As National Poetry Month begins to wind down, let's take a moment to highlight the poetry collections that tend to be read most voraciously, collections that are read and reread, whose poems are memorized and then recited through the decades. ("Suzy grew a moustache, a moustache, a moustache …"). Here is a list of Canadian poetry from Fitch to Fitch, and everything in-between is just as great. Some of the collections are classic and others brand new, but all are excellent introductions for young readers to the power of the poem.
If I Had a Million Onions by Sheree Fitch is a word-bending, tongue-twisting, rollicking delight. Yayo's art is a perfect complement to Fitch's whimsy, and while these poems tend toward silly good fun ("Vaness Vanastra's/ A walking disastrah./ She fell in a bowlful/ Of noodles and pasta."), if you look, you will find their serious edge. Fitch is a poet as attuned to the world's shadows as she is to its light, and many of these poems are pleas for young readers not to forget what they know as they head into the sometimes far more childish world of adulthood. Fitch is a wise woman, dispensing sage advice like, "Sing a song of doodledang,/ Dance an hour away./ My excellent advice is this:/ Read a poem a day."
I was raised on Dennis Lee's Jelly Belly and Alligator Pie but somehow never came across Garbage Delight until I started reading to my children, and now it is absolutely my favourite of Lee's collections for kids. Like Alligator Pie, Garbage Delight comes with Frank Newfield's strange psychedelic illustrations, which here feature many Wild-Thing-like monsters and other strange creatures. The poems are weird, violent (see above reference to "Suzy Grew a Moustache," in which poor hirsute Polly has her face blown off by a bomb), slightly gross, but often surprisingly tender too, Lee's kid's-eye perspective keen and poignant.
- More: Discover the fascinating story behind Alligator Pie and how it changed Canadian children's literature forever.
Don't tell anyone, but my daughter's 5th birthday party is coming up with an entomology theme and all the kids who are coming will receive a copy of Beverley Brenna and Marc Mongeau's The Bug House Family Restaurant to take home. The collection is a veritable menu of disgusting entrees and appetizers at the eponymous restaurant, where insects of all kinds are always ready to order. The poems are fun to read and gross to behold, and they might inspire young poets to take up their pens to concoct more yicks and yucks on paper.
David Booth's 1989 collection Til All the Stars Have Fallen: Canadian Poems for Children remains a compelling and impressive book, plus it is illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (with whom a reader can never go wrong). The collections include names familiar in the world of Canadian children's literature (Lee, Fitch, Jean Little, Lois Simmie) but also writers whose work may not have yet been published in a board book—Alden Nowlan, Raymond Souster, Milton Acorn, and Dionne Brand.
Though it turns out that Brand has had a turn at writing poetry for children. Her collection, Earth Magic, was first published in the 1970s and reissued in 2006 with illustrations by Eugenie Fernandes. From the Canadian Children Book Centre's review:
"The poems in Earth Magic harken back to Brand’s childhood in Trinidad. They are beautifully wrought, suggestive of island life—though not a romantic or nostalgic look back—as seen through the eyes of a child. Nature, the community, and a young girl’s yearning are subjects that Brand explores. In the poem “Wind”, is it the wind speaking or a girl speaking metaphorically? “I pulled a hummingbird out of the sky one day/ but let it go.” “I became a breeze, bored and tired,/ and hovered and hung and rustled and lay/ where I could.” It is a wonderful image and a poignant commentary on life."
What Can You Do With Only One Shoe?, by Simon Shapiro and Sheryl Shapiro, illustrated by Francis Blake, is a book that purports to be an instructional guide to recycling and repurposing, but at its heart, it's a funny collection of verse. In her review, Kate Hatchborn writes:
"This is a quirky book that addresses many topics at once. Recycling, reinvention, crafting and imagination are all expressed through poetry and images. While the book speaks to many topics, it is essentially a poetry collection. Readers looking for an informational or "how-to" book may be disappointed, but the funny poems and colourful cartoons will draw readers in despite potentially false expectations."
Susan Tooke's illustrations in Lasso the Wind, written by George Elliott Clarke, have been nominated for the Atlantic Book Awards' Lillian Shepherd Award for Excellence in Illustration. Clarke, Toronto's Poet Laureate, wrote some of these poems for his daughter. Reviewer Charis Cotter explains:
"Clarke’s poems skip through the glories of spring, the nature of dreams and dragons’ favourite picnic foods. He is at his soaring, word-wrangling best when he writes about nature, such as, “Rain thrashes, trembles through branches—Gusty, lusty avalanches” and: “That sugary whiteness of the moon / snow scooped up with a silver spoon.” Clarke has the knack of choosing unexpected words that wake us up and shake us up, like “Waves whittle the horizon down / Until the sun descends to drown.” The book ends with birthday poems written by Clarke for his daughter, Aurélia, which serve as joyous snapshots of a growing, much-loved child."
I am personally of the belief that a household can never contain too many Mother Gooses, which is why I was thrilled to discover a new nursery rhyme collection edited by novelist Katherine Govier, Half for You and Half for Me. Wonderfully curated to include rhymes of Canadian origin, Govier's book is also remarkable for its inclusion of explanations for many of the rhymes as to their meanings and/or historical backgrounds. Govier shows that nursery rhymes are an ideal introduction to poetry for the youngest reader, and are also a wonderful connection to centuries of tradition.
- More: Check out "Reading With Mum," Katherine Govier's introduction to Half for You and Half for Me.
For additional traditional poetic fare, I recommend anything from Kids Can Press's Visions in Poetry series. The series was how we first encountered Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch, which sets off Lear's 1871 poem in stunning, thoughtful style. Other books in the series are Casey at the Bat, The Highwayman, Jabberwocky, The Lady of Shalott, My Letter to the World and Other Poems, and The Raven, featuring illustrators including Geneviève Côté and Isabelle Arseneault.
And as I make a point of beginning and ending all my kids' book lists with Sheree Fitch, let's do Toes in My Nose, recently reissued in a gorgeous 25th Anniversary edition with illustrations by Sydney Smith. The book is good hilarious fun, and is remarkable for containing Mabel Murple's origin story. As ever, Fitch grapples with some of the universe's bigger questions, such as, "How do you get the honey/ From the bottle to the bread/ Without the bottle slipping/ Honey dropping/ On your head?" Just think on that.
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