Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices"

                Paul Fleischman is a tricky, tricky man.  He knows us teachers.  He knows that a lot of us have been afraid of poetry our whole lives.  Sure, we will read poetry secretly, and maybe even write it in notebooks nobody will ever see.  But to read it out loud to people?  You’re joking, right?  We’re readers, for goodness sake.  We are not slam poets, or visitors of coffee house poetry nights.  My first year of teaching, I tried to make poetry meaningful, despite the fact that it never held much meaning to me.  I wanted to like poetry, but it always just seemed so scary.  So why is Paul Fleischman such a tricky writer?  Well, as you will see below, he has written an incredible book in Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices.  That’s not so tricky.  The tricky part, as you will discover, is that he forces us to read this book out loud.  There really is no other way to read this book.

            Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (Published 1988) is written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows.  This poetry collection comes laden with accolades and awards.  For starters, it won the Newbery Medal in 1989.  It was also named an ALA Notable Children’s Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book, a Horn Book Fanfare winner, and a Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (given by the National Council for Teachers of English).  With all of those recognitions, you know that this book is something special, but why?  This is a poetry book about insects.  Simple enough, right?

            Ever since I started blogging, I’ve become really interested in the American Library Association Awards and the requirements for those awards.  Why do they choose one book over all the others?  We know that the Newbery Award is given for the best children’s book of the year, but what does that mean?  In my blog post on The One and Only Ivan, I listed some of the criteria and discussed the criteria that I think best suited that book.  I would like to do the same for Joyful Noise.  The Newbery Award is given each year, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”  We need more to understand what makes a book distinguished, so the ALA website continues with saying that committee members should consider the following: “interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; and appropriateness of style.”  So once again, out of all of these requirements, what makes this book so special?

            There is no real plot and there aren’t any characters who go through the whole book.  The presentation of information is, I assume, correct, but I don’t see it being especially accurate, clear, or organized.  That leaves two different considerations: interpretation of the theme or concept and appropriateness of style.  These two categories are where Joyful Noise succeeds.  The theme of this story is a poetry book about insects.  Paul Flesichman gives us poems about insects that do not always get attention in a heart-felt poem—whirligig beetles, the digger wasp, book lice, and many others.  What makes it so special is the way he presents these insects, and the way he interprets his concept is through the style of poetry for two voices.  But what does that even mean?

            I find myself writing questions because this book is a difficult one to explain.  It is hard to explain poetry for two voices—the easiest way is to actual read the poems.  Paul Fleischman does give the reader a note at the beginning of the book to explain the structure.  It reads:

The following poems were written to be read aloud by two readers at once, one taking the left hand part, the other taking the right hand part.  The poems should be read from top to bottom, the two parts meshing as in a musical duet.  When both readers have lines at the same horizontal level, these lines are to be spoken simultaneously.

Each poem is to be read out lout by two people.  This format of the story is what makes it so special.  Before this book, I do not believe there was anything quite like it.  Now, there are several other poetry books for multiple voices, including Pal Fleischman’s own Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices and I am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices.  The unique style of this book makes it so special.  Two readers read the poem.  Sometimes one person is speaking, sometimes the other, and sometimes the readers speak in tandem.  When the readers are speaking at the same time, though, they are not always saying the same words.  If you would like to see what in the world this looks and sounds like, please watch this excellent presentation by two high-school seniors.  They took and recited many of the poems in Joyful Noise.

            Like Paul Fleishman’s note says, this book is not meant for silent reading.  Sure, you can read the book to yourself, but there are so many subtleties that you will miss when the sounds work together with two voices.  I read this book first by myself, and then enlisted help for a read-aloud.  There were things I discovered in the oral reading that I had completely missed in my own silent reading.  For example, in “Book Lice” there is a line on the left that reads “We’re book lice adoring despite her loud snoring.”  On the right side, the line reads “We’re book lice adoring despite his loud snoring.”  When I read it to myself, I didn’t notice the pronoun shift.  As I read it out loud, the difference is noticed and it is funny.  I asked my little sister to sit down and read one with me—we enjoyed it so much we ended up reading half the book.  One of our favorite poems to read together was “Firelies.”  In this poem, there is alliteration going on.  While one person reads “fireflies,” another is reading “flickering” and then it continues for a few lines.  It presents this great harmony, while at the same time having a disconnect between speakers.  It is so hard to explain in silent words that will be read in someone’s head, so I urge you to find someone that is special to you and read these poems with them.  My little sister insists that this would make a great game at parties or family game nights.  You can’t help but laugh as you stumble over words and work to get them right.

            One of the things I loved most about this book was just how wrong I got everything.  I kept getting my lines wrong or out of order, and it made me think of how children would perceive this.  It is definitely a challenge, but well worth it.  I’ve used this book before with my children.  I do not think that all of the poems would really be good for them to read—one’s like “The Digger’s Wasp,” that talks about never getting to see her own children, doesn’t really seem like something they can relate with.  There are definitely, some, however, that would be a great read for my fourth-graders.  The funniest one, without a doubt, is “Honeybees.”  In this poem, a worker bee and the queen bee are both talking about their lives.  It starts with the two readers saying,” Being a bee is a pain” and “Being a bee is a joy.”  Throughout the poem, the reader sees the plight of the worker bee, while the queen bee is sitting lazily.  The year I did this book with my students, they really loved reciting these poems.  In a way, they almost act as a play, because you have to pay attention to when the other person is talking and really focus on the way you are reading the words.  Of course, gestures and movement are an added bonus.

            In the end, this book deserves all of the recognition it received because of its uniqueness.  Paul Fleischman helped to popularize a very different kind of poetry book.  In its 26th year in print, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is a book of poems that is not going anywhere, anytime soon.  And it is even making us teachers recognize the value poetry out loud!
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