Showing posts with label poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poetry. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Author Study: Revisiting Lesléa Newman

Last June, I wrote a mentor text author study featuring poet, author, and activist Lesléa Newman. At the end of that post was the cover of what was to be her forthcoming book, Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, illustrated by Susan Gal. Since my library is closed because of the pandemic, I do not have access to a body of work from another author to feature this month. So I looked at what makes Newman’s latest work worthy of study.


Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail uses a poetic parallel sentence structure to tell the story of a boy and a kitten. Inside, a young boy takes part in a Seder, outside a stray kitten follows a similar ritual. 


Early on Newman engages playful language using the homophone tale and tail in the title. The alternating couplets create a sense of connectedness between the parallel story lines.

Inside, candles glowed.
Outside, stars twinkled.

Inside, the boy drank grape juice.
Outside, the kitten lapped at a puddle.


Using a Seder as the setting allows Newman to show how a family celebrates Passover. Two stories unfold through the point of view of a young boy and a stray kitten. Inside, children follow the boy and experience what happens during a Seder. Outside that same night children witness the kitten as it mirrors the boy's actions in its own way.  And in the ending, when the characters and story interconnect, it is welcoming.

The story is sweet and endearing and the artwork represents a festive night inside in comparison and contrast to the mood and atmosphere outside.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Julie Abery

Julie Abery is a children’s book author, former Pre-K teacher and polyglot. She is English by birth, has lived in different parts of Europe, and now calls Switzerland home.  Besides English, she also speaks Dutch, German, and French. Her love of languages, picture books and teaching very young children has helped Abery create her own stories. 



Board books are written for the youngest audiences – toddlers and preschoolers. That means the story must be able to hold their attention. In Little Tiger and the companion title Little Panda, Suzie Mason (Illustrator), Abery tells the tale of the adventures of curious little animal characters.  The storyline, following the cubs as they explore their surroundings with their mothers nearby, resonates with parents and children. Written in rhyming couplets, the text is active and fun to read aloud.  And the large, playful illustrations are bright and carefree.


Little Monkey and Little Hipp0, Suzie Mason (Illustrator), are the latest books in Abery’s little animal series. Also published by Amicus, these two books will release on February 25, 2020. Using a similar structure to her first two books, Abery takes us through a day in the life of two different animals.

Abery’s rhyming couplets and use of verbs that describe actions specific to each animal to create a rhythmic flow. Her word choices build a world authentic to each animal’s environment.


Written in sparse rhyming text, Abery uses a trochaic meter to tell the story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini in Yusra Swims, Sally Deng (Illustrator). Abery did not ignore the difficult and dangerous journey. She tells the true and emotional journey of Yursa’s family and others like hers who escaped war torn Syria. 

Creative Editions, February 25, 2020.

Writers looking for rhyming texts with humor and heart will find books by Julie Abery wonderful mentor texts to study. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mentor Text Author Study: Tim McCanna

Before Tim McCanna became an author, he worked as a graphic designer, wrote songs and musicals, played in several bands, and earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing for Musical Theatre.

McCanna compares writing picture books to a musical theater song, “A musical theater song has to start somewhere and end somewhere different and it needs to be a journey and the character needs to come out on the other end different. That’s how I like to think about crafting a picture book as well.”

That's exactly how Tim McCanna writes his stories. His books are written to be read aloud and performed.

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Meter

Given McCanna’s musical background, choosing to write in verse makes sense. In his stories the words flow, the rhyme is flawless, and he doesn’t miss a beat. In addition to the perfect rhyme, McCanna’s BITTY BOT books, Tad Carpenter (Illustrator) have a well-developed character and story arc.

We get to know the character in the first BITTY BOT book right away and learn what he’s up to.

In a busy robot town
bots begin to power down-

all except for Bitty Bot!
Feeling sleepy? Maybe not! 

All the bots in Botsburg beep: 
“Day is over. Time for sleep!” 

“Kiss your papa. Hug your mamas. 
Activate your bot pajamas.” 

Every bot is tucked and tight?
Peace and quiet?
Well… not quite. 

What's that noise in power three? 
Who in Botsburg could it be? 

Bitty Bot with power tools! 
Breaking all the bedtime rules.

Engaging Your Audience
McCanna invites kids to make some noise in BARNYARD BOOGIE, Alison Black (Illustrator). This story features farm animals that play music in a band together. The problem in this story is finding something for Cow to do. Fun musical sounds and a refrain, “But what can Cow do? Moo?” keeps kids engaged and entertained. This story so much fun to read aloud!

The Barnyard Band is performing today.
All the musicians are coming to play!

Horse brings the tuba.

Goat swings the sax.

But what can Cow do?

In SO MANY SOUNDS, Andy J. Miller (Illustrator), kids experience everyday sounds the main character hears as he starts his day. Each scene ends using the refrain, Oh, so many sounds to hear! 

Listen! Do you hear a sound? 
Noises come from all around. 
Soft and gentle, loud and clear, Oh 
so many sounds to hear!

The story circles back when the main character returns home and his day's end hearing different sounds.

Covers ruffle.

Click! The switch
turns off the light.

No more noises.
Not a peep.
Everyone is sound asleep.


In JACK B. NINJA, Stephen Savage (Illustrator), McCanna takes a fresh approach to retelling an old nursery rhyme classic. In the first two spreads, McCanna hooks the audience. His audience learns Jack is a ninja who's going on a secret mission and they get to go along!

Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick!
Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!

Secret mission starts tonight.
Hide in shadow, out of sight.


McCanna is a ninja master of onomatopoeia demonstrated in BOING! A Very Noisy ABC, Jorge Martin (Illustrator). He not only uses onomatopoeia to tell the story using a cumulative structure supported by the illustrations, but he also alphabetized the words. Brilliant! The story starts with a sneeze that sends a boy’s ball bouncing away and sends him on a journey until he finds it. But when he returns home and falls asleep, “ZZZZZ”, the final spread starts the story all over again.





WATERSONG, Richard Smythe (Illustrator), uses the perfect combinations of water sounds and illustrations to tell a story about a fox seeking shelter during a rainstorm.  This book is an excellent example of how words and illustrations work together in harmony.

In the opening, Drip drop plip plop pitter patter pat tells us the storm is just starting. McCanna uses POP! Gush Rush! Crash! Whish Wash! Wham! to show tension when the storm intensifies. And Ripple shimmer tumble glimmer to show the calm near the end.

Non-fiction backmatter adds another informational layer to this fictional account.

Why do books by Tim McCanna make good mentor texts? They show us how he develops a character and story arc. He chooses a limited amount of the right words to tell his story. His rhyme is perfect. And he has mastered the literary device of onomatopoeia that is fun and engages his audience.

Each and every one of McCanna's books deserves applause. Encore! Encore!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Mentor Text Author Study: Margarita Engle

Poetry is Margarita Engle’s specialty. She enchants readers with her picture books in verse and her novels-in-verse for middle grade and young adult readers.

Point of View

Margarita Engle presents two of her books about artists in first person point of view.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian and Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist are told from the point of view of the artists themselves, allowing the artist to come to life and help the reader see what the artist saw.

Summer Birds is presented as a straight first-person narrative, while Sky Painter is told in a series of first-person poems.


In Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, some of her lines are only one word long. These short lines cause us to pause and pick up the rhythm that Engle is trying to create with her words. All the Way to Havana also makes use of short lines—sometimes only 2-3 words long. This helps evoke mood in the book and makes it easy for the reader to catch onto the rhythm.

Engle uses a varying refrain in The Flying Girl: How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar. 

The onomatopoeia in All the Way to Havana gives the reader a sensory experience from “cara cara, cluck, cluck, cluck” to “pìo, pìo, pìo, pìo, pfffft.”

In Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, she also uses powerful verbs such as rippled, rapped, pounded, which give an onomatopoeic effect. The verbs peep, croak, shriek do the same in Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist.

Orangutanka: A Story in Poems is a narrative is told through a series of linked tanka poems. A short form like tanka doesn’t leave room for anything but exacting word choice. In this case, Engle uses a superb lineup of verbs throughout such as: leaps, clings, swings, flips, dips, swoops, twirls, shake, clamber, smacks and more!

Her language is so rich, it performs double duty—providing musicality, supporting the work with strong verbs, and even using verbs that are onomatopoeic.


Even adjectives take on a unique quality in Engle’s work. In The Flying Girl: How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar, she uses the description, “whale-shaped moon.” Such specificity helps the reader form images with just a few short words.

In Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, she uses descriptions like “wind-wavy palm trees” and “flower-bright park.” These are all descriptions that feel fresh instead of overused.

Every Word Counts

Making every word count is the hallmark of picture books. Engle’s picture books are no exception. Poetry also distills everything down to its essence.

Her word selection is so precise that we can see that every single word is carefully selected for its meaning but also for its placement on the page as poetry.

Thank you, Marcie, for giving us such an in-depth look at books by Margarita Engle.

Marcie Flinchum Atkins is an elementary school librarian by day who writes for children in the wee hours of the morning. She also muses about mentor texts at her websiteYou can follow her on Twitter @MarcieFAtkins and read about her #writerlife on Instagram at @marciefatkins.  

Thank you Marcie for an in-depth look at books by Margarita Engle.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mentor Text Author Study: Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes is an internationally acclaimed, Coretta Scott King award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and poet. Grimes was presented with the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, given to those whose body of work has made “over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children's literature through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children's lives and experiences.”

She started writing at the age of six. At seventeen, legendary playwright, novelist, and activist James Baldwin became her mentor. Listen to her friend, author, and poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, tell that story.

Books by Nikki Grimes included diverse characters, voices, and experiences long before children’s publishing embraced such writing as a movement.

This study looks at some of her picture books. Grimes also writes for middle-grade and adult audiences. Her body of work is extensive. However, even from the small selection presented here, it is clear why Grimes is indeed a master of her craft.


 “The poet uses a few choice words, placed just so, to paint a picture, evoke an emotion or capture a moment in time...” Nikki Grimes
Each book in the Danitra series is a collection of story poems. And like a story, every poem has characters, and a beginning, middle, and end.

MEET DANITRA BROWN, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is the first in the series about two good friends. It is written in rhyming free verse and narrated by Danitra’s best friend Zuri.  The language Grimes uses to describe Danitra draws the reader’s interest in her character early on.
Filled with rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language such as “Coke-bottle Brown” and “toothpick legs”, her poems address “moments in time” Danika, Zuri, and all children experience. Such moments include navigating relationships, bullying, and keeping secrets.
You oughta Meet Danitra Brown
the most splendiferous girl in town.
I oughta know, ‘cause she’s my friend.
DANITRA BROWN, CLASS CLOWN, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is written in simple rhyme with sound devices that make these poems fun to read out loud. There is no confusion about how Zuri feels about returning to school in the first poem!
School is in and I remember
How much I detest September
And what child has not witnessed or experienced a moment in school when the teacher asks her students to stop chatting? In this poem, the audience knows exactly how Zuri feels.
[ … ]
Obeying will be easier
beginning with today.
Miss Volchek made Danitra sit
three stinking rows away.

“Children are emotionally complex human beings. Don't limit their poetry exposure to humor.”  Nikki Grimes
The two books below include a collection of poems where Grimes addresses difficult real-life experiences children face.
A child named Damon narrates in MY MAN BLUE, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. Blue, an old friend of Damon's mother, lost a son to the streets. When Damon moves to the neighborhood, Blue is determined to protect him. 

“Why you want my friendship, Blue?
I blurt out there and then.
“I had a son named Zeke, “Blue says.”
“These streets became his friend.”

OH BROTHER!, illustrated by Mike Benny is the perfect title for this book written from the point of view of a boy whose mother remarries a man with a son of his own. In the beginning, the reader easily identifies with the narrator’s feelings of being disregarded and jealous. But by end of the book, the character’s growth is evident. This book includes varied rhyme schemes and poetic forms that use powerful imagery.

Everyone in this house
is a step, now.
In my mind,
I turn them into steps
I can climb.
If our bedtime is 8:15,
His eyes are closed by 8:00.
so when I crawl in bed on time,
it seems as if I’m late.

Chris says his mother
is like a ghost. He only
sees her in his dreams.


“I think poetry does have a magical element to it, in terms of slipping pass the intellect…it touches your heart before you knew it was coming.” Nikki Grimes
Wordplay is a literary technique Grimes uses in her witty, humorous poetry. She includes words with double meanings, turns of phrases, puns, or some other humorous uses of language.
With playful language, Grimes created a fun poetry collection called SHOE MAGIC, illustrated by Terry Widener. The book is about imagining what kids are able to do when wearing a specific type of shoe. The theme is a positive spin on the idiom, “if the shoe fits.” Notice how Grimes uses the word “step” in the first poem in the book. Her poems in this collection are filled with action, energy, and inspiration.                                                            
[… ]
What you do,
Where you go,
Who you grow
Up to be
Depends on
The steps you take.

WHEN GORILLA GOES WALKING, illustrated by Shane Evans, follows a tailless cat through poems using fun puns, metaphors, and similes.


A fierce meow,
A tiger’s claws-
Gorilla ain’t
No Santa Paws.

“I was forever challenging myself to paint a picture or tell a story using as few words as possible…” Nikki Grimes
There are dozens upon dozens of different forms of poetry. Some types are long, some are short.

A POCKETFUL OF POEMS, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, is a collection of free verse poems paired with others written in haiku and overflowing with imagery. A child uses words from her pocket to describe things associated with each season and in nature. Beautiful illustrations in collage accompany each spread.


Look! Here’s a fresh
green growing word.
SPRING. I plant it
like a seed.

In POEMS IN THE ATTIC, a girl discovers poems written by her mother in the attic. The mother’s poems are written in Tanka about the different experiences and places she lived as the child of a military officer.  The child, writing in free verse, responds with a poem of her own.

At dinner I ask Grandma
For the chopsticks Mama
Taught me to use. Once, I asked Mama
where she learned and she just smiled.

Cherry Blossoms
Spring! Kimono time.
I joined the parade of girls
Strolling avenues
Dusted with cherry blossoms,
I caught a few, like snowflakes.

“When all you see is your immediate surroundings, your immediate environment, your sense of what's possible is severely limited." Nikki Grimes
Nikki Grimes has traveled the world to share her poetry. Her poems and stories have touched not only those familiar with the topics and settings in her books but have opened doors. She invites people into the worlds with which they may not be familiar and welcomes her audience to imagine the lives of the people featured in her books. And she has done so using unique and compelling story structure.                                   
In TALKIN’ ABOUT BESSIE: THE STORY OF AVIATOR ELIZABETH COLEMAN, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Grimes writes about Bessie from the point of view of those who knew her. This structure is a work of fiction, but the information about Bessie Coleman is factual.
BARACK OBAMA: SON OF PROMISE, CHILD OF HOPE, illustrated by Bryan Collier, tells the story of a boy and how his family and experiences in the U.S., Kenya, Hawaii, and Indonesia shaped him into the inspirational person who became the 44th President of the United States.
CHASING FREEDOM: THE LIFE JOURNEYS OF HARRIET TUBMAN AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY INSPIRED BY HISTORICAL FACTS, illustrated by Michele Wood, imagines a conversation between these two extraordinary women during their fight for equal rights for African Americans and women. Readers not only learn about Harriet and Susan but Grimes introduces other activists who helped each in their individual causes. Back matter includes brief biographies of every activist and ally featured in the book.
“As a believer, Christianity is the grid through which I view and comment on the world. That being the case, in all of my books the presence of God is assumed, faith is frequently a factor…” Nikki Grimes
Grimes is a person of strong faith which is apparent in many of her books. THE WATCHER, illustrated by Bryan Collier is a collection of golden shovel poems told in two voices. One is a girl, a school bully with a stutter. The other is a classmate who is afraid of her. In this poetic method, Grimes skillfully crafts an original narrative poem where every line ends with the next word from the Bible’s Psalm 121. This lyrical and visually stunning book is a testament to faith, friendship and the power of God’s love.
Below is an excerpt from the second poem in the book:


Wish I was some other Who, living where
stutterers aren’t treated like spit. Does
that place even exist? No. So I switch off my
hearing when Grandma says to ask you for help.
If you care, maybe you can tell me how come
Kids tease into meanness I can’t run from.

Psalms 121:1: I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from where does my help come from?

The next time you write or revise a work in progress, think about the literary techniques poets use. Read books by Nikki Grimes and listen to the sounds and rhythm of her words. Study how they work in harmony because everyone wants to make their stories sing too.