Monday, April 4, 2011

Poetry in Picture Books

Week of April 3, 2011: Picture Book Poetry
Monday, April 4:  Poetry in Picture Books

I had to admit to someone the other day that this blog is actually my way to dive deeper into picture books and to find out what makes me love them. In the process, my plan is to become a better picture book writer. (A side benefit of this process, is that I get to make picture book writing friends along the way.) So I'm being selfish with my topic this week, it's something that interests me (and hopefully will interest you, too).

I’m trying to learn more about—poetry in picture books. I think in the picture book world of exploding chickens, dancing princesses, and talking puppy dogs that we sometimes forget to see and acknowledge books that are filled with great words. Maybe that’s because they’re less marketable or not currently trendy, but I think books with well-honed words . . . words carefully chosen and placed . . . may be the books that truly become timeless. Many people call these works literary. Let's just call them good!

Let me begin by showing you some wonderful examples of picture books with poetry. These are books to go out and put your hands on ASAP. They are a writer’s and illustrator’s dream come true.

When I saw a picture book with a cover proclaiming Walt Whitman as the author, I did a double take. But there it was—When I Heard the Learn’d Astromomer—based on the poem by Walt Whitman and gloriously (and I don’t use that word lightly) illustrated by Loren Long. Long took the beloved poem and made it a contemporary, relatable picture book tale.

I heard Denise Doyen speak about her book, Once Upon a Twice, during a session at SCBWI, LA, in 2010. I had bought the book the day before drawn in by the title and the first two pages of the text. Doyen skillfully creates her own world in this picture book adventure. The meter is obviously based on "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. When I recognized that, I couldn’t stop reading aloud in my hotel room at the conference. I’ve seen many books based on other books (fractured fairytales and the like), but nothing like this. By the way, the illustrations by Barry Moser are fantastic.

I first became familiar with Old Turtle (story by Douglas Wood and watercolors by Chen-Khee Chee) when the men’s chorale I was a member of began to work on the extensive choral and orchestral work based on the book. This epic poem about the creation of the world and living peacefully is a parable you’ll read time and time again. I highly recommend the CD of the choral work performed by the Turtle Creek Men’s Chorale (no relationship to the book, just an interesting coincidence in name).

Water Dance and Cloud Dance written and illustrated by Thomas Locker show the power of poetry to communicate even in non-fiction. And if you really want to see a stellar example of poetry in non-fiction, check out Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, Jr. and Bryan Collier.

Why all this talk about poetry in picture books? Because whether its poetry or picture books or a combination of the two, writers have to carefully, meticulously, skillfully choose each word. The quote from Charles Baudelaire communicates what inspires all my posts this week: “Always be a poet, even in prose.”

It’s Your Turn!
1. I hope you have the chance this week to locate one or more of the books I mentioned today. Read them. Devour them. Inhale them. Then breathe magical words out in your writing.


Heather Lambie said...

I am SO going to the library this week to find these. Thanks for always introducing me to excellent new (and old) works!

Rob Sanders said...

Glad to hear it, Heather. Happy reading!