Fun Fact: The American Library Association does not currently give an award specifically to great works of children’s book poetry. Is not that strange? When I first discovered this to be true, I was perplexed. I’ve always been a bit of a rube when it comes to the poetic form. Placing stresses on syllables and knowing what constitutes a sestina and all that. Of course even without its own award specifically, poetry can win the Newbery or the Caldecott. Yet too often when it happens it’s in the form of a verse novel or its sort of pooh-poohed for its win. Remember when Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery and folks were arguing that it was the first picture book to do so since A Visit to William’s Blake’s Inn couldn’t possibly be considered a picture book because it was poetry? None of this is to say that poetry doesn’t win Newberys (as recently as 2011 Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman won an Honor) but aside from the month of April (Poetry Month a.k.a. the only time the 811 section of the public library is sucked dry) poetry doesn’t get a lot of attention.
So rather than relegate all poetry discussions to April, let us today celebrate some of the lovelier works of poetry out for kids this year. Because we lucked out, folks. 2016 was a great year for verse:
2016 Poetry Books for Kids
Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, ill. Toshikado Hajiri, translations by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
No surprises here. If you know me then you know I’m gaga for this title. For the purposes of today’s list, however, let’s just zero in on Kaneko’s own poetry. Cynical beast that I am, I would sooner eat my own tongue than use a tired phrase like “childlike wonder” to describe something. And yet . . . I’m stuck. Honestly there’s no other way to adequately convey to you what Kaneko has done so perfectly with this book. Come for the biography and history lesson. Stay for the incomparable poems.
I’m not entirely certain that I can express in words how deeply satisfying it’s been to see this book get as much love and attention as it has, so far. Already its appeared on Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best, it’s been a Kirkus Prize Finalist, it was on the NCTE Notable Poetry List, and New York Public Library listed it on their Best Books for Kids. I would have liked to add an Image Award nomination in there as well, but you don’t always get what you want. Regardless, I maintain my position that this is a serious Newbery contender. Even if it misses out during the January award season, there is comfort in knowing that folks are finding it. Very satisfying.
Grumbles From the Town: Mother-Goose Voices With a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich, ill. Angela Matteson
It’s been promoted as a writing prompt book, but I’d argue that the poetry in this collection stands on its own two feet as well. Yolen and Dotlich take classic nursery rhymes and twist them. We’ve all seen that kind of thing before, but I like how they’ve twisted them. A passing familiarity with the original poetry a good idea, though they’ve covered their bases and included that information in the back of the book as well. Good original fun all around.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, ill. Francis Vallejo
So far it’s won the only major award (aside from the Kirkus prize) to be released so far for a 2016 title. Jazz Day took home the gold when it won in the picture book category of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And, granted, I was on that committee, but I wasn’t the only one there. It’s such an amazing book, and aside from poetry it’s hard to slot it into any one category. Fiction or nonfiction? You be the judge.
Miss Muffet, Or What Came After by Marilyn Singer, ill. David Litchfield
It’s sort of epic. From one single short little nursery rhyme, Singer spins out this grandiose tale of crushed hopes, impossible dreams, and overcoming arachnophobia. Since it’s a story told in rhyme I’m sort of cheating, putting it on this poetry list. Maybe it’s more school play than poetry book. I say, why not be both?
Now this book has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, so there is some justice in this world. When I first read the description I wasn’t entirely certain how it would work. Imagine the daunting task of telling Ezra Jack Keats’ story using his own illustration style. Imagine too the difficulty that comes with using poetry and verse to tell the details of his story. Pinkney’s done poetry of one sort or another before, but I dare say this is her strongest work to date in that style.
Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks by Skila Brown, ill. Bob Kolar
From the start I liked the poems (they were smart) but since it was about real sharks I pondered that question every children’s librarian knows so well: how would it fly with kids? Well, I donated a copy to my kid’s daycare and found, to my infinite delight, that the kids in that class were CRAZY about it. Every day when I went to pick my daughter up, she and the other kids would start telling me shark facts. You’ve gotta understand that these were four-year-olds telling me this stuff. If they get such a kick out of the book (and they do) imagine how the older kids might feel!
A Toucan Can, Can You? by Danny Adlerman, ill. Various
It’s baaaaack. Yeah, this little self-published gem keeps cropping up on my lists. Someone recently asked me where they could purchase it, since it’s not available through the usual streams. I think you can get it here, in case you’re curious. And why should you be curious? Because it takes that old How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck rhyme, expands it, and then gets seriously great illustrators to contribute. A lovely book.
Somo Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta, ill. Elisa Amado
Because, to be perfectly frank, your shelves aren’t exactly exploding with books about refugee children from South America. That said, it’s easy to include books on lists of this sort because their intentions are good. It’s another thing entirely when the book itself actually is good. Argueta is an old hand at this. You can trust him to do a fantastic job, and this book is simultaneously necessary and expertly done. There’s a reason I put it on my bilingual book list as well.
Spinach Dip Pancakes by Kevin Kammeraad, ill. Danny Adlerman, Kim Adlerman, Chris Fox, Alynn Guerra, Justin Haveman, Ryan Hipp, Stephanie Kammeraad, Carlos Kammeraad, Maria Kammeraad, Steve Kammeraad, Linda Kammeraad, Laurie Keller, Scott Mack, Ruth McNally Barshaw, Carolyn Stich, Joel Tanis, Corey Van Duinen, Aaron Zenz, & Rachel Zylstra
This book bears not a small number of similarities to the aforementioned Toucan Can book. The difference, however, is that these are all original little tiny poems put into a book illustrated by a huge range of different illustrators. The poems are funny and original and the art eclectic, weird, wise and wonderful. You can also buy a CD of performances of the poems (or just listed to the downloads at: https://kevinkammeraadandfriends.bandcamp.com/album/spinach-dip-pancakes). Want a taste? Then I am happy to premiere a video that is accompanying this book. The video cleverly brings to life the poem “Game”. I think you’ll get a kick out of it. And then be unable to remove it from your brain (good earworm, this).
Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems by Bob Raczka
My year is not complete unless I am able to work a Raczka poetry collection onto a list. I’m very partial to this one. It’s a bit graphic design-y and a bit clever as all get out. Here’s my favorite poem of the lot:
Poetry is about taking away the words you don’t need
poetry is taking away words you don’t need
poetry is words you need
poetry is words
When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano, ill. Julie Morstad
I think I broke more than a few hearts when I told people that Morstad’s Canadian status meant the book was ineligible for a Caldecott. At least you can take comfort in the fact that the poetry is sublime. I think we’ve all seen our fair share of seasonal poems. They’re not an original idea, yet Fogliano makes them seem new. This collection actually bears much in common with the poetry of the aforementioned Misuzu Kaneko. I think she would have liked it.
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Jeffery Boston Weatherford
It’s poetry and a kind of verse novel as well. I figured I should include one in today’s list, though I’d argue that the verse here serves the poems better than the storyline. There is a storyline, of course, but I like the poetry for its own sake. My favorite in the book? The one about Lena Horne. I had no idea the personal sacrifices she made during WWII. There’s a picture book bio coming out about her in 2017, by the way. Looks like I’ll need to know more.
Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:
December 1 – Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Adaptations
December 3 – Nursery Rhymes
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – Calde-Nots
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Picture Books
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – International Imports
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Older Picture Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Graphic Novels
December 21 – Poetry
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Titles
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Novel Reprints
December 30 – Novels
December 31 – Picture Books