Friday, November 26, 2010

thankful for big ideas

I have a new favorite book. I'm late to the party as usual, but through the 2009 Poetry Notables session at NCTE last weekend I heard about a slew of books new to me, and ordered several titles on the spot using my handy-dandy wireless device. It was an eminent body of work that arrived on my doorstep, but the most thrilling was The Tree That Time Built. I had not heard of it at all, nor read a single review, so I was taken by glorious surprise.

This weighty collection of about 125 poems is much more than a themed anthology. I find myself wishing that I were a 5th-grade science teacher so that I could use it as the basis for a whole year's study of what might ordinarily be called evolutionary biology. The cover says the poems were "selected by" Mary Ann Hoberman, 2008-2010 Children's Poet Laureate, and Linda Winston, a cultural anthropologist and teacher. However, the work they did in compiling this rich array of poems by everyone from William Blake to Emily Dickinson to Langston Hughes through to Douglas Florian, Alice Schertle and quite a handful by Hoberman herself goes way beyond "selection." (You might call it "supernatural selection.")

The title doesn't give it away, so I opened The Tree That Time Built expecting a "celebration of nature, science, and imagination." But this collection is really a tribute to the towering ideas of Charles Darwin, two anniversaries of whose were celebrated in 2009, and is an examination of the ways that the work of scientists (and particularly naturalists) and the work of poets resemble each other. "Science and art have often been cast as opposites," says the Introduction, " but the division is an artificial one. Scientists, like poets, depend on imagination for many of their core insights. And poets, like scientists, observe and explore connections within the natural world." Through their thoughtful selection and arrangement of the poems, Hoberman and Winston layer pockets of tiny detail, swathes of rock-solid description, and seeping realizations on a grand scale. Then, through their commentary on both the science and the poetry at work in each poem, they cut a cross-section through those layers to expose a whole new view of our natural history and the way we humans have expressed our understanding of it.

I've always been a fan of the idea of evolution and its grandeur, and the notion that it all happened without any hint of human agency save for naming it tickles my mind. Impossible to choose just one from this book, but here's a simple, elegant piece by Mark Van Doren.

If They Spoke

The animals will never know;
Could not find out; would scarcely care
That all their names are in our books,
And all their images drawn bare.

What names? They have not heard the sound,
Nor in their silence thought the thing.
They are not notified they live;
Nor ask who set them wandering.

Simply they are. And so with us;
And they would say it if they spoke;
And we might listen; and the world
Be uncreated at one stroke.

~ Mark Van Doren
The Tree That Time Built, 2009

Enjoy a Friday full of poetry with Ms. Mac at Check It Out today!

Friday, November 19, 2010

"poets and bloggers unite..."

...also known as Poetry Friday Live! Coming at you from sunny Orlando and the NCTE Convention, here are Elaine Magliaro, Sylvia Vardell, and Tricia Stohr-Hunt at their session this morning, preparing to highlight their offerings to the world through their poetry-focused blogs.

All were charmingly modest about the greatness they've achieved through their online advocacy for and delight in poetry for children, and all were thrilled to introduce poets Jame Richards, Marilyn Singer, Lee Bennett Hopkins and Pat Mora. Each poet spoke about some of the ways that they use (or don't use) new media in their work as writers, anthologists, and activists.
Then we were treated to readings by each poet, varying widely and tantalizingly.

That was today's first session, which also afforded me the bonus of meeting in person several online friends and fellow poets--Charles Waters, Amy Ludwig Van der Water, and Tricia herself. I also attended a roundup of 2009's Notable Poetry Books, and there will be more inspiring professional togetherness tonight at an event appreciating Donald Graves.

I love book people!

Friday, November 5, 2010


Oh, how I love The Little Red Hen story! (Last night Duncan, now 8, and I retold it with a blue elephant obsessed with her jewelry collection, a purple flamingo with a thing about shoes, and a maroon monkey too busy with charter school business to help the Little Red Hen do any of the work towards a warm, crusty loaf of bread. Ahem.)

But before my first-graders delve next week into the many versions of LRH that I've collected over the years, I wanted to make sure we did some reading for information as well as some talking about why BREAD is part of social studies (which is, I always say, "learning about how people get along together."

This beauty of a book, like its predecessor by the same author and photographer, Pumpkin Circle, is pure know, that stimulating combination of "real true facts" about something socialstudies/ scientific (like how wheat becomes flour becomes bread for everyone) and language to describe it that plays like poetry. George Leventhal and Shmuel Thaler's book Bread Comes to Life: A Garden of Wheat and Loaf to Eat includes this passage alongside terrifically informative photos taken from an imaginative variety of angles:

"This baker makes his bread from scratch
by sowing wheat in his backyard patch.
Soon those seeds send down roots
and sprout into shoots
of bright green grass.

The days pass and that grass
grows into sturdy blades,
tall and straight, finely made
with budding heads and bristly hair
gently waving in the air."

While Becca didn't find out "How dos it tac bred log in the uven?", Stand and Ryan did get an answer to "What in gredints is bread mad uov?", and everybody enjoyed working with their air-bread (next week we'll make real playdough):

"Dump it. Thump it.
Dust it. Knead it.
Squash it. Stretch it.
Toss it! ...
Punch it down.
Give it some shape.
Let it rise again.
Put it in to bake."

I believe that this kind of soscientry is not as rare as it used to be in children's literature. If you've got a similar gem to share let us all know--I don't attend Non-fiction Monday very often so I'm sure I've missed out on some recent developments.

Join the canine(and other) poetry fun at Teaching Authors this week.