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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Distilled, powerful words

April 24, 2014

April is almost over and with it ends National Poetry Month. What continues, however, is what Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate, said of poetry. It is "… language at its most distilled and most powerful."

Children respond to poetry from early on — and why not? Its sounds, cadence and music are immediate and appealing. Think of Mother Goose and other nursery rhymes. They've been shared with young children for centuries.

The playfulness of traditional rhymes is called to mind in recent board books by Mary Brigid Barrett. Pat-a-Cake and All Fall Down (Candlewick) with colorful, energetic illustrations by LeUyen Pham that add to the enjoyment created by lively language just right for sharing.

Poems often make you think of things in a different way. Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Schwartz & Wade) by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas Florian (two talented and popular poets) create outrageous, improbable cars such as the "Bathtub Car" with its "hot-water heating/And porcelain seating …" or "The Sloppy-Floppy-Nonstop-Jalopy." The accessible, very funny poems are illustrated with detailed, stylized, almost surreal illustrations sure to engage and amuse readers.

One of my favorite recent collections is Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons (Scholastic) by Jon Muth. The short poems (haiku, of course) and open, appealing, evocative watercolors capture each season. Fall to summer are presented in 26 poems literally but unobtrusively arranged A to Z. Humor and understanding are embedded in the distilled language of this short form hosted by the familiar panda, Koo.

Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments (Shen’s Books/Lee & Low) by Emily Jiang combines an informative narrative and free verse from the point of view of children who play the instruments. The range of instruments — from the erhu and sheng — is largely unfamiliar to American children but realistic illustrations combine with text that culminates in a concert bringing the diverse musicians together for a grand finale.

Poetry's distilled language delights because (and I do hope Robert Frost aficionados will forgive the paraphrasing!) it can surprise by letting us remember something we didn't know we knew. And that lasts much longer than a month.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase