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!

An Interview With Laurel Snyder

Did anyone truly think that Laurel Snyder could be contained within a single month? If you did, you were mistaken because now it is Laurel
Snyder September…in October! At the beginning of the year, when I started this journey through some of Ms. Snyder’s books, I told my students about her Skype visit (which is swiftly approaching!) and I book-chatted her books. Not too long afterward, the shelf seen in the picture at the right quickly emptied and has remained barren for the past month.

For my final post of Laurel Snyder September,  Ms. Snyder was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her regarding her books, her writing process, and her enjoyment of black licorice.

Mr. Jensen (that’s me!): Your books can be enjoyed by children and adults alike due to the endearing characters and strong storytelling, but is there a reason that you write for children rather than for adults?

Laurel Snyder: Actually, I do also write for grownups. In fact, for many years I focused on adult poetry (I’ll tell you more about this in person). But my favorite books, and my powerful reading experiences, happened to me when I was a kid. I think this is true for a lot of people — that the books that affected them most strongly were books they encountered very young. Also, I think there’s freedom in children’s literature, a willingness to explore. For me, it’s just a natural fit!

Mr. Jensen: In each of your four novels, the protagonists have moments where they break the rules because what they are feeling seems like the right thing to do at the time. Why do you find it important to include this attribute in your stories? What are your thoughts on children having the freedom to live their lives and to make their own important choices?

Laurel Snyder: This is such a tricky issue! But I do believe strongly that childhood has to prepare kids for adulthood, and that one big aspect of that is learning to make their own decisions. We can’t teach them to think for themselves by simply making rules. Rules are important, but life is full of moments that defy them. I think kids need to learn to be respectful of rules, but also they need to think for themselves, and pay attention to the effect they’re having on the world.

Mr. Jensen: Your novels clearly feature the idea of dealing with what happens when people make wishes that do not turn out as expected. Does this stem from something in your background?

Laurel Snyder: Well, most of the books I loved best as a kid were “magic” books like this. E. Nesbit and Edward Eager were favorites, Roald Dahl and PL Travers, too. So I think that’s where all of that come from.

Mr. Jensen: You have written both picture books and novels, with many of your novels including illustrations in them as well. What kind of collaboration is there between you and the remarkable illustrators of your books?

Laurel Snyder: One of the most amazing things is when I get to see the art coming in. But by and large there’s not much collaboration. In general, authors and illustrators are kept pretty separate.  I suspect this is because if we got our heads together, projects might take even longer! I can tell you guys more about this if you like…

Mr. Jensen: Recently I discovered there may be a prequel coming out for Bigger Than a Bread Box. What additional information can you relay about this novel?

Laurel Snyder: I’m just finishing it now! It’s about Annie, Rebecca’s mom. In the new book, Seven Stories Up, Annie is 12, and she has her own magical adventure, and travels back in time.

Mr. Jensen: I love the honesty and humor of your recent blog post that shows you in full revision mode. Do you have any tips for student authors when it comes to revising their writing?

Laurel Snyder: Oh, gosh. Revision is HARD. The biggest thing to remember is that the book you want to write is not the book you started out to write, but the BEST book possible. You really have to let go of things, get out of the way of the book. The best way to do this is by listening to other people, finding out how they’re reading your draft, and not resist.

Mr. Jensen: As an author, you have most likely read many wonderful books in your life. Are there any novels or authors which stand out in your mind that you would recommend children read for themselves?

Laurel Snyder: The book I’m most amazed to discover kids haven’t read is The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber.  I love it so much! I have a huge list of books I love and recommend. 

Mr. Jensen: Here is your opportunity: convince the world of the superiority of black licorice.

Laurel Snyder: This I cannot do. I know I’m in the minority, and that most kids (mine included) don’t like the stuff. MORE FOR ME!

Once again, a HUGE thank you to Laurel for all of this wonderful information and insight. Make sure to send Ms. Snyder especially good vibes this month as she continues her work revising her current book. Please see my September blog posts for more information about five of Laurel’s great books that you should explore for yourself!

Happy reading everyone!

A Magical Wall Transports Us to the End of September

It’s my final review during Laurel Snyder September and I am sad the journey is over; however, just like with her books, the journey stands out as being worthwhile so I can’t let the fact that it is coming to a close bring me down. Plus, she has more books on the horizon, to go with the picture books I did not review, which means I have plenty of great reading in my future!

Anyway, time for the final review. I will let these students (they are not mine) introduce the premise of Any Which Wall:  http://vimeo.com/19449558

The wall looming over that Iowa cornfield has its magic discovered accidentally by the four friends. By touching the wall and making a wish, they realize they can be transported to any place during any time period so long as that place has walls. They decide it is only fair if each of them gets a wish, and since they are different ages and share different passions, they are able to come up with a variety of adventures spanning hundreds of years, many of which are hinted at by the illustrations on the book jacket. In true Laurel Snyder fashion, however, these wishes do not turn out exactly how the wishers might expect…

   Any Which Wall reminds me (in a good way) of the fantasy books of yesteryear: kids go on adventures without any superpowers; magic has simple rules that must be followed; and the main setting is in an everyday place. The detailed illustrations by LeUyen Pham also help to convey this feeling due to the way they would easily fit in a book written in the 1950s or 60s.

    Young readers can easily jump into the adventure since the protagonists are not unlike themselves, and adults can imagine their younger selves being a part of these adventures. This is great for engagement with the book but also because children reading this book can pick out how each of the characters grew during their adventures and relate this back to their own possibilities. For example, Emma is the youngest and lacks confidence in her capability compared to that of the older children; however, if she had continued to doubt herself and given up, the kids might not have made it through their first journey.

This book contains a theme found in other novels by Miss Snyder that childhood is about exploration and making mistakes that provide experiences to learn from. Throughout their travels, the children in this novel must make quick decisions about a course of action, some of these resulting in consequences that could easily turn dire. Later, when the children want to know the ‘right’ path for solving a problem, the response they receive is, “Sometimes you just have to try a few doors, make a mistake or two.” It’s ideas like this that convey to children the need to make choices based on what they know and not to necessarily rely on others to make those choices for them.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel and the way the narrator interacted with the story in a Lemony Snicket-esque way at times. Like Snyder’s other novels, I was satisfied in not knowing how the ending would turn out, and I was also pleased with a problem presenting itself that I thought had been resolved. Anyone who likes fantasy books in which children find magic that helps them set sail on various adventures should find plenty to love in Any Which Way.

From reading five of Laurel Snyder’s works, I can see that she is a talented writer of children’s fiction who creates characters readers young and old will find engaging. Her skills and writing style came to my mind when a character in Any Which Wall is asked about why he acts the way that he does and he responds, “I can only be what I am. And I’m happy, I suppose, because I don’t try to be anything else.” And I am happy that Miss Snyder continues to be herself, writing magical stories that will surely be enjoyed for years to come.

Check out or purchase Any Which Wall today!

(Please see my previous September posts to find other books by Laurel Snyder that you should reading.)

Dreadful? No. Wonderful? You Better Believe It.

Penny Dreadful by: Laurel Snyder

Boring. Dreary. Dull. These are words the protagonist of Penny DreadfulPenelope Grey, would use to describe her life. She has no true friends, her parents are always busy, and she never goes on adventures like the characters in the books she reads. Penelope wishes something would change so she can have a grand adventure, but what is going to happen in a mansion where everyone is…content?

 The catalyst for Penelope’s world turning upside down involves her father returning home from work one day and announcing that he has quit his job. Penelope can only stare in shock and wonder: Was this because of my wish? Will she finally live an exciting life? Penelope isn’t certain, but what she is sure of is that members of the staff at her mansion are leaving and her mother is looking more worried with each passing day. As things continue to spiral downward, a ray of hope shows up in the form of a telegram which tells of a house in Tennessee that has been bequeathed to Penelope’s mother. Her family decides to move to the house known as The Whippoorwillows and take their chances. That sounds like the makings of an adventure…

At first, I wasn’t sure that I was going to like Penelope. Basically a spoiled rich kid, Penelope’s boredom stems from having everything she needs to live a happy, if safe, life. Then I realized that Penelope’s unhappiness stemmed from her desire to do things outside the norm and to receive more attention from her parents. After reaching the Whippoorwillows, Penelope’s growth as a character begins. When she changes her name to Penny, she allows herself to break out of the shell that had engulfed her when she lived in The City. She disobeys her parents, puts her dignity on the line in an attempt to gain real friends, and tries to solve the increasing financial trouble of her family. The following thought from Penny really shows her growth from someone who has lived vicariously through books to a young woman with strength: “I have inner resources and I will not cry, she thought. Instead, I will do something.” What a great message for when kids face seemingly hopeless situations in their own lives.

I enjoyed that the Whippoorwillows was not simply a new home but instead basically a horizontal apartment complex run by the Greys and filled with a motley group of tenants that cannot be removed or charged rent per the rules of the bequeathed estate. Penny meets this wonderful cast of new characters throughout the story and learns that each person needs something different to be happy. My favorite character was the indomitable Luella, who serves as a good foil to Penny’s original hesitant personality. Luella draws Penny out and helps her discover the type of life that she has only previously read about. The relationship between Penny and the other residents at the Whippoorwillows reminds me of the families in the row-houses in the Main Street series by Ann M. Martin.

I love the following quote from Luella because I think it sums up Laurel Snyder’s views on stories from what I have seen of her novels: “‘Problems don’t always get fixed. Lots of the time things are boring or dumb for no good reason. Or even terrible. And you can’t do anything about it. That’s life.’” And yet these characters persevere and improve not only their own lives but the lives of those around them.

Penny Dreadful is another story in which Laurel Snyder imbues the tale with many common issues kids face: making friends while envying the friendships of others; being caught up in financial problems they have no control over; and moving to a new place to begin a new life. All of this is handled deftly in a novel that leaves the reader wondering if there really is magic in the world or if we make our own magic through our choices.

Check-out or purchase Penny Dreadful today!

(For other great books by Laurel Snyder, please visit my previous September posts.)

Laurel Snyder September Flies on With Wishes, Tough Choices, and Seagulls

Bigger Than a Breadbox

In Bigger Than a Bread Boxthe month of November does not start with much that twelve-year-old Rebecca is thankful for. Months of her parents’ frequent arguments have led to Rebecca being told by her mother that they will be traveling to Atlanta to visit Rebecca’s grandmother. They will leave immediately with her little brother, Lew. Rebecca’s father is not invited on the trip.

 After being welcomed into her grandmother’s house, Rebecca decides to explore and discovers an attic filled with dust-covered items. While searching, she finds a collection of bread boxes but nothing else very exciting. Rebecca wishes she had a book to read but with none around, she examines the bread boxes. When she looks in a shiny metal one, she discovers a book! She brings the beautiful breadbox to her room to examine further.

As Rebecca continues to live in Atlanta she pines more for home. She wishes to be back in Baltimore; she wishes her parents were back together; she even wishes to see the seagulls that… Her bread box starts moving and making noise so Rebecca opens it and out pop two seagulls. This is when she realizes that she has a magical item that grants any wish related to something smaller than a bread box. But what she mostly wants is much, much bigger. Is there a way to use the breadbox to get her family back together?

Before delving deeper into my commentary, watch this book trailer created by an awesomely creative twelve-year-old:

I enjoyed this novel immensely. The book opens with a very powerful image of Rebecca being taken from her father, who is starting to fall apart over the realization that his kids are not going to be in his life. Although this can be a tough event for children to have to read about, it’s something that some of them have gone through and will be able to relate to or they may go through and it will cause them to think about how they would react. The story also makes readers think about what they would do if given the opportunity to possess the magical breadbox that Rebecca discovers.

In this book, the characters really come to life due to the choices they make. Rebecca’s choice to start using the breadbox to get items that will increase her popularity at her new school really helped me see her as a real person. What tween (or adult) wouldn’t use this unexpected opportunity to gain social status? Of course, anyone thinking long and hard about the bread box would have to wonder where everything was coming from and once Rebecca does this, the answer to this question leads to further problems in her life. Rebecca doesn’t always make the “right” choice for getting rid of an issue of her own creation, and I liked seeing these flaws in her decision-making process.

The events that take place in the last quarter of the book really stood out to me because I did not see most of them turning out the way that they did, and the one I did predict caused me to want to yell at the pages as I turned them because I knew things would play out badly for Rebecca. I was pleasantly surprised by the turns in Miss Snyder’s plot because they kept the book situated in the real world due to things not always being tidied up cleanly in a nice package. Life is messy and hard, and Laurel Snyder does a great job of encapsulating this fact in her writing.

This is definitely one of those fantasy books where real problems are woven into the plot well. The problems Rebecca faces (making friends, dealing with a possible divorce, having a huge secret) are very applicable for most readers. With my attention captured by the story, I smiled when Rebecca realized she needed to provide support for her younger brother, and I cursed when something else went wrong in her life. I recommend this book to anyone looking to be ensnared by the magic of an old bread box and the wonders of a well-told story.

Pick up Bigger Than a Bread Box from your library, or purchase the newly released paperback version at an independent book store today!

The Laurel Snyder Journey Continues

Next up during Laurel Snyder September is her novel Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains. This low fantasy set in a medieval kingdom follows Lucy, a spirited girl who wants more to life than simply being a milkmaid who spends her free time playing with the heir to the kingdom’s throne. She has mostly grown up with only her father and younger sister after being told as a young child that her mother was ‘gone.’ Lucy wants to know more about her mother’s sudden disappearance from her life so she takes it upon herself to journey to a nearby mountain where she believes her mother grew up. Can Lucy discover what caused her mother to be ‘gone’ from her life?

From the beginning of this novel there is a lot of humor; it is included through small comments that contain jokes at the expense of common fairy-tale lore or through little events such as the king curtsying so Wynston, the prince and Lucy’s best friend, can practice talking to princesses. I enjoyed these little moments, though they did wane (probably purposely as the weight of the trip is made clear) as Lucy’s journey continued up the mountain.

I liked Lucy’s strong personality and her independent streak. Although Lucy is generally seen as independent, she shows depth due to her inner desire to not be alone. When she is alone, she thinks of her missing mother: “Slowly Lucy had begun to question: If her mother was alive, where had she gone? Why had she gone? The question was like a tiny little fly, buzzing around her head all the time. When she was busy, she barely noticed it, but when she was alone and the world got quiet, the fly seemed loud as anything.”  Lucy reminds me of the protagonist in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles thanks to the aforementioned traits. The jabs at fairy tales also stick out as a similarity between Snyder’s book and that series by Patricia Wrede.

This book contains an underlying theme that deals with following rules and deciding when rules should be broken. Both Lucy and Wynston have places in the story when they choose to break a rule because it doesn’t meet with their own code of ethics. The following statement about Wynston demonstrates this conundrum: “He was so confused. He knew he was right, that laws were there for a reason. But he knew that what Lucy was feeling was also right. Maybe there were different kinds of right.”

I enjoyed this novel from Laurel Snyder. The adventure of Lucy has enough happening to keep readers interested throughout. The writing is peppered with strong vocabulary that can be defined thanks to context clues so younger readers can decipher these words. Detailed drawings are included throughout the book to help readers imagine what is happening in this world. This is a good book for readers looking for some light fantasy that still contains meaningful themes.

And last but not least, I have included the trailer for this book. It’s… a little different from the book trailers I have shared for previous books.

(As of this posting, that child is still not for sale.)

Continue with your Snyderific September!