For young children:
Many picture books for very young children are already in verse (ask any adult who has ever read Sandra Boynton’s “The Going to Bed Book”). But “Whoo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story” by Massachusetts author Maria Gianferrari, beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Voss, explores the drama and danger of nesting owls in 24 sweet haiku. Kids can try their own haiku or learn more about the life cycle of owls in the appendix.
Also note the beautiful “In the woods” by New Hampshire resident David Elliott. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought closer encounters with nature. But when are we too close? Elliott reminds readers to give the skunk prominence and plays with the form of the poem in “The Millipede”, with the dramatic opening lines that mimic the movement of a centipede:
"You are a detri vore a word I’d nev er heard before."
Even the youngest children will know that the words sound “funny”, giving them permission to see poetry as play. Rob Dunlavey’s beautiful illustrations highlight animals and their habitats.
Or, maybe you have a young reader in your life who really loves…trucks. The awesome anthology “Building People” edited by the late Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Ellen Shi, includes several poems by New England poets: Ralph Fletcher’s persona poem “Cement Speaks” (“Slow, slow, slow. / That’s how I go”) and “Construction Project Manager” by Matt Forrest Esenwine (“we gotta build this in time!”). An example that shows that poetry can be about anything and for anyone.
For intermediate level readers:
Connecticut author Susan Hood “The last straw: children against plastic”, a picture book in verse, perfect for another April holiday: Earth Day. Through mostly rhyming poems, Hood introduces children to the various environmental impacts of plastics, especially on marine life. I like Hood’s down-to-earth approach to activism (“Goof up? Fix up!”) and his focus on novel solutions, like plastic-digesting caterpillars. Hood includes a “Sources and More” section for more information, but best of all is his “Poetry Notes”; each poem in his collection is an example of a different poem form, including the elegy, the ode, and even the triplet. Making these forms accessible invites children and adults to try writing their own. Illustrations by Christiane Engel.
“The Right Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other Practical Poems”, edited by Paul B. Janeczko, introduces young readers and writers to one of my favorite forms of free verse poetry: how to make a poem. This beautiful anthology includes well-known poems that older readers will recognize, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing,” as well as 19th-century writer Christina Rossetti’s very modern-sounding pancake poem (“How to Mix a Pancake”). . Massachusetts poets are well represented here: Elaine Magliaro “How to Be a Mole” and “How to Read Braille” by Steven Winthrop. Illustrated by Richard Jones.
For YA and adult readers:
Verse novels are hugely popular with YA readers these days, but Melanie Crawford “Audacity” is a historical verse fiction, based on the life of Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish immigrant who became a prominent voice in labor organizing. Crawford’s short lines lend a quiet power to Lemlich’s experiences both as a child adjusting to a new country and language, and as a young woman working in the garment industry with little protection. Refusing to accept her working conditions, Lemlich became a leader of the Uprising of 20,000, the 1909 strike against the shirt industry.
“is not burned all the gloss” by acclaimed author Jason Reynolds (with illustrations by Jason Griffin) is a must read. Published just a few months ago, Reynolds reminds us how poetry slows us down in the most important way: slow enough to see ourselves and the burning world, even when it’s easier to look away. Reynolds turns three lines of prose into 300 magnificent pages; the result is something like a found poem, an elegy, and a message in a bottle, reminding us that “we can be fine.”
To finish, “You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Who Become Themselves”, edited by Diana Whitney of Vermont, is the anthology I wish I had as a teenager, navigating a world of self-doubt and sudden anger. Whitney includes one of my favorites, Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like a Girl”, as well as Lucille Clifton’s “Tribute to My Hips”, Evie Shockley’s “Coming of Age” and “Final Exam Stephanie by Cambridge poet Stephanie Burt. Do not dare, recall this collection of voices, let anyone decide your life for you.
Rachel Becker is a poet, writer and teacher of English and creative writing at Newton South High School. She can be reached at [email protected].