Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CYBILS!

In the words of the most excellent *cough* band Europe, "it's the final countdown."

To update you on what I've been doing about the CYBILS, I can tell you only this (without having to kill you, of course): I have read the five books that are nominated in my category (poetry), and I have formed Opinions about them. Many of my fellow judges seem to have read the books and formed Opinions as well. Discussions proceed apace.

If you'd like to discuss any of the nominees for any of the categories, by all means head on over to this post at the CYBILS' site and sound off. Because they are truly asking for it.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Goodbye, And Keep Cold -- a Poetry Friday post

Last night it dipped into the single digits here -- a sudden temperature plunge compliments of Canada, I suppose, even colder than the forecasters warned us it would be. They'd predicted lows in the high teens, with windchills colder still; but the starting temperatures were closer to zero than they'd said, and the windchills were not a positive sort of development.

On such a frigid Friday morning, thoughts turn to frost -- and to Robert Frost, who in 1920 published a poem about winter in the July issue of Harper's Magazine. It's an example of one of Frost's agricultural poems more so than a nature poem. Here, he contemplates an orchard he's planted on a north-facing hill on a farm. He hopes the trees won't be stripped by local animals, and that the weather won't affect its output. As he departs the farm for another locale, he recognizes that, although he enjoys his orchard, once he is engaged in other pursuits, its care and keeping will be out of his hands -- and the orchard itself will be out of mind.

Goodbye, And Keep Cold
by Robert Frost

This saying good-bye on the edge of the dark
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don't want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don't want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don't want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn't be idle to call
I'd summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don't want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm.
"How often already you've had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below."
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard's arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


Written primarily in rhymed couplets (two lines in a row ending in the same sound) and a very interesting use of meter. If this were music, it'd be in 12/8, with 4 sets of triplets to each measure (or line). Only many of the lines would start with a pick-up note.

ta-DUM-bump-bump-DUM-bump-bump-DUM-bump-bump-DAH

Until, that is, you get to the end, and everything winds to a slower stop. First, Frost departs from the rhymed couplet by adding a third rhyming line: "When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)", thereby extending that last rhymed couplet by a full line (or measure), in the way that Beethoven might have added a coda to the close of a musical piece. And I believe the use of the word "slowly" here is a direct cue to the reader to slow down, and that the pace is definitely changing. And then he adds another rhymed couplet that doesn't truly fit the earlier rhythm of the poem -- neither line has as many syllables as the earlier ones, for example, and the syllables it does have don't use the same stress patterns. The effect is not only to actually slow down the reading at the end of the poem, but to add weight to the closing couplet:

Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


And yes, you can force the last two lines to fit the DUM-bump-bump rhythm of the earlier bit of the poem, but if (or when) you do, you will think it silly to do so because it so diminishes the meaning of the lines.

So for this morning, Goodbye, and Keep Cold. Although truly, I hope you will keep yourself warm.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Building With Dad

Do you like really awesome pictures of Big Trucks and Things that Dig? Do you like them a real lot? If so, then this book is for you:




Building With Dad by Carol Nevius, illustrated by Bill Thomson is awe-inspiring for Thomson's marvelous illustrations.

The first thing you should know is that this book is printed sideways, meaning that when you're ready to open it, the spine will be on the TOP of the book. When you hold it, you will have two-page spreads that are much taller than they are wide. The illustrations are nearly photographic in their detail, and some of them are the sort of "photo" that was taken with the camera on a slant. But they really convey the size of the equipment used in construction and give a great sense of the dirt and work involved in building a school.

About the text -- it is told in lackluster rhyme, and is fairly juvenile. I found there to be a disconnect between the fairly sophisticated artwork and the very young rhyme of the text. This book is perfect for young boys who don't want to be bogged down with lots of text, but who love big trucks. In fact, the pictures are so stunning that the text is nearly unnecessary.

Buy this one for the young builder in your life, who will (I'm sure) spend hours looking at the striking pictures.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

GHOSTHUNTERS and the Totally Moldy Baroness



Last night, I read Ghosthunters and the Totally Moldy Baroness by Cornelia Funke. It's the third book in this series, newly brought over and translated into English, and it continues to rocket along. I remain puzzled by the complete absence of any mention of young Tom's family, since they were so clearly present in the first book, but hey, maybe they'll turn up again in the forthcoming fourth book: Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom! Although it sure sounds unlikely.

In The Totally Moldy Baroness, Hetty Hyssop, young Tom, and their ghostly friend, Hugo, head off to the aptly named Gloomsburg Castle to help a couple of terrified caretakers defeat a multi-acronymed ghost, the aforementioned Totally Moldy Baroness who, strangely enough, earned her nickname while alive. And here I thought it was a reference to her decayed state.

Readers familiar with the series will be surprised to know that the Baroness fits multiple ghastly, ghostly categories. She's a HIGA (HIstorical Ghostly Apparition), a GHADAP (GHost with A DArk Past), and she fits in the GHADAP subcategory of a MUWAG (MUddy WAters Ghost), which does not mean that she plays (or sings) the blues, but which refers to her manner of death. As always, the write-ups on the various types of ghosts are vastly entertaining. But more interesting is that the Baroness is also a body nabber -- she can inhabit the bodies of living humans, and when she goes, leave them with a 24-hour case of the hiccups. She also trails mud wherever she goes (on account of being a MUWAG, I suppose), making me wonder why Funke put two muddy ghosts back to back in her books (what with number four featuring mud as well, evidently).

Tom steps up his game yet again in this recent adventure, demonstrating courage under extreme stress. And Hugo, at first smitten by the Baroness, really shines in this story -- and not just because he manages to remove the Baroness's ghostly head and chuck it out the window. Another fun romp of a supernatural mystery from Cornelia Funke. Given how much I'm enjoying this series as an adult, I can say without hesitation that I'd have loved this as a kid.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Poetic Dialogue: A Poetry Friday Post

Sometimes, reading the writing of others is the impetus for inspiration. Yeesh, talk about a tortured sentence, even if it's correct. What I mean to say is that there are times in every writer's life -- and I'm including poets within that term, for what is a poet if not a particular type of writer? -- when they read something someone else wrote and it sets them off. They're so moved by what they read that they decide to write something on the subject themselves. And in that last sentence, "moved" could mean amused or impressed or enamored or angered or, well, pretty much any other sort of emotion one can think up.

Sometimes it's immediate, the poetic equivalent of The Donald and Rosie show, where one fires back right away. Other times, "responses" can be delayed. This, however, was not one of those times, inasmuch as both poems appeared in the 1590's, a fact which will undoubtedly surprise you when you consider, particularly, the second one, which could as easily come from the 20th century.

The first poem is a well-loved poem by Christopher Marlowe, a famous playwright and poet from Shakespeare's time. He was christened in early 1564, and therefore presumably born in late 1563 or early 1564. Marlowe was the son of a tradesman and a clergyman's daughter, who was one of the first (if not the first) playwright's to use blank verse in his work. He also led a life shrouded in mystery, including some sort of secret "services to the Queen" which may have included spying on the House of Stuart. Based on an analysis of his works and widespread consensus in the writings of his contemporaries at the time, Marlowe is believed to have been gay. He was killed in a tavern, allegedly over a dispute involving the tab, although the men with him at the time were all secret service (and in some cases, loan sharks as well). To say nothing of his murder occurring within a few days of his arrest for heresy. But I digress. Here, now, is his poem:

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.


Based on Marlowe's knowledge of much older Greek poems in which older men wrote in this sort of fashion to seduce younger men, this one can be read (if one chooses) as a sort of Brokeback proposition. But mostly it's read as a love poem from a man to a woman.

Not long after publication of Marlowe's poem, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a response. And yes, it's the same Sir Walter Raleigh who established the first English colony in North America, which was called Roanoke. He was about 12 years older than Marlowe, inasmuch as he is believed to have been born in 1552. He engaged in Court-sanctioned piracy against Spain on England's behalf, and richly rewarded for it. He not only planted English settlers in what is now Virginia, but also in parts of Ireland. He became a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He also struck up a romance with one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, whom he married on the sly when she was already pregnant. When the Queen eventually learned of the "unauthorized" marriage, she threw Raleigh in jail and dismissed his wife, Bess, from her service. He eventually came back into the Queen's good graces, but upon her death was thrown into the Tower of London for 13 years because he'd (allegedly) plotted to overthrow King James. Released from prison to lead an expedition to South America, he returned to England only to be beheaded at the request of a Spanish ambassador. But again, I digress.

Raleigh, an older and, to his mind, wiser poet than Marlowe, wrote a response to Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd poem which can only be read as a put-down. On the surface, the response is based on the "love's" belief in the transience of life, but really, it was intended as a criticism of Marlowe's youth and naiveté. Although at least Raleigh (apparently) gave Marlowe credit for intending the poem for a female. Here's his response:

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy Love.

But Time drives flocks from field to fold;
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward Winter reckoning yields:
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither—soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy-buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,—
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy Love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy Love.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cats and dogs, living together.

Okay, or at least reviewed in the same post.

First up? Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story by Sam Lloyd




Mr. Pusskins is one angry-looking furball. He takes his happy life with Emily for granted, as you can see from this excerpt:

And each night Emily would snuggle up in bed and read Mr. Pusskins a special story. But Mr. Pusskins never listened. The girl's constant babbling, "Blah-de-blah, blah, blah," bored his whiskers off.

So Mr. Pusskins leaves and has naughty fun in the big city, until the day he realizes he's lonely and living on the streets. I take issue with him telephoning Emily, from a pay phone, since he was totally cat-ish for the entire rest of the book. But Emily shows up and takes him home, where he ends up being a grateful, nicer cat.

Truthfully? I liked him better when he was cranky and naughty. But the irreverent voice at the start and the most excellent illustrations throughout would definitely bring me back to this one, even if it turned out to be a "message" book about how parents love you even when you're ungrateful wretch, and that you'd better straighten up and be nice.


And now for the dog book -- Jake the Philharmonic Dog by Karen LeFrak, illustrated by Marcin Baranski




In this book, Jake is adopted by a guy named Richie (who looks disconcertingly like a Ken doll crossed with Traction Man). Jake barks at birds and car horns, cowers in thunder, and wags his tail to a CD of violin music. When Richie takes Jake to work with him (at the symphonic hall), Jake barks at woodwinds and horns, cowers at percussion, and wags to the violins. He also steals the baton (inexplicably left lying on the floor, awaiting the conductor), which he later gives to the conductor, earning him applause from the audience and a regular gig delivering the baton before concerts. The end.

This book can't really decide what it is. Is it a picture book with a story about a dog, at least somewhat in the vein of The Dog Who Sang at the Opera by Jim West, illustrated by Marshall Izen and Erika Oller? Or is it a teaching guide, with labels next to each of the instruments in the orchestra and a glossary of music terms? As the savvy reader may have guessed, this book tries to be both, which makes it come off as having a bit of a split personality. It starts and ends as a story about a dog, but somewhere in the middle (and the ending glossary), it tries to be a primer on all things orchestral. Understandable, perhaps, since the author is a member of the board of directors for the New York Philharmonic, who is dedicating any royalties she receives to the orchestra. But a tad unfortunate for the reader, who must read lines like "That's not a car horn. That's a French horn!" midway through the book. To say nothing of the page spreads with labelled instruments on them. Talk about slowing down what little dramatic tension there might be. (And folks, I was a music major, so I really, truly wanted to like this book!)

Still, Jake is awfully cute, and if the reader doesn't take the time to turn the book into a teaching opportunity, kids might actually like the (semi-slight) story about a stray dog who finds not only a home, but a job at the orchestra as well.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Good and the Bad -- Sorry, for today there's no "ugly"

First the Good: Dizzy. And no, I'm not talking about myself although I can understand the mistake.



Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls is a picture book biography of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. This book pulls no (literal) punches about Dizzy's early childhood and its abusive nature, which the young trumpeter channeled into his music.

He liked to clown around and to go his own way, earning him the nickname "Dizzy". Although he started as a trumpeter in a swing band (and worked for Cab Calloway), his improvisations ran further afield until he got fired from that gig. In late-night meetings with other jazz musicians, Dizzy invented "Bebop," a style of jazz to be listened to (not for dance).

The text has a nice poetic feel to it. The drawings move from Dizzy as a small child to a larger-than-life icon. A great complement to, say, Jazz ABZ by Wynton Marsalis or Chris Raschka's John Coltrane's Giant Steps or Charlie Parker Played BeBop.

"And now for something completely different."

http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/12150000/12155315.gif


I confess to picking this one up because of its sparkly pink cover and the use of the name "Sassafras", which is inherently fun to say (and spell). Also, one of the co-author/illustrators is Dena Fishbein, of Dena Designs, one of my favorite producers of cool invitations. The other is Lynn Hirshfield, one of the folks behind the über-clever Wishbone series for PBS, who's been friends with Dena forever. (It says as much inside the back jacket.)

Sassafras: The True Confessions of a Poodle Princess has a few things going for it as a book. Pink sparkly cover? Check. Catchy title? Check. Excellent story? Well . . . let's just say you can't have everything. The main character is Sassafras, a street urchin rescued by a kind dogcatcher. The story is told from first person point of view by the dog, who has a major attitude. Two problems, off the top of my head -- (1) highly anthropomorphic dog (who wears clothes and converses with humans, evidently), yet who sometimes is depicted as very dog-like, resulting in inconsistencies; (2) the dog is really pompous and self-absorbed. As in "not particularly likeable," even when she falls from grace and is presumably taught a lesson -- otherwise, she wouldn't have the haughty tone she does in telling her story from start to finish.

I'd have to agree with the first person who reviewed it for Amazon, saying "if you're a fan of Dena's artwork this book will not disappoint you." But if you're truly a fan of good stories, this one won't make you overly happy. Although hey -- I could be wrong. Lots of mothers of pretty pink princesses appear to disagree with me.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Two book reviews for Martin Luther King Day

Both of these books are illustrated by the wonderfully talented Kadir Nelson. First up?



Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Henry Brown was born into slavery in Virginia. Interesting/startling/sad facts about slavery are incorporated seamlessly into the text. For instance, Henry doesn't know how old he is because slaves aren't allowed to know their birthdays. Also, "ownership" of Henry is easily transferred between family members. As a young man, Henry is permitted to marry a slave from another family, and they are allowed to live together (which wasn't exactly typical). When Henry's wife and children are sold and hauled away, Henry's thoughts turn to freedom. With the help of an abolitionist doctor, Henry literally mails himself to freedom. He is crated, then shipped by various means to one of the doctor's friends in Philadelphia, PA.

The illustrations are thoughtfully and exquisitely rendered. The additional biographical material at the end of the book really fills some of the gaps in the story.




MOSES: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherfod, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

A fictionalized account of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and her work on the Underground Railroad. The facts of her escape are essentially correct, but this particular telling of Tubman's story includes her thoughts and conversations with God, which is where the fictionalization comes in. The book tracks not only Harriet's physical journey to freedom, but also her spiritual journey as well. Nelson's illustrations are nearly miraculous in rendering not just the people he depicts, but their emotional states as well. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this one on the 2006 Caldecott shortlist when the awards are handed out on January 22nd. (Henry is a 2007 book, and is therefore not yet eligible.)

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Thanks a Million: a Poetry Friday book review



Thanks a Millions: Poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Cozbi S. Cabrera, is a wonderful collection of poems about gratitude for things large and small, and about the power that a simple "thank you" can contain.

The poems in this collection are in various forms. One, "Unspoken", is for two voices, and reflects the unspoken thanks of two siblings. Another is a rebus poem. Some rhyme, some don't, and there's even a haiku. The variety of forms make the book easy to read straight through.

"Dear Author" will knock the air right out of your lungs. Two pages later, "Weekends" will make you laugh out loud. "Scout's Honor" is a thank you to a friend who was the only one who didn't laugh when the "speaker" tripped in front of a crowd. And "Shelter" and "Shoe Surprise" take into account the very different family situations that some find themselves in, and will remind all readers not to take things for granted.

The illustrations echo the tone of the poems to which they're matched, with the illustration for "Shelter" showing a darkened silhouette of a family consisting of a mother and two children huddled together in a room of many cot-like beds, while some of the lighter poems have correspondingly lighter illustrations to accompany them.

For today, I'm thankful I found this wonderful book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007



Oh, the wacky exploits that are Once Upon a Banana, by Jennifer Armstrong, illustrated by David Small.

At first glance, this story appears to be virtually textless -- a monkey flees his handler, steals a banana, tosses the peel. A motorcycle rider parks where he maybe shouldn't, steps on the peel, and -- hey presto! -- things are set in motion that eventually involve shopping carts and baby carriages (complete with baby flying through the air).

However, there is a bit of text on every page, in the form of a sign. Usually a road sign, but sometimes a sign on the door of a building or a marquee or whatnot. So on each page, I'd read the sign, which mostly had some direct application to the illustration, then spend time working out what was going on in the chain of mayhem included in the book's illustrations. It was only when I read the flap copy (after I'd gone through the book the first time) that I learned that the signs allegedly rhyme. So I went through the book again and whaddya know, they do!

Plenty of hijinks in the illustrations to keep young readers amused and engaged, and the text on the signs invites interaction between an adult reader and child listener. Perfect for even the youngest of picture book fans, I think.

As a writer of picture books, I wondered very much what this manuscript looked like. My guess was lots of illustration notes, and I was right. According to a Q&A posted by Ms. Armstrong on her website, she began with her list of rhyming signs, then worked out the story to connect them all together somehow, which she included as parenthetical illustration notes. Only she didn't script the precise characters, like the juggler and the monkey and the motorcyle folk -- they were the creation of the illustrator. I found it interesting, because it seemed to me that she would've had to have scripted the monkey and juggler, but they were never hers. Now I wonder what the precise notes said even more keenly than when I first wondered if they existed. But I digress.

If you've got a two to six year old around who likes picture books, give this one a try -- I'd love to hear how it plays to actual kids!

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct



New(ish) from Mo Willems, a picture book about a modern-day dinosaur and a little boy set on proving that she doesn't exist. The little boy in this book has one of the best names ever: Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie. To say it aloud is to giggle. Particularly since a name like Reginald von Anything makes me want to try to read it in a stentorian butler voice, which makes it even funnier. And the Hoobie-Doobie bit sort of makes fun of Reginald and his presumed pedigree anyhow, I think. Mo Willems completely won my heart with this name, which is almost reason enough to read this book.

The plot is also almost reason enough to read the book. Plot summary? Edwina the dinosaur is one of the most popular creatures ever -- she plays with children, bakes excellent cookies, etc., etc. Reginald vHD resents this, because he has read a great many books and therefore knows that DINOSAURS ARE EXTINCT. He sets out to persuade his teacher and his classmates, all of whom are big Edwina fans.

Reginald falls into a funk because nobody will listen to him. "Nobody will listen to me," he says (or words to that effect, sorry, I don't have the text in front of me). But it turns out that someone will listen to him, and it's Edwina. She politely sits through his entire presentation on the fact that she is extinct. She even concedes his point. "She just didn't care. And, by then... neither did Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie." In the closing image, there's Edwina, baking cookies for Reginald.

But as a children's author, the true reason to read this book is to read a book by a writer who really, truly "gets" what it is to be a child. Mo Willems understands the concept of imagination and play better than many writers out there today. He gets that children who are perfectly aware that dinosaurs are no longer with us (not counting crocodiles and the like) are willing to play along and accept that they might. And that they might talk and do favors and play with children and bake excellent cookies. Because hey, who doesn't want a being like that to be real?

On a more serious level, through Reginald, Willems clearly expresses and illustrates the frustration that so many children feel about not being listened to properly, whether it's by their peers or by the important adults in their lives, including teachers. And Reginald is correct about dinosaurs being extinct, so he's not some boy crying "wolf", he's more "the Emperor's not wearing any clothes!" (Only nobody else is willing to listen.) Even as adults we feel this sometimes, only perhaps not as keenly as many children do. He also demonstrates the benefit that comes from hearing a child out. In this case, Edwina (filling the role of a caring adult) is shocked (and the visual on her dismay was excellent), but she concedes Reginald's point. She doesn't dwell on it, though, and Reginald's okay with that, much in the same way that a lot of children just want their thoughts to be heard and acknowledged, even if nothing really changes in response. As Kirkus noted, "The just-right resolution is a tribute to the child's rock-solid faith in how the world should be, not how it really is."

Bravo, Mr. Willems, my hat is off to you. Again.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Exercise your brain -- a Poetry Friday Post

As I've been preparing for my first-ever school visit, which will probably occur in April (the organizers are a bit uncertain at present, but I hope to nail it down very, very soon), I've been giving some thought to why it is that rhyme is used so often in children's poems. And I've figured out an answer. It may or may not be THE answer, but since I've been thinking about it, I've decided to share my thoughts with you. Aren't you lucky. Plus, I've decided that memorizing rhyme is excellent for exercising one's brain -- and I've got the research to bear me out on that one. No need to buy that new Gameboy for adults, folks, you can do wonders with poetry.

In Victorian times, many, if not most, children were taught at home (or were not taught, as the case may be). In their early youth, teaching was done by the mother or a nanny in what was known as the "nursery," a term for the room or rooms that were in-bounds for children, who were pretty much NOT given the run of the house, what with them being "seen and not heard" and all.

Also in Victorian times, rote memorization of rhymes was a big deal. You can see it skewered/parodied in Lewis Carroll's books about Alice, which involves more than one instance of Alice (or another character) being asked to "stand and recite." (You can find prior discussion of Carroll's use of parody poems here.) Also, wordplay was considered a clever conversational art back in the day, and so rhymes with double meanings or tongue-twisters or lots of alliteration were considered great fun. Yep, it's pretty much how and why nursery rhymes developed. Although I should note that some of them are actually political commentary, that started in the higher levels of society, but eventually became so commonplace (and so dissociated from their original meanings) that they were passed into the realm of children. You can read more about it in a book I once mentioned called Heavy Words Lightly Thrown.



But that's not the key point of this Poetry Friday post.

The reason that rhyme is successful with children (and, let's face it, with adults as well), is that it provides your brain with a second way of storing information. That's right, I've been doing some brain/memory research, all for you. Turns out that memories are stored in multiple ways. Kind of like cross-indexing, actually, in the great card catalogue that is your brain.

Here's a working example for you. Say I ask you to read the following and learn it. And this happens to small children across the United States and many other countries every day.

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

If you are me, you immediately burst into a song by Big Bird in which he tries to read it as a word, pronounced phonetically as Abcadefskijekyllmuhnockwerstuvwicksez, but that's not the point.

If I read the individual letters aloud to you as you look at them, you stand a slightly greater chance of remembering them.

If, however, I group them as follows:

ABCDEFG
HIJKLMNOP
QRS, TUV
WX
Y and
Z

then I've created a rhythmic rhyme scheme. Now you see the letters, hear the letters, and oh yeah -- the rhythm thing is so akin to music that it gets saved another time, and becomes much easier to recall than a simple string of letters. And hey, for good measure, we'll set it to Mozart (Twinkle Twinkle), and it'll get saved yet another time. And you will learn it very, very quickly and never, ever forget it.

Here's a quote from a study* I found summarized online:
Memory is not stored in a single location in the brain. When an experience enters the brain, it is "deconstructed" and distributed all over the cortex. The affect (or the emotional content) is stored in the amygdala, visual images in the occipital lobes, source memory in the frontal lobes, and where you were during the experience is stored in the parietal lobes. When you recall information, you have to reconstruct it. Since memories are reconstructed, the more ways students have the information represented in the brain (through seeing, hearing, being involved with, etc.), the more pathways they have for reconstructing, the richer the memory. Multimodal instruction makes a lot of sense.

Oh, and that's not all it has to say. Turns out that your memories actually decay, like so many old newspapers exposed to the heat and light of time. However, "this natural decay can be minimized by using elaborative rehearsal strategies. Visualizing, writing, symbolizing, singing, semantic mapping, simulating, and devising mnemonics are strategies that can be used to reinforce and increase the likelihood of recall. They often have the added benefit of enhancing students' understanding of concepts as well as retention."

Yep, all that rhyming and repetition helps to ensure that the memory sticks. It is stored in more places, and imprinted more strongly, because of the rhyme. Use of form poetry helps as well, due to the structure (and usually the repetition or rhyme that comes with it). Free verse just doesn't "stick" the same way, because it doesn't have as many "hooks" ready to grab onto the various places in your brain.

I've written both rhyming and non-rhyming poems, and here's the thing. I can recall most or all of my rhyming poems, even if I haven't looked at them for quite a while. I may bungle an interior word here or there, but I can get through the whole thing and give you at least 95% of it verbatim. However. If I try to recite a free verse poem that I haven't looked at in quite some time, I will usually end up summarizing what it said.

One of the best known examples of free verse is Carl Sandburg's "Fog", which is a total of 6 lines in length, containing 21 words. Some folks can do the whole thing from memory, but most people can't -- they remember the beginning, about the fog and the little cat feet, but won't recall the rest, and won't get the beginning precisely right. And yet, most people can recite "Humpty Dumpty" in an instant, and without error. It has 26 words, and is longer than "Fog," but because of its rhyme scheme, it's more easily recalled. And there are still a fair number of people who can recite all of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" by Dylan Thomas (it's a villanelle, and boasts both repetition and rhyme), "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (13 lengthy stanzas, with lots of rhyme and a catchy metre), or "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe (18 lengthy stanzas, with lots of rhyme and assonance), or "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll (7 stanzas full of nonsense words, with rhyme).

My conclusion about rhyme is that it's used with children because it sounds good, and children still delight in wordplay. And also because children will remember more of what they heard/read because of the rhyme. And if it's set to music, then so much the better for your brain.

* I should note that it's not the only study to say the same thing, just one that was more easily parsed than some others I looked at.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dear Mr. Rosenwald

Today I read, then purchased Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carol Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Gregory Christie




I figure I can tell you about it since it is NOT one of the finalists for a CYBILS award. Have I mentioned that I'm one of the judges for the first-ever CYBILS poetry award? I have? Well, that should give you some idea how excited I am about the whole thing. But I digress.

Dear Mr. Rosenwald is a rare sort of poetry picture book, because it is essentially a story told in free verse. Each two-page spread holds a picture and a poem. And the book, while a work of fiction, is based in deeply-rooted truth. The truth of the life and experience of African Americans in the south in a post-Civil War era, when they were still kept impoverished through share-cropping. The truth of black schools being in shacks and sheds, without rudimentary supplies.

And it is based in the highest-reaching sort of truth. The truth of Booker T. Washington and his work in education, and of the remarkable Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., who heard what Mr. Washington had to say and put his money up to help others find their way to a better life. He was partially responsible for the building of more than 5,000 schools for blacks. I say "partially" because he insisted that the community fund half of the project, including money from both blacks and whites.

It is beautiful and moving and true (in the best possible way). I hope you'll all get to read it. And for those of you working in the public schools, see if you can get your hands on this one for Black History Month. Because although Julius Rosenwald wasn't black, the story in this book isn't really about him -- it's about a group of poor sharecroppers (and some former slaves) who came together to make a better life for their kids.