog Reviews:
- A star from Kirkus
Be sure to watch J. Patrick Lewis reading the poem “Make the Earth Your Companion here: