National Poetry Month 2020

This April, enjoy poetry with middle-graders — and find more for all ages on

Up Verses Down: Poems, Paintings, and Serious Nonsense
by Calef Brown; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Ottaviano/Holt    80 pp.
6/19    978-0-8050-9929-4    $19.99

Brown (Soup for Breakfast, rev. 3/09; Hypnotize a Tiger, rev. 3/15) presents poems categorized by subject (“People Are People”; “Foodstuffs”; “Sleepy Time”), and bracketed by poetry about poetry: “Rules are less crucial than trains of thought. / Following tracks. Making connections. / Stopping off at intersections.” Even the appended writing prompts are written in verse: “Choose an object to anthropomorphize / something inert you can humanize.” Brown’s poetry here is mostly free-flowing, though still full of clever rhymes (“I’d like to tell you something. / I hope you can handle this: / I’m a Sleepstealer. / A Kleptosomnambulist”) and wordplay (“All the neighborhood dogs / have been curfewed / due to an ongoing cur feud”). His signature color-saturated acrylic-and-gouache paintings are as absurd as ever, but with the added realistic element of a diverse human cast. Some of the poems come with messages (“It may not be gorgeous, / my family tree, / but I love all the leaves— / they look perfect to me”), but for the most part the collection sends the message that language is there for creative play. Hand this to readers with active imaginations, particularly if they’re writers themselves. SHOSHANA FLAX

I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage
compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins; illus. by various artists
Intermediate    Lee & Low    60 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-62014-311-7    $19.95

Fourteen writers contribute poems that speak to their ethnic heritage. A full-page illustration by a different artist accompanies each piece, with much varie­ty to ensure wide appeal. The poems, too, range in type, from more traditional rhyme schemes (“My Quinceañera” by Guadalupe García McCall) to conversational pieces (“Amazing Auntie Anne” by Cynthia Leitich Smith) to stream of consciousness (“Here’s What I Remember” by Kwame Alexander). Certain oft-seen themes crop up, such as the importance of extended family, whose “hidden roots still give you strength” (“Rez Road” by Joseph Bruchac). Margarita Engle writes, in “La visita,” that during visits with her abuelita, she would not only learn to embroider but would “begin to feel like a wise old cubana / while she becomes young and American.” While many writers celebrate their differences, others note difficulties: Nick Bruel describes the challenge of having to check just one ethnicity box on a form, while Janet Wong describes a classmate’s taunts to “say something Korean.” The placement of page-turns amidst multipage poems, and with interspersed full-page illustrations, may occasionally cause confusion. But the art itself — by sixteen illustrators including Simone Shin, Sean Qualls, and Michele Wood (and with artist statements accompanying each one) — is compelling enough that viewers will enjoy seeing what those page-turns bring. Chock-full of information, this multifaceted collection invites repeated perusal. Appended with brief contributor bios featuring current and childhood photos. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom
by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Michele Wood
Primary, Intermediate    Candlewick    56 pp.    g
4/20    978-0-7636-9156-1    $17.99

“I entered the world a slave…I was a slave because my countrymen had made it lawful, in utter contempt of the declared will of heaven.” Our introduction to Henry Brown in the opening lines of the book are in his own words (from Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself). The history of Henry Brown — who self-emancipated from enslavement after his wife and children were sold away by shipping himself North in a wooden crate, hoping to “pass as dry goods” — has been told before (see Henry’s Freedom Box, rev. 3/07). Here, Weatherford’s moving, poetic verse gives the story a very personal tone as the reader becomes immersed in Brown’s harrowing tale of loss and sorrow and his determination to be free. Written in sixains, with each line representing a side of a box, the text painstakingly traces Brown’s journey: “I take a bladder of water and a drill to bore air holes / And cram my two-hundred-pound body into the box.” The mixed-media art uses collage elements effectively. Deep reds and bright blues and greens figure prominently, giving the art a somewhat vintage feel while still being vivid and vibrant. The book ends powerfully with a sixain titled “AXIOM”: “Freedom / Is / Fragile. / Handle / With / Care.” Appended with a timeline, a bibliography, and notes from the illustrator and the author. MONIQUE HARRIS

Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson
by Jen Bryant; illus. by Cannaday Chapman
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School    Abrams    48 pp.
11/19    978-1-4197-3653-7    $17.99

Beloved African American playwright August Wilson, known for his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle and other dramas, is introduced to young readers in this elegant picture-book biography. Born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in 1945, Wilson was raised by his single mother in the diverse Hill District of Pittsburgh, awash in a rich medley of languages, people, and cultures. Struggling against discrimination and racial violence from a young age (including being called the n-word, spelled out in full in the text), Wilson was sustained by his love of words — from the squiggles on food labels that he sounded out at age four all the way to the powerful voices of Black authors whose work he discovered at the public library. As an adult, Wilson listened intently to the people around him as he found his own way with words through poetry and eventually plays, giving voice to his own and other Black experiences. That power of words is central to this book: Bryant’s well-researched and well-crafted text is deftly spun into two acts (childhood and adulthood) of freeform poems. Chapman’s clear, intimate, mixed-media art appears throughout the thoughtfully designed pages, further drawing readers into the world of this powerhouse dramatist. The extensive back matter includes an author’s note, a biographical timeline, bibliographic notes, and a list of Wilson’s plays. ANASTASIA M. COLLINS

From the April 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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