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Happy National Poetry Month! Our library staff members reflect on poetry as we pause, take new stock, and read through April.
As April springs into action, we celebrate National Poetry Month in the Children’s Library with book displays and at story time. I love poetry:it’s engaging and enjoyable for groups of toddler and preschoolers alike. Many of our picture books are written in rhyme (which counts as poetry in my book!) and are used regularly at story time.
This month I wanted to share how I incorporate poetry into a story time, so here’s a snapshot of what Preschool Story Time looked like this week. I hope this gives you a few ideas for using poetry and song in your own story times.
Our Word of the Week was Imagine, so we began by singing “Come Under My Umbrella” while using the parachute to imagine that we were under an enormous umbrella.
Bunny Dayby Rick Walton is a telling time book with rhyming couplets, and we read the whole story.
Ring of Earth by Jane Yolen has lovely seasonal poems including “Song of the Spring Peeper.” This longer poem has a refrain after every stanza, “Pe-ep. Pe-ep. Pe-ep. Pe-ep.” The children and I practiced before we began the poem so they were able to “Pe-ep” along with me.
Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies has detailed illustrations by Mark Herald, in paper-cut and collage, that fill the page and bring the poems to life. We read “Listen to the Pond” with the croaking sound of “Rrrrruurrrrp” repeated and the life cycle of the frog illustrated as well as “Nesting,” a poem that explains how birds build nests. The poems were written in free verse, so these were used to explain that not all poems rhyme.
In addition to books, poems, and parachute songs we also used the flannel board with our “Five Little Bluebirds” to show how we can act out poems and rhymes. The rhyme begins: “One little bluebird up she flew, along comes another and that makes two. Two little bluebirds sitting in a tree, along comes another and that makes three.”
Enjoy poetry with friends young and old this month and visit us at story time anytime!
Some of my favorite questions to help with at the library are searches for poetry. For example: someone is trying to thank someone they love dearly for existing. “Do you have love poems?” someone will ask (or, even better: “Do you have a love poem section?”) and I am filled with a geeky library-earnestness: “Oh yes! Yes we have love poems!” We have all kinds.
The truth is we so often turn to poetry. At weddings. At funerals. When we feel raw, or distant. Elizabeth Alexanderwrites: “Poetry…/ is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?”What does poetry say about this life—about how we lose and find ourselves, and lose and find each other?
I search for poetry, too. This year I’ve been reading Poetry Rx, a sort of poetry advice column. People write in with their joys and sorrows. Three thoughtful poets (Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz) take turns responding with a “poetry prescription.” No one pretends any poem is a heal-all balm or remedy. It’s just that—as the people who continue to write in can attest—we’re all reaching for something. Sometimes a poem or even a line from a poem will bear us with it, to another place.
I’ll often read through Poetry RX while checking the library’s catalog for the poets and poems I read about. Some favorites this year: Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Should Come For Us,” full of fiery life. Osip Mandelstam’s beautiful poem “And I was Alive” from Stolen Air: “Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.”June Jordan’s love poem, spelling it out: “I SAID I LOVED YOU AND I WANTED / GENOCIDE TO STOP.”Li–YoungLee‘s “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet,” with the haunting lines: “For so many years, I answered to a name, / and I can’t say who answered.” Rita Dove’s electric, magical “Happenstance.”
Will you be electric sheep, electric ladies, will you sleep?
…My robot, my poet, ancient and erstwhile and now
the best mischief: to be stranded in this electricity with you.
Please consider reading Oculus, a new collection of poems by Sally Wen Mao. They center around the idea of voyeurism in the age of social media, also touching on mental illness, family, love, and pop culture. She retells the history of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood while making allusions to Instagram, Pokémon, and a handful of legendary sci-fi writers. On the same page, often within the same verse, she moves effortlessly between these themes (and more); I finished the book in one sitting and am eager to read it again. Mao’s words shine: Oculus is brilliant, accessible, eclectic, provocative, and beautiful.
An English teacher once said that poetry was meant to be heard, not merely read with the eyes for express delivery to the brain. I would like to add, if you can hum it, all the better.
It’s not that I think a poem requires music to prop it up. At least not always. In the case of “Fly Me to the Moon” (1954) written by Bart Howard, perhaps its moon-June-spoon rhymery needs a melody. In 1965, Frank Sinatra gave it a rascally, rat pack infused smugness that makes me purse my lips and resent enjoying it. The same lightweight words coming from Joshua Radin on His Way, Our Way (2009) come across as a tentative, artlessly sweet reverie. A different song.
“Both Sides Now” written by Joni Mitchell changes direction between its first appearance on her 1969 album Clouds and 2000’s Both Sides Now. Both versions are drenched with heart, but Mitchell’s voice and delivery are altered with and by time, her clear, young voice seeminglyaged in oak in the 30 year interval. Timbre and tempo morph. The satisfaction of hearing her interpretations deepens. A different song.
“Downtown Train,” penned by Tom Waits and rubbed through the coarse sieve of his voice on Rain Dogs (1985) has been sung by countless others, but it is hard to top the writer’s own take on it. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s track on 1987’s Hometown Girl was my first exposure to it, and I love it. Rod Stewart made a couple of bucks with his recording, too. They are just the tip of the cover version iceberg, every rendition different.
While I’m on about trains, consider Jennifer Kimball and Tom Kimmel’s “The Blue Train,” soulfully sung by Irish singer Maura O’Connell on Blue Is the Colour of Hope(1992). There is a Transatlantic Sessions video with O’Connell, Nanci Griffith, James Grant, Jerry Douglass &co which left me weeping when I bumped into it while preparing to write this. Wow.
The wonder of it: Words. Voices. A pause, a breath taken. Connection.
In her 2015 book My Shoes Are Killing Me, poet Robyn Sarah calls forth images that flirt with the familiar (autumn leaves) but are predominately more original (pennies taken out of circulation that now have currency only as a child’s discovery in a weedy backyard). The undercurrent of this collection is that our lives are happening and as much worthy of our notice right now as they were in the wonder years of childhood—before the “beginning of dwindle”—and as much as they are in the dreams we concoct for ourselves about the future. Sarah’s verse offers snippets and sentiments that serve as “wisps of well-being,” the grubby pennies we can dig up and let shine when we need to remember to be relish the present moment. As she best says herself, we can glory in the endless summers of the past but, “The truth of it: / summers were never any longer / than they are now.“
“We all have the same dream, my grandmother says. To live equal in a country that’s supposed to be the land of the free. She lets out a long breath, deep remembering.”
The Smart Girls Read Book Club read and discussed Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson in March. A novel in verse, a biography, written by one of my favorite authors—it even has pictures of the author and her family in the back. This book makes my heart sing for the poetry of Woodson’s writing and for the history and sense of place that it provides young readers.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a dear bit of poetry, hidden in biography, full of history, an ode to the “something hidden like this, in all of us. A small gift of the universe waiting to be discovered.”
May this book float into your hands and stay in your heart forever.
In the early 1970’s when Sylvia Acevedo was thirteen, she grew weary of her family’s car constantly breaking down. She decided to learn how to take care of it, found a free car maintenance class for women, and from that point on, Acevedo maintained her family’s car. Is it any wonder this same girl grew up to be a rocket scientist for NASA? Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist is her inspirational autobiography of growing up in New Mexico in the 1960’s and 70’s. Chronicling her life from early childhood all the way up to graduate school at Stanford University, Acevedo shows us how she repeatedly challenged traditional cultural expectations for females in her own family as well as in the wider society at that time. From flat-out refusing to take home economics to building and installing her own backboard for basketball, Acevedo followed her own interests and dreams, despite pressure to do otherwise. While the book is intended for an audience of 10 to 14-year-olds, it engaged this adult reader as well, in part because I grew up around this same time and remember quite clearly the spoken and unspoken expectations and stereotypes Acevedo so courageously defied.
Pies From Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycotttells the story of a woman who helped feed and fundraise during the Civil Rights movement. It’s a moving account of how Georgia Gilmore was inspired to gather a group of women to cook and sell food in secret, giving the money as donations to help provide funds for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “See, the way I figured it, people always had to eat. So I made the pies,” she said. Vibrant illustrations show Georgia baking with Black women, taking the pies and lunches to beauty salons full of Black women, and joyfully bringing her money up to the collection plate during strategy meetings, announcing the money she’d helped raise. She would claim the money “came from nowhere” to protect all the women who baked with her from retribution by white employers and landlords. The book helps readers understand some aspects of the Civil Rights movement that aren’t often addressed in history lessons — the different kinds of work done by women to support the boycotts, working within an unjust system to make a difference. What happens to Georgia? Find this and many more books on Women’s History in our Children’s Library.
Girl Mans Upby M-E Girard: where was this book when I was an unsure teenager, “borrowing” my brother’s clothes and cutting my hair short? This story doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges that gender non-conforming kids often face in conservative homes and communities, but it balances those situations with friends and allies who give the lead character space and courage to be herself. Even though high school is far behind me, I related to these teens; their stories gripped me and made it hard put this book down.
Pénélope Bagieu’s graphic novel Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World melds humor and gravity in twenty-nine biographies that cross millennia and continents. The stories range from the reign of a Chinese empress to the creators of liberating swimsuits and clever gravestones. What I find most perceptive about Brazen is its recognition that being a woman capable of rocking the world might mean acts on a grand scale, through invention, leadership, or social change, or it might just mean forging ahead as oneself. Whether telling of LeymahGbowee’s efforts for peace or writer Tove Jansson’s decision to step away from fame to reclaim the simple and personal, Bagieu gives credence both to influential vision and individual empowerment. As an added bonus, count this one off for the PPL 2019 Reading Challenge #womenintranslation category.
As we ponder women’s history this month, it seems like a good time to examine a future where men have become extinct. This is what Aminder Dhaliwal gives us in her hilarious web comic turned graphic novel Woman World. After a birth defect eliminates all men from earth, women are left to rebuild. It’s a fascinating concept that raises all sorts of questions, like how will women behave, and will the world be a better place without men? Dhaliwal answers these questions and more with charm and biting wit.
“Just how far could Valerie get from a context in which women wore strings of pearls, married in their early twenties, renounced sex before marriage, and lived out scenes from Mad Men in real time?”
Pop culture remembers Valerie Solanas as a footnote to Andy Warhol’s life; however, Valerie’s SCUM Manifesto is a colorful thread in the tapestry of formative feminist reading. Breanne Fahs’ clinically-written biography details how Valerie’s life guided her caustic pen. This biography also recounts how SCUM’s publisherembellished the text – and Valerie’s vitriolic persona – without her consent. This book is suggested for fans of late 1960’s New York City who want to learn more about feminism’s less-mainstream faces.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” In 1968, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the US Congress. She hired an all-female staff and immediately got to work advocating for women, children and the poor. Her 1970 memoir Unbought and Unbossedis a candid window into her personal and political life, and the historical waves she made even in her earliest days in Congress. In 1972, she ran for the US Presidency– the excellent documentary Chisholm ’72covers this campaign and can also be found in the PPL collection.
While you’re browsing documentaries, I recommend Anita: Speaking Truth To Power.It covers the explosive senate hearings in 1991 when Anita Hill put a name and face to the epidemic of workplace sexual harassment, under national scrutiny and ridicule. Watching her grace and brilliance under fire in original footage from the hearings is powerful; it is even more so to hear her reflect, 20 years later, on what the experience meant to her, and what it will mean for generations to come.
Finally, check out actress Diane Guerrero’s memoir, In the Country We Love. Guerrero (known for Orange is the New Black) was only fourteen when her parents and brother were deported and she was left in the United States, alone. As a child of undocumented immigrants, she gives voice to the nightmare of separation that so many families are still facing. Her story has also been published as a middle-grades book available in the Teen Library called My Family Divided. These books are celebration of her survival, validation for others living the experience, and a call to action to keep families together.
I’d like to highlight 19th century artist and botanist, Catherine “Kate” Furbish. I first heard of Kate’s work in, Maine’s Remarkable Women: Daughters, Wives, Sisters, and Mothers Who Shaped History. For nearly three decades, Furbish travelled to remote areas of Maine where she collected, classified, and painted plant specimens. She discovered to previously unknown species, which were named for her: Aster cordifolius L., var. furbishiae, and Pedicularisfurbishiae, the Furbish lousewort.
I had the great good fortune to spend my early growing up time living a block from one grandmother and downstairs from another. Early on, even one trafficked suburban Boston block was too far to navigate on my own, so Nana Mac, my upstairs Irish dumpling Nana, proud owner of rubber throw-up and plastic “ice cubes” encasing fake bugs, was my most constant grand-buddy.
Our routine included watching I Love Lucy reruns in the mornings. Lucy Ricardo, nee McGillicuddy, was a captive of her time. Married to bandleader Ricky Ricardo, hanging with fellow housewife neighbor Ethel, hatching schemes to make it big despite her Real Job, Legitimate Role as helpmate to Ricky who spent his time satisfying his creative urges and achieving his dreams, Lucy’s antics were comical and heart wrenching in their desperation, inspiring in their non-stop determination, the stuff of grandmotherly and granddaughterly bonding for us two housebound females sharing the same space at different ends of life. Nana and I would re-enact scenes, swap playing Lucy or Ethel, drink chocolate milk made with Bosco and laugh ourselves sillier than strictly necessary.
Most of us have strong associations with popular culture. That’s not good or bad, just a fact of being alive and spending time around other human beings. Many of my associations go back what feels like a million years. Now I spend my days with more freshly minted human beings whose associations can seem ridiculously recent, embarrassingly current. Their associations are largely foreign to me, made familiar only because of my younger companions’ willingness to share without judging my disconnection. For this I am so, so grateful, just as I am grateful for my connections to Nana and the unexpected ways they were forged.
So how about spending some time with a few “I Love Lucy” dvds?How about seeing what passed for entertainment, what made Nana Mac and me laugh so hard? How about appreciating how things have changed, and noting how they have stayed the same? How about seeing why Lucy and Ethel still delight while Ricky and Fred seem a little bit tired?
I Love Lucy.
I’ve been smitten with Ali Smith’s writing since 2004, when I read “May” in The Whole Story and Other Stories. The narrator falls in love with a tree, and the narrator’s (human) lover must grapple with the beauty and heartbreak of what blossoms next. Pun intended! For me, Smith is a hero for her lyrical language and, in 2004, she was among the few makers of contemporary fiction I’d come across in which identity and love and sexuality were so radiantly life-affirming. As a Renaissance painter in Smith’s novel How to Be Bothencourages both themselves and the reader: “Although it seemed to be the end of the world to me—it wasn’t. There was a lot more world.”
If you happen to love brilliant and beautiful writing, unforgettable worldbuilding, epic journeys, and complex lovers, families, and revolutions, Sofia Samatar’s fantastic tales are for you. Four women—Tav, a soldier, Tialon, a scholar, Seren, a poet, and Siski, a noble—share their rich and wondrous stories in The Winged Histories.
In March I also enjoyed the journeys of several unforgettable characters and fell hard for an entire new species created by Charlie Jane Anders in her new novel The City in the Middle of the Night. Two recent fantasy/sci fi picks I’ve put on hold, but haven’t yet read, come from our YA collection: Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreamsand Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire. I just checked out Renee Simms’ new story collection, Meet Behind Mars. And after the major cliffhanger in Trail of Lightning, I’m excited to pick up the adventures of Maggie Hoskie, Diné monster hunter, in Rebecca Roanhorse’s second book, Storm of Locusts. It comes out in April.
Our staff looks at Black History and History in the Making in 2019 and related newer titles at the library on a wide range of subjects in nonfiction, biography, literature, and culture, as well as digital resources. If you’re participating in the library’s 2019 Reading Challenge, we’ve also included ideas for fiction and nonfiction titles that match up with a few of our 24 Reading Challenge categories.
“Hip is to know, it’s a form of intelligence. To be hip is to be update and relevant. Hop is a form of movement, you can’t just observe a hop, you gotta hop up and do it. Hip and hop is more than music. Hip is the Knowledge, hop is the Movement. Hip and Hop is Intelligent movement.”― KRS-One
“I think that all journalists, specifically print journalists, have a responsibility to educate the public. When you handle a culture’s intellectual property, like journalists do, you have a responsibility not to tear it down, but to raise it up. The depiction of rap and of hip-hop culture in the media, I think, is one that needs more of a responsible approach from journalists.”― KRS-One
Hip Hop speaks for itself. For me Hip Hop shows are the best kind of story time for adults.
I just read a wonderful picture book that is brand new to our collection in the Children’s Room. The 5 O’clock Band by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is an autobiographical picture book about Andrews’ early days in his first band as a child in New Orleans, LA.
The lavish illustrations convey the emotions and feelings of the book so beautifully, and being a lifelong lover of New Orleans myself, seeing all of those familiar sites among the pages was a huge visual treat.
This book covers themes of being a support to your friends (bandmates) as well as letting friends down and how to cope with and move forward in a positive way. I loved every lyrical second of this book!
Our whole family delights in Troy Andrews’ Trombone Shorty. Our favorite way to read it is to listen — the audiobook narrated by Dion Graham is full of music from Andrews himself. This book earned a Corretta Scott King illustrator award and a Caldecott honor in addition to an Audie Award — so I’d say your kids will also love exploring the vibrant pictures while listening along.
If you’re at a Portland Public Library location on the computers or WIFI, there’s much to explore at other libraries as well. New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has a digital library that anyone online can access. The Digital Schomburghas a multitude of great resources: podcasts, oral histories, the historical Images and Illustrations archive, access to free eBooks and articles, and Online Exhibitions on a range of subjects.
Bingo Love, a graphic novel from our Teen collection, is both a heartwarming and tear-jerking read featuring two sweethearts whose love story spans decades, and explores the various hurdles of a lesbian relationship between Black women that began in the sixties and rekindles in modern day New Jersey. The characters and illustrations are adorable, and it’s really refreshing to dive into a queer narrative that centers protagonists whose identities are underrepresented in media. Even better, it avoids the trope that all queer romance has to end in tragedy.
A gripping and important selection from our New Adult Nonfiction collection, Carceral Capitalism draws connections between race, class, the prison-industrial complex, fine-based economies, police, technology, and more. Author Jackie Wang laces critical analysis in with personal connections to these intersecting realities and oppressions, at one point noting, “My older brother is serving a forty-year prison sentence while I am a Ph.D. student at Harvard University.” This book is recommended for readers looking to examine the relationships between anti-blackness, criminology, and incarceration while also taking a glimpse into imagining a future without prisons.
For young readers and listeners, writer Debbie Levy and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s picture book history of We Shall Overcome follows a story of oppression and triumph, beginning with the iconic song’s 1900 roots in a Black church. In telling of the song’s exportation worldwide as an anthem of endurance in the face of imposed hardship, Levy and Brantley-Newton implicitly convey how the resilience characteristic of Black history has positively influenced other narratives of inequality on an international scale.
While these books focus on unity, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun underscores the inner division that can occur when Black dreams are deferred in a culture that requires whiteness at every peak. I have been rereading this play since I was a teenager, but I will never cease to get goosebumps when Mama delivers her message that to overcome is, after all, a feat of loving when love is hardest.
“I am not central to the story, although I have lived it; rather, it is about an extraordinary circle of friends who came together, lived outrageously, loved abundantly, laughed uproariously, and savored life while they created work that would come to define the era.”
Those who enjoy stories about 1970’s New York City will find a friend in My Soul Looks Back, the memoir of acclaimed academic, chef, and food critic Jessica B. Harris. After meeting Sam Floyd – a fellow professor and close friend of James Baldwin – Jessica is swept into the close-knit world of New York’s Black intelligentsia in the West Village. Her memoir describes memorable anecdotes, including late-night workshops with Baldwin and meals with Maya Angelou. Readers can expect frank discussion of sexuality, delicious recipes, and a complementary playlist. Devour this book with some of her delicious recipes.
“Once, overlooking the sea in Ngor, my eyes followed the path the surfers made as they performed their stunts. I see what rivers-the Nile in its stretch beyond the Mediterranean, the Niger as it joins Timbuktu to Lokoja-teach with their flowing mass. Wave falls on wave, as one dialect inflects on another. All rivers are multilingual.”
Emmanuel Iduma is a writer and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His brilliant travelogue A Stranger’s Pose(it can be requested through Interlibrary Loan and is well worth the effort) chronicles his travels across the African continent in both words and photos. Scenes from hectic, crowded cities of the Sahel are dampened through the use of black and white images, often focused on a single subject facing the camera, asking readers to pause and consider for a moment. The vignettes are simple and lyrical, often no more than a page or two. They carry the reader forward in a dreamlike manner, dropping in on a foray into the Mauritanian desert before picking up again in the heart of Addis Ababa. Much like Every Day is for the ThieforLooking for Transwonderland, A Stranger’s Pose offers the perspective of an African traveling in the continent, a relatively unheralded and underrepresented pairing.
And second, mainly so I can push the mixes he helps produce and create a handful of times every year under the moniker INTL BLK or Chief Boima, which feature current music from Africa and the diaspora, the radical, wonderful album Salone by Kondi Band. Boima provides beats and samples to accompany the sounds created by Sorie Kondi, a renowed kondi, or thumb piano player. The duo spent 10 years crafting an album that I have trouble describing accurately and succinctly. It is upbeat, it brings a smile to my face, and it makes me want to dance. All of which I desperately need to get me through the Maine winter.