A Poetry Collection from Donald Graves

Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash   As I’ve continued to branch out my reading into the world of poetry, I picked up a book called Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves, an author who is best known for his work with improving writing instruction in schools. This collection of poems written about Graves’s childhood has a nice variety of topics, which will allow children and adults alike to find a few to which they can relate. The subjects in the poems range from struggling with math to interacting with family members to getting into some childhood mischief. One of my favorites is “The Firemen”, a poem in which Graves writes about how the desire of boys to pretend to be firefighters leads to the accidental starting of a wildfire that is barely  contained. I really enjoyed the imagery in this poem, like when the fire starts to get out of control:

“but a gust of wind

whips real red fire

past our buckets,

and the dry grass snaps

us awake, flowing now

like an angry yellow wave

toward an open field.”

I feel like this collection will especially speak to boys, as they will most easily be able to put themselves in the writers’ shoes and visualize the poems with themselves as the narrator. Poems that especially stand out in this regard involve struggling with handwriting, playing baseball in an open field, and talking about a crush on a classmate with a group of boys at recess, each boy declaring his love in turn.

Many of the poems in the collection bring happy and light visuals to mind, even though the reader knows from the start that life wasn’t necessarily easy for Donald and his family. In the poem “First Baseball Glove,” the reader finds out that the first mitt Graves ever owned was purchased with the family’s food money. Graves also has poems where he deals with bullying, struggles with learning to ride a bike, or loses the family dog in a car accident.

The poems in Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash are of the variety which will not elicit a “What did that mean?” response from children due to the down-to-earth nature of the topics and writing. If you are looking for a book of poetry to use with a child who has struggled with poems or is disinterested, this collection might be a good place to start.

Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes   Confession time: I am not much for picking up a book of poetry and simply reading it for enjoyment. Sure, I see the value in reading poetry not only for my own thinking and writing but also for finding resources for my students, but it rarely sits on my to-be-read pile. Although I have been reading more verse novels lately, I still see these to be much different from the collections of poetry which I tend to avoid. As a reader, I need to do a better job expanding my palate, and that begins with Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

I have read and enjoyed some of Hughes’s poetry before, but this volume helped me to better understand where he was coming from thanks to the introduction at the beginning which provided background on his life. In this section, there is useful information about where Hughes got his ideas from, and it also includes quotes from him; one that stuck out to me encompasses much of Hughes’s poetry: “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,… songs that had the pulse beat of the people who keep going.”

The idea of resilience mentioned in the quote is woven throughout many of the poems in this

Langston Hughes Picture

anthology, including “Mother to Son” and “Still Here.” Hughes manages to portray an optimism that not many African Americans of his time may have felt due to their treatment at the hands of whites in America. He repeatedly brings up the idea that people should never lose sight of their dreams, like in “Dream Variations” and “The Dream Keeper.” The poem “Hey! Hey!” continues this idea that people need to look on the bright side, but it is accompanied by “Hey!”, a poem in which the narrator has the blues.

A common device found in Hughes’s poems is repetition, like in “Aunt Sue’s Stories.” The repetition enhances the important ideas for readers while alluding to Hughes’s love for music. He also has many extended metaphors, like that of life as a rickety staircase in “Mother to Son,” or a personified piano in “The Weary Blues.”

Anyone looking for strong multicultural literature or powerful figurative language will find a lot to like about Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.

Below, you can hear Langston Hughes reading “I, Too,” one of the poems included in this anthology.

Happy reading!

A Sports Novel in Verse: Beanball by Gene Fehler

Terrible things can happen in sports. Seasons, careers, and even lives can end in the blink of an eye.  Although Beanball covermany of us cheer on participants in both youth and adult sporting events, we all know that entertainment can turn to horror in a split second. This sort of unfortunate turn is what happens to a young baseball player in the verse-novel Beanball by Gene Fehler. At the center of the plot is Luke “Wizard” Wallace, a star player on his high school’s baseball team who is unable to remove himself from the path of an errant fastball. This awful occurrence and its effects on a community are the focus for the rest of the book.

The story is told from the perspectives of a large cast of characters, some who witness the event and others who know people who were involved. After reading the book, this seems like the only possible way for this story to be told as well as it is. Readers are able to get many different viewpoints on this  event and its aftermath. For example, the umpire from the game is the one who describes the terrible life-changing moment:

“I still see it all in slow motion,

hear the sounds:

The pitcher shouting

A crack, but not like when ball hits bat or helmet.

The sound of bone shattering.

Then silence. I know it lasts only for a split second,

but with Luke lying there, it seems more like an eternity

before screams come from everywhere.

Probably even from me,

but I don’t remember that.”

Others who offer their perspective include the devastated pitcher who threw the ball, Wallace’s girlfriend, teammates, teachers, and many others. Readers get real insight into the characters, especially when outward appearances are much different from the thoughts running through their heads.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed the sprinkling of fantastic figurative language that Fehler used, especially for the injured Wallace whose life has fallen apart and he is trying to make some sense of how to put together the pieces. While Wallace is in the hospital and he is not sure what will happen, many people come to visit him, though he does not generally show any appreciation for these visits; however, his feelings tell a different story:

“Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped on a desert island.

Once in awhile a ship comes in.

But not to save me.

Not to take me away.

A visitor shows up and then leaves.

The ship sails into the sunset,

and I’m alone again.”

Even though this is a book with a central focus around a sport, I would recommend this novel to readers who may not necessarily like sports books. Anyone who enjoys realistic fiction and who wants to see how characters deal with the trials they are faced with should pick up this book. Due to some repeated use of minor curses by an aggressive coach, as well as the terrible event at the center of the plot, Beanball is probably most appropriate for middle-grade readers.

Check out Beanball by Gene Fehler today!