Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems"

            Poetry.  For most people, you either love it or hate it.  I remember having to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter when I was in high school.  I still remember everything about it, and how torturous is was for me, because I just can’t hear where the stress falls in a word.  I think a lot of teachers have similar scenarios.  They hate poetry because they were forced to write it in a certain way or about a certain topic.  I have learned that poetry, like any kind of writing we ask our children to do, needs to come from the heart.  Form and topic choice are important, but learning to care about what you write is the most important thing for any writer, but especially young ones.

            Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Published 2014), is a collection of poems that I think kids would love.  Written by J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian, this collection is illustrated by Jeremy Holmes.  The premise of this book is simple—think of a crazy car and then write a poem about it.  There is no central theme connecting all of the poems, aside from their wackiness.  There are poems like “The Bathtub Car,” the “Backwards Car,” “The High Heel Car,” “The 23rd-Century Motors,” and 17 other poems.  All of the poems rhyme, but they alternate between first and third person.  For example, “Eel-ectric Car” is written from the point of view of the car, while “the Dragonwagon” is written in third person.  In all, these 21 crazy car poems tell not of a story, but of the authors’ own incredible imagination.

            I think that this book would make a great mentor texts for a writing unit on poetry.  When I first started teaching, I was so worried about my kids hating poetry that I stayed away from all serious stuff—it seemed like it was nothing but Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky that year.  I have come to realize that is not the case, and have had my kids enjoy poems by the likes of Carl Sandberg and Emily Dickenson.  That being said, I still feel that this book, a sillier one, is a great mentor text.  The primary reason will be the interest level for the students.  I can just see my kids being fascinated by these car poems and thinking, “You mean poetry can be like this?”  I think they will really love lines like this one from “The Dragonwagon”:  “Up on its back are nasty spikes.  It feeds with greed on rusty bikes.  Inside its hoods are tooth jaws.  Instead of wheels, it has sharp claws.”  Kids have fantastic imaginations, and I can see them latching on to these poems about crazy cars.  They learn from a very young age to be afraid of writing poems, and I think that Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems can show them that poetry can be very cool.

            Getting ideas for writing is often the hardest thing for students when they come into my class.  They want to be told what to write about, because it is comfortable for them.  I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year helping them generate ideas for their writing, and we spend some time generating ideas for each genre afterwards.  They soon learn that their own brains are much better at getting ideas than mine could ever do for them.  Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems is a great mentor text for getting ideas.  After reading the book, many students will naturally want to create their own crazy car poem.  I think that is a great idea, but I also think it could spark children to come up with other crazy ideas.  What if instead of a crazy car poem, they came up with crazy bike poems?  Instead of using any kind of transportation, what if they came up with crazy school poems?  I can see how after reading this book, children would be able to use their imaginations and run with it.  In a way, I see this book as an invitation for children to be as crazy as they want with their poetry.  It would be great to take this book and then use another one, perhaps a collection in the Poetry for Young People series, and have them try their hand at more serious poems as well.  Above all, though, is the emphasis that they have a choice in what they are writing.  If Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems sparks some ideas for a child, that is wonderful.  If it doesn’t, that is okay because we will show them so many other books that they are bound to find the mentor text that is perfect for them.

Jeremy Holmes's gorgeous illustrations!
Another reason why I think this book is a great mentor text is because of the illustrations.  Jeremy Holmes uses bright hues of green, blue, orange, and red and makes the pictures all seem like cartoons.  His illustrations are great to use as a mentor for two reasons:  to model how illustrations can extend the text and to model how authors and illustrators carefully think about the placement of words and pictures.  On p. 15, there is a poem about “The Backwards Car” which is a car that when “you arrive, you find you’re where you launched you drive.  Beneath the illustration of the car, there is a parking garage that says, “Fro and to parking,” which is a line from the text.  It is a small thing that connects the poem to the illustration, and gives the illustration a little bit more meaning.   On p.24-25, there is a poem about the “Bathtub Car.”  This bathtub car is approaching a house called the “Royal Throne” which is a gigantic toilet.  This is not mentioned in the poem.  By bringing attention to these kinds of details, we can help our students see how illustrations are not just pretty pictures on a page, but they can also extend the meaning of the text.

Different page orientation--so neat!
The other reason I think that this is a good mentor text for illustrations is because of the careful thought put into the placement of text and illustrations.  For example, the Table of Contents is not a normal Table of Contents, but is instead a picture of each car with the page number.  I think this works, and it shows children another way that they can do something, going away from traditional thinking.  On p.20-21, there is the “Balloon Car.”  To read this poem, the reader has to hold the book on its side.  Instead of reading the pages left to right, like we typically do, the illustrations of the balloons on this page require more space, and so the reader has to read it from top to bottom.  The text is typically to the side, and I think that a conversation about how the illustrations work around the text would really help young writers.

              Both J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian are prolific writers of poetry for young people.  From 2011-2013, J. Patrick Lewis was actually the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate.  In this interview, J. Patrick Lewis talks about his poetry and how he didn’t even get into writing poetry until he was 40—it is never too late!  Douglas Florian has fashioned himself as an “authorstrator” because he both illustrates and writes poetry books, like his New York Times Bestseller Insectlopedia.  If you do use this book in your class, I think it would be great to find other books by these two men to see how authors write all kinds of different things!  For any reader, Please Bury Me in the Library by J. Patrick Lewis is a must-read!

            If you are looking to start a poetry unit in your class, April is the perfect month, because it is National Poetry Month.  Scholastic has great resources for teachers during this month.  I love the fact that as teachers, we have a chance to turn poetry around for our kids.  So let’s turn this generation around, so that we don’t have children who are afraid of poetry.  With books like Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems, I think we have a very good chance of succeeding.  No iambic pentameter needed!
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