Review of Won Ton, by Lee Wardlaw

Won Ton

A Cat Tale Told in Haiku

by Lee Wardlaw
illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011. 34 pages.
Starred Review

This book works both as a collection of short, accessible poems and as an entertaining picture book. The author’s note at the beginning informs us that technically the poems inside are senryu, not haiku. But the syllable format is the same, and I think it was a good choice to use “Haiku” in the title, since that is a term most school children are familiar with.

This book takes us from a cat in a pet store waiting to be bought to a cat in a home with his very own beloved boy. The illustrations show a true cat nature, and so do the poems.

Here are a few I particularly like:

Yawn. String-on-a-stick.
Fine. I’ll come out and chase it
to make you happy.

Scrat-ching-post? Haven’t
heard of it. Besides, the couch
is so much closer.

Wait — let me back in!

Your tummy, soft as
warm dough. I knead and knead, then
bake it with a nap.

Definitely charming. Reading this to a small child will prompt them to look at a cat with new eyes. Reading it to an older child may get them writing haiku of their own.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Crossing Stones, by Helen Frost

Crossing Stones

by Helen Frost

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2009. 184 pages.

Crossing Stones is a novel in verse about two families who live across a creek from each other during World War I. The book is masterfully and beautifully written. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of verse novels. Just hearing the thoughts of the characters from the start, it’s harder for me to picture the characters and the setting. Still, once I got going, I found this to be a powerful and moving story.

Both the families that live across the creek have a brother and a sister. Frank and Emma live on one side, and Ollie and Muriel live on the other. Frank loves Muriel, and Ollie loves Emma, but when World War I starts, Frank goes off to war, and Ollie soon follows, even though he’s only sixteen.

Muriel’s not a fan of the war, like her Aunt Vera, a suffragette. But not being happy about the war is considered unpatriotic, and women are told their place is in the home.

This book includes war, the flu epidemic, the battle for women’s rights, and the day-to-day struggles of farm chores that must go on even when the men and boys have gone to war.

I should have heeded the advice of our local Kidlit Book Club leader and read the “Notes on the Form” at the back of the book first. Helen Frost did something innovative and symbolic. She writes the poems in the voices of Muriel, Emma, and Ollie. Muriel’s poems are written in free style, in the shape of a rushing creek “flowing over the stones as it pushes against its banks” just as Muriel is pushing against the constraints of her society and time.

Emma’s and Ollie’s poems are written to make the shapes of stones. The author explains:

“I ‘painted’ them to look round and smooth, each with a slightly different shape, like real stones. They are ‘cupped-hand sonnets,’ fourteen-line poems in which the first line rhymes with the last line, the second line rhymes with the second-to-last, and so on, so that the seventh and eight lines rhyme with each other at the poem’s center. In Ollie’s poems the rhymes are the beginning words of each line, and in Emma’s poems they are the end words.”

The rhymes are so unforced, I didn’t notice them at all until I read the note at the back. I was impressed when I looked back and found the rhymes, but wish I had noticed from the beginning. Helen Frost also tells us:

“To give the sense of stepping from one stone to the next, I have used the middle rhyme of one sonnet as the outside rhyme of the next. You will see that the seventh and eight lines of each of Emma’s poems rhyme with the first and last lines of Ollie’s next poem, and the seventh and eighth lines of Ollie’s poems rhyme with the first and last lines of Emma’s next poem. If you have trouble finding these rhymes, remember to look on the left side of Ollie’s poems, and on the right side of Emma’s.”

So besides writing a moving story of World War I, Helen Frost has also pulled off an impressive technical achievement.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of My People, by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.

My People

by Langston Hughes
Photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.

Ginee Seo Books (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), New York, 2009. 36 pages.
2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Starred Review

My People is a beautiful, glorious, gorgeous book. I can’t adequately speak in its praise. It’s also, I believe, the first time a photographer has won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award — but the award is completely deserved, as the images used are stunning and so wonderfully accompany the poem.

The text is the Langston Hughes poem, “My People,” which talks about how beautiful his people are. “The night is beautiful, so the faces of my people…”

Charles R. Smith Jr. uses incredible close-up pictures of African-Americans to illustrate each phrase. The faces are truly beautiful, radiant and glowing. I think my favorite pictures are the ones that illustrate the phrase “are the souls,” with children dancing, completely unself-conscious. But all the people featured — elders, adults, children and babies — are photographed in a way that makes us see the wonder of their joy and humanity. Truly beautiful.

You simply have to see this book to understand how wonderful it is.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of I Heard God Talking to Me, by Elizabeth Spires

i_heard_god_talking_to_meI Heard God Talking to Me

William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

by Elizabeth Spires

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2009. 56 pages.

Here’s a book that is as distinctive as its subject. It’s a biography of folk sculptor William Edmondson, but the story of his life is told in a series of poems. The poems are based on photographs taken during his life (He died in 1951.) of his sculptures and of himself and of his yard.

The poems are mostly in the voice of the object in the sculpture. Like the sculptures, they are quirky and distinctive and amusing.

A few pages of prose at the end give a summary of William Edmondson’s life and fill in some of the details.

Altogether, the photos and poems in this book add up to a compelling portrait of a man who believed he was doing the work of God.

I’m inclined to agree with him.

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Review of The Frogs and Toads All Sang, by Arnold Lobel

frogs_and_toads_all_sangThe Frogs and Toads All Sang

by Arnold Lobel

color by Adrianne Lobel

HarperCollins, 2009. 29 pages.

This book is based on a discovered treasure — a little handmade book that Arnold Lobel had given to Crosby Bonsall as a Christmas gift long ago. The book was black and white, so for this delightful picture book version, his own daughter filled in the drawings with color.

The frogs and toads in this book were created before The famous and beloved Frog and Toad. The book consists of ten short, sweet, and silly poems, each including frogs, toads, or polliwogs.

There’s nothing profound or tremendously significant here. But somehow, the poems beg to be read aloud. And when you finish reading the book, I am quite sure you will be smiling.

Very nice. And a lovely discovered legacy from a much-beloved author.

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Review of Orangutan Tongs, by Jon Agee


Orangutan Tongs

Poems to Tangle Your Tongue

by Jon Agee

Disney/Hyperion Books, 2009.  48 pages.

Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Picture Books

This book is entirely too much fun.  I brought it home and read it to my teenage son, and, as I suspected, he couldn’t resist trying it himself.  For Dr. Seuss’s birthday, we recently had a tweetle beetle binge from Fox in Socks, so it was fun to read to each other and laugh from a new book where I didn’t have the advantage of about forty years of practice.

Orangutan Tongs (Can you resist saying that title aloud?) is a book of tongue twister poems, with illustrations.  They are all quite silly and good for fun and laughter.

My son claimed that he had not been practicing, but I found it highly suspicious that when I came home from work the next day, he was suddenly able to recite the Peggy Babcock poem:

Peggy Babcock at work.  Peggy Babcock at play.

Peggy Babcock tomorrow.  Peggy Babcock today.

Peggy Babcock, repeated, is tricky to say:

Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock, Peggy Babcock, ole!

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Review of Why War Is Never a Good Idea, by Alice Walker


Why War Is Never a Good Idea

by Alice Walker, illustrations by Stefano Vitale

HarperCollins, 2007.  32 pages.

Starred Review

Though War has eyes

Of its own

& can see oil



& mahogany trees

& every shining thing


The earth

When it comes

To nursing


It is blind;

Milk, especially


It cannot


Though War is Old

It has not

Become wise

It will not hesitate

To destroy

Things that

Do not

Belong to it

Things very

Much older

Than itself.

Here is a haunting and poetic, artistic and beautiful book. 

The language is simple.  The author talks of things that War cannot understand, but that it can destroy.

The artwork is haunting, memorable and symbolic.  On one page, the words are: Picture frogs beside a pond holding their annual pre-rainy-season convention.  They do not see War. Huge tires of a camouflaged vehicle about to squash them flat.  The illustrations show a close-up painting of frogs on the left, with a photo of a rusty wheel on the right side, wadding up pages of peaceful villagers falling underneath it.

The portrayal is not graphic, but symbolic, making it all the more striking.

Don’t read this book to your child if you want to make apologies for War, if you want to explain about necessary evils. 

However, if you think you can use some convincing, or want to express an unambiguous idea to a child, this book makes a powerful and persuasive case for why War is never a good idea.  The language is simple enough for a child, yet something that will linger in the mind of an adult.

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Review of Poems for Life

Poems for Life
Famous People Select Their Favorite Poem and Say Why It Inspires Them
compiled by the Grade V Classes of the Nightingale-Bamford School
introduction by Anna Quindlen

Reviewed September 18, 2007.
Arcade Publishing, New York, 1995. 107 pages.

This book was compiled by a group of students. A teacher explains at the beginning,

We wanted the students not only to be awakened to a world of poetry through other people’s choices, but to become aware of a world of need outside their immediate communities, one to which they could in some way contribute.

The proceeds from the project went to charity. 

For two years, the students wrote to well-known people in all fields. Every day, they awaited the mail with eager anticipation. When a reply arrived it was greeted with curiosity and excitement. Each letter and accompanying poem was read in class and the poem and poet discussed. We greatly enjoyed finding out why people had selected a particular work, and we learned from what they had to say about it. What most struck all of us was how important poetry had been in the lives of the contributors, who had turned and returned to poems for amusement, solace, wisdom, and perhaps most importantly, to find some part of themselves.

All of the poems in this book are someone’s favorite, which means it makes good reading. The students included the letters sent by the celebrities, in most cases explaining why they chose that particular poem. Then the poem itself is included.

Contributors include people like Mario Cuomo, E. L. Doctorow, David Halberstam, Angela Lansbury, Yo-Yo Ma, Joyce Carol Oates, Diane Sawyer, Beverly Sills, Stephen Sondheim, and Kurt Vonnegut. This collection provides pleasant, fun, and many times inspiring reading.

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