Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Sharing--Mental Floss

I've never seen the paper version, but I have visited the online version of mental_floss many times. It is, as the site's tagline suggests, "Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix." Children's writers can find ideas galore to pursue.

Earlier this week I found a quiz on the site, which every children's writer should take. I'm ashamed to say I failed horribly. It's The Very Hungry Caterpillar quiz. Check it out and see how you do.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Poetry Friday--Write Your Own Poetry

One day I was walking by the children's librarian's desk at my library and she said, "That book you ordered--the one on writing poetry--it's great!" It turns out that the book is Write Your Own Poetry by Laura Purdie Salas (Compass Point Books, 2008). I met Laura back in 2003 at Chautauqua, and I follow her blog, so when Write Your Own Poetry came out last year I made sure to order it. I was pleased that the children's librarian found the book to be a good choice.

From the beginning, even before the "Contents", Laura sets the tone:
Choose Your Own Style

Poems explore the entire world, from infinite space to a tiny bug on the sidewalk, from the death of a friend to the silliest way to make a sandwich. No topic is off-limits. And there are as many right ways to write poems as there are poets...

Ten chapters then follow. The one dealing with poetic forms briefly covers seven forms, more than enough to engage a young reader without being overwhelming. The chapter on imagery shows how to create a chart and thus provide ideas to incorporate in a poem. Meter and rhyme are fully explored, as is the arrangement of the words on a page. Concepts are accompanied by examples from contemporary children's poets.

The book is only 64 pages long, but those pages are packed full with information and tips for the young writer. The book design is also appealing with its use of color photos.

Good job, Laura!

The Poetry Friday Round-Up is at Live. Love. Explore! with Irene Latham.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Women of...Wednesday--Priscilla Didn't Make the Cut

The trouble with working on books of notable women is the fact that so many women get left out for one reason or another. One of those I had hoped to be included was Priscilla Kidder. Priscilla was the co-founder and driving force behind the internationally renowned bridal design house, Priscilla of Boston. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of personal information readily available about Priscilla, aside from obituaries that were printed after her death in December 2003.

The bridal industry is big business in the U.S. today, and it has been building steadily since the late 1940s when Priscilla Kidder entered the scene. One source of wedding statistics says,
2,160,000 weddings occurred in the US from December 2005 to December 2006 (CDC) spending approximately $86 Billion (Not counting the honeymoon or new household items!)

Priscilla of Boston designed bridesmaids' gowns for the largest "fairy-tale" wedding prior to the wedding of Charles and Diana--Grace Kelly's marriage to Prince Rainier. Priscilla also was the designer for two presidential daughters' weddings!

I avoid reality programs like Bridezillas, but there's something about fashion that draws me right into Say Yes to the Dress. Despite my personal distaste for the excessiveness of the contemporary wedding, as a writer I can't deny that many a little girl enjoys playing wedding dress-up and would love to read about a woman who had a great influence on the world of bridal fashion.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Mentor Monday--Is It Readable?

A writer has to consider her choice of words when writing for a child audience. That is not to say she has to dumb everything down, but she should be aware that long and multi-syllabic words increase the reading level, as do long and compound sentences. She shouldn't say "domesticated feline" when she can say "pet cat."

How does one know what is appropriate for an age group or grade level? Read! If you want to write a chapter book, read 100 chapter books. Find a fourth grader, or a teacher, and ask to look at a fourth grade textbook. Check out the choice of words, the length of the sentences, etc. Invest in a copy of the Children's Writer's Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner (F & W Publications,2006).

Another book worth looking at is The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists, fifth edition (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) by Edward B. Fry and Jacqueline E. Kress. I know its title implies it's for teachers only, but the material in it is of great value to a children's writer. I have an older edition that I like to consult for its list of "Instant Words"--
These are the most common words in English, ranked in frequency order. The first 25 make up about a third of all printed material. The first 100 make up about half of all written material, and the first 300 make up about 65 percent of all written material. Is it any wonder that all students must learn to recognize these words instantly and to spell them correctly also?
The "Instant Words" list in invaluable when attempting to write a beginning reader or early chapter book.

The "Descriptive Words" list is good to browse through instead of always reaching for a thesaurus. I love the list of "Collective Nouns." It contains not only the terms for groups of animals, but terms for groups of people and things. For example, a group of performers is a troupe; bacteria form a culture.

My edition of The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists, contains 194 different lists, and the fifth edition has more than 200!

If you use Microsoft Word, the program has a readability feature to help you find out if you're on the right track when you're writing for a specific grade level. If you use another word processing program, which doesn't have the feature, you can check your text online. Do a Google search on "readability check" for more information and links.

By all means write your story first before trying to make it fit into a grade level. The story should always come first. If you don't tell a good story, your audience is not going to read it no matter how easy it is to read!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Sharing--What's New?

Two new things to tell you about today. YouTube now has The U.S. Government Channel where you can find videos from the White House, FEMA, NASA, Library of Congress, and more. Here's one from the LOC about World War II's real "Rosies":

Also new are several features enhancing the Google search. Put "Rosie the Riveter" in as a search term. Up will pop several images followed by the standard results. Below the Google logo on the upper left you will notice "show options." Click on it and you will find a number of new ways to refine or expand your search. Click on "Timeline" and play around with decades and dates. It's an awesome feature!


Friday, May 22, 2009

Poetry Friday


Was a man, was a two-
faced man, pretended
he wasn’t who he was,
who, in a men’s room,
faced his hung-over
face in a mirror hung
over the towel rack.
The mirror was cracked.
Shaving close in that
looking glass, he knicked
his throat, bled blue
blood, grabbed a new
towel to patch the wrong
scratch, knocked off
the mirror and, facing
himself, almost intact,
in final terror hung
the wrong face back.
Philip Booth

This week's Poetry Roundup is being hosted at Susan Writes

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Women of . . . Rachel Alexandra - All She Wants to do is Run

The Write Sisters have told the stories of a lot of women on this blog - writers, lawyers, suffragettes, artists, astronauts and photographers, just to name a few. I’d like to tell the story of a different kind of lady. I’m going to tell you about Rachel Alexandra.

No. Rachel's not a long lost relative of the Romanovs. She’s a three year-old filly who won the Preakness Stakes last Saturday at Pimlico.

The month of May is a big month in horse racing. We start off with the Kentucky Derby, follow it up with The Preakness Stakes in Maryland, and finish with the Belmont Stakes in New York. It’s called the Triple Crown, and the hope is that one horse will win all three races. It doesn’t happen often, and it won’t happen this year, either.

Rachel didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby. Her owners, at the time, didn’t even think of entering her in a race with the big boys. She was a filly and she ran against other fillies. And simply annihilated them. She won her races by 8 lengths, then 9 lengths, then a whapping 20 ¼ lengths!

A lot of people noticed. But a man named Jess Jackson did more than notice. He bought Rachel from her previous owner and decided to enter her in the Preakness.

There was a lot of buzz about Rachel. Everyone knew she could run. Some horse owners didn’t want her in the race, running against their horses. They complained that it was too late to enter the race. The field had already been decided. And what if it was too much her? Hadn’t Eight Belles collapsed at the Kentucky Derby last year, when running against the boys had proved too much for her?

But there were those who wanted to see what the little filly could do, and Jess Jackson and his team at Stonestreet tables had faith in Rachel. In the end, Jackson paid a $100,000 Supplemental Fee, and Rachel was allowed to run.

So there she was on the far outside, in the thirteenth position - not a great place to be. Her competition was twelve young colts - some of the best race horses in the country, including the Kentucky Derby winner. The announcer shouted “And there off!” And Rachel Alexandra was. She took off and never looked back. She won by a length and was the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924. She was the only horse to ever win it from the thirteenth position.

“A thoroughbred wants to run," Jess Jackson, her owner, said. "And if a filly is as good as the colts, they ought to compete. That was my position and that's why we came.”

To see the Preakness - Click here.

To see how fast she can really go - Click here

Monday, May 18, 2009



Act out your character's gestures.
You'll see just how silly most of them are.
Bury your back story and dig it up a little at a time.
Characters are bigger than plot.
Great characters make a bad plot good and a good plot great.
Description and dialogue make setting and characters real.
Explanations are not story. Cut them out.
Find a good critique group. It will take years off your journey.
Give your characters problems. Conflict is everything.
Heroes should be heroic. Let them solve their own problems.
Ideas are everywhere. Snatch them up.
Juggle a few manuscripts at once.
If you get stuck on one, you have another to turn to.
Kill off a character and win a Newbery
Listen to those who know more than you do.
Mentor someone on their way up.
Nonfiction will generally get you published faster than fiction.
Outlines are not for everybody. Write your book your way.
Punctuation is your friend. Use it.
Quitting is the only way you can fail.
Keep at it and, sooner or later, you will publish.
Read, read, and read some more.
Tension keeps readers reading.
Underwear is a funny word. If you write humor, use it.
Villains create tension. Create a great villain.
Writers write. Rewriters publish.
Xpect to succeed and you will.
Yacking about writing gets you nowhere. Sit down and write.
Zwieback cookies in the hands of a toddler
will buy you a good hour of writing time.
Cleaning up afterwards may be a problem.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Sharing

Saturday, Sunday, any day is a good day for sharing!

Today I'm going to share something that may not appeal to everyone--sites dealing with death.

Death holds a fascination for many, especially young adults. You, and they, may find these sites of interest: how to write a good eulogy!

History of Funeral Customs--this comes from the people who ought to know--funeral directors (Wyoming Funeral Directors Association).

List of unusual deaths--Wikipedia has compiled some bizarre endings. Here's one--
207 BC: Chrysippus, a Greek stoic philosopher, is believed to have died of laughter after watching his drunk donkey attempt to eat figs.

My Funky Funeral--Funeral customs from around the world.

Premature Death of Rock Stars--Jimi and Janis and too many more.

Products That Reflect a Life Well Lived--You're gonna love this site!

Looking at that last site, you might just die from laughing, but, you won't be the first!


Friday, May 15, 2009

Poetry Friday

On Seeing My First Grosbeak

The Write Sisters sat in my dining room last week, having our monthly meeting. The dining room window overlooks a small, untidy garden on the side of my house where I’ve hung a new bird feeder. Generally, the local residents visit: goldfinch, titmouse, chickadee, the neighborhood cardinals. This time there was someone new, and Sally identified the rose-breasted grosbeak for us.

I’d never seen one before and couldn’t keep my eyes of his bright red bib, his large mouth. He was twice the size of most of my usual customers. So, in honor of my first grosbeak sighting, I thought I’d share a bird poem. While Maya Angelou’s piece decries the caged bird more than it celebrates the wild bird, I think her description of the wild birds remind me why I like to hang a feeder in my garden: to catch glimpses of the tiny animals that “claim the sky.”

Caged Bird

by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
This week's round-up is being hosted by Kelly Polark:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Women of...Wednesday

The Bay State women are here!

The Write Sisters are pleased to announce the publication of their second cooperative book: Women of the Bay State: 25 Massachusetts Women You Should Know.
It's also the second book in the America's Notable Women series.

Once again the sisters have put together a great collection of profiles of some incredible women. Kathleen W. Deady is the lead author in this title.

Women of the Bay State includes stories of women in the arts and sciences; activists and actresses; athletes and martyrs. It was difficult to decide who to include in this book. The Commonwealth has many talented women in every field. We could have done a book on 25 women writers alone.

We invite you to meet some fascinating ladies:

Anne Dudley Bradstreet, America’s first poet…

….Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer

Edith Nourse Rogers, longest serving woman in the House of Representatives.

Find out what Bette Davis is famous for besides acting. Learn how the hot lunch program got started in public schools. Discover Massachusetts’ connection to the Harlem Renaissance.

The stories are short but you might just find a topic you’d like to learn more about. The book helps you locate other sources, too. Women of the Bay State is available through the publisher’s web site: and will soon be available on Pick up a copy and enjoy!


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mentor Monday: A Lesson on Lessons

A few years ago, I wrote a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was America’s first lady editor but she was also a talented writer in her own right, an activist, a widowed mother of five who supported her children with her writing.

One of her claims to fame is that she is the author of the still-popular children’s rhyme, “Mary’s Lamb.” You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go…

He followed her to school one day
That was against the rule
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb in school,

What most people today don’t know is that the poem continues:

And so the teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear…

Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry,
‘O Mary loved the lamb, you know,’
The teacher did reply;--

‘And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are only kind.’ (Italics Hale's)

This poem appeared in a collection written for children. Only the first two stanzas are familiar today. Wonder why? Because of the sledgehammer in the last stanza: the LESSON.

The rest of Hale’s Poems for our Children is just as heavy handed. And herein lies the point for all children’s writers: kids don’t want to know they’re learning a lesson in books they choose to read for pleasure.

Imagine going to Barnes & Noble and asking the clerk to recommend something and she pulls out a juicy novel and says, “You’ll love this. It has a great moral lesson at the end.” Just makes you want to whip out the old credit card, doesn’t it?

Yet, many people who want to write for kids think that children’s literature should be filled with morality tales. Not so. That type of writing went out with Aesop. And Sarah Hale. Kids want to read for the same reason as adults do: for pleasure. They want to be taken away to imagined places. They want to visit with beloved characters. If they happen to learn something along the way, well, okay.

In a 2005 article in the Children’s Writer, Susan Taylor Brown quoted editor Marileta Robinson. She said, Many writers try “…too hard to teach a lesson rather than tell a story…”

So, how’s your story? Is it fun? Imaginative? Can your reader connect to your characters? Then what do you need a moral for?

And that’s today’s lesson.

Sunday Sharing--Publisher Catalogs

I'm a librarian and there is a site, EarlyWord, which I visit regularly, that helps me to find out what's "hot" in the book world and what titles I should make sure I order for our collection. I want to share it with you because of one feature that a children's writer should be aware of. It's "Download Publisher Catalogs," and you find it way down on the right hand side of the page.

When I started writing for children, the advice was, "Send for publishers' catalogs and STUDY them so that you can get a feel for the house and target your submissions." This was a costly endeavor! I fortunately got many at the library I worked in. Or, I picked up catalogs at NE-SCBWI conferences. And you know what? They were beautifully printed in color on good quality paper--and they were HEAVY. I didn't collect half as many as I would have liked. Now, life is so much easier. You can go to a site like EarlyWord and simply download as many catalogs as you would like. No paper. No postage. No clutter!


Friday, May 8, 2009

Poetry Friday: Memory

Well the Write Sisters were presenters this morning at the New Hampshire Educational Media Association annual meeting, which was great fun, and got me up and out fairly early . . . and I forgot to do a poetry blog!

But I forget so many things these days - is it age, or is it overload? Or both? And so, better late than never - a poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich which I quite like, entitled, simply,


My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings,
And yet recalls the very hour --
'Twas noon by yonder village tower,
And on the last blue noon in May--
The wind came briskly up this way.
Crisping the brook beside the road;
Then, pausing here, set down its load
Of pine-scents, and shook listlessly
Two petals from that wild-rose tree.

Poetry Friday is being hosted this week by Anastasia Suen:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix is an example of the dilemma we had with many of the Notable Women: which book to put her in? She was born in Maine, died in New Jersey, and her life’s work took her to every state in the Union and many countries overseas. For most of her adult life she had, in fact, no home, and when she finally collapsed from her constant crusading she was allowed to live out her days in a suite in place she called her “firstborn,” the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton.

Dorothea’s profile was also one of those I found it most difficult to revise down to length: she did SO MUCH. Ultimately we focused on her work for humane treatment of the mentally ill, but she also crusaded for the rights of prisoners and orphans. An early biographer, Frances Tiffany, suggested that it was necessary to go back to Teresa of Avila or Claire of Assisi to find a woman of similar effort and accomplishment in establishing “institutions of mercy.”

Dorothea overcame a childhood of privation—her father, an itinerant preacher, never made enough to support his family, and her mother, who suffered from some form of mental illness, frequently took to her bed for days on end leaving her eldest daughter, aged 9 or 10, to care for house and siblings. Dorothea had the wisdom and the strength, at the age of 12, to run away and present herself on the steps of her wealthy grandmother, essentially daring that formidable woman to refuse to raise her! By the age of fourteen she had begun taking students (putting up her hair and wearing long, straight skirts to try and look older than she was.

By the time she was twenty, Dorothea was operating a boarding school in her grandmother’s home, looking after her aging grandmother and younger brother, and supporting her mother. At about the same time she became concerned about the children of immigrant workers in Boston and persuaded her grandmother to allow her to open a charity school for them as well. Over the next few years she kept up this workload, although she would occasionally collapse from exhaustion and was never in good health.

Her fiancé suggested that her health would improve after they were married, as she would no longer be working so hard. But Dorothea was horrified to discover that her future husband assumed that she would give up teaching once they were married: not at all an unusual expectation in that day, of course. Rather than abandoning her mission, she broke the engagement.

While she was teaching, Dorothea created a “mailbox” system of communicating with her students by personal notes. Possibly out of this exchange she developed the idea of a question-and-answer book for parents to use to educate their children. Conversations on Common Things was a great success, providing Dorothea with a steady, if not extravagant income for the next 40 years! At 25 Dorothea had to give up the school because of her health. For a few years she took a position as governess for the children of her minister, the soon-to-be-famous William Ellery Channing. This proved fortuitous a decade later when she attempted a trip to Italy to try and regain her health. The trans-Atlantic voyage nearly killed her, and some friends of Channing took her off the boat in England, brought her home and nursed her back to health—she stayed with them 14 months!

Dorothea’s mother and grandmother both died while she was in England. When she returned to Boston she was very much alone – a life-long invalid, a spinster, with enough to live on but not much to live for, and a heart that burned with a compulsion to be busy and useful.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dorothea jumped at the chance when someone asked if she knew anyone who might be willing to teach a Sunday School class for women prisoners. And it was there that she first encountered the imprisoned insane who were to become her life’s mission. Within weeks of demanding to know what that unearthly howl was, the invalid had become the crusader, and for the next forty-three years Dorothea would spend eight months of the year travelling by foot, horse, carriage and boat, more than 3000 miles a year, investigating and documenting the conditions under which the most vulnerable Americans lived. Instead of spending her winters languidly relaxing in St. Croix with the Channings she spent them pounding the corridors of power, shaming and cajoling legislatures in State after State to fund hospitals for the mentally ill. She even traveled to Europe to spread her message there.

Dorothea had long since given up the house in Boston, living as she did in hotels and trains. The closest thing she had to a break from her exertions was being Director of Nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War. In the category of interesting connections amongst our Notable Women, Dorothea was the supervisor who rejected Marilla Ricker’s application (too young and attractive) and who called Louisa May Alcott’s father to come get her when she was nearly dead from typhoid. After the war she went right back to work, adding the causes of prisoner and orphans to her campaign. So when she collapsed on the way to inspect the hospital in Trenton, a facility she had not only campaigned for but designed, she had nowhere to go home to.

Toward the end of her life Sarah Hale asked Dorothea if she would allow herself to be profiled in Sarah’s book Lives and Characters of Distinguished Women. Dorothea declined, fearing, she said, that romantic young women might be inclined to follow in her footsteps and thus subject themselves to the life she had led, for which she was certain others were not designed. In retrospect it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking her life was one to be emulated! I’m exhausted just thinking about her. But clearly she must have drawn strength from her passion, because she went from being an invalid to being indomitable. Unquestionably a Woman from [insert state here] You Should Know!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mentor Monday: Writing as Cooking

Think of writing as preparing a sumptuous feast for your readers. Pre-writing is everything you do to get ready: reading recipes, collecting ingredients, planning the meal. Research is preparation: peeling, chopping, marinating and parboiling. Finally, you begin to mix ingredients, sautéing, stirring, kneading. Once everything is together, cooking takes time, often lots of it. We have to let doughs rise and stews simmer, and often then rearrange the food into loaves or casseroles and bake them before the final presentation.

At the risk of exposing my lack of both culinary and writing skills (important disclaimer—I hate cooking!), here is an extended romp through this analogy. Perhaps it will inspire you to pull out your whisk, or your pen.

Choosing what to make: dessert or main dish, appetizers or salad? Choosing what to write: Fiction/nonfiction? Poem, novel, devotional, article, picture book?

Sometimes you start with the main ingredient, sometimes you know you have to make a salad or a main dish. Sometimes you start with an idea, sometimes you start with an assignment.

Who’s coming for dinner?? Considering the audience: imagine, describe your target reader.

Once you’ve decided what you are making, you move on to gathering ingredients:

What’s in the pantry, fridge, garden, freezer? What’s on sale? What do you need to pick up/find?

Next may come trips to the store, catalog shopping, even borrowing from the neighbors.

Ingredients for our writing recipes are also found in many places: We do research. Conduct interviews. Other sources of information are less formal: Observing/keeping “antennae” up. Casual reading. All the while we are brainstorming, note taking and making lists.

Really good cooks often have secret ingredients and specialty items. As writers we want to include unique, obscure bits that make the piece.

Of course before you actually begin to prepare the food, you wash your hands! As writers we need to wash our brains – pray, or get centered, or invoke your muse. Put on that music that always gets your juices flowing, or put on those sound-blocking headphones that eliminate all distractions. Different writers have different rituals (and some of us have different rituals for different kinds of writing).

On to preparing the ingredients: These are just loose associations, and not every recipe will require every step. You’ll probably come up with others.

Peel: Free writing, notebook or journal writing. Chop: Selecting and discarding. Marinate: Remembering and meditating. Parboil: Scoping out the “competition” (what else is out there? How is mine going to be different?)

Finally we start combining ingredients. Again there are a variety of methods:
Sift: Outlining. Season: Drawing/doodling. Dredge: Visualizing. Sauté: (light and quick): Discussion (use extreme care – too much discussion can definitely result in soggy, ideas.) Rinse, salt and drain: Play “what if.” Combine and set aside: Rough out scenes, snatches of dialogue . Blending, creaming, beating, stirring, folding, whipping: Webbing, clustering, or using graphic organizers.

Time for dough to rise, stew to simmer, etc. Time to let idea grow, and time between drafts to gain perspective.

Arrange, bake and then – serve! Polish that manuscript, and send it forth!

Another parallel: if you’ve never made this dish before, you would probably serve it to friends and family and get their reactions, possibly tweaking the recipe before serving it to the boss or bringing it to the county fair. Similarly, you want to get your manuscript to your critique group or trusted readers before it goes out to an editor.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Sharing--A "Special" Collection

Andy and I recently attended a lecture at the University of New Hampshire on Betty and Barney Hill, a couple from Portsmouth who were abducted by aliens back in 1961. It was fascinating to hear the story, and the lecture accompanied the opening of the Betty and Barney Hill exhibit at the University Museum in Dimond Library. The exhibit is on display through the end of May, so if you're in the area, you may want to check it out!

Here's a little video of Betty Hill's niece:


Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry Friday--A Curmudgeon's Review

I had such high hopes when I read Publisher's Weekly and School Library Journal reviews of a new book by Michael J. Rosen, The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems, illustrated by Stan Fellows (Candlewick, 2009). When we received it at the library, at first glance, I was delighted by the total package. The watercolor illustrations of 24 fairly common birds are stunning. The poems are arranged by seasons. Sidebars provide interesting information such as the nickname of the chimney swift--flying cigar, and the author's note at the end adds more to our knowledge about each of the birds. But--here comes the curmudgeony bit--after careful consideration, I found the book a disappointment. Why? For two reasons. First, the poems are clever, but to my mind they are not haiku. They are written in the 5-7-5 syllable format, which sometimes makes them too wordy. And, they are overly "poetic." Say what? Rosen constantly uses the poetic devices simile and metaphor. For example, "feeding finches stacked like coins," "paired like red quotation marks," "round and white as one peeled fruit," "one wheeling black star explodes," "phased like tilted moons." Without a doubt these are fantastic poetic phrases, but they veer too far from the spirit of haiku. If only a handful of the poems had used simile or metaphor, I would have found it easier to label the book a collection of haiku, which every review I read does (that accounts for my expectations). Here's the publisher's description:
A joyful primer on the pleasures of bird-watching merges haiku, notes for identifying species, and exquisite watercolor illustrations.

The Haiku Society of America defines haiku as "a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

The HSA also says, "metaphors and similes are commonly avoided." To my understanding, a haiku presents a moment in time in precise language. To use poetic devices removes the reader from the moment and sends him/her somewhere else in search of the comparative object.

Of course, poets can call their poems whatever they want. Remember, this is a curmudgeon's review.

My second reason for disappointment? All the bird names and notes are in a curlicued script. It is pleasing to look at, but for a child, nearly impossible to read! This is a children's book after all! The cursive script is so fine, and so full of flourishes, I had a bit of a problem reading it myself! (You get a little taste of it from the subtitle on the cover seen above.)

Cursive handwriting is not given as much attention in classrooms today as it did when I was younger. In many cases the children are writing on computers, so it is not as important a task as it used to be. (I'm not placing any blame on teachers, believe me!) There are also schools where the children are simply expected to master printing legibly, rather than going on to learning cursive.

I ask your forgiveness for this review, but if you've read some of my other posts about haiku, I'm like a dog with a bone. So, to compensate for my curmudgeonly review, I'm including links to several, more positive bloggers' reviews of The Cuckoo's Haiku:

And, forgive this self-indulgent link to last Saturday's NH Celebrates Poetry posting.

Today's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being held at Allegro. Check it out, the blog is the work of a quite young poet!