Poets and Picture Books

Poets and pic­ture book writ­ers both know the weight of a word, the sound of a syl­la­ble, the turn of a line, and they both know that every word mat­ters. So when poets write pic­ture books we can expect love­ly lan­guage, deep heart, and a sto­ry that sings when read aloud. This month we want to fea­ture poets who have writ­ten pic­ture books we espe­cial­ly love.

How to Write a Poem by Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet

We prob­a­bly should start with a book writ­ten by Kwame Alexan­der and Dean­na Nikai­do and illus­trat­ed by Melis­sa Sweet (Can­dlewick, 2023) How to Write a Poem. This won­der­ful book reminds read­ers of all ages that poet­ry is part of all of us and that poet­ry begins with notic­ing. In an author’s note Kwame Alexan­der writes: “We wrote this book to help us each find our way back to an appre­ci­a­tion of words … to show you how to use your works, how to lift your voic­es … how to change the world … one stan­za at a time.”

And the words in this book are won­der­ful! It is hard not to quote the entire book. But we won’t. Here’s the beginning:

Begin
with a ques­tion,
like an acorn
wait­ing for spring.
Close
your eyes,
open
the
win­dow
of
your
mind, and
climb out, like a seedling
reach­ing for tomorrow.

Who would not want to pull out pen­cil and paper?

How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet

It is a com­pan­ion book to the pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished How to Read A Book (Harper­Collins, 2019), also illus­trat­ed by Melis­sa Sweet. In this ear­li­er book Alexan­der com­pares read­ing a book to eat­ing a clemen­tine and uses that sim­i­le to great effect through­out the book. Read­ing is: “A pic­nic of words and sounds/in leaps and bounds.” And “Don’t rush though:/Your eyes need/time to taste. /Your soul needs/room to bloom.”

These are books to read and share, to drop on the porch­es of homes with chil­dren, leave on park bench­es, secret­ly deposit in lit­tle free libraries, where they can be found and do their rev­o­lu­tion­ary work of chang­ing lives.

Helen Frost is a poet and author of more than twen­ty books for chil­dren and young adults. She has done a series of non-fic­tion pic­ture books with pho­tog­ra­ph­er Rick Lieder, all pub­lished by Candlewick:

Step Gen­tly Out, 2012 (Back­yard insects)

Wake Up, 2017 (new life: just-hatched birds, fawns)

Sweep Up the Sun, 2018 (com­mon back yard birds)

Among a Thou­sand Fire­flies, 2019 (fire­flies)

Hel­lo I’m Here, 2019 (sand­hill cranes)

Wait and See, 2022 (pray­ing mantis)

All of these books are pow­er­ful reminders of the won­ders of the wild, whether the wild is a ways away or right out­side our back doors. Just because we are par­tial to cranes, we want to spend a lit­tle more time with Hel­lo, I’m Here, a book that fea­tures the adven­tures of a just-hatched sand­hill crane. The baby crane speaks to read­ers from inside the egg (as an end note informs us these babies do — and the adults speak back!): “It’s get­ting crowded/inside this egg. /I can’t flap a wing/or stretch a leg.” The crane’s voice is per­fect for a young one of any species. The baby at one point looks up at cranes fly­ing and asks how they learned to fly. The pho­to­graph of the young crane rest­ing its head on mama’s wing is so touch­ing — and reminds us of times when we’ve been exhaust­ed and need­ed a soft, safe place to rest.

The close-up pho­tographs of the crane chicks pro­vide us all with a rare look at the fam­i­ly life of cranes.

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring by Lucille Clifton and Brinton Turkle

Of course we have to men­tion Lucille Clifton, one of our absolute favorite poets and children’s book writ­ers, and The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring. It has a prime spot on our Favorite Books Shelf. And oth­ers must agree – the book has been con­tin­u­ous­ly in print for fifty years!

King Shabazz does not believe in spring. “ ‘Where is it at?’ he would holler every time his Mama talked about Spring at home.” One day he goes to his friend Tony Poli­to. “’I’m goin to get me some of this Spring…Everybody talk bout Spring comin, and Spring just round the cor­ner. I’m goin to go round there and see what I do see.’” So off they go past the school, past Weissman’s Bak­ery, where they stop and smell the buns, past the apart­ments where the kid lives who had said “he was going to beat them both up.” They pause at the street­light, each wait­ing for the oth­er to com­mit to cross­ing the street which they are not allowed to cross. “They stood there for two light turns and then King Shabazz grinned at Tony Poli­to, and he grinned back, and the two boys ran across the street.” They do find Spring on a vacant lot, where a patch of lit­tle pointy yel­low flow­ers with spiky green leaves is grow­ing though the pave­ment and, in the front seat of a rust­ed out car — a bird’s nest with “four light blue eggs.”

’Man, it’s Spring,’ he [King Shabazz] said almost to himself.”

This sto­ry is a joy. We are so glad King Shabazz and Tony are still out there find­ing spring for read­ers of all ages.

(p.s. Among Lucille Clifton’s oth­er pic­tures books that we adore are the Everett Ander­son books, and we wish, oh, we wish, some­one would bring them back into print.) Any­one? Anyone?

Remember by Joy Harjo and Michaela Goade

Joy Har­jo, twen­ty-third poet lau­re­ate of the U.S., has writ­ten sev­er­al pic­ture books, among them Remem­ber, a book illus­trat­ed in rich and beau­ti­ful art by Calde­cott medal­ist Michaela Goade. Remem­ber is a stun­ning book both word-wise and art-wise. “Remem­ber the sky that you were born under, know each of the star’s sto­ries.” So the book begins, and so it con­tin­ues. “Remem­ber the moon, know who she is./Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the strongest point of time.” Through clear and ele­gant lan­guage Har­jo encour­ages read­ers to remem­ber sun­down and night, birth, moth­er, father, “the earth whose skin you are,” the wind, peo­ple, plants, ani­mals, trees. “Talk to them,” she tells us, “Lis­ten to them./They are alive poems.”

This book is an alive poem. We would love to sim­ply quote this whole book to you or bet­ter still let you hear it in Har­jo’s voice. Read it out loud, savor the words, savor the art. And remember.

Ostrich and Lark by Marilyn Nelson and the San Artists of the Kuru Art Project in Botswana

Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, a gift­ed poet who recent­ly won the Wal­lace Stevens Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets, has also writ­ten books for young read­ers, among them A Wreath for Emmett Till, Snook Alone, and Lubaya’s Qui­et Roar. Her book Ostrich and Lark is col­or­ful­ly and strik­ing­ly illus­trat­ed by San artists of the Kuru Art Project of Botswana, a col­lec­tive of artists who work in the tra­di­tion of their ances­tors that reach­es back to rock paint­ings thou­sands of years old and express­es their deep con­nec­tion to nature and their culture.

Ostrich and Lark is a sto­ry of two friends who spend each day togeth­er from “first light, day in and day out./ And they part­ed at nightfall.”

Every day they nib­bled an ongo­ing meal:

a few seeds here,

                                               a few seeds there;

                               for Ostrich, the occa­sion­al lizard.”

Every day, sur­round­ed by “a driz­zle of buzzings … a down­pour of bird­song,” Lark and oth­er birds of the veld sing from “gray-light-come to last-light gone,” but Ostrich is always silent, although at night he some­times dreams of singing. Then one evening, as the sun sinks, birds swoop to their nest, and “the gates of night opened to the dark,

Ostrich flut­tered his bil­lowy wings

He stretched his grace­ful neck,

closed his eyes, and

TWOO-WOO-WOOOT …’

Ostrich had found his voice at last,

his own beauty,

his big, ter­rif­ic self.”

This is a book to bring joy to any­one won­der­ing about their own voice. May we all find our own boom­ing voic­es to share with the world.

Thank you to these poets who share their own beau­ti­ful, ter­rif­ic voic­es with us all.

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Kamalani Hurley
Kamalani Hurley
8 months ago

Ter­rif­ic post! An impor­tant part of child­hood is learn­ing to use lan­guage to express ideas and feel­ings and the won­ders of the world around us. These beau­ti­ful lyri­cal books are excel­lent exam­ples that we grown-ups can pro­vide for our chil­dren to help expose them to the lit­er­ary skills and pat­terns they need. And they’re so fun to read aloud!

Heidi Haavan Grosch
Heidi Haavan Grosch
8 months ago

Thanks for this great inspi­ra­tion! Now I am eager to order many of the books on your list, esp. as I am focus­ing more on poet­ry and sto­ry­telling next year in my class­es. I think I might use the book “Sweep up the Sun” as a com­pan­ion text for Twitch (Leonard, 2021), so thanks for that idea too!