Thursday, March 1, 2012

Technically, It's Not My Fault: Concrete Poems by John Grandits

Grandits, J. Technically, It's Not My Fault Jacket Cover. 2004. From

Grandits, John. 2004. TECHNICALLY, IT’S NOT MY FAULT: CONCRETE POEMS. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 9780618428335

This humorous and clever book features concrete poems written from the perspective of 11 year old Robert. Through these highly visual and witty poems, Robert gives us a snapshot of his life, his family, and the unique workings of his imaginative mind. The visual nature of the poems makes the book feel interactive and the familiar subject matter, from school to baseball, annoying sisters to nagging parents, make this collection attractive to kids, especially boys.

This creative collection of unrhymed poetry is intriguing and attractive from the front cover, which features the title poem, all the way to the author’s note about writing poetry and presented as a concrete poem. The highly visual poems focus on the image the words create on the page, rather than auditory rhythm. However, Grandits has chosen his words well, for when the poems are read aloud it is unquestionably the voice of an 11 year old boy.

The illustrations behind and around the poems often include additional text and provide context, often funny or ironic, to the poems. Each of the poems ends with a twist that makes you laugh (and sometimes groan). The tone is conversational with lots of wordplays and puns, such as, “It’s Not Fair,” in which Robert wraps his sister’s math homework around a firecracker and sets it off in a blaze of algebraic glory. Robert is grounded, but he gets the last word, “And my parents made me apologize to my sister. But it’s not all bad. Now she’s not talking to me.”

Onomatopoeias, as well as 32 different fonts of varying sizes, are used frequently and to great effect. For instance, in the poem, “On the Stairs in the Middle of the Night,” the reader can hear and see Robert as he stumbles down the stairs.

The topics of the poems will be familiar and accessible to kids in grades 4-8, particularly boys. The subjects are sometimes grossly funny, such as “The Autobiography of Murray the Fart.” But this will probably be a pro rather than a con to boys, especially those who enjoyed series books, such as CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS and THE DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. This comic collection is a great way to introduce kids because the poems are contemporary, relevant, and outrageously funny.

ALA Notable Books for Children

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Grandits crafts an 11-year-old protagonist, Robert, whose perspective throughout is authentically adolescent. He is both immature and intelligent, and delights in all things gross as can be seen in such offerings as "The Autobiography of Murray the Fart," "Spew Machine," and "Sick Day."”

Review in BOOKLIST: “The Autobiography of Murray the Fart, written in lines that flow from a soda can-shaped block to a thin line that turns into intestinelike loops, will, like the other selections in this winning, highly creative collection, convince readers that poetry can be loud, outrageous, gross fun.”

Review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Grandits (Pictures Tell Stories) weaves Robert's portrait in distorted letterforms, language mazes and comic first-person narration. A technically (and imaginatively) inspired typeface experiment.”

*Discuss how the typeface a word affects the poem. If you changed the font would the meaning of the poem change? 
*Have students write journal entries as concrete poems.
*Have students create their ideal roller coaster in a concrete poem, as Robert does in the poem, “Spew Machine.”
*Other collections of concrete poems for kids:
Janeczko, Paul B. 2005. A POKE IN THE I: A COLLECTION OF CONCRETE POEMS. Ill. by Chris Raschka. ISBN 9780763623760
Burg, Brad. 2002. OUTSIDE THE LINES. Ill. by Rebecca Gibbon. ISBN 9780399234460
Graham, Joan Bransfield. 1999. FLICKER FLASH. Ill. by Nancy Davis. ISBN 978039590512
*Other poetry collections about being a middle/high school student
George, Kristine O’Connell. 2002. SWIMMING UPSTREAM: MIDDLE SCHOOL POEMS. ISBN 978061815206
Holbrook, Sara. 1997. THE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK. Ill. by Reuben Martin. ISBN 9781563976384
Holbrook, Sara. 1997. I NEVER SAID I WASN’T  DIFFICULT. Ill. by Reuben Martin. ISBN 9781563976391

Mathematickles! by Betsy Franco, Illustrated by Steven Salerno

Salerno, S. Mathematickles Jacket Cover. 2003. From!
Franco, Betsy. 2003. MATHEMATICKLES! Ill. by Steven Salerno. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. ISBN 0639843577

This colorful poetry collection explores and celebrates the four seasons with short poems that use mathematical symbols, formats, and ideas. These visually stimulating poems are arranged by season, starting with fall and ending with summer. Salarno’s playful illustrations use broad brush strokes and swaths of color to create backgrounds that compliment, rather than overpower the poems. Although plot-less, the illustrations feature a young girl and her cat that experience the season along with the reader and serve to bring the separate poems together.

This delightful and creative collection of poems is an exercise in brevity and innovation. A few of the longer poems rhyme and use devices such as onomatopoeias; however most of the poems are too short to rhyme. The emphasis is on choosing the perfect words and mathematical symbols to create equations and graphs. In many ways Franco poems can be viewed as mathematical rebuses, therefore it is important that the poems be shared visually as well as aurally. In addition to mathematics, Franco varies the font size to convey meaning in her bite-sized poems.

The book is organized by the four seasons, beginning with fall and cycling through to end with summer. This not only gives the poems a logical sequence, but also drives the pace of the book forward. The illustrations are dynamic and inviting. The girl and feline provide visual interest and context to the poems by interacting with their seasonal surroundings, yet they never pull focus from the poems, which are arranged to pop to the forefront of the page. The author’s note at the beginning of the book provides a nice introduction and explanation of this concept-rich collection.

Although younger children will delight in the poems that use addition and subtraction, the book targets 9-12 year olds who are learning about long division, graphs, fractions, and other mathematical symbols and ideas. This collection would be a great way to attract children who identify better with numbers and mathematical ideas than with words. Conversely, this book can be used to bridge the gap between numbers and letters for children who have an aversion to math.

Review from THE SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Words + math + seasons = an enchanting collection of poems in an unusual format. Salerno's energetic, angled impressions of autumn trees and animals lead into the ice, snow, sledding, and sneezing of winter, followed by the rain, flowers, and new life of spring and the barefoot fun of lazy days and sudden summer storms.”

Review from THE HORN BOOK: “The four seasons provide the framework for a poetry book made up entirely of equations and graphs, each one encapsulating with exquisite brevity a seasonal sight or experience.”

Review from THE SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “These cleverly conceived and lively little poems teasingly blend words with mathematical concepts and symbols. Imaginative double-page, watercolor-and-gouache illustrations rev up the fun, season by season.”

Review from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “This book's jazzy, wholly original approach elevates basic mathematical concepts plus wordplay to the level of inspiration.”

*Write your own Mathematickles. As a group choose a topic and then brainstorm words on that subject. For instance, if it the topic was cooking you might come up with a list that includes: whisk, stove, hot, cold, chop, slice, vegetables, soup. Then use those words to add and subtract: chicken + rice = homemade comfort.
*Use more abstract/complex topics for creating poems with middle school and high school students. Try using emotions or creating poems based on a book the class has been reading. Older kids will be able to move beyond addition/subtraction to use fractions, algebraic equations, graphs, etc.
*Use this book as an introduction to using symbols as placeholders for unknown variables. Write the poems on the board using a symbol or letter to represent the missing word and ask the kids to “solve” the equation.

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck by Margarita Engle

Bleck, C., Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck Jacket Cover. 2011. From
Engle, Margarita. 2011. HURRICANE DANCERS: THE FIRST CARIBBEAN PIRATE SHIPWRECK. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 9780805092400

Based on historical events of the early 1500’s, this unrhymed verse novel follows Quebrado, a young slave boy on a pirate ship, Bernardino de Talavera, the first pirate of the Caribbean Sea, and the pirate’s hostage, conquistador Alonso de Ojeda, as they ride through a hurricane on the pirate ship. The storm wrecks the ship and the three manage to survive by making it to the shores of Cuba. There they meet a young Ciboney Indian fisherman, Narid├│, and the daughter of the Ciboney chief, Caucub├║. Each of these characters contributes their voice in short, evocative poems that simultaneously describe and reveal the setting, emotions, and events of this story. Although each of these characters must face a hurricane of life and death situations, situations that question the things they hold dear, such as family, home, survival, community, it is the decision to remain hopeful that drives each of them forward.

Written in unrhymed verse, this book is divided into six parts. It is prefaced with a cast of characters and ends with an author’s note, a historical note, and a list of references. It is worth the extra time to read the short, but well-researched historical information; otherwise the abrupt introduction of characters or circumstances may cause confusion. For instance, teens will be familiar with slavery in the United States, but this book brings attention to issue of slavery in the Caribbean.

Each of the short poems begins by describing events, emotions, or surroundings; however the last few lines use the descriptive foundation to reveal new information about the story or the characters. The revelatory nature of the poems maintains a sense of urgency and suspense throughout the book, keeping the historical novel firmly planted in the present tense.  

The addition of the fictional teenage Quebrado provides a point of entry for the book’s intended audience, teens ages twelve and up. Although Quebrado is forced into many cruel situations, he never loses hope. Engle never allows this teen character to wallow too long in misery and this keeps the book moving forward, “Now, each time I think of home, / I remember that the world / is big enough to offer more than sorrow.” In addition to the theme hope in the midst of despair, the poetry also explores the universal teenage search for identity through this divided and broken character.

The language is full of figurative language. For instance, the ship and the hurricane are nearly fully developed characters on their own. The other characters speak of them as if they have lives – present, past, and future. As the hurricane gathers strength, Quebrado speaks of the sky being alive with “cloud dragons and wind spirits” And in the opening poem he describes the song of the ship as she remembers “her true self, / her tree self” Unfortunately, at times it feels as if there are too many characters perspectives that water down the narrative with subplots rather than enriching the story.

The poetry pulls the reader into the world of the novel, but at times it seems as through the lines have been broken up arbitrarily. Although it is clear each word has been chosen with care, would the poetry lose its potency if the lines were presented in a paragraph rather than in lines? On the other hand, verse novels are very popular with reluctant readers who may find the short lines of text less intimidating. Finally, the resolution seems abrupt; however it is also very open-ended. This leaves the reader yearning to learn more about these intriguing characters.

Pura Belpre Award Nominee
ALA Notable Books for Children

Review in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Still, the subject matter is an excellent introduction to the age of exploration and its consequences, showing slavery sinking its insidious roots in the Americas and the price paid by those who were there first.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Written in unrhymed verse and from alternating characters' perspectives, Hurricane Dancers provides a much more nuanced, personal, and thought-provoking imagining of what really happened when diverse cultures began colliding in the Caribbean in the late 15th and early 16th century.”

Starred review in BOOKLIST: “While the shifting perspectives create a somewhat dreamlike, fractured story, Engle distills the emotion in each episode with potent rhythms, sounds, and original, unforgettable imagery. Linked together, the poems capture elemental identity questions and the infinite sorrows of slavery and dislocation, felt even by the pirate's ship...”

Recommended review in LIBRARY MEDIA CONNECTION: “While there are some historical figures in the story. Quebrado is a strong fictional character who is trying to find his place in the world. If provided with some guidance and background information, students will enjoy reading this book about pirates and hurricanes.”

*The title of the book is HURRICANE DANCERS. Before reading the book ask the students what they think this means. After reading the book, ask the same question.
*Before reading the book ask the students where and who slavery affected. What other countries/peoples have had to deal with issues of slavery?
*Bring a map to chart the course of the ship in the book. How many miles was it? How many days would it have taken to travel that far? Quebrando mentions that the ship can go no faster than 5 knots, how fast is a knot?
*El quebrado means “The broken one” and Quebrado describes himself as divided person. What parts of him are divided? The last line of the last poem reads, “I am whole.” What has he done to become whole?