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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Janeczko, Paul B., comp. A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems; illus. by Chris Raschka. Candlewick, 2001. 35p
ISBN 0-7636-0661-8   $15.99   Gr. 4-7

Paul Janeczko is one of the most reliable and useful anthologists in children's literature. Never content simply to rearrange poems displayed in previous anthologies, he's sought far afield and brought new voices to young audiences. He's worked in different formats, focused on different themes, and appealed to different readerships. Here he assembles a collection eminently suitable for introduction of that most book-friendly genre, concrete poetry.

With its tendency towards inventive playfulness, concrete poetry can be extremely accessible to young readers (the book's concise introduction is all kids will need) as well as sophisticated enough for older. The lot presented here is a diverse one: some of the thirty poems will click immediately with readers, whereas others may tease and puzzle. Youngsters may have already been introduced to the concept of pattern poems, represented here by John Hollander's elegant "Swan and Shadow" and Mary Ellen Solt's astonishingly evocative "Forsythia," among others. Other kinds of typographical gamesmanship may be new to them: Monica Kulling's "Tennis Anyone?" makes its reader bounce from one side to another along with the ball in order to read the poem; Helen Chasin's "Joy Sonnet in a Random Universe" offers, in a tidy square of the proper fourteen lines, a goofy and spirited evocation of joy (" . . . Hey nonny nonny. La la la la la la la la la . . ."); Robert Carola's "Stowaway" neatly secretes the first a between the two w's of the poem's text that is also its title. Contributors include writers for adults as well as writers for children, and among their number are familiar names such as Douglas Florian, John Agard, and Roger McGough. Most of the entries are enticing, some are quite funny, and several are genuinely brain-tickling, and even the table of contents gets into the mood, appearing, logically enough, as a table.

The layout leaves plenty of space for the verse to move, with white space dominant in every spread. Raschka's artwork is inventive and lively, and he seems to have created a whole new anthropoid species just for this book. These rectangular-headed beings come in an array of colors, including primary, and they gambol about the snowy pages in torn-paper clothing. The use of white line instead of black line to indicate features gives these curious folk an otherworldly look, but their expressiveness is undeniable, whether it be the green, cucumbery audience intently watching tennis, the scarlet dancer with billowing crimson hair, or, for a change of pace, the round-headed yellow guy who peers up into one poem or recoils from another. The artwork's tension between parts (some of which are also text) and whole mirrors that of the verse, so there's a congenial conceptual companionship between the two.

While there are obvious pleasure-reading possibilities here for kids of various tastes, this title also begs for all kinds of classroom appearances. It can be used to inspire philosophical exploration (are all these entries poetry? If not, why not?) or, of course, to prompt similar projects for readers. Since some of the poems have appeared and been illustrated elsewhere (Douglas Florian's entries being the most obvious examples), there are good opportunities for provocative comparison and contrast and interrogation of the differences in presentation. Challenge kids to read the poems aloud or even to try some physical approximation of the concrete poem, if you've got room. Let versaphobes use this for a different path into the poetry they find stifling.

Good books open readers to new horizons. This book offers new possibilities even with that old acquaintance, poetry, and it makes those possibilities fresh, enticing, and vivid; this poke in the I just leads readers to see anew.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
June's Bulletin cover illustration by Chris Raschka
from A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Candlewick Press.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2001.