Friday, October 23

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars

and other School Poems for Two Voices
by Betsy Franco
illustrated by Jessie Hart
Candlewick Press 2009

I have this thing about poetry for children. Basically, it has to either be incredibly clever or exceptionally executed and preferably it is both. Kids who read poetry for fun do so because they still have a love of language, because they haven't had poetry units that have diluted their joy of words and wordplay. And kids are smart. They can recognize good poetry even if they cannot explain why. So I tend to feel that any children's book that traffics in poetry and rhyme needs to be impeccable.

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars collects original poems intended to be read by two voices, or in some cases groups. Which means these poems are mean to be read aloud. There are instructions at the beginning for how each reader knows when to read – regular and bold for the individual voices, italic bold when both reads speak at the same time. Fairly straightforward. Then come the poems.

When reading poems aloud the reader will quickly come to rely on the cadence of help them. The sound of the words and meter will stand out more than when a reader has the chance to read at their own pace, silently hearing the poems in their head. Out loud, minor flaws and imperfections stand out; worse, they will trip up readers who expect a rhythm that isn't maintained or is inconsistent.

Most of the poems in this collection fail this cadence test. Just to test them out I had my daughters read a couple out loud. Some were okay in the beginning, then tripped them up when there was an off meter or change in the patterns, some didn't work out of the gate. Poems that are expressly meant to be read aloud shouldn't cause the readers to stumble the way these consistently did.

As for content all the poems are limited to the experience of school which I am beginning to suspect is more detrimental than good in children's poetry. Here's what I'm thinking; I'm thinking that when poetry focuses on the school experience then the experience of the reader is that poetry is about school. And if poetry is about school then there is no reason to go exploring poetry outside of school, which makes poetry a school-only activity. This in turn eventually turns off readers to poetry altogether. I also suspect that when the subject defines the poetry, when the poet is confined within the limits of the school experience in this case as Franco is, then the poems themselves suffer from this inability to explore beyond the walls of school. School and poem then become a sort of prison that the reader can feel.

Whew, that's harsh. Okay, there is one poem in this collection that, had the entire book been of this quality, would have made it an instant classic. "Anatomy Class" runs through a list of items found in a classroom pointing out their humanly-named attributes. "The chair has/arms. // The Clock,/a face." and so on. It's clever, the rhythm is just right for both reading silently and aloud, and it doesn't have the faintest whiff of feeling forced. This poem is often featured in reviews, and is reproduced on Amazon (if you're interested) which doesn't surprise me, but might surprise the unwary if they expect the rest of the book to be this good.

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