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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: middle grade poetry, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick Lewis

WhenThunderComes Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisWhen Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders
By J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4521-0119-4
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

Poetry is of the people by its very definition. Though sometimes considered the property of the elite (usually by folks who were forced to eat poetry unfiltered in high school by bored teachers) at its best it is a format that any human with a sense of rhythm and/or timing can use to their advantage. Poetry is the voice of people who are oppressed. When Chinese immigrants found themselves detained for weeks on end on Angel Island, they scratched poetry into the very walls of the building. Not curses. Not cries. Poems. It seems fitting then that J. Patrick Lewis should cull together poems to best celebrate “civil rights leaders” both known and unknown. People of different races, creeds, religions, and even sexualities are celebrated in a book that can only be honestly called what it is: one-of-a-kind.

Seventeen people. That doesn’t sound like a lot of folks. Seventeen people turning the tide of history and oppression. Seventeen individuals who made a difference and continue to make a difference every day. And to accompany them, seventeen poems by a former Children’s Poet Laureate. In When Thunder Comes, J. Patrick Lewis highlights heroes of every stripe. And, in doing so, lets young readers know what a hero truly is.

WhenThunder1 234x300 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisLewis isn’t phoning this one in. These poems are straight up honest-to-god works of poetry. Though the book is a mere 44 pages or so, its picture book size is misleading indeed. Consider this poem about Aung San Suu Kyi containing the following lines: “When a cyclone flicked off the roof of my prison / like the Queen of Hearts, turning my life to shame / and candle, the General had a mole removed. / When they added four words to the constitution – / my name – to bar me from ever running for office, / the General signed it with his fingernail made of / diamonds and disgust.” We’re on beyond nursery rhymes and patter here. There are also individual lines you just can’t help but admire. I like this one about Nelson Mandela in particular: “It is as if he’s landed on the moon / Five years before the actual event.”

The content is noticeably more mature as well. Kids have plenty of books to choose between when it comes to the Freedom Riders and Walkers, but the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are dark as dark can be. That poem is told, not in broken up sections, but as a single long, square paragraph. Other ideas, like Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit system or Harvey Milk and his fight for gay rights require a bit more worldly knowledge on the part of readers.

WhenThunder2 300x178 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisLewis makes some interesting choices along the way. He’s careful to include familiar names (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, etc.) alongside lesser-known figures (Aung San Suu Kyi, Helen Zia, Ellison Onizuka, etc.). Some are living, some long dead. Each person has a title (“activist”, “auntie”, etc.). For “the innocent” he names Mamie Carthan Till but not her son, Emmett. At first I was confused by the choice, but the end matter made it clear that it was Mrs. Till that insisted that her son’s funeral be an open casket affair. An act of rebellion in and of itself. And this is undoubtedly the first book for children I’ve read that made special note of Harvey Milk. I know that some smaller presses have highlighted him in the past, but it’s particularly satisfying in this day and age to see him properly named and credited. A sign of the times, if you will.

Another thing I like about the book is its ability to highlight individuals that should be, and are not, household names. If Sylvia Mendez truly paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, why isn’t Mendez v. Westminster better known? Certainly the book is ideal for writing assignments. The poems vary in terms of style, and I can see teachers everywhere assigning even more too little lauded heroes to their students, asking them to cultivate poems of their own. It would have been nice if somewhere in the book it said what the types of poems featured were (villanelles don’t come along in children’s books every day, after all). Teachers hoping to make connections between some of the subjects then and now might also point out things like how Emmett Till bought candy prior to his death, not unlike a more contemporary hoodied young man.

WhenThunder3 300x191 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisOf the various objections I’ve heard leveled against this book, there is the problem that each piece of art is not directly credited to its artist. Meilo So’s style is recognizable enough. Ditto R. Gregory Christie. But who did that image of Josh Gibson? Or Dennis James Banks for that matter? Now, the artists are listed on the publication page with references to their images, but since the book itself isn’t paginated this isn’t as useful as it might be. And some of the images work better than others, of course. While I wasn’t as taken with the images of Coretta Scott King, Mamie Carthan Till, or Dennis James Banks, I really liked Josh Gibson wearing his “Grays” garb, standing against a sky full of clouds. A different librarian objected to the fact that the three men murdered by the Klan in 1964 are featured with very similar, dark skin tones. I see the point, but since the shot is taken at night and the whole of the image is itself dark, this didn’t worry me as much.

In many ways the book most similar to this is Marilyn Singer’s recent Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents Like Singer’s book, Lewis presents the poems and people first and then provides an explanation of who they were at the end. Both give new slants on old names. But for all that, Lewis’s book is unique. Maybe not 100% perfect, but chock full of better poetry than you’ll find in a lot of children’s rooms, highlighting folks that deserve a little additional attention. Certainly bound to be of use to teachers, parents, and kids with an eye towards honest-to-goodness heroism. A lovely addition, no matter where you might be.

On shelves now.

Source: Reviewed from library copy.

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2. Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo Flood

CowboyUp1 Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo FloodCowboy Up!: Ride the Navajo Rodeo
By Nancy Bo Flood
Photography by Jan Sonnenmair
Wordsong (an imprint of Highlights)
$17.95
ISBN: 978-1-59078-893-6
Ages 8-12
On shelves now

Sometimes I think half my job simply consists of making lists. Not that I’m complaining. I love lists. I love making them, and checking them, and adding to them. Lists let the organizational part of my frontal lobe feel needed and wanted. Still, once in a while you get stuck on a list and it’s hard to move. For example, just the other day I was asked to come up with a list for Kindergartners of books that talk about Native American tribes. Some of the books, I was told, would also have to talk about American Indians living today. Now I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know if reading this review you’re a teacher or a librarian or an interested parent or my mom. Whosoever you might be, you are still probably very aware that asking for nonfiction titles for very young children on Native Americans is akin to asking for the moon and the stars above. Half the stuff on library and bookstore shelves is woefully out-of-date and offensive while the other half is written for kids ten-years-old and up. The pickings for small fry are slim. Enter Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo. The rare book that is both poetry and fact, with content for both big and little, here we have a title that finally fills that gap. Best of all, you don’t have to be looking for school or specialty fare to enjoy this one. Like wild bucking stallions and bulls that could impale you without so much as a snort? Welcome to the world of Navajo rodeo.

CowboyUp2 Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo Flood“Can’t sleep. Can’t eat. Mind keeps figuring, figuring, figuring – how tight to hold, how far to lean, how hard to squeeze to stay on top.” That’s just a sample of the thoughts going through a person’s head before the Navajo rodeo. Though it has its roots in places like Arizona and Texas, rodeos can be found all over the Navajo Nation and are family affairs. Setting her book during the course of a single rodeo day, author Nancy Bo Flood plunges readers into what might be an unknown world. We see children near bucked from woolly riders (sheep), adults flung from broncos, women who sweep the barrel racer events, steer wrestlers, and, best of all, bareback bull riders. Saturating her text with facts, background information, and tons of photographs, this is one title that will prove tempting to kids already familiar with the rodeo world and those approaching it for the very first time.

It’s a challenge facing any work of standard nonfiction for kids: How do you prefer to present your material? In this particular case, Ms. Flood has a wealth of information at her fingertips regarding the Navajo rodeo circuit. Trouble is, you can fill your book to brimming with the brightest and shiniest photos that money can buy, but if you’ve long blocks of nonfiction text you might lose your readership before you’ve even begun. Now in this book Ms. Flood presents her material over the course of a single rodeo day. It’s a good format for what she has to say, but the downside is that there are sections at the beginning that aren’t all that thrilling. If kids are coming to this book to see some high-flying riders, they’ll have to first wade through explanations about the announcer and the arena. That’s where the poetry comes in. Sure, there are big blocks of explanatory text before the action begins, but Flood tempers each two-page spread with not just photos and explanations but also poems. The advantage then is that younger children can read the poems while older ones get something out of the nonfiction sections. Win win!

CowboyUp3 Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo FloodIt sounds strange to say but in many ways the book that to me feels the closest to the format of Cowboy Up! is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. Both books find that the best way to get kids to swallow a spoonful of nonfiction is with a bit of first person narration. With that in mind, the poems in Cowboy Up! offer great promise. Each one is written in the first person and could easily be considered short monologues. The small child auditioning or the teacher who wants to do a theatrical presentation with readily available material would do well to take these poems and use them freely. Now granted, the poetry can be touch-and-go at times. I’ve a friend who personally cannot stand free verse in children’s books because to her it just looks like the author took a paragraph and broke it up into arbitrary lines. I happen to like free verse, insofar as I like any poetry, but I admit that the ones found here varied widely in terms of quality on a case-by-case basis.

CowboyUp4 Review of the Day: Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo FloodMuch like the poetry, the photography in this book can vary. Some of the shots (created by photographer Jan Sonnenmair) are brilliant. I’m quite fond of the image on the jacket as well as shots of riders mid-air (one hand waving freely about their heads), the portraits (love those endpapers, though the decision to flips the images was a poor one when you consider library processing techniques), and even one of a rainbow rising behind the honor guard. On the other hand, there are times when it feels as though the book ran out of the good photographs and had to rely on some of the lesser variety. For example, there’s a shot of an announcer that looks like it appears twice in two pages, only flipped. This is a rare occurrence, but it happens early enough in the book that a reader could be forgiven for wondering if more duplication is bound to happen.

When I think of books that talk about contemporary Native Americans today, the pickings for kids are slim. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian isn’t exactly meant for the 12 and under crowd. Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky is pretty good, if a bit poetic (this might have something to do with the fact that it’s a book of poetry). And the book Native Americans: A Visual Exploration by S.N. Paleja covers a lot of ground, but only in brief. No, the whole reason Cowboy Up! even works is because it’s not trying to be about anything but how particularly cool this kind of rodeo is. This is Navajo life in the 21st century. So forget depressing texts that cover the past with all the interest of a phone book. Flood and Sonnenmair have culled together a look at the just-as-interesting present, and given it a format that will stand it in good stead. Cowboys and cowboys-to-be everywhere, stand up and rejoice. Your rodeo is here.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: Kirkus

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  • A lesson hard learned.  When searching for this book on any online site, I advise you to search via the ISBN 978-1-59078-893-6 rather than typing in the words “Cowboy Up”. Let’s just say that the bulk of titles you’ll find with the same title are a bit . . . ah . . . saucy.
  • Download a free activity guide here.

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3. Review of the Day: Sharing the Seasons selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Sharing the Seasons: A Book of Poems
Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins
Illustrated by David Diaz
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$21.99
ISBN: 978-1-4169-0210-4
Ages 8-12
On shelves now

Yesterday I was frustrated. Very very frustrated. I’m a children’s librarian. Patrons tell me what they desire and I find just the right book for the right occasion. Recently a fellow walked into my children’s room with a simple request. He was going to read to a group of preschoolers and he wanted easy books on the seasons. This is one of those seemingly simple requests that can make your mind go blank faster than anything. After gaping like a fish for approximately a minute my brain started churning up a couple potential goodies from the depths. One such book was Sharing the Seasons: A Book of Poems. I figured that even if the kids were too young to hear all the poems, at least they’d like to hear some of them, and maybe get a little knocked out by the images. Alas, our copy was missing (grumble grumble grump) but at least I was able to conjure up a copy of Old Bear by Kevin Henkes instead. Just the same, I’ll be replacing our missing copy of Seasons and pronto. Here we have some of the finest minds working in children’s poetry today, selected for this magnificent collection of seasonal verse. It’s just the thing to welcome in a new time of year and say goodbye to the old. And the pretty pictures don’t hurt much either.

Four seasons. Twelve poems apiece. In this way, poet Lee Bennett Hopkins has culled a wide selection of poets and their poems, weaving their verses into a single book. Quotes from famous sources begin each season, as when we read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lusty “Spring in the world! And all things are made new!” With great care and timing, a passel of poets tap into those elements in each season that speaks both to child and adult readers. “Suddenly Green” by James Hayford says that “Our trees have grown skin / And birds have moved in.” Meanwhile Rebecca Kai Dotlich admits that she is “Bewitched by Autumn”, conjuring up Halloween with its “bits of legend in a broth”. By the end, every season has had its say, the last by Sanderson Vanderbilt tying it all together, speaking of the boy who shovels the dirty snow, “helping spring come.” Backmatter includes Acknowledgments, an Index of Titles, and Index of Authors, and an Index of First Lines,

I think I got my copy of this book after a different reviewer. I say this because inside my copy was a note with individual poems listed, one by one. Poems like “August Heat” by Anonymous and “Summer Sun” by Elizabeth Upton. I’m not entirely certain what these poems have in common except that each one presents a pitch perfect tone to the season in question. But then, all the poems do that. In some kids will recognize the truth of what the poem says as when Rebecca Kai Dotlich writes that a wild rainstorm is “proud as a prank”. Othe

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4. Review of the Day: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems
By Gail Carson Levine
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Harper (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-178725-6
Ages 5-10
On shelves March 13th

I tend to run my bookgroup for kids between the ages of 9-12 like a gentle dictatorship. I choose the books, the kids vote on them, and so it goes. Now if the kids had their way we’d be reading fantasy novels day in and day out every single week. With that in mind, I like to try to make them read something a little different once in a while. For example, one week I might try to get them to read a Newbery winner. The next I would try to encourage them to dip into some nonfiction. One type of book I haven’t had the nerve to attempt for years, though, is poetry. Finding a really good, really interesting, really smart book of poetry for kids of that age is tricky stuff. Poetic tastes vary considerably, so it’s best to start with a book with a hook. And by hook or by crook, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is basically the answer to my prayers I’ve been seeking all these long and lonely years. It has everything. Humor, engaging illustrations, a clever premise, potential (and very fun) applications, and a passive aggressive streak that’s nearly a mile long.

Do you know that old William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox? The one that calls itself “This is Just to Say”? When you think about that poem, I mean really think about it, it’s just the most self-satisfied little number you ever did see. Williams is clearly not sorry, though he included the words “forgive me” in there. With that as her inspiration, Gail Carson Levine has penned forty-five or so false apology poems modeled on Williams’. The rules are simple. “The first stanza states the horrible offense. The second stanza describes the effect of the offense. The last stanza begins with ‘Forgive me’ and continues with the false apology, because the writer is not sorry at all.” Mixing together fairy tales and silly situations, Levine’s poems span the gamut, from the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk taking issue with her monetary worth to a girl’s pets asking pseudo-forgiveness for enjoying her diary’s contents. Saying sorry without meaning it has never been this charming.

On the book’s dedication page read the words “To Susan Campbell Bartoletti, who led me down the poetry path.” I am currently in the process of putting in an order with FTD in the hopes of sending Ms. Bartoletti some flowers of my own. Whether intentionally or not, she has been at least partly responsible for helping to bring to this world a poet of undeniable talent. We all know Ms. Gail Carson Levine for her fantasy novels. Her Newbery Honor winning Ella Enchanted is probably her best known work. But when I saw that she had gone into the poetry business I couldn’t suppress a groan. Great. An author who thinks they can write. Whooptie-doo. Can’t wait to see what recycled trope makes its 100th appearance on the printed page yet again. Imagine my surprise then when I saw not only the idea behind the book (snarky in its mere conception, which is no easy task when you work in the world of juvenile literature) but the poems themselves. Ladies and gentlemen if I blame Ms. Levine for anything it is for denying the world her drop dead gorgeously twisted poin

10 Comments on Review of the Day: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine, last added: 1/25/2012
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5. Review of the Day: The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub by Susan Katz

The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub!: Poems About the Presidents
By Susan Katz
Illustrated by Robert Neubecker
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-547-18221-6
Ages 6-10
On shelves now

Funny what kids pick up. When I was a tot of four I had a little electronic game that came with its own book. You’d turn the pages and press the button that corresponded to the correct trivia question. In this way I learned that Mozart wrote his first piece of music when he was five (I figured I had some leeway because of this), that Marie Antoinette had her head cut off, and that President Taft got stuck in his bathtub because he was so fat. That’s the kind of presidential wisdom a kid’s gonna carry with them the rest of their life. It’s also how I learned that teaching kids about famous people at a young age actually will stick with them into adulthood if the medium is interesting enough. Poetry would not be my first method of instilling memories, but in The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub!: Poems About the Presidents poet Susan Katz does a darn good job locating fun facts about even the dullest leaders. They may not have been equal in stature but at least in this book each one has his say, whether it’s escaping a vicious rabbit or seeing the occasional ghost.

They’ve been dull and scintillating. Clever and thick. Remarkably tall and surprisingly short. And what’s with all the parrots as pets? With great dexterity and even greater patience Susan Katz culls, entices, and sometimes even forces interesting facts out of each and every one of our presidents. That done, she turns those traits or events into poems, being sure to include fun additional facts at the bottom of each page. The result is that kids get to meet “Elevator Operator” John F. Kennedy, the “Funny-Looking” James Buchanan, and even “Vegetating” George H.W. Bush. Accompanied by work by illustrator Robert Neubecker, the book is a ribald look at our nation’s leaders. Backmatter includes dates, quotes, nicknames, and “firsts” for each man.

As it says on the bookflap, “Susan Katz discovered while working on this book that not all American presidents were very funny people, and she found herself doing more research for this one project than for all her other books put together.” I’m not surprised to hear it since the sheer number of new facts here are astounding. She even seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid the obvious ones (George Washington’s teeth, Lincoln’s jokes, etc.). Of course, you can’t help but wonder if Ms. Katz made too much work for herself when she included a note on what each president was the “first” to do, and didn’t go with the obvious answers. George Washington? “First president pictured on a postage stamp.” Abraham Lincoln? “First president born outside the boundaries of the thirteen original states (in Kentucky).” No mean feat.

In one of the reviews I read the reviewer complained that Katz brings up facts about the presidents that aren’t particularly

6 Comments on Review of the Day: The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub by Susan Katz, last added: 5/6/2012
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6. Review of the Day: National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis

National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!
Edited by J. Patrick Lewis
National Geographic
$24.95
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1009-6
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

Animals make for good poetry. That’s just common sense. When humans get misty eyed and start thinking their great grand thoughts, they tend to be inspired by some form of nature. Naturally, some animals in particular are replete with awe-inspiring tendencies. Bald eagles, say. So where does that put your average hamster or flamingo? Not all animals are built to accompany great grand thoughts after all. Some of them are best suited to small, sly, clever verses instead. Taken as a whole, there are probably more animal poems in the world than a person could imagine. That’s why it’s rather clever of J. Patrick Lewis to pair with National Geographic’s talented photography department to bring us a gorgeously designed book of animal poems. You name the animal, the man has found (or perhaps solicited?) a poem to fit. Containing everything from limericks to haiku, this collection of two hundred poems and who knows how many photos is a visual feast for eye and ear alike.

“If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the chicken hatching,” reads the first poem in this book. It’s “The Egg” by Jack Prelutsky and it starts off National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry’s “Welcome to the World” section. Split into eight different sections, the book categorizes its contents not by genus or species but by only the grandest of terms. There are “the big ones”, “the little ones”, “the winged ones”, “the water ones”, “the strange ones”, “the noisy ones”, and “the quiet ones”. Each poem is accompanied by a photograph, and sometimes the photograph is accompanied by more than one poem. There are verses poignant and funny, thought provoking and wild. Finally, at the end of the book, there is a section on “writing poems about animals” that aids kids by giving them a range of different forms to try. This is followed by a two-page spread of resources and four indexes at the end, one by title, one by poet, one by first line, and one by subject.

What is unclear to me is the ratio of poems Lewis knew about and found verses the poems he went out and asked for. I noticed quite a few contemporary children’s poets between these pages. Janet S. Wong, Jane Yolen, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Michael J. Rosen, Bobbi Katz, Betsy Franco, etc. And I could not help but notice that those contemporary poets tended to write for some of the more difficult animals. The anemone, the blue jay, or the raccoon, for example. Here’s another question for you: Which came first, the photograph or the poem? Did Mr. Lewis plow through untold hundreds of National Geographic photos, old and new, cull the best and then find the poems, or did he find the poems first and then match the photos to fit? Certainly some of the National Geographic’s better known images are in this book (the picture of the flamingoes standing in the shape of a flamingo, for example). Sadly no note exists in this book telling us what Mr. Lewis’s process was.

There is a form to the chapters of this book but not so much form within the chapters. You might wonder at this at first, but since it’s easy enough to locate your favorite critter by using the subject index at the end of the book, it’s understandable why you might want to take the advice Mr. J. Patrick Lewis proffers at the beginning of the collection and know that “This book is not for reading straight through.” You dip in and find old favorites and new with ease. One librarian commented to me her surprise that the tiger poem in this book wasn’t William Blake’s “The Tyger”. True enough, but the anonymous poem with its classic limerick about the lady from Niger is rather well known within its own right. I was also amused in a very fifth grade boy kind of way by Michael J. Rosen’s blue-footed booby poem. You’ll have to see it for yourself to understand why.

There are a couple times when the poem paired to the photo is a bit misleading or confusing. For example, for the picture of a butterfly still within its chrysalis, the poem is instead about a cocoon. I suppose cocoons are significantly less impressive photography-wise than chrysalises, but I’ve little doubt that kids will find the terms interchangeable now. Similarly there’s a poem about a sea horse that is inexplicably paired with an impressive but very different image of a weedy sea dragon. Credit where credit is due, each photograph is accompanied by a very small written description of its subject matter, but nine times out of ten the child reader will be relying on the poem to explain what they’re seeing. Probably because nine times out of ten that would be the right move.

I can only imagine the sheer amounts of blood, sweat and tears that went into the collection and design of the book itself. It has its little quirks here and there, but if you’re seeking a poetry book for kids that children would willingly pick up and flip through, even if they have hitherto professed to not like poetry in the slightest, this is your best bet. A gorgeous little number that has the occasional slip-up, it is nonetheless a magnificent collection and book that is well worth the space it takes up. Add a little natural wonder to your poetry shelves. Because if we’re talking about the best possible compliment to your eyes and ears alike, few have as many perks and grand moments as this.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Be sure to watch J. Patrick Lewis reading the poem “Make the Earth Your Companion here:

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