Last spring, during a poetry writing unit, a 5th grade student asked me to read a poem she had written. “I’d love to,” I told her as she handed me her notebook with pride. I knew this girl to be a good student and a strong reader, so I was quite surprised to read what she had written. It was mostly about pickles, but her poem was full of forced rhymes and then no rhymes. I told her that her love of pickles was coming through loud and clear. Then I asked her about some of the more questionable rhymes.
“What do smelly feet have to do with sweet pickles?” I wondered
“Nothing, but sweet and feet rhyme,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I wonder if there are any other words that rhyme with sweet that have more to do with pickles than feet.”
“Probably, but today I just feel silly and want to write a silly poem.”
“Fair enough. Let’s look at it again tomorrow and see if you still feel that way. Writers often see their work differently after a day or two,” I said.
She wasn’t convinced, and she didn’t change the poem.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of students who were unwilling to revise their writing. It seems as if getting anything down on paper is torture enough. Then to have to make changes is just insulting. Part of me empathizes with them. I know it’s hard to get our thoughts down in the first place. But I also know how much better writing can be after the second or third revision.
I wish I’d had Jane Yolen’s article from the current issue of The Horn Book to share with my reluctant reviser. In it, Yolen muses over different forms her Caldecott-Award winning picture book, Owl Moon, might have taken. A sonnet? No, too short. What about as a rap? Definitely not. She states that “a writer has to make choices [about] how to tell a story. But when a writer finds the right voice, everything comes together.” (pg. 46)
Writers do make choices. But I feel that our students don’t really understand that this means more that just thinking of words that rhyme. As Yolen goes on to say, finding this voice for our writing takes “hard work, inspiration, even perspiration.” (pg. 50)
So why did my young poet short-change herself and her poem? In this case, I think she just needed more time. Time to build the habit of writing every day so being asked to write didn’t feel like punishment. Time to experience the joy of finding just the right word, the perfect expression of her feeling. Time to play with different versions of her poem to find out if silly really was the right tone. Sometimes we may get lucky and stumble onto the right form on our first try, as Yolen feels she did with Owl Moon. But in most cases, we need to sweat over our writing before sharing it. Only then can we sit back and have a pickle.
Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday. Be sure to stop by to read the hard work of many devoted writers.
Picture Book 10 for 10 is the brainchild of Cathy Mere of Reflect & Refine: Building a Learning Community and Mandy Robeck of Enjoy and Embrace Learning. During this annual event, now in its fourth year, teachers, librarians, and book lovers create lists of 10 essential picture books. Cathy and Mandy collect and share these lists, and everyone is richer because of their efforts. Be sure to visit their blogs to see their lists, and check out links to other lists. Thank you, Cathy and Mandy, for organizing this celebration of children’s literature!
Jane Yolen, who has been called the Hans Christian Anderson of our time, is one of my favorite authors and I’ve always used her books in my classroom. Her books are filled with humor, compassion, and a deep desire to ensure that children continue to have quality literature that preserves our cultural heritage. She has written over 300 books, including fantasy and fairy tales, historical fiction, poetry, rhyming picture books, non-fiction picture books, novels and more. Needless to say, trying to choose just ten of her books turned out to be quite a challenge! I tried to include one book from each genre Yolen has written in and I admit my choices are very subjective. Many of these are older works that I read to my children when they were small. These, of course, are my favorites.
One of the most generous and inspiring writers working today, Yolen speaks at conferences of teachers and writers often, sharing her wisdom about books and writing. I have been fortunate to hear her speak twice, and a smarter, funnier, kinder advocate for children’s literature is not to be found. Yolen’s website is a treasure-trove of information about anything to do with her life and work.
Commander Toad in Space (CowardMcCann, 1980; illustrated by Bruce Degen) On her website, Jane explains that she got the idea for this series (which are really early readers) when she read an article in her local newspaper about a boy whose frog, “Star Warts”… “had just won a jumping frog contest.” Yolen goes on to point out that “every book is riddled with puns,” which today’s beginning readers are certain to understand, given the popularity of Star Wars. Not all the puns are related to Star Wars, though. Commander Toad and the Planet of the Grapes (CowardMcCann, 1982) gives a nod to another Hollywood classic, and Mr. Hop is suspiciously Spock-like. Even if they don’t get all the allusions, these books (there are seven titles altogether) are tried and true favorites of first and second grade readers.
Encounter (Harcourt Brace, 1992; illustrated by David Shannon) Kirkus described this book as “a poignent account of Columbus’s landfall in the Americas, from a Taino’s point of view.” An important counterpoint to “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” this book belongs in every classroom. Yolen’s subtle prose and Shannon’s luminous illustrations ensure that this vanished culture won’t be forgotten.
I love of all of Jane’s poetry, so it was difficult to choose a single book. She and her son, Jason Stemple, have teamed up to create a number of books like Fine Feathered Friends (Boyds Mills, 2004). Yolen uses Stemple’s stunning “photographs as a jumping off place for poetry.” (About.com interview) A masterful poet, Yolen’s poems are full of imagery, humor, and facts about each bird. Haikus, quatrains, and other forms are paired with facts about each bird, including its genus, species, and habitat.
The Girl in the Golden Bower (Little Brown, 1994; illustrated by Jane Dyer) is an original fairy tale that my third graders always loved. Indeed, Book List states that “the lyrical language Yolen employs makes this an excellent choice for reading aloud.” The story contains many elements for the genre, including an evil sorceress, magical objects, spells, and people who are who are transformed into animals.
Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry (Candlewick and Walker UK; with Andrew Fusek Peters; illustrated by Polly Dunbar) Jane edited this anthology with British author Andrew Fusek Peters. It is one of my favorite collections, full of poems about the everyday lives of young children. My favorite poem in this collection will always and forever be “The No-No Bird,” by Peters. It begins “I’m the no-no bird/that’s right, that’s me/I live up in/the Tantrum Tree.” One year I had a student who said no to everything I tried to read with him until we got to this. I think he suddenly realized that he wasn’t alone in his negativity! He still remembers this poem, and he’s now a passionate reader who’s about to start fifth grade.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? (Scholastic, 2000; illustrated by Mark Teague) This rhyming picture book is probably one of Ms. Yolen’s best known recent works. It has won numerous awards and is the first book in a series which now includes seven titles. These dinosaurs have daily lives exactly like those of their young fans. And while not always the models of appropriate behavior, in the end, they do what’s right and turn out the light. (Sorry, I’ve read this too many times today!)
Letting Swift River Go (Little Brown, 1992; illustrated by Barbara Cooney) My grandmother grew up in Athol, one of the towns near the Quabbin Reservoir, so I was immediately drawn to this book when it was published. It tells the story of how four towns along the Swift River in central Massachusetts were flooded to create a source of drinking water for Boston. Yolen’s text explains this process in a child-friendly way. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote that “…the words convey the poignancy of change, as well as the healing effects of accepting change and moving on.” Both the town where I live and the town where I teach are bordered by lakes that were created by flooding sections of our river communities. I have shared this book with students many times to give them a better understanding of our towns’ history.
Off We Go! (Little Brown, 2000; illustrated by Laurel Molk) In this rhyming picture book for the preschool set, all the animals are off to Grandma’s house. Told in quatrains, each animal’s stanza begins with an action: the mouse goes “tip-toe, tippity toe,” while the frog goes “hip-hop, hippity hop.” I can envision students acting out these stanzas as the story is read.
Perhaps Ms. Yolen’s best known book, Owl Moon (Philomel, 1987) was awarded the Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s gorgeous illustrations. This story of a little girl going owling with her father was a particular favorite of my adventurous boys when they were little. They took great delight in finding the woodland animals Schoenherr hid in the shadows of his woodland scenes. The Horn Book called the text “quiet and reflective,” (Vol. 62, No. 6, p. 790) and Yolen herself considers the text “an unrhymed picture book poem.”
Piggins (Harcourt, 1987; illustrated by Jane Dyer) is the story of Piggins, a very proper British butler, who keeps everything running smoothly at 47 The Meadows, the very proper Edwardian home of Mr. and Mrs. Reynard. Small mishaps have happened around the house, and Mrs. Reynard’s cursed diamond lavalier is blamed. The Reynards invite their close friends to a dinner party, hoping that they will be able to sell the necklace. A mystery ensues and Piggins saves the day. Humorous allusions abound and although the original readers (i.e. parents) found similarities to Upstairs, Downstairs, today’s parents are more likely to be reminded of Gosford Park. The fun continues in Picnic with Piggins (Harcourt Brace, 1988) and Piggins and the Royal Wedding (Harcourt Brace, 1988). Both are also illustrated with Jane Dyer’s charming watercolors.
I could go on and on, and shudder to think of some of the books I left off this list. What is your favorite Jane Yolen picture book?
Thank you, Ms. Yolen, for your tireless efforts to create this wonderful body of work that will continue to enrich the lives of children and adults alike for years to come.