Category Archives: Poetry

go hug a dog: if dogs run free – illustrated by Scott Campbell

if dogsI have discovered that spending your day with many three, four, and five-year-olds results in an intense desire to read Books for Grown Ups. So my pleasure reading has consisted pretty much entirely of adult books since the beginning of September for the first time in years. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I’m enjoying my time in Grown Up Reading Land. This will explain why – for the moment at least – you’ll be seeing a steady stream of picture book reviews here at Shelf Elf.

if dogs run free is illustrator Scott Campbell’s quirky interpretation of Bob Dylan’s song. Here’s the beginning:

If dogs run free, then why not we
Across the swooping plain?
My ears hear a symphony
Of two mules, trains,
and rain.
The best is always yet to come,
That’s what they explain to me.

It’s hard to really sum up what Dylan’s song is about; certainly a younger audience will probably experience some “huh?” moments with these lyrics, and have some trouble teasing a take home message out of the words. Probably something along the lines of, enjoy life (the best is always yet to come), be yourself (just do your thing), and love each other ([true love] can cure the soul, it can make it whole). Or maybe even, “Dogs are awesome.”

The thing is, Campbell’s illustrations are so full of energy and joy and kooky-ness that it hardly matters if Dylan’s text doesn’t come off as made for picture book interpretation. It’s the pictures that convey the spirit of the song more than anything. A little girl and her brother and their trusty pooch race all over the place together, meeting dogs wherever they go and having a blast no matter where they are and what they’re doing. The important thing when reading this book is not to over-think things, and I know that most kids are pretty good at this. I imagine they will get a kick out of the crazy canine action on every page. It’s the sort of picture book that has so much detail in the illustrations that every time you read you are going to notice something new.

A whimsical ode to childhood and dogs, if dogs run free will leave readers grinning and glad to be alive.

(Warning: sure to inspire feelings of “I want a puppy” in small people. Parents, don’t say I didn’t tell ya).

if dogs run free is published by Atheneum.


Day 13, book 13: Think Big by Liz Garton Scanlon

Part of the fun of my 30 Days, 30 Picture Books Plan is discovering some new favourite illustrators. Am I ever glad I ordered Think Big from the library, because Vanessa Brantley Newton is the latest illustrator to make it onto my list of favourites. It makes me think that there must be so many brilliantly talented people out there whose work I’ve never seen, but would love if I did. That’s exciting, isn’t it?

Thing Big has TEACHER written all over it. I’m sure it will get a lot of circulation when I get a copy for my library, since it would be the perfect read aloud to launch an art class… or drama class… or music class…or photography class… or any class, since it’s really about taking risks, embracing creativity, and being a thinker. It’s a celebration of creating and cooperating through art, music, theater, cooking, dance, pottery, crafts and more.

Liz Garton Scanlon’s text is a bouncy, perfectly crafted poem that captures big ideas in the fewest possible words. No page has more than four words, which could be the launching point for a cool poetry lesson on what it means to pare ideas down. Since I first read the book, I’ve been thinking that I need to make a big poster to hang in the library to show off the fantastic ending to Scanlon’s poem:

Big breath,
Brave heart
Ready, set
Make art!

Vanessa Brantley Newton’s art is full of so much energy and spirit that you can practically feel the creative juices bubbling up inside of you as you notice the details on every page. She uses gouache and collage elements to put together scenes that delight on first glance but even more as you notice the clever details when you take a closer look, like the real rainbow tutu on the dancing cat, and the way that thematically appropriate dictionary definitions, for words like “inspire” and “happy” and “future,” are integrated into the collages at various points.

This book is full of kids who “do.” I love this, because that’s what learning and living is. I don’t think it could be communicated and celebrated any better than it is in Thing Big. Kinda makes me want to cheer, and then pass it on. The perfect pep talk for artists everywhere.

Think Big is published by Bloomsbury.

Day 8, book 8: I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman

Confession: I don’t much like old clothes. I was raised by a woman who passed on to me her undying love of J. Crew catalogs and expensive things. (You’re the best Mom). And so, I was never destined to be a thrift store shopper. As pretty as they might look on etsy, vintage shoes sort of gross me out. In all honesty, sometimes when I try something on in a store and I think about the fact that at least one person has probably tried this very item on before me, I’m not so cool with the idea. It is therefore surprising that after reading I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Patrice Barton, I feel a twinge of inspiration to go hunting for my own pre-loved treasure.

This has to be one of the loveliest little books I’ve read in a while. It has charmed me completely. I am going to stop hugging it now so that I can put it down and look at it properly and tell you all of the things I like about it. First (and foremost), the illustrations are heavenly. I had not come across Patrice Barton’s work until today, and now I plan on ordering all of the picture books that she has ever illustrated for the school library. The illustrations are soft, with a warm and smudgy, almost worn quality to them, which perfectly matches the theme of Hoberman’s poem. Barton uses a variety of textures and patterns on top of and against each other to mimic the appearance of different fabrics, all of them well-loved and a little washed out. Everything blends and goes outside the lines to create a sense of imperfection, but also liveliness and movement. I pretty much want to have one of Patrice’s pictures framed on the wall in my bedroom.

And if the illustrations alone aren’t enough to put you in a smiley kind of mood, Hoberman’s words should do the trick.

“I like old clothes.
I really do.
Clothes with a history,
Clothes with a mystery,
Sweaters and shirts
That are brother-and-sistery…”

The text doesn’t really have a narrative line, and that’s fine. It’s an exploration and pure celebration of the wonders of old stuff. In an age when everyone, including children, covets the new, I’d say there couldn’t be a better time to read this picture book and consider its message. I’ll bet you’ll fall head over heels for the whimsy and sweetness here, just like I did. Maybe there’s room in my closet for some “not-my-own-clothes” after all.

I Like Old Clothes is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Book Speak! Poems About Books

Whenever I come across a great new picture book poetry collection, it takes me no time at all to think of all sorts of possible lesson ideas for the small people I hang out with everyday. One of Laura Purdie Salas’s most recent books, Book Speak! Poems About Books, has to be every Teacher Librarian’s happy place. A book filled with poems about books? Yes please! It is loaded with read-aloud possibility. It would be a wonderful book to integrate into library welcome tours in September. Guess I’m ready for next year already. Check!

The collage artwork by illustrator, Josee Bisaillon, offers a quirky and whimsical counterpoint to Salas’s clever and thought-provoking verses. Some of the subjects for the poems include: the sadness of an unread book, cliffhangers, falling asleep while reading, book plates, conflict, and what happens when the lights go out at the bookstore (which we already know about, thanks to this).

I think the book trailer is pretty adorable – great concept that links perfectly with the title and I think could easily inspire kids to write a poem or two in the voice of a book:

Book Speak! Poems About Books is published by Clarion.

The Dancing Pancake

With some books, it’s the cover that gets you. With this one, it was the title that sold it: The Dancing Pancake. A-dor-able. (Not that there’s anything shabby about the cover here. It’s Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s handiwork, and the whimsical sweetness is perfect match for Spinelli’s story). Everything about this little gem is sweet and carefully crafted. It’s a lovely middle-grade read.

When I saw it was a verse novel, I confess, I was a tiny bit disappointed. In general, I don’t enjoy verse novels as well as prose, and middle grade verse novels can be particularly tricky because I often think that it’s hard to create a believable middle grade voice through poetry. Spinelli’s The Dancing Pancake proves the exception. She gets her main character’s voice just right. There’s nothing in the poetry that seems a stretch given the age of the main character.

Bindi’s life changes in a big way with her parents’ separation. Her dad moves to another city to look for a job and Bindi and her mom have to move out of their house into an apartment. Bindi’s mom and aunt decide to open a café in the shop beneath the apartment, and The Dancing Pancake fills Bindi’s life with even more unexpected people and situations.

The pen-and-ink illustrations add even more heart and humour to Spinelli’s words. They made me think a little of Clementine. I liked that the novel succeeded in communicating the complexity of emotion that a child feels when change happens. Change can be exciting and awful all at once, and you really get that in this novel. Spinelli manages to create a verse novel that is accessible, engaging and thought-provoking, where family makes life difficult and better all at once.

The Dancing Pancake is published by Knopf.

Poetry Friday: Oh the places you’ll go

I just returned from my first Grade 8 graduation. (As a teacher, that is. Don’t worry folks, I made it through Grade 8). It was lovely and touching, full of dangerously-short dresses and new suits and crazy high heels. The shoes. Wow. I saw some seriously gorgeous shoes. Carrie Bradshaw eat your heart out. I swear there was a pair that looked something like this:

It is a problem when you see that the fourteen-year-olds have way more beautiful shoes than you have ever owned. This will be rectified. I need me some blue gladiator platform sandals. Pronto.

You’ve got to have dreams to wear shoes like that, don’t you think?

So here’s a tiny bit from an oft-quoted favourite around grad time, by Mr. Seuss, Oh the places you’ll go:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, and you know what you know.
And you are the one who’ll decide where you’ll go.

Oh the places you’ll go.”

Happy graduation Class of 2010!

(BTW – reviews soon. Way too sleepy right now).

Poetry Friday: Parents & their Children

Though I’m not a parent, my job lets me see parents and their children on a daily basis. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t consider the mysterious and complicated and sometimes troubled relationship between parent and child.

This week at the hot docs film festival, I saw a lovely documentary about a parent letting his daughter go off into the world away from him for the first time. It’s called The Kids Grow Up. It was funny and touching and it made me think about how fast time goes, particularly when it comes to childhood. Here’s the trailer:

You must see it if you get the chance. Now here’s a poem about the holding-close of parenting, from a mother to her child:

To a Child
– by Sophie Jewett

The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
Hearken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
Before the world grew old,

I was a dreaming forest tree,
You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
Because the north wind stirred;

How, when the chiding gale was still,
When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
My dream with singing, dear…

Read the rest here.

Poetry Friday: This is Just to Say

This is just to say…

kids are awesome.

My Grade 4 lovelies are going to be writing apology poems, inspired by Joyce Sidman’s genius collection, This is Just to Say.

So today, we read and played around with William Carlos Williams’ famous poem, and at recess, two of my girls performed “their own version,” which they had just composed together two seconds before.

Here’s the original:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Now here’s the girls’ poem:

This is Just to Say

I hate you

the plums
that I sent you
to say sorry
were bad

P.S. I lied
about the plums I ate
being cold
and sweet

I think you should know
by now

It’s days like today that make teaching fabulous.

Poetry Friday: April Rain Song

It really hasn’t rained much around here this April, but I have been enjoying the bright song of the cardinals on my walk to school. Isn’t this little sopping red fellow adorable?  Here’s a classic spring rain poem:

April Rain Song – by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night—

And I love the rain.

(From Poetry Foundation. Photo from stockxchng).