Encouraging younsters to read, write and enjoy poetry is at the heart of the Children's Book Council-sponsored Young People's Poetry Week (April 15-21), as well as a major thrust of National Poetry Month. In the spirit of this worthy endeavor, many children's publishers have seeded their spring lists with works of poetry, ranging from thematic anthologies to picture-book narratives to novels written in verse. It seems a suitable time to spotlight some of these recent and forthcoming offerings, as well as to share insiders' observations on current trends in children's poetry publishing.
Many are quick to praise these two annual promotional campaigns for calling attention to the riches of their poetry frontlists and backlists. "These efforts have given a boost to sales as well as a sense of visibility and vitality to poetry books," states Marc Aronson, publisher of Cricket Books. "I would say that five years ago poetry was considered quite marginal as a kids' book genre and was considered a tough sell in the trade. But things have changed."
John Keller, v-p and senior advisor to the president of AOL Time Warner Book Group, also applauds these poetry promotions, noting, "They have definitely increased the amount of attention being paid to poetry, not only in libraries, where our friends have always been supportive, but also in the retail area. I would say that those sales are healthy and becoming even more so."
At Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass., children's book buyer and manager Alison Morris explains that, though she handsells poetry throughout the year, National Poetry Month gives her the chance, despite tight floor space, to create what she describes as "a huge display" of children's poetry books.
Currently in Vogue
Among the publishers remarking that poetry anthologies compiling classic and contemporary work by various poets are steady backlist sellers is Joan Slattery, publishing director of Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers. She credits editor-at-large Janet Schulman for "being such a strong advocate of poetry and bringing some wonderful collections onto our list."
Notable among these is The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury (1999), selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Meilo So, which has more than 100,000 copies in print. While praising such encompassing tomes as "very useful and valuable," Simon Boughton, publisher of Roaring Brook (a new imprint of Millbrook Press), is gratified to see an increasing number of publishers releasing collections by a single author. "This can be a bit of a difficult category," he observes, "and I am delighted when publishers stick their necks out and publish works by individual poets."
This season brings an impressive number of collections by children's poets whose names will ring a resounding bell for adults and young readers alike. Greenwillow's catalogue announces new volumes from a trio of celebrated authors. Jack Prelutsky returns with The Frogs Wore Red Suspenders, a roundup of 28 rhymes illustrated by Petra Mathers. From James Stevenson comes Corn-Fed, the sixth installment of his series of Corn Books. And Douglas Florian compiles poems and paintings in Summersaults, a seasonal companion to Winter Eyes.
Florian is also featured on the spring list from Harcourt, which is releasing a paperback edition of his 1998 bestseller, insectlopedia. Harcourt has high hopes for this volume: the hardcover edition has sold more than 75,000 copies and combined sales of Florian's five other poetry collections for Harcourt, including mammalabilia and in the swim, exceed 420,000 copies.
Florian's work represents a theme prevalent among new poetry collections: the natural world. The importance of a key natural resource is emphasized in an Orchard release, Constance Levy's Splash! Poems of Our Watery World, illustrated by David Soman. Creatures that soar overhead are the focus of two titles, Wild Wings: Poems for Young People by Jane Yolen, featuring photos by her son, Jason Stemple (Boyds Mills); and Wings on the Wind: Bird Poems, a compilation of verse by various poets, with oil paintings by Kate Kiesler (Clarion). This month, Knopf will publish Marilyn Singer's Footprints on the Roof: Poems About the Earth, featuring art by Meilo So (a companion volume by these collaborators, compiling poems about water, is due in 2003).
A noteworthy number of recent or upcoming books of poems have an international flavor. Greenwillow's spring roster includes a timely collection by Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Due in August from Barefoot Books, which has published anthologies compiling poems from various countries, is Sea Dream by Nikki Siegan-Smith, who culls work from a range of poets from diverse cultures. In a summer title from Chronicle, Around the World in Eighty Poems, Jamaican poet James Berry collects 80 works that range from a traditional Zulu proverb to Inuit poems from the Arctic Circle. And due from Cricket next year are a trio of titles with international angles: Cartwheel to the Moon, Emanuel di Pasquale's poetic journey through his childhood in Sicily; Tai Chi Morning, Nikki Grimes's collection of poems chronicling her 1988 trip to China; and Border Lines: Poems of Immigration, edited by Louise Brueggemann, which provides a look at the lives of young immigrants to America.
Hooking Kids on Poetry
Large doses of humor, a crucial ingredient in poetry for youngest readers, can be found in many recent releases. Allyn Johnston, editorial director of children's books at Harcourt, describes humor as "the spoonful of sugar that can draw children to poetry who otherwise might be intimidated by it." Noting that her company has in recent months bought poetry books by relatively little known authors, Johnston remarks, "The humorous angle is one we are inclined to look for in new poetry books." Keller agrees that clever humor can turn kids into poetry fans and convince them, in his words, "that poetry won't bite you." Just out from Little, Brown is a poetry collection that he says fits this bill: X.J. Kennedy's Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh, illustrated by Joy Allen. These selections were originally published in various volumes released by Margaret K. McElderry Books, whose founder has always had a deep commitment to publishing poetry for children.
Upholding that tradition is Emma Dryden, current v-p and editorial director of the imprint, who comments, "There is always a need and a market for humorous poetry. I think kids tend to be afraid of poetry, and humorous verse can be an easy avenue for both kids and adults to appreciate poetry." A McElderry title that has surely tickled readers' funny bones is Take Me Out of the Bathtub: And Other Silly Dilly Songs by Alan Katz, with equally silly art by David Catrow. The collaborators are at work on two sequels to this 2001 title, which has 110,000 copies in print after nine printings.
Among this spring's lineup of poetry books meant to elicit giggles are I Invited a Dragon to Dinner: And Other Poems to Make You Laugh Out Loud by various poets, illustrated by Chris L. Demarest (Philomel); The Kingfisher Book of Funny Poems by Roger McGough, with art by Caroline Holden (Kingfisher); and Nonsense! He Yelled by Roger Eschbacher, illustrated by Adrian Johnson (Dial).
In addition to tapping into kids' senses of humor, publishers are using another hook to lure young readers to poetry: art. "Picture books written in verse represent the best way to introduce poetry to kids at a young age and teach them the joy of rhymes and of language," observes Megan Tingley, v-p and editorial director of Megan Tingley Books at Little, Brown. She adds, "A book of verse needs to look fresh and engaging if it is going to appeal to youngsters."
Dryden agrees that the packaging of poetry has become increasingly important in an uncertain marketplace: "We've seen somewhat of a softening in the market for traditional poetry collections and we realize that we have to pay more attention to illustration and to explore new formats, like the picture-book format, to make poetry more fun and inviting."
Bookseller Chauni Haslet, owner of All for Kids in Seattle, has high praise for publishers' efforts to make poetry visually enticing. "I know many parents who would be intimidated by poetry if there weren't the accompanying beautiful illustrations to share with their children," she offers. "Appealing art is a huge advantage to these books of verse and is a wonderful way to feed poetry to the youngest children, which is what we all want to do."
In their quest to sell children on poetry, editors have discovered the allure of books that tweak traditional formats and defy easy categorization. Liz Szabla, editorial director of Scholastic Press, points to a March title, If I Were in Charge the Rules Would Be Different! by John Proimos as an example of a book that is "a kind of a hybrid. Its trim size suggests a picture book, but it is 80 pages long, which was the format that these particular poems and the art called for. The black-and-white art extends the verse in a unique way, and it all seems to work perfectly."
Also defying easy description is a spring McElderry title, If the Shoe Fits: Voices from Cinderella by Laura Whipple, with pictures by Laura Beingessner, in which each character from this fairytale--including the glass slipper--weighs in. "We've kind of pushed the envelope here," says Dryden. "The book has a quirky format: it has full-color art, 80 pages and a trim size that is smaller than a picture book but bigger than a standard novel. We're hoping that kids will pick it up thinking it's a picture book and others will pick it up thinking it's a chapter book."
Megan Tingley's description of one of her spring titles, FEG: Stupid Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch, illustrated by New Yorker cover artist Ha, is similarly appealingly--and intentionally--cryptic. "This is a 48-page book with a vertical format--it is not a picture book," she explains. "It introduces kids to poetry in a playful way, yet is sophisticated at the same time, presenting each poem as a literary adventure. The challenge is to keep poetry engaging as kids grow out of picture books, and I feel that this book does that."
Snaring the Elusive Older Reader
Authors and publishers have pulled out some creative stops to ensure that middle-grade and young adult readers continue to gravitate toward poetry. A surprising number of recent novels aimed at these audiences are written in free verse, a phenomenon that most editors view as coincidental rather than, well, plotted. Brenda Bowen, executive v-p and publisher of hardcover and paperback books at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, muses that Virginia Euwer Wolff may have "broken some ground" in this genre when she wrote Make Lemonade in 1992. Wolff revisited the same character--and narrative voice--in last year's True Believer, a National Book Award winner that has 60,000 copies in print.
Bowen notes that the author "initially tried to write the book in prose but couldn't make it sound the way that she wanted. The form evolved from the voice of the character." In the same vein, Vera Williams first began to write her fall 2001 illustrated novel, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, in prose but discovered that the story worked best in free verse, reports Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books, who adds that the book received six starred reviews and has appeared on numerous recommended reading lists.
In the case of Sharon Creech's Love That Dog, a HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler Book written in free verse, style and substance are in perfect sync. "Since this is a book about a boy finding his own voice through poetry," Cotler says, "that thrust and the writing are completely integrated. It is rare to see idea and structure come together this way." It is obviously a winning combination: the novel has sold 110,000 copies since its 2001 release.
Among the other recent or forthcoming novels told in verse are Scholastic's Witness by Karen Hesse, which echoes the style of her 1997 Newbery winner Out of the Dust; Becoming Joe DiMaggio by Maria Testa, a Candlewick spring release; and Girl Coming in for a Landing: A Novel in Poems by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, due from Knopf in August.
Notable nonfiction told in verse includes Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems, a Front Street title chronicling the life of George Washington Carver, a NBA finalist and 2001 Newbery Honor Book; and You Remind Me of You: A Poetry Memoir by Eireann Corrigan, a PUSH paperback from Scholastic that reveals a teen's struggles and eventual triumph. Bookseller Haslet observes that her teenage customers are embracing this narrative form, which is helping them to discover "that poetry is no longer something to fear or tolerate, but a way to share what they are feeling."
Aronson at Cricket Books comments on the inherent bond between poetry and teenagers, since this is the stage in life when one is most likely to write poetry and "teenagers are aware of the capacity of the well-chosen word to capture intense emotions. More and more, publishers are finding books of poetry that are immediate for teenagers." Aronson also underscores the appeal of what he terms the "performic" aspect of poetry to kids of all ages. An April Cricket title, Whisper and Shout: Poems to Memorize, edited by Patrice Vecchione, encourages kids to commit poems to memory and recite them in front of others. He cites the rising popularity among young adults of poetry "slams," in which they perform their own poems, and suggests this is an outgrowth of their fondness for both rap music and online communication. "In these days, when kids spend so much time conversing on the Internet, dialogue and the exchange of ideas is very important to them," Aronson observes. "Poetry plays directly into this--it has become more declarative and interactive."
Those queried were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the new wave of poetry publishing that appears to be successfully connecting young readers to this timeless art form. And they universally lauded the industry's endeavors to call attention to this genre every April, when, in the words of Scholastic's Szabla, "there are wonderful poetry promotions on the retail, library and school levels, as well as a flux of new books by new and established poets. To see poetry enlivened like this each spring is very encouraging."