Long Way Down

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Citation:  Reynolds, J. (2017). Long Way Down. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Overall Review:  Long Way Down is unique. Its message is an important one that the cycle of violence is real and difficult to break, but that isn’t the only thing that makes it unique. This novel in verse is targeted toward an audience who isn’t often heard in this form. It targets an audience who doesn’t typically read because they don’t feel represented or understood. It is trying to change all that and give a voice to those who need it. \

The book is broken into parts once the main character enters the elevator. Each floor is separated so that each new character’s message is distinct. Other than that, there isn’t a system of organization. Each poem is marked only with the first line, there is no table of contents, or any other distinguishing marks. There are, however, some markings on the pages to represent the smoke from the ghosts (the murkiness of the situation and the stress of it choking Will and making him short-sighted) or the elevator’s doors. No true illustrations other than these appear in the book.

Each poem has enough artistry and enough of its own theme to stand alone, even while they contribute to the story. Some parts might be lost without the context of the novel, but their message is clear enough that they would make sense. The poems are diverse in structure and symbolism, rich in meaning, and varied in emotions. They take us through Will grieving, seeing his mother broken by loss, deciding to take revenge, seeing his lost father again, seeing a girl he had feelings for, flirting, being petrified as he faced his own mortality, and being left with one big decision. The ending leaves it up to interpretation whether Will actually escaped and broke the cycle or let the loss of his brother break him, even after all the lessons the ghosts imparted. This poetic ending really captures the heart of the novel and the issue it deals with. Its interpretation is personal, the decision is a vital and impossible one for many people in Will’s position.

Spotlight Poem: 
“It’s hard to say,

So strange to say.
So sad.

But I guess
not surprising,
which I guess is
even stranger

and even sadder.”

This is one of the few novels in verse that I’ve read where every poem felt as if it could stand alone. This poem, however, stood out to me the most. There is so much expressed in this poem from the devastation of the loss of his brother and trying to process the reality of his death to the realization that this situation is completely common.

The first thing that I noticed was the use of spacing here to illustrate how Will processes the death. The first time he says that his brother is dead, it’s separated by a line. Living Shawn on one line and the reality of his death are not connected. They can’t be. It can’t be real. Then, there’s the pause of realization. Shawn feels further from Will now, a memory. He is gone. The third time comes with a longer pause as the reality crushes down on Will that Shawn is gone. These pauses, these spaces perfectly sum up the emotional reckoning everyone goes through after losing someone suddenly. It also shows how distant their memory becomes from their loved ones over time. It’s still there, still cherished, but they are more distant as time goes on.

The short phrases capture the despair of his brother. When grief takes over a person, they have trouble forming thoughts and sentences to express themselves. They often speak simply to try to keep themselves together, to keep from crying as Will must to follow the rules.

The last stanzas, the most crushing of the poem, bring to the front the reality of life in Will’s world—certain or, at least likely, premature death. It isn’t surprising to anyone that Shawn has died. Almost anywhere else in America, it would be utterly shocking that a young man died suddenly, but to those in Will’s life, it’s an average day.

Take Five Activity:

  1. Read the poem slowly, pausing between each line and each space. Let the students sit with the poem for a while.
  2. Discuss the process of grieving and allow the students to throw out ideas that explain the spacing and language used in the poem.
  3. Pass out copies of the lyrics of “Brutha Put the Gun Away” by 187 F.A.C., “Self Destruction” by The Stop the Violence Movement, and “Inner Ninja” by Classified to the class. Separate the class into three groups and have each group listen to one song. Give each group time to discuss before bringing the groups together to share their thoughts on the selections.
  4. Read the poem again and discuss how the songs relate to the theme.
  5. Have a discussion on social justice and the reason why Shawn’s death is “not surprising.”

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Citation:  Mecum, R. (2008). Zombie haiku. Cincinnati, OH: HOW Books.

Overall Review: Zombie Haiku is an interesting choice at first glance. It appears to be an attempt to get teenagers to read poetry by using a common symbol that has exploded across popular culture—the zombie. It’s not only poetry, it’s haiku, one of the most overlooked and dreaded forms of poetry to many students. Haiku isn’t a form often seen in general collections of poetry or, especially, in novels in verse. It is a form that often feels unnatural when students begin to learn about and write poetry, so it is not something they often seek out to read. By using zombies as a lure, Mecum draws in new readers to the poetic form. However, it seems like an interesting choice to use haiku (a form known for dealing with the natural world) to describe an unnatural process like zombification. It could be a statement about the natural progression of society from where we are now or a twist to view haiku in a new way. Whatever the poet’s motivations, the use of haiku makes the novel a quick read for reluctant readers just looking for a quick zombie fix or for a bit of motivation and confidence in their reading abilities.

The sections resembling chapters of individual haikus are titled and they can be found in the table of contents in the beginning for ease of use. Each chapter and poem builds upon the last to tell the story of two people during the zombie apocalypse. They begin innocent and even beautiful and grow to something grotesque, morbid, and disturbing as they each loose themselves through the process. It takes the reader on an emotional journey that is as broad as it is disgusting.

The novel itself is peppered with photographs and illustrations to help the reader grasp the extremity of the transformation of the characters and to provide a human touch from the writer’s perspective as this is his journal. How the zombie continues to write in haiku is an interesting point that seems overlooked, however, that isn’t fully explained, especially when he begins losing fingers to decay and cannot remember how to open a door.

Spotlight Poem:
“The city is dead.
Streets are just filled with people
who aren’t quite people.”

While most of the poems in this novel aren’t stand-alone works, this one struck me as the one with the most potential for different levels of meaning. On the surface, it’s just a comment on the zombies taking over and outnumbering the living, but if it’s taken apart and examined, it could be much deeper than that and provide more meaning to the novel as a whole.

The fact that this poem refers to the city as a whole, what is usually a thriving, bustling center of change, progress, and experience as being dead is a striking way to begin the short exploration of humanity’s descent. This poem could easily be about looking deeper than what we see on the surface of those around us to see the struggle within that eats away at them. It could be a reference to the cancer that many view as plaguing society, eating away at our humanity until there is nothing left but death and destruction. The novel could be a metaphor for either of these themes. With the main character’s first clues about the zombie apocalypse; he saw a coworker but didn’t really see her, didn’t understand what was happening to her. He was so far removed from those around him that he didn’t see what was truly happening and how they were changing.

Take Five Activity:

  1. Read the poem aloud slowly and discuss first impressions with the students.
  2. Have the students make lists of word associations for each concept (i.e. “dead,” “people,” etc.) to help find a variety of meanings in the poem and discuss.
  3. Listen to “Zombie” by The Cranberries and pass out copies of the lyrics to each student. Then, discuss the meaning of the song and how it might tie into the poem.
  4. Discuss the deeper meaning and symbolism of the zombie by having students brainstorm things they associate with zombies and what else they might mean.
  5. Re-read the poem and let the new associations and interpretations sink in for each student before having a final discussion about it.

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Citation:  Grimes, N. (2016). Garvey’s Choice. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.

Overall Review:  Garvey’s Choice is an examination of a troubled parent-child relationship that will resonate with almost any reader on some level. Garvey is drawn to the arts and sci fi and just wants to be free to be himself without the pressure from his father to participate in sports, the teasing from his sister and the kids at school, and the pressure he puts on himself to be who others want him to be. When he finally finds something to connect with his father, everything turns around with the help of his two closest friends and their influence on his self-esteem.

This novel in verse is an excellent way to encourage young, struggling readers or those who are averse to poetry because it is a quick read with which they will find some emotional connection. Its themes of bullying and the pressure one’s peers put on them to fit in will strike a cord with everyone, regardless of their social standing, body image issues, or interests. The story will engage them and keep them reading until the end, and the poetic form provides opportunity for greater understanding and insight into Garvey’s emotions.

The various poems in this novel work together to piece together the story of Garvey’s struggle. Some are more apt to stand alone than others that contribute more to the plot, but they are all equally important for the insight they provide to the story. Each poem includes a title that is listed in the table of contents at the beginning of the book for easy location to specific poems that spoke to the reader or for keeping one’s place. The end of the book also includes an author’s note about the poetic form used in this novel—Tanka. She mentions that Tanka typically focuses on mood, and that style is definitely displayed throughout the novel. We are treated to in-depth analysis of Garvey’s moods and how they vary when his father is around, when he meets a new friend, when he is teased at school, and when he finally finds his passion in choir.

Spotlight Poem:  “Sci Fi Novel”
“On page 59,
I meet two red Martian Trills
and feel a sweet chill
ripple through me, till Dad says,
“Football would do you better.”

Where did he come from?
The sudden slap of words sends
my Trills scattering.
I snarl and pound my pillow.
It’s too late to slam the door.”

This poem perfectly describes the sense of escape one can find in a book and how vital that can be in a difficult situation. The language used feels as if Garvey has jumped right into the novel he’s reading. He meets the Martians, not the character he is reading about. He is there until the illusion is shattered by the harsh words from his father.

The second stanza opens with “Where did he come from?” This line hides a double-meaning referring to his father’s words coming to him across the vast distance from Earth to Mars where he’s been transported in the novel and his father’s thoughts intruding into his fantasy wondering where Garvey came from as he bears no resemblance to the rest of his family. This thought follows Garvey through the entire novel, eating away at him, even during his brief escapes in the world of science fiction.

The last line “It’s too late to slam the door” refers both to the physical door that might have muffled his father’s voice and prevented the intrusion and the door to his fantasy world that he was so harshly ripped from back to the harsh reality of being a failure to his father.

Take Five Activity:

  1. Read the poem and discuss the students’ initial impressions of Garvey’s relationship with his father.
  2. Have the students re-read the poem on their own and journal about times they’ve felt something similar with their parents, friends, or anyone else.
  3. Read Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman and discuss the importance of being oneself.
  4. Re-read the poem again, slowly and let the students come up with ideas how Garvey’s story could end happily in this poem alone.
  5. Have each student write a short poem to follow this selection about Garvey choosing to be himself.

A Wreath for Emmett Till

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Citation:  Nelson, M., & Lardy, P. (2009). A wreath for Emmett Till. Boston, MA: Graphia.

Overall Review:  A Wreath for Emmett Till opens with an author’s note which explains some of the history of Emmett Till’s lynching, Nelson’s connection to the subject, and an explanation of the poetic form she used (the heroic crown of sonnets). A short biography of Emmett Till, notes on each of the included sonnets, references, and an additional author’s note can be found at the end of the book to supplement the reading of this poem.

Each sonnet highlights the first line (as it is repeated from the previous sonnet) and incudes an accompanying illustration, most of which include a ring somewhere in them that tie the illustration to the poetic form and to the idea that all people are connected and hate must stop or that the circle of life will continue, depending on one’s interpretation. Almost every illustration also includes some of the flowers discussed in the wreath, though some take a bleaker view.

Though each poem is uniquely moving and takes the reader through the rollercoaster of emotions one experiences after hearing of such a tragedy, I had a difficult time relating this to children. The subject matter might, sadly, be something to which they can relate, but the themes are quite mature and complex. I think the young reader would be challenged in interpretation, content, and language. Though this is classified as a children’s poem, and the author mentions writing these sonnets for children, I would see this best suited to older children, perhaps middle school and older to truly be able to grasp the themes and references.

Spotlight Poem:
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare wrote.
a speech for poor Ophelia, who went mad
when her love killed her father. Flowers had
a language then. Rose petals in a note
said, I love you, a sheaf of bearded oat
said, Your music enchants me. Goldenrod:
Be careful. Weeping-willow twigs: I’m sad.
What should my wreath for Emmett Till denote?
First, heliotrope, for Justice shall be done.
Daisies and white lilacs, for Innocence.
Then mandrake: Horror (wearing a white hood
or bare-faced, laughing). For grief, more than one,
for one is not enough: rue, yew, cypress.
Forget-me-nots. Though if I could, I would.”

At first glance, this first poem in this crown of sonnets is about the language of flowers and how one could use these natural beauties to remember and heal from something as unnatural as the murder of an innocent child. It’s a poem of loss and of mourning. By reminiscing on the language of flowers, the poet harkens back to a more poetic and romantic past that we can never get back, much like the life of the subject and the innocence of those who have been touched by his story.

When the poem turns to arranging a wreath for Emmett Till, the overt tone turns to anger, a call for justice, and sorrow from the innocence of reminiscing seen earlier in the poem. The lines that stood out to me the most were “Then mandrake: Horror (wearing a white hood/or bare-faced, laughing).” By using this metaphor to tie the mandrake flower to Emmett Till’s attackers who laughed as he died and who hid behind white hoods, the poet drives home his message, purposefully exposing the hatred in the attackers’ hearts.

The last line that flows into the next sonnet also strikes a chord with me: “Forget-me-nots. Though if I could, I would.” It ties not only to the horrors of Emmett’s story but to the hatred of racism and the pain associated with race now. So much is loaded into that line that it is very appropriate that it resurfaces in the next and the last sonnet in this crown.

Take 5 Activity:

  1. Read the poem aloud slowly showing pictures of each flower as they are mentioned.
  2. Discuss things we typically use as symbolism like the language of flowers in the poem (i.e. colors, gemstones, etc.).
  3. Discuss why symbolism is used (a simple and nuanced way to express emotions, a way to add depth to a work, cultural associations, history, etc.).
  4. Read a picture book that discusses symbolism (like Kente Colors by Debbi Chocolate).
  5. Re-read the poem out loud together and talk about why each flower might be associated with the feelings listed.



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Citation:  Engle, M., & López, R. (2017). Bravo!: poems about amazing Hispanics. New York, NY: Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company.

Overall Review:  Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics opens with an author’s note about her poems contained within. This clarifies the use of modern names for the countries discussed in the poems and why the subjects were chosen. Each poem is then presented with the subject’s name at the top of the page along with years of birth and death and their country of birth. Every poem is also accompanied with an illustration of the subject on the opposite page. Often, these illustrations are a bit abstract to capture the passion of the subject. For example, a rainbow of colors escapes from a book held by Pura Belpre to symbolize the magic she helped to free from books in her work at the library. The end of the book holds one extra poem titled “More and More Amazing Latinos” that discusses other famous Latinos that did not fit in the book as well as a section of notes about the lives of each of the subjects of the poems for more information.

Each one of Engle’s poems is in free verse and uses similar style elements which aid in the flow of the book from poem to poem, connecting them even more. While each subject was famous for something different, their shared heritage keeps the poems connected as well and ties into the theme of the book.

This book is equally appealing to someone without a knowledge of the history of the countries discussed as one who is versed in the history of the subjects. The poems bring new perspective to the stories of famous people like Cesar Chavez that most people are familiar with and introduce new, lesser known, subjects like Faboila Cabeza de Baca. Even when introducing new concepts and more mature themes like exile, the language is kept simple and the emotions and repercussions of complex matters are explained in a child-appropriate way that is accessible and relatable.

Spotlight Poem:  “The Magic of Words”
“As a child on the island, I see injustice,
so I write about freedom, but at sixteen,
I’m arrested, and after months of hard labor
in prison, I am forced to flee my homeland.

            In New York, I stroll through Central Park
with the children of other exiles, telling stories
of gentle elephants and enchanted shrimp . . .

           I say that each day is a poem.
Some hours are green and peaceful.
Others are red, like festivals or storms.
I love teaching children how to tell
their own stories.”

The first thing that strikes me about this poem is the use of formatting to convey such strong messages. The poem appears broken in two on the page. The first stanza appears on the far left while telling about his childhood in Cuba while the second and third stanzas appear separate as he describes his life in America. The distance on the page tells of the physical and emotional distance the subject experience in his transition.

Each line begins with an end to a story that afforded him a new beginning. For example, we see that the phrase “As a child on the island, I see injustice,/so I write about freedom, but at sixteen,/I’m arrested…” broken into three lines. Beginning to write was an ending of sitting idly by and seeing injustice happen; it started his story. Being arrested was an end to his childhood and innocence, but it was the beginning of his fight for freedom. This theme continues throughout the poem with each line separated into a different chapter of his life laying the groundwork for the last stanza where he says that “each day is a poem.” His life, separated by the different days or chapters is building up to his own unique poem.

The richest lines to me are “Some hours are green and peaceful./Others are red, like festivals or storms.” Not only does this show the complexity of life and tie it to a common association children use for feelings (colors) to make it feel relatable and tangible, it also shows the complex side of these color associations. Red can mean exciting (like a festival) or dangerous (like a storm). This complexity can tie back to the rollercoaster of emotions we experience in this poem from anger at the injustice he witnesses, sadness as he leaves his home, tranquility and inspiration as he talks about telling stories in the park with other children, to hope at the end when he talks about teaching children “how to tell their stories.”

Take 5 Activity:

  1. Read the poem and discuss the use of colors.
  2. Have children help make a list of color associations.
  3. Write a poem together using their color descriptions to describe a rainbow day/life.
  4. Re-read the poem, having the children read aloud together.
  5. Let the children begin writing their own poems about their own colorful stories.

Image result for comets stars the moon and mars
  Florian, D. (2007). Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Inc.

Overall Review:  Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars is an excellent collection of poetry by Douglas Florian about space. Each poem covers one topic; the poems describe galaxies, the solar system, the sun, the moon, the minor planets, each planet, Pluto, comets, constellations, black holes, and more. There is a table of contents with each poem listed for ease of use as well as a glossary for unfamiliar words and a bibliography for further reading at the end of the book.

Each poem is accompanied by an illustration. Often these illustrations are rather abstract and add to the educational and whimsical feel of the book itself. For example, the illustration accompanying the poem “Pluto” depicts an orange circle with words written in it that come to mind when one hears the word “Pluto.” These include “Planet?” “Dog?” and “Planetoid?”

The poems included in this book each have facts about their subject woven into the poems and can easily be tied into a science curriculum, but the condensed lessons on the planets are enhanced by the childlike view of each topic. For example, we learn that Mercury orbits the sun quite quickly in its poem and we’re told “You’d run too, so near the sun.” By relating us to the planet, the poet makes this lesson feel more personal and uses personification to drive that point home.

While each poem has its own style and uses different poetic elements, they all fit the same theme of the book—space. Each is educational and passes on information about the topic. The included poems also are highly relatable to children in their use of personification, humor, and common experiences like looking up at the stars.

Spotlight Poem: “The Universe”
“The universe is every place,
Including all the    e   m   p   t   y      space.
It’s every star and galaxy,
All objects of astronomy,
Geography, zoology
(Each cat and dog and bumblebee),
All persons throughout history—
Including you,
Including me.”

The first thing that occurred to me when reading this poem was that it reminded me of the theme song to “The Big Bang Theory.” It was written for a different audience by listing things that children can relate to (bumblebees, cats, dogs, and things they learn about in school) instead of more advanced topics from the song, but its similarity was what drew me in at first.

I also liked the formatting used to show “empty space” on the page. By spacing out the letters, it not only visually represents the vastness of the empty space, but it also shows that the space being discussed isn’t exactly empty. Spaces have been put there, therefore, there is something there, just like in space. It seems empty, but science is beginning to understand that there is actually energy or matter that we cannot perceive everywhere, so the chances are that no space is actually empty, just like in this line.

The poem is written in couplets which show the connectedness of everything in the universe. We all exist together in the same universe and are made of the same stuff that has been present since its beginning, therefore, we are all tied together, just like the rhyme scheme ties the poem together.

Overall, this poem is simple enough for young, school-age children to comprehend right away (especially with the poet’s definition of zoology included), but with some discussion and examination, more information can be revealed to enhance their understanding of the poem and the universe.

Take 5 Activity:

  1. Read the poem and talk about how big the universe is.
  2. Read selections from The Universe by Seymour Simon to broaden the lesson on the vastness of the universe, its beginning, and what it contains.
  3. Listen to “Big Bang Theory Theme” (edited version) from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” and discuss how everything we know came from the Big Bang.
  4. Have students read the poem aloud once more.
  5. Brainstorm a list of words we associate with the universe, and have students begin to write their own poems on the topic.

Citation:  Dakos, K. (1993). Don’t Read This Book, Whatever You Do!: More Poems About School. New York, NY: Four Winds Press.

Overall Review:  This collection of poems about school-related subjects like spelling tests, the lost and found, wearing glasses, and sicknesses going around the school will be sure to delight kids. Many of them are quite funny or quirky while others take a more sentimental and curious tone to fully explore the variety of school experiences.

The book begins with a table of contents for the reader to find any poem they wish listed by title. The contents pages feature illustrations of dreaming children and a pencil impatient for someone to begin writing which set the scene for the whimsical and childlike poems to follow. Each poem features at least one accompanying illustration to add a new dimension to the poems themselves. Each illustration is done in simple black and white strokes as if they were doodles in a notebook from a boring class lecture further drawing the reader into the school atmosphere.

This collection is a variety of poems by one author—Kalli Dakos. She provides such variety and depth in her poems which further reflect the differences among school children and experiences by appearing in a variety of styles and forms. Using many poetic elements, she really allows the reader to analyze each work for new meaning and to expand one’s knowledge of poetry. For example, her use of figurative language in “If You’re Not Here, Then Where Are You?” helps to illustrate the true power of imagination to transport us to other worlds (“I’m lying on a bed on a cloud of dreams, Floating away over valleys of whipping cream.” Readers of all levels of knowledge of poetry will surely find something that speaks to them in this collection.

Spotlight Poem: “I’d Mark with the Sunshine” by Kalli Dakos

If I were a teacher,
I wouldn’t mark in red,
Because red reminds me
Of blood that
Oozes out of cuts,
And fire engines that
Rush to fight blazes
So hot you could
Die in them,
And STOP signs that
Warn you of danger.

If I were a teacher
I’d mark in yellow—
For corn muffins,
Mustard on a hot dog,
Gardens of dandelions,
And sunbeams that
Dance on daffodils.

If I were a teacher,
I’d throw out
My STOP pen,
And I’d mark with
the sunshine itself!

To give light to an A,
Warmth to a C,
And hope to an F.

This poem focuses on a theme that all children can relate to—school grades. At some point, every child receives a grade in which they are disappointed. However, this poem turns that around and allows them to see that it isn’t as simple or harsh as it seems. It’s all a matter of perspective. By viewing failure not as a stopping point as a beginning on the road to growth and success, it brings hope to the less academically successful readers. By using a new style for the line “And I’d mark with the sunshine itself,” she turns the poem into a hopeful ode to grading with the light of education and encouragement. She also uses descriptors that every child can relate to—fire engines, mustard on a hot dog, etc. to further enhance their connection to the message. By associating things they’ve experienced that were scary, painful, or otherwise unpleasant, even those children who cannot relate to an F are pulled into the poem to put themselves in the shoes of those who are less gifted academically and see that there can and should be hope in an F.

Take 5 Activity:

  1. Before reading the poem, have the children write down five words to describe how they feel when they get a good grade. Then, have them write down five words to describe how they feel when they get a bad grade. Allow them to share, if they feel comfortable.
  2. Read the poem slowly, pausing between each stanza.
  3. Discuss the parts of the poem the poet wants us to take notice of (i.e. words in all capitals or italics). Have them think about these phrases to themselves, and then have everyone read the poem together, putting emphasis on these phrases.
  4. Have the children discuss the parts of the poem that stood out to them and guide the discussion to an end by talking about “hope to an F.”
  5. Read Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and discuss how failing isn’t an end but a new beginning.

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