A few days ago, I scanned my many bookshelves in anticipation of writing this piece. My charge was to assemble a small stack of books that had significance to me. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll write about my love for mysteries. After all, I spent countless hours as a young girl devouring the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries before moving on to Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, and Sara Paretsky. Or maybe, I thought, I could write about my love for memoir. To me, well-crafted memoir is a gift. It provides an insider’s view — the weight of a personal story that expands my knowledge and understanding of events and experiences that are foreign to me.
Both mystery and memoir would have been fun to write about and each would have given some insight into how books have shaped my life. I know, though, if I’m going to be honest, with me it all comes down to poetry.
I have loved poetry from the beginning and I have written poetry across the years: in elementary school where holidays were always a favorite topic; as a teenager and in college where the predominant theme was relationships; and as an adult with a strong bent toward nature writing. And because poetry was always a big part of my life, I shared it with my daughters, cultivating a love of poetry in them that lasts to this day.
Which books mattered most? There are so many — it’s hard to say. Here’s a small sampling, though, that made a difference for me.
As you see in the photo, my first book – the book at the top of the stack – has no cover and no spine. It did once, of course, but I have no memory of that. I am sure it suffered wear and tear in my hands and the hands of my six siblings. It also endured many cross country moves.
Why is this book special? This book was my mom’s when she was a little girl. It’s a 1938 edition of 200 Best Poems for Boys and Girls compiled by Marjorie Barrows for the Whitman Publishing Company. When this book was finally passed down to me, I didn’t give it up.
As a girl, I read and reread the poems in this book. I memorized and recited them. The book is full of well-known and lesser known children’s poems about frogs and trees and pirates and goblins. It made my imagination soar. It also introduced me to the wry, clever poems of Ogden Nash whose “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” is still a favorite. It starts like this:
Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,
And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.
Now the name of the little black kitten was Ink,
And the little gray mouse, she called her Blink,
And the little yellow dog was sharp as Mustard,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.
As you might imagine, a rollicking story unfolds in this poem revealing that all isn’t as it seems and Custard plays a surprising role! I love to share this poem with kids when I do school visits. It sparks laughter and conversation. Look it up, you’ll love it, too.
The next book in the stack was another childhood favorite, A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. I long ago lost my own copy of this book (remember the multiple cross country moves?). The one in the photo is the copy I bought for my daughters when they were little. I have memories of sneaking away to a quiet place with this and other books — not an easy task in a house with seven kids. Lucky for me, one of the last houses we lived in was a refurbished boarding house. It had a big walk in linen closet that I treated as my personal reading room. I’d gather my books, pull the string on the light fixture, shut the door against the noise, and lie among the blankets and pillows, relating mightily to Milne’s “Solitude”:
I have a house where I go
When there’s too many people,
I have a house where I go
Where no one can be;
I have a house where I go,
Where nobody ever says “No”;
Where no one says anything — so
There is no one but me.
The next two books in the photo are from a wide shelf of poetry books my husband and I shared with our daughters as they grew up. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children includes poems by so many wonderful children’s poets. Its pages are dog-eared and smudged. We read it over and over. It makes me think of blankets and pajamas and cuddling on the couch. Good memories.
Our daughters also loved every one of Shel Silverstein’s books. This copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends (which long ago lost its dust jacket) shows how well loved his books are. We still reminisce about our favorites. Does anyone remember “Warning” featuring a Sharp Toothed Snail? My girls still laugh about that one. One of my favorites is “Hug O’ War”:
I will not play at tug o’war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war.
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug.
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.
Not a bad sentiment for today’s times, huh!
The remaining books in the stack are important for many reasons. Among other things, they represent my love for reading and writing nature poems. Morning Earth is by John Caddy, a wonderful poet and naturalist who taught the first poetry class I dared take at The Loft. For years, John emailed a poem a day to teachers and classrooms all over the world. In doing so, he made poetry — and nature — more accessible to kids. Here is one of his poems, titled “November 26”:
In a snowy field
three juncos feed.
Their weight curves down
the stalks of weeds
as they pluck the fuel
the fire needs.
The next books in the stack, Poets of Boca Grande and Amethyst and Agate, contain poems from two of my favorite natural places: Florida’s gulf coast and Lake Superior. I often buy poetry books when I travel.
The final books, The Cuckoo’s Haiku (a gift from a writer friend) and Song of the Water Boatman, are books I use with students when I am visiting schools. Reading and writing short poems is a great warm up exercise for young writers. I also use these books as mentor texts for my own writing. If one day I could write one poem as lovely as any of Joyce Sidman’s, I’d be thrilled.
So, that’s my stack. A small sampling, but I am sure you get the idea. I love poetry – its spare lines and lush description; its humor; the emotion it evokes. And I know reading and studying poetry help me write picture books. The notion that every word counts is true to both, as is the importance of line breaks and page turns.
I still love a good mystery. And if you know me, you’ve likely heard me recommend a memoir or two, but at the heart of all my reading, writing, and inspiration is poetry. I feel blessed to have it in my life.