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31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Poetry Books

Again, I must assure you that in spite of the length of today’s list, I did not include every poetry book I saw this year. Is it my fault that there were so many good ones to pick and choose between? The sheer variety is enough to turn your head. We’ve classic poets re-illustrated, first timers, funny poems, deeply meaningful ones, poems that tie into the moon landing, nursery rhymes, and many many more. There’s something for everyone on today’s list. Even poems for people who don’t like poetry. Don’t believe me? See for yourself . . .

2019 Poetry Books

Blooming Beneath the Sun, poems by Christina Rossetti, ill. Ashley Bryan

“The day, the day, the day is springing”! 19th century poet Christina Rossetti’s poetry feels as fresh as the moment it was written, thanks to the collage and paper cut art of the magnificent Ashley Bryan. On a whim I picked this up to read with my lunch and was floored to discover (A) That this even was an Ashley Bryan book (a fact that I’d somehow missed) and (B) I’d no idea that Rossetti did so many child-friendly poems. I guess I always thought Robert Louis Stevenson cornered the market on nursery rhyme-esque verse. Rossetti, it just so happens, adapts pretty perfectly to Mr. Bryan’s style. There is one king/queen poem that probably hasn’t dated as well as the rest of the book, but for the most part I love how fresh and bold Ashley has become with his art here.

Clackety Track: Poems About Trains by Skila Brown, ill. Jamey Christoph

In my day I’ve read a LOT of train poem books. And to be honest with you, they all kind of run together. This one, though? It’s got class. It’s got style. It’s got clever wordplay. Plus there are loads of trains in here you’ve never heard of before. Now if the illustrator “Jamey Christoph” looks familiar to you, that’s probably because he also illustrated a nonfiction picture book this year about Stonewall. Here he takes a lighter hand, and yet you’d never say the art in this book wasn’t impressive and beautiful. Dare I say it? Best train book of poetry ever! Choo-choo-choose this one.

Climbing Shadows: Poems for Children by Shannon Bramer, ill. Cindy Derby

Funny, sad, but above all very real to life poems are accompanied by evocative dreamlike watercolors. Read these poems before they disappear like “a snowflake – / a tiny crystal star / in your shiny black hair / that melts away / nearly before it is seen.” If the art is looking familiar to you, that’s because Derby is the one behind the picture book How to Walk an Ant (also out this year). I think she’s the second coming of Stephen Gammell. Poet Shannon Bramer is a lunchroom supervisor in a school in Toronto. Slowly she started sharing poems with the kids and then writing her own. The thing is, her poetry is amazing. This is the kind of poetry book I’ve been waiting for this year. The kind that just drops little nuggets of truth on your head, and with humor to boot. Find “Eleanor’s Poem” and you will be happy all day long. You can find my full review of the book here.

The Day the Universe Exploded My Head: Poems to Take You Into Space and Back Again by Allan Wolf, ill. Anna Raff

Can we start saying we’re tired of outer space yet? I’ll admit that when I found this in my To Be Read pile I let out a groan of despair. Oh goody. Another book of poems about planets n’ junk. Just what I needed. So I was walking into this with lowered expectations, sure, but also a pretty clear sense that if Wolf and Raff were going to impress me they’d need to up the stakes significantly. The first poem about the Sun was fine, but “The Sun Did Not Go Down Today” was where I started paying attention. Then “A Moon Buffet” impressed me with its cleverness and the Meteorite of 2013 in Chelyabinsk was fascinating. Great backmatter explains the different kinds of poems at work, from sonnets to blues to spoofs to double dactyls. The poetry isn’t superfluous in this book or incidental. It’s central to the premise. I do wish it didn’t lean as heavily as it does on female stereotypes (Venus as maneater, Earth as mother, Saturn as fashion diva), but that’s not a dealbreaker for me. Maybe because Miss Mitchell was included in the book (and she’s also in Hayley Barrett’s 2019 picture book biography What Miss Mitchell Saw, so clearly she’s having a moment). First class.

Goodnight Songs Treasury: A Collection of Bedtime Poems by Margaret Wise Brown, ill. by Various

This one confused me at first. Not simply because I knew I’d seen some of these poems by the late great Margaret Wise Brown before but also because when I went to the publication page I discovered that all the art in this book sported copyright dates from 2014 and 2015. What is going on? Well, according to its Introduction, this is the first time all 24 of these posthumous works have been placed in one book at one time. And yes, the works by these artists were previously published sometimes. Even so, there were poems here that surprised me. “Quiet in the Wilderness” and “Wooden Town” in particular stood out to me as exceptional. Even if you’ve purchased similar poem collections of Brown before, this is undoubtedly the single one that you should own. 

I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage, compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Hey, if you’re gonna go out, go out with a bang, that’s what I say. This year we lost poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, meaning that this compilation is one of his last, if not THE last, books to his name. Happily, it’s a good one. Poets contemplate their family heritage while artists illustrate their stories and talk about why they became artists at all. That aspect was a bit confusing for me, actually. With its emphasis on heritage and history, I didn’t really see that their thoughts, nice as they were, made much sense in the content of the book as a whole. Fortunately, some of the stories really pop. Nick Bruel’s, surprisingly, and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s. Marilyn Nelson ends her with a kick to the gut and I was quite taken with Jane Yolen’s. As with any collection some poems are stronger than others, and the art is, as ever, subjective, but I think there’s a lot to glean here. It would make a wonderful jumping off point for students, writing poems about their own family stories.

Moonstruck! Poems About the Moon, edited by Roger Stevens, ill. Ed Boxall

We’ve seen so many moon-related titles out this year that this little marvel could easily slip under the radar unnoticed. Every single poem in this book, from Percy Bysshe Shelley and Emily Brontë to Harshita Das and a traditional Kenyan poem of the Nandi, is moon related. It’s a mere slip of a book, clocking in at a scant 8 X 5 inches. I imagine some enterprising teacher, willing to tie their science units and poetry units together, could make great use of the 58 poems of this “first-ever anthology of moon poems” (as the publisher’s copy would have you believe). It’s slight and lovely.

Mother Goose of Pudding Lane, told by Chris Raschka, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

First off, I had no idea that Mother Goose could be attributed to a specific person. Raschka does a very good job of tying in her life’s story (what little we know of it) to a variety of different classic nursery rhymes. When my daughter was little I read a LOT of nursery rhyme collections. This one, with its additional information for older readers and parents, would have been greatly appreciated back then. Love the art and love the order in which the rhymes appear. A unique and creative approach to the most classic of all collections.

My First Book of Haiku Poems: A Picture, a Poem and a Dream – Classic Poems by Japanese Haiku Masters, translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, ill. Tracy Gallup

“The year’s first dream- / a secret I spoke to no one, / smiling to myself.” Twenty poems introduce children to the works of haiku masters Basho, Issa, Shiki, and more. I think there may be something to be said for introducing kids to the most famous haiku poets in Japanese history. Otherwise, they could easily be left with the impression that a haiku is just something your teacher makes you do as part of an obligatory April Poetry Month assignment.

Poems to Live Your Life By, chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell

Every once in a while there is a place on our shelves for the poetry of the past. Chris Riddell writes in his introduction, “When I find poems like these, I like to write them out and then draw around the words as I let the meaning sink in. So, when compiling this anthology, I asked for the poems to be given plenty of space so that I could draw around them, directly onto the page.” The end result is an amalgamation of new and old, familiar and strange. And, of course, with Riddell’s art there’s a bit of a fantastical feel. I should note that on the whole it’s pretty darn white. White people on the pages, white poems, with the exception of a Paul Laurence Dunbar. They are also selling this as YA. Not a bad age range, but I’d scale it down just a bit younger to 10 and up. You do see a guy die of mustard gas and there is a dude with his head presumably on a woman’s chest, but it’s fairly vague stuff. And I think there’s good to be had from letting kids near these poems.

Predator and Prey: A Conversation in Verse by Susannah Buhrman-Deever, ill. Bert Kitchen

Not your usual predators. Not your usual prey. Natural selection like you’ve never seen it before, with killer poetry (literally) to match. The cover didn’t excite me but when I opened it up and read even one of these poems I was instantly hooked. Buhrman-Deever isn’t interested in the boring stories of natural selection. She’s much more interested in highlighting moments kids might not have known about. Everything kicks off with a bang with the poem for two voices “What Webs We Weave”, in which the assassin bug tricks a spider into becoming ITS meal. Then you have bats eating frogs, fireflies that eat their mates to get make their poisonous chemicals their own, and lizards that do push-ups. Crazy thing is, the poems are really good too.

The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems, selected by Paul B. Janeczko, ill. Richard Jones

Everything you ever needed to know in one little poetry book! How do you tell goblins from elves? Make a snow angel? Toast a marshmallow? Thirty-three poems by twenty-five poets give you the skinny on how to conquer the world. Oh, the compilation poetry book made up of different poems is such a strange little beast. So much of it relies on the selections. It can be interesting, but too often is not. I do like that these are all “How-To” poems, which ties in rather nicely with those “How-To” teaching units kids sometimes get. Plus the art of Jones really is very lovely. Well worth a gander.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, ill. Vivian Mineker

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” If you take one path, what have you left behind? Robert Frost’s famous poem is adapted perfectly to a picture book celebrating life, love, and the choices we make, alongside vibrant, stirring art. This particular book is just gorgeous, and a little more philosophical than your average everyday children’s work. It’s big picture thinking with some gorgeous colors to boot. Nicely autumnal.

Superlative Birds by Leslie Bulion, ill. Robert Meganck

If nature were a competition, what bird would win for Longest Toes? Biggest nest? How about Most Gruesome Prey Collection? Poems and facts collide in this kicky look at the biggest and best. At first I was completely ready to dismiss this one as yet another poetry-filled-with-facts book (a.k.a. booooooring). And I do have some issues with the design and layout (those Science Notes are awfully tiny) but not with the writing. It’s a cool selection of some birds I’ve never heard of (two words: iridescent blue eggs) and even includes my beloved peregrine falcons in a poem.

Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler

Takes the whole “bedtime book” concept and ratchets it up to eleven. Dear lord, this is a gorgeous book. Though, I’ll admit, it broke my heart a little to see that it was digital art. No matter. I want to give all the kudos to the translator because all of these poems sound like they were originally written with English in mind. It’s evocative and gorgeous and one of the best bedtime tales I’ve ever seen. I mean, just listen to this: “Toes clinging to the ceiling / kite-fingers folded like a blanket, / the bat dreams upside down…” Vibrant yet calming images showcase animals tucked in, ready for slumber, offset with soothing evocative poetry.

Terrible Times Tables: A Modern Multiplication Primer by Michell Markel, ill. Merrilee Liddiard

Well now THAT was a challenge. Basically, what you have here is a book that helps you learn your multiplication tables through rhyme. Each number gets its own separate section. So 2X is “Back to School”, 3X is “Halloween” and so on. Smart! My sole objection is how much this book would have benefited from a slightly darker touch in the art. Something with a tinge of Gorey would have been ideal. That said, it’s a delightful update to an old concept, and might actually help kids learn those darn numbers.

Up Verses Down: Poems, Paintings and Serious Nonsense by Calef Brown

Fancy a spot of poetry today? Brown pulls out all the stops covering everything from Foodstuffs to Oddments, People to Animals, and everything in between. I have been known to find Brown a bit esoteric in my day. But this book feels like a cut above. First, I’m still giggling over the Borscht poem. Second, these are great! They’re for the clever kiddos. The ones that have gotten a little past Silverstein and would enjoy the wit. Yeah, some of it might be for grown-ups more, but I was impressed by how lovely some of them were (like “Simile Park”) and just how enjoyable the poems came off overall. More than one made me laugh. No mean task.

Wild In the Streets: 20 Poems of City Animals by Marilyn Singer, ill. Gordy Wright

Peregrine falcons (my favorites) make an appearance alongside 19 other urban animals. You know pigeons and coyotes, but what about hyenas, pythons, and storks? We’ve seen a lot of these science and animal poetry books this year. Sweet Dreamers, Superlative Birds, Predator and Prey, Otters, Snail and Tadpole Tails, etc. Really it’s going to come down to which ones you determine to be the best. For such a prize, I do honestly find this to be a serious contender. The subject matter is awesome! Urban animals, including a lot that I’d never ever heard of. My particular favorite are the deer in Nara, Japan that have learned to bow.

The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives by Eloise Greenfield, ill. Daniel Minter

Daniel Minter is having a moment. You may be familiar with his work on Going Down Home with Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons a.k.a. one of the best picture books of the year. What you may not have heard enough about is this paean to African and African-American midwives throughout the centuries. Told in poems, as well as Front and Backmatter, the poetry tells their stories even as Minter reminds us why he’s one of the hottest artists to watch in 2019. Come award season, I suspect his book with Lyons will be the one getting the award attention, but don’t take your eyes off this collection. One to watch.

Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!

December 1 – Great Board Books

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Funny Picture Books

December 7 – CaldeNotts

December 8 – Picture Book Reprints

December 9 – Math Books for Kids

December 10 – Bilingual Books

December 11 – Books with a Message

December 12 – Fabulous Photography

December 13 – Translated Picture Books

December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 15 – Wordless Picture Books

December 16 – Poetry Books

December 17 – Easy Books

December 18 – Early Chapter Books

December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels

December 20 – Older Funny Books

December 21 – Science Fiction Books

December 22 – Informational Fiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers

December 29 – Older Reprints

December 30 – Middle Grade Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.