Small Poems That Soar

Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems just might be one of the brightest choices you make this year in the field of children’s books. It takes only a few minutes to sample this collectiFirefly July A Year of Very Short Poemson of 36 well-chosen poems that span the seasons, but many a child –and adult–will pause to savor the dazzling lines, illustrated with such verve by Caldecott Honoree Melissa Sweet.

This singular collection, selected by acclaimed poet Paul B. Janeczko, shines with poems by such popular children’s poets as Lillian Morrison, Eve Merriam, and James Stevenson, as well as some surprising choices: William Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, and Charles Reznikoff.

Beginning with spring (yes, it’s arrived!), each season plays out in nine poems. Ms. Sweet gives us her painted bright red pickup truck loaded with hand-drawn images of old fans to accompany Gerald Jonas’s energetic poem “In Passing.” Readers can bump along while reading about the “dumpy junktruck/stacked full of old floor-fans,/unplugged, unsteady, undone,/free-whirling like kids’ pinwheels… .”

The illustrator’s detailed collage-watercolor-gouache illustrations vary in style as they encounter distinct poems and moods. Her gape-mouthed gulls, for instance, humorously evoke the ravenous creatures depicted in X.J. Kennedy’s brief poem that compares the birds’ cries to rusted gates. For another summer poem, the titular poem by J. Patrick Lewis, Ms. Sweet shows fat globes of light encircling the fireflies’ tails and childlike pencil drawings of grass, trees, and weeds sprouting in the dusk. It’s enough to inspire us adults to return to our firefly-chasing ways.

To my ear, two of the special surprises in this book arrive in the winter portion. “Snow Fence” by Ted Kooser is a stunning six-line beauty. I’m not going to spell it out for you; just find your way to the page with the vivid red fence and ponder his lines. Another remarkable entry is Reznikoff’s two-line riff on what the house-wreckers left.

What marvelous activities teachers, librarians, and parents can concoct with Firefly July. Language arts teachers can find writing prompts here, teach metaphors or sensory images or point of view … art teachers can use the book to inspire collages … parents can relish a sweet morning or bedtime to share these vivid little creations. Highly recommended for every home, school, and public library, especially for use with grades 2-5.

And see my previous post on Water Sings Blue and these titles … 

Kick in the Head An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms by Paul B JaneczkoReading Poetry in the Middle Grades 20 Poems and Activities by Paul B JaneczkoCollected Poems for Children by Ted Hughes




What a Mighty Locomotive

“Hear the clear, hard call of her bell: CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! CLANG-CLANG! Hear the HISSSSSSSSS and the SPIT of the steam! Hear the engine breathe like a beast: HUFF HUFF HUFF!” You don’t have to be a railroad lover (but you might become one!) to head West with Brian Floca’s Locomotive, as the 2014 Caldecott Medal Winner takes readers on a rollicking journey on the Transcontinental Railroad in the summer of Locomotive by Brian Floca1869.

Locomotive packs in plenty of details about how and when and why the steam engine transformed the landscape and culture of the American West. Make no mistake, though, this is not textbook land. Floca has wisely used an intimate second-person perspective (as he did in Moonshot, 2009), putting the reader right in the action. That’s just the beginning. His abundant energetic verbs–huffs and hisses and bangs and clanks–show up in various colors, fonts, and sizes. Often the rhythm echoes the action: “Faster, faster, turn the wheels,/faster, faster breathes the engine!/The country runs by,/the cottonwoods and river.” And children will delight in surprising facts such as the train’s lack of plumbing,  or the switchmen’s risk of losing their fingers on the job.

Floca’s stellar illustrations feature a range of perspectives, along with as much detail as a curious young mind might crave. Beginning with endpapers displaying the path of the Transcontinental and a title page sporting a drawing of a May 10, 1869 telegraph, the book lets readers know they’re embarking on a real-life journey. Pages are filled with lively pen-and-ink and watercolor paintings that depict not only believable children and their families but a variety of workers toiling to make the steam engine take its passengers all the way from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco.

This nonfiction book was born to be read aloud, either one-on-one or to an upper-elementary-age group. It’s a bit longer (60 illustrated pages) and more detailed than most, but the trip is sure to thrill.

And don’t miss …

Moonshot The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian FlocaIf I Built a Car by Chris Van DusenOnce Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude by Kevin O'Malley



Planting Seeds of Peace

After celebrating two strong fictional females in recent posts, I’d like to focus on a visually striking biography by Jen Cullerton Johnson today. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace  quivers with sensual details and a sense of hope and respect for all living things. We see young Wangari Maathai and her mother eating sweet figs, just as the monkeys and an eleSeedsofChangephant are doing. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, we learn, believe their ancestors rest in the tree’s shade, so Wangari promises never to cut down the tree.

While few girls in her village learn to read, Wangari’s parents respond to their daughter’s desire to learn, and arrange for her to go to the local school. At age 11, however, she can advance no more. To continue, she must move to the big city of Nairobi. From there, she goes the U.S. to major in biology.

When Wangari returns to her beloved home, she finds a world out of balance. Because the government has sold much land to big foreign companies, the forest habitat has dwindled, and native cedar and acacia trees have vanished. The people of her village have abandoned their custom of not cutting down the mugumo (spreading fig trees). Erosion has caused soil to stream into the rivers. Crops are drying out, and people are hungry. Wangari’s seed of an idea will bring the community together and restore the ecology of the land. Lush oil and scratchboard illustrations by Sonia Lynn Sadler show the belts of green saplings planted by the women.

After being arrested by corrupt police officers, Wangari gets out and takes her case to the world. The woman called Mama Miti, mother of trees, helped get 30 million trees planted, making for cleaner rivers, abundant fruit, and healthy crops. She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African to do so. Seeds of Change, aimed at upper-elementary students, is a vibrant story to include in units on ecology, peacemakers, Kenya, or outstanding women. A brief biographical note and sources are included.

And don’t miss the fabulous 2014 KidLit celebration of Women’s History Month!

Sugar Finds a Way

Slavery has technically ended, but 10-year-old Sugar is not free to be a child. Her mother, who worked in the fields, has died, and her father was sold away before slavery ended and has not been seen or heard of since. Sugar knows firsthand that the business of harvesting cane is far from sweet: “Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. … I hate, hate, hate sugar.”Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The endearing, intelligent child has no relatives left, but the Beales, a kind elderly couple, look after her. She loves listening to Mr. Beale tell humorous old African folktales featuring tricky Brer Rabbit, who survives by his wits and his speed. The Beales are two of the former slaves who have stayed at Mr. Wills’ sugar plantation on River Road, along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Now they get paid, but, as Sugar observes, “Dollars won’t last long. After we buy cloth, seeds, lamp oil, and chicken feed, we’ll be just as poor as when we were slaves.” No wonder so many, including the Beales’ own grown children, have left in hopes of creating a better life in the North.

The changes keep coming, though, and the former slaves who work for Mr. Wills fear the Chinese men he brings in to work alongside them. With her usual curiosity and warm heart, Sugar befriends the Chinese workers and in time, helps the others see they have more in common with the immigrants than they ever would have imagined.

Not only that, Sugar and Billy, the owner’s sweet son, become dear friends, despite the rules society devised to keep them apart. While at first it appears the grownups will succeed in separating the two, illness intervenes. Sugar insists on remaining at his side, and his parents begin to treat Sugar and the others more humanely.

The threat of violence persists, though, even after Mr. Wills fires his cruel, racist overseer, a man who will wreak vengeance upon those who remain on the land from which he’s been banished.

Rhodes, the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book, has created a touching portrait of a spirited child growing up during Reconstruction, trying to find her way to a more fulfilling life. With its natural-sounding dialogue, appealing protagonist, and lively plot, this novel is superbly suited for reading aloud or for using in literature circles. It’s a great choice for nurturing discussions on Reconstruction, the nature of friendship, and the inevitability of change. Recommended for grades 4 through 6.

See also …
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker RhodesZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. SimonMighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis


Holly Schindler on Imagination’s Power

Today’s post offers a double feature. First, let me tell you about Holly Schindler’s charming new middle-school novel, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky. Then, check out the author’s insightful thoughts about class differences and the imagination.Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler
Beauty comes in all shapes, shades and sizes, as Schindler (Playing Hurt, 2011, etc.) demonstrates in her debut middle-school novel The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky.
-year-old Auggie lives on the poor side of a town in Missouri with her grandpa Gus, a trash hauler who can “take something broken and worthless and turn it into a fold of green bills in his pocket.”  When the House Beautification Committee threatens the modest community with fines, Auggie and her grandpa get inspired to renovate their property at the corner of Sunshine and Lucky. Leftover cans of paint of many colors, bits of broken stained-glass from their storm-tossed church, and old car parts all play a part in the humorous transformation of their home and, ultimately, of the neighborhood. Auggie designs a growing crop of metal flowers and clever sculptures with moving parts, all welded by hardworking Gus. Will their creative sculptures win over the committee and save the neighborhood from being razed?
The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky offers a gentle, inspiring story of economically disadvantaged people uniting to assert their right to define beauty on their own terms. (Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books)

Holly Schindler has kindly offered to discuss class differences and the imagination as they relate to her work:

Holly Schindler photo“If necessity is the mother of invention, I often think that lack of fancy new doodads is the mother of imagination. 

When Auggie wants to renovate the exterior of her house, she doesn’t have the option of heading to the hardware store to buy gallons of paint or new plants for flower boxes.  She’s got to use what’s available to her: the junk that Grampa Gus hauls. 

Sometimes, though, I think that not having access to the fancy and new means you have no other option but to tap into your imagination.  It’s happened throughout our own lives, in a hundred different ways.  Ever been in the midst of a blackout?  How’d you entertain yourself without the TV—maybe by making up your own stories?  Ever been camping?  How’d you enjoy music in the middle of the woods—surely by singing songs yourself. 

I’ve long been going to auctions—first with my folks, and these days, with my brother, an antiques dealer.  (It was how I initially got the idea for reinventing junk, actually—farm auctions are always full of needlework on burlap sacks or stools made from old Coke crates, etc.)  One of the coolest things I ever saw at an auction was a little boy with a black plastic trash sack.  He was at the auction with his parents, and didn’t have the distraction of any kind of screen—no iPad, iPhone, etc.  He had a black bag.  And every time I looked at him, his bag was doing something new—it was a cape, a magic carpet, wings.  I’ve honestly never seen a little boy have more fun.  He spent the entire day imagining new things to do with that bag—he even got other kids at the auction in on his adventures. 

But with a tablet computer?  That little boy would have sat alone, staring, mostly likely not having nearly as much fun.

Maybe, if Auggie had grown up in a fancier neighborhood, if she had always had access to new things, perfect things, she would not have developed her imagination to the point where she could create sculptures out of junk. 

…And maybe that’s the key for the rest of us—maybe we become better brainstormers, better problem-solvers, better storytellers if we get away from our screens and force ourselves to rely on our own imaginations…”

Thank you, Holly, for generously sharing your thoughts on socioeconomic status and the power of the imagination to enrich life at both the personal and cultural level. And bravo for creating such an appealing novel featuring folks who might not have much money but who have considerable inner resources and generous spirits.Sunshine and Lucky
Upper-elementary kids, especially creative girls, should snap up The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, now available in bookstores and libraries.
You can follow the author at Twitter: @holly_schindler, Facebook:, or you can check out her web site at

Josephine Sizzles

Just in time for Black History Month, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a vibrant biography of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and restrictions as she danced around the world.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellWith lively free verse that evokes the Roaring Twenties ragtime that Josephine Baker reveled in, the author crafts a story worthy of such a unique artist. Ms. Powell’s use of  quotes gives young readers a feeling for Josephine’s energy, drive, and creativity. This, for instance, is how the bio begins: “I shall dance all my life. … I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

She also varies the typeface, font, and size of some of the words: “She flung her arms,/she flung her legs./Like she flung her heart and her soul./’Cause DANCIN’ makes you HAPPY/when nothing’ else will.”

We follow Josephine as she leaves the slums of Saint Louis to join the Dixie Steppers in performing for audiences as far south as New Orleans, “where signs for one latrine read WHITE ladies/and another, COLORED women, where a white person wouldn’t sell you/a cup of coffee./Because you were/NEGRO.”

From there, Josephine Baker made her way to New York and finally to the City of Light, Paris, where, she recounted, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.” She was all the rage, and, unlike in segregated America, people tried to dress like her, arrange their hair like her, and tanned to look like Josephine. She would stride down the Champs-Elysees with her pet leopard, Chiquita, “each wearing a diamond choker–/as REGAL as a queen by day/as WILD as a leopard by night.”

Later, when France entered World War II, Josephine Baker joined the Red Cross and spied for the country that had given her so much. She also showed her brave, generous spirit by adopting 12 children of various races from nations around the world. She “felt the whole world was represented in her family. She called them her RAINBOW TRIBE.”

Divided into six acts, or chapters, this biography vibrates with Christian Robinson’s spirited illustrations done in acrylic paints. The abundance of bright two-page spreads will keep many a reader engaged and longing for more.

This is one DAZZLING tribute to one sassy woman. Highly recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

And don’t miss:

My post on Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu
and my post of the Coretta Scott King winner, Bryan Collier.

Martin and Mahalia Made Their Mark

That dynamic husband-and-wife duo otherwise known as the Pinkneys deliver a fresh, inspiring look at the Civil Rights Movement with their latest picture book, Martin & Mahalia: His Words Her Song. This vivid biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson reveals a significant friendship honed by common struggles, hopes, and strengths. Martin & Mahalia His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Author Andrea Davis Pinkney struts her storytelling stuff here, employing a warm, intimate tone of voice, a powerful yet simple evocation of segregation’s degrading effects on daily life, and a pleasing parallel structure that zeroes in on the two African-American heroes’ shared values and contributions to a more just society. For instance, she writes that “Martin SPOKE the gospel./PRAYED the gospel./SOUGHT the gospel./TAUGHT the gospel.” On the following page, she notes Mahalia “… SANG the gospel./WORKED the gospel./LED the gospel./SPREAD the gospel.” Not only that, the author injects a remarkable sense of movement: “Martin’s sermons and Mahalia’s spirituals told their listeners: YOU ARE HERE./ON THE PATH./COME ALONG./STEP PROUD./STAND STRONG./BE BRAVE./GO WITH ME./to a place,/to a time,/when we all will BE FREE.”

The synergy between her words and Brian Pinkney’s swirling, energetic watercolor paintings ensures a remarkable read-aloud experience, whether one-on-one or with a group. The book design choices to vary the size, font, and color of the typeface serve to pump up the story’s energy level. The illustrator reinforces the relevance of particular verbs (such as “sang,” “worked,” etc.) by encircling the subject with those same words.

Use this powerful picture book to launch discussions of the Civil Rights Movement, the power of peace and justice, and the continuing possibilities for positive change.

See also …

My prior post on Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America
and these links:

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