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He’s Actually Really Good at Rhyming

ImJustNoGoodAtRhyming

Chris Harris’ I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING AND OTHER NONSENSE FOR MISCHIEVOUS KIDS AND IMMATURE GROWN-UPS is a strong collection of funny poems.  Which might not be enough for Newbery consideration, but there’s a little more here. For one thing, the poems work together to create a sort of unified world of wordplay that’s larger than the individual pieces. Also, many of the poems have an extra level of complexity that adds levels to the humor, yet is still very accessible to young readers.  

 The title poem (p 2-3) is one example:

 It starts:  “I’m just no good at rhyming. / It makes me feel so bad. / I’m just no good at rhyming, / And that’s why I’m so blue.” That’s funny, tricky, and surprising.

 Then: “My teacher asked if I could find a word that rhymes with ‘hat.’ / It’s something that a dog might chase. / ‘Aha!’ I said. “A car!”  There are two more failed rhyme attempts after that one….Except:  His answer to number three (“A lizard!”) actually does rhyme with the question in number two (“…a word that rhymes with ‘wizard’ was mis-rhymed with ‘puppy’).  So there is a subtle rhyme that readers might spot, but the narrator misses it.

 The poem ends with a tricky variation: “I’m pretty good with meter, / And with spelling and with timing. / But I’ll never be a poet, / ‘Cause I just can’t rhyme words at all.” So it’s another funny mis-rhyme…plus a subtler added joke where he messes up the meter too (he claimed he was good at it; he’s not). The basic mis-rhyming premise would have been fine, but he plays with that concept in ingenious ways.  That’s one example of the kind of creativity and playfulness that I really appreciate in this book.

 Beyond their individual excellence, many of the poems in this collection work together to build recurring themes and overall cohesiveness. It’s not like we’re just reading one funny poem, then another, then another. The poet’s voice is distinct, almost as if he’s a character; though sometimes it seems like he’s the “mischievous kid” of the subtitle and sometimes the “immature grown-up.” He appreciates nonsense, wordplay, and the interplay between kids and adults. We get a sense for how he sees the world and are invited in.

 Absurdity and extreme logic are at the heart of many poems (some examples:  p 33, 46, 57, 65, 105, 132, 144, 150, 189, 200, 202).  Several poems are interactive, where the reader is addressed directly or prompted to action (p 15, 45, 51, 94, 122, 130, 172, 196).

 There are some concrete poetry and poems with visual elements (p 11, 24, 55, 131, 165). In “Trapped” (131), a wall surrounds the words until the ending when the last line, “a way to get out” appears on the next page (because it escaped through a drawn hole in the page….you kind of have to see this one to appreciate it). Lane Smith’s excellent illustrations make a big contribution throughout, and there’s some fun interplay between poet and illustrator (“They told me, ‘Lane is great!’ but man, I really think I hate her!” (147)), but it’s still the words that carry the book.

 Short poems with a single one-liner kind of punchline are interspersed. They provide balance and pacing to the more complex poems:  “Somebody stole my bagel’s hole. / Now breakfast just isn’t as fun. / It once was a treat that I wanted to eat… / …Now it’s a hamburger bun.” (54)  (It took me a minute to get that one….)

 “Let’s Meet Right Here in Twenty-Five Years” (211) is a longer poem that looks at that recurring theme of growing up with wistful humor.  It almost wraps the book up in a tender way…except there are three more short poems because the poet can’t get the reader to go away (“Go play outside. Go eat some cheese. / There’s nothing left but indices”). Plus after the Index there’s a funny “Outdex (of Titles That Did Not Make the Final Cut”); example: “Old Mother Hefrigerator (Went to the Refrigerator).”

 Nikki Grimes’ ONE LAST WORD cleverly links classic poems from the Harlem Renaissance with excellent new poems; each poem in OUT OF WONDER is inspired by a poet from the past..  And we have some strong novels in verse this year too. Those all seem like more typical Newbery poetry fare, but I’M JUST NO GOOD is my poetry standout so far.   

 

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I wish I had this book at my library NOW and can actually join the conversation. Thank you for all the detailed analysis. Why do you think poetry usually does not win Newbery unless it’s really a different FORM or VERSE NOVEL? (Like Joyful Noise or Crossover) Is it that we just don’t have the vocabulary or that it is too subjective? I remember talking about certain poetry/verse novel and kind of “swooning over some of the verses” out loud and a good friend of mine, whom I respect as a real sharp children’s book critic, basically sneered and proclaimed the poetry extremely subpar. And there was nothing I could actually do to counter her point since — um, how do you tell someone who does not have the same emotional reaction to a particular poem or rhythm or word choice that they need to change their mind? And that’s all we have — beats, rhyme, imagery, etc. We can’t talk about character development or setting or plot progression when it’s just pure poetry…

    Every year, I have at least one poetry collection/picture book that I think is SUPERB but they almost never win… My favorite poet right now is Julie Fogliano — I was really really pulling for “When Green Becomes Tomatoes” last year… But *cricket* *cricket* (as a graphic novel illustrator might use on the panels to signal awkward silence..) *cricket* *cricket* nothing from major award committees. Instead, another wonderful poetry collection (thematically more important?) did receive a Newbery honor: “Freedom Over Me” by Ashley Bryan. I wonder if When Green was nominated and what the comparison discussion was like! Oh.. if I were a fly…

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    The author is unquestionably clever. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that, in a sense, humor is his job. But I am not convinced this book is more than clever. With the exception of “Let’s Meet Right Here In Twenty-Five Years” which you highlighted, the book is kind of one-note, which is perhaps the negative view of your take, “the poet’s voice is distinct.” Well, I’ll concede two notes—as you say, there are “immature grown-ups” amidst all the “mischievous kids” to give and receive hugs in the “Grown-ups Are Better” poems, “Hey Kids! Get Your Parents To Read You This Poem!”, the “Door” poems (where I don’t quite get the joke), and so on. Still I think this book is better enjoyed in small portions. I read it, admiringly, in one sitting, but I think 220 odd pages of this voice isn’t the optimal experience. (I don’t actually know how many pages there are without calculating it. Steven, you fell for one of the book’s gags: the centipede poem is on page 179, not 189. Leo Arden’s parents “forgot to teach him… 8” and they numbered the pages…)

    Also, though the craft of humor and poetry have much in common: rhythm, timing, sound, setup, etc. I did feel the craft here was the humorist’s, to serve the gags. As writing goes though, it’s more “verse” than “poetry.” That sounds snobby, and I don’t like that, but I am trying to wrap my head around the parameters under which the same honor can be given to an Ogden Nash as to a Robert Frost. I don’t have an answer and I guess it’s another one of the many things each must decide for themselves.

    Take your example of “Somebody Stole My Bagel’s Hole” which you quoted in its entirety. As you suggest, it’s claim to being part of the most distinguished book is perhaps its place in an overall structure and offering variety in a quick punchline. But even as light verse, it hardly shines—I stumble over the shift from iamb to anapest after the first line. And I am not sure about a Newbery book that has so much that is “disposable”, like jokes that make you laugh when you hear them but essentially go in one ear and out the other so you don’t remember them later. I think you are probably right in arguing more holistically because I’m not sure its constituents hold up that well under scrutiny. For example, I am not as sure as you are that the last stanza of “I’m Just No Good At Rhyming” was intended to work in the way you suggest. The busted meter could have been intentional, but the writing isn’t so unimpeachable that this is clearly the case. Until the last stanza the iambs never break. The first line of the last stanza parallel the first and penultimate stanzas. But then the meter switches to trochee in the second and third lines with stresses on initial, extra words “And” and “But.” If he did this intentionally to make a subtle joke about not being good at meter, I think it’s an unnecessary joke that muddies how to read the poem and not well-executed because it’s done on the word “and” where it’s not clear it’s suddenly supposed to take a stress, especially when it did not in the first and penultimate stanzas. And why do it for two lines? And when it does switch back to iambs in the last line, it’s also muddy because it’s very easy on first read-aloud to stress “‘Cause” especially given the previous two lines. It would have worked just as well or better to use, “I can’t rhyme words at all” or “I just can’t rhyme at all” which would also have matched metrically better with “I’m just no good at rhyming” since the whole joke is that line would have slotted in perfectly.

    Roxanne, I think a bunch of us are in full agreement with you about When Green Becomes Tomatoes.

    • steven engelfried says:

      Good catch, Leonard, on the page number trick. I counted backwards from 190 and forgot about the “no 8’s” joke (another of the extra levels I admire). As for the title poem, I’m not seeing what you are. Your suggested substitute lines, if I understood them correctly, seem too subtle in their meter shifts to work as a punchline in a children’s book. When I read the poem aloud to myself first, then later to others, the messed up meter was clear, obviously intentional, and everyone got the joke. It made me realize we’re looking for different things from this book.

      I thought about your suggestion that this book more “verse” than “poetry.” And considered: “the craft here was the humorist’s, to serve the gags.” I think that’s accurate, but don’t really see it as a flaw. It is exactly the cleverness and humor that I admire most in this book, rather than poetic skill. The author uses structures and elements of poetry to create a excellent (well, in my opinion anyway) book of humor for a child audience, and I see that as potentially Newbery-worthy. I called it “my poetry standout,” but your comments have helped me realize that I’m really describing “my humor standout.”

      It is possible I’m trying too hard to see Newbery-level merit in a type of book that rarely gets that kind of praise…I’ve done that before, for sure (and not just on this blog). Leonard and Roxanne, you both cited WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES as a worthy book from a previous year (and I agree), but it’s a very different kind of book than this one. Are there any books from past years closer in style and intent to I’M JUST NO GOOD, where humor is the main focus, that might have been award worthy? I remember rooting for MATH CURSE one year….

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Steven, if you had to choose between I’M JUST NO GOOD AT RHYMING and WELL THAT WAS AWKWARD, which way would you lean? I agree I’M JUST NO GOOD is arguably the funniest book of the year (I might lean towards the two Shannon Hale books myself) but is that enough, especially compared directly to a book like WELL THAT WAS AWKWARD which is also funny but also offers other things?

        Re: the poem “I’m Just No Good At Rhyming” I think we probably are seeing it differently. I would scan the last stanza as below. I guess the question is whether the disruption is an extra non-ictus beginning line 4 (which I think you may be hearing), or the extra ictus beginning lines 2&3 (which was my initial thought because that’s not how the first stanza worked.) Now I’m not sure. (My rewrite was simply to get rid of the metrical joke altogether.)

        x / x / x / x
        I’m pretty good with meter,
        / x / x / x / x
        And with spelling and with timing.
        / x / x / x / x
        But I’ll never be a poet,
        x / x / x / x /
        Cause I just can’t rhyme words at all.

        As to your last query, people are invoking Silverstein when praising I’M JUST NO GOOD. Another example is last year’s What Are You Glad About? by Viorst. I said on Heavy Medal that I thought maybe 2/3rds of those poems were Newbery quality, and on Goodreads I said I thought it hit many of the same notes as I’M JUST NO GOOD. But actually, I just took another look at What Are You Glad About? and have to admit I’M JUST NO GOOD holds up better in comparison than I would have guessed, so now I think I haven’t been giving this book enough of a Newbery hearing.

      • Steven Engelfried says:

        Good question about those two books. Though I looked at I’M JUST NO GOOD closely, it’s still new to me. I would re-read it before November nominations, but that works better for me if I have a bit of time in between. And that second read will be informed by your comments and (I hope) those of others. I will say that AWKWARD did hold up well on my second read and for now at least, would have a slight edge.

        I didn’t get that you were getting rid of the metrical joke in your earlier post…thanks for clarifying. I missed What Are You Glad About last year, and look forward to reading it. But not until February….

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    I want to re-recommend A NEW SCHOOL YEAR as a defensible poetry candidate. It holds up well for me on re-read. There were things I didn’t like about both OUT OF WONDER and ONE LAST WORD:

    • steven engelfried says:

      Leonard, I did read A NEW SCHOOL YEAR at your suggestion, and did think it was strong, though I decided not to post about it for now at least. Feel free to share its merits in detail here…

  4. Sara Coffman says:

    Oh, my. I’m only half-way through this title, but so far I must second Steven’s assertion that it is worthy; however, I would challenge significantly the idea that this book is “merely” humor. The comparison to Silverstein’s work is apt because, like Silverstein, Harris is at times laugh out loud funny, but, again like Silverstein, it has no shortage of tender or thought-provoking moments. The head-to-head with WELL, THAT WAS AWKWARD is a good one to examine craft and humor and wordsmithing; perhaps another comparison would be to ORPHAN ISLAND (though I haven’t yet read it, I’m reflecting on this forum’s comments) and the issue of growing up and loss of innocence. I think the choice to open the collection with THE DOOR is evidence of this focus as well as YOU’LL NEVER FEEL AS TALL AS WHEN YOU’RE TEN and several others that set forth the truth of childhood as a thing of great strength and, at once, ephemeral.

    To Roxanne’s point about poetry being more subjective, I think this discussion proves it to some extent. Unlike Leonard, I do not think A NEW SCHOOL YEAR is strong enough to compete with any of the titles so far mentioned. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the poetry because it lacked – to me – craft. It reads like a prose paragraph merely broken into lines. There is decent characterization, but the poetic form seems an afterthought rather than an intentional, artistic example of craft.

    • Sara Coffman says:

      Oops. I just realized I used all-caps for the poem titles as well. So sorry. To clarify “The Door” and “You’ll Never Feel As Tall As When You’re Ten” are poems in this collection, not stand-alone titles.

      • i got to read through half of this title today and “You’ll Never Feel As Tall” struck me as one of immense sadness and thoughtfulness — but also could potentially be hopeful and inspiring – as a wistful caution from the poet: What if we hold on to our 10-year-self always. I also found “A Short Saga” quite a feat to compose and the poet did a brilliant job. Every line is both nonsensical and yet illuminating at the same time.

        I’m with Steven that the book definitely merits a serious look by the Newbery Committee — its presentation for a child audience is spot-on. And I also agree with Leonard — this is not a book that should be read all the way through but I can see how if shared with a child (or a group of children) a few pieces at a time over a couple of weeks, this could be a family or classroom favorite of the year or many years ahead.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Sara, that is funny, because “a prose paragraph merely broken into lines” is a criticism that I frequently make. On Goodreads, I expressed almost exactly that complaint about ONE LAST WORD. Certainly A NEW SCHOOL YEAR is not verse, but I personally think it qualifies as poetry because of what I perceive as careful attentiveness to things like rhythm, sound, etc. beyond what the words mean. To take the opening sentence: “Before I went to bed, / I put Bear’s blue jacket / in the pocket / of my new kindergarten pants”, I don’t think all the “b” sounds in the first two lines are coincidence, or the juxtaposition of “Bear’s blue jacket” and “in the pocket” or the rhythms of “Before I went to bed” and “kindergarten pants.”

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Is “You’ll Never Feel as Tall as When You’re Ten” really for children though? It seems to have more grown-up appeal to me. I’m going to break a cardinal Newbery rule, but since I already mentioned What Are You Glad About?, here is the analogous poem in Viorst’s collection, almost the negative image of Harris’ poem. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I think Viorst’s is better attuned to an actual 10-year-old reader. I think Steven’s original tack was correct — the thing Harris does better than anyone else is be clever. If you start appealing to sentiment, I think there are lots of comparables. And I don’t mean to be negative — I liked this book and think all Heavy Medal readers should read it. I gave it to my 8-year-old (as well as A NEW SCHOOL YEAR — I asked her later which she liked better, and she shrugged.) It’s just that “most distinguished” is a pitiless standard.

      In Between

      Too old to need a night-light and
      Too young to drive a car.
      Too young for War and Peace, too old
      For Where the Wild Things Are.
      Too young to drink a latte and
      Too old for sippy cups.
      I’m in between and sometimes
      I can’t tell the downs from ups.

      Too old to cry at flu shots and
      Too young for a tattoo.
      Too young for movies rated R,
      Too old for Scooby-Doo.
      Too old for booster seats, too young
      For my own credit card.
      I’m in between and often
      In between is very hard.

      Too young to give up whining and
      Too old to run amok.
      Too young for Don Giovanni and
      Too old for Donald Duck.
      Too old to keep my teddy bear,
      Too young to let him go.
      I’m in between and waiting
      For the rest of me to grow.

      • Sara Coffman says:

        Roxanne, I DO think this book means more if you read it as a whole rather than stand-alone pieces. As stand-alone pieces they are charming, clever, remarkable even (i agree with you about “A Short Saga” and several others that rather blew me away); however, if you don’t read it through, you could easily miss some of the connections, both the tender ones and the humorous ones. I finished it after writing my comment yesterday, and my opinion on its merit was only increased – in fact, it may be a front-runner for me now.

        Leonard, as usual your point is thoughtful and well-made. I concede that there is evidence of craft in A NEW SCHOOL YEAR, but I maintain it is not as exemplary as other works I’ve read this year. As to the comparison of “You’ll Never Feel…” to the Viorst (we’re such rule-breakers!), I find Viorst’s poem too obvious, a facile use of repetition, which does not (for this reader) compare to the amazing work Harris is able to do with such unexpected rhymes as “uprootable” and “inscrutable” or the clever and heart-wrenching progression from the line starting “The will-bes turn to might-bes and the might-bes turn to won’ts” on through the close of that stanza with “The forefront turns to middle and the middle turns to last.” Powerful. Finally, (and I promise I’ll be finished!), I think its totally appropriate for this poem (and others) to be coming from an adult perspective to a child. It doesn’t lessen the child appropriateness for a child to feel an adult is talking to them rather than attempting to talk FOR them (as I would argue the Viorst is doing and not as well as I’d like it to).

      • steven engelfried says:

        About the “rule breaking” that we do when we bring up books from other years: One purpose of this blog is to give readers and participants a feel for what Newbery discussions might be like. In that sense, following committee Terms and Criteria makes sense. But we’re also trying to generate conversations about literature and about the awards process, so I feel like stepping out of the strict guidelines is okay. Especially when we acknowledge that we’re doing it.

        Also: the Terms and Criteria state that “the committee’s decision is to be made following deliberation about the books of the specified calendar year,” and that’s pretty clear: Don’t bring up books from previous years in this year’s discussion. But the way I look at it, that applies specifically to the discussion and decision-making process. Not necessarily to the process each member uses throughout the year to prepare for the actual discussion. If I was a member evaluating I’M JUST NO GOOD, I would absolutely be thinking of, and maybe re-reading, Silverstein, Viorst and Prelutsky to help me identify and articulate the strengths of the current year title, especially in terms of what “distinguished” might look like for this general kind of book. I would ask colleagues for input, too, and I feel like the conversations here comparing Viorst and Harris fall into that area. You couldn’t say: “but Viorst’s book does the same thing better” during discussion. But you might look at Viorst’s book to help you clarify why Harris’ book falls short (or excels), and then bring a fuller understanding of Harris’ book to the discussion table.

        It’s just important, and sometimes challenging, to always keep in mind that if you do invoke past year books, it’s only to help you evaluate the book in your hand. When you nominate, discuss in committee meetings, and vote, it’s all about this year’s books, but how you prepare for that phase is not so restricted…

  5. Sara, I shall finish it today and keep your comment in mind. Thanks for pointing that out.

  6. Oh my goodness, but I am in love with this one. (My thanks to Jonathan Hunt who drew my attention to this one.) Still reading a few poems aloud to my 4th grade class every morning, but finished reading it on my own just now. I will have more to say once I finish it with the kids as I see it better when I’m reading something that way, but for now I would say it is definitely a contender. A top one for me. It hearkens back to Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash as much as Shel Silverstein.

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