Something Beautiful: Reading Picture Books, Writing Poetry

Book Links: April/May 2001 (v.10 no.5)

by Dean Schneider

One of the great pleasures of teaching is sharing poetry and art with students. The many wonderful picture books that combine poetry and art are treasures. It is an easy and essential part of a reading and writing program to read aloud poetry picture books and have students try writing their own poems modeled on the poems in the books. List poems are a good way to introduce poetry to beginning writers. All children, in a supportive environment, can think of a list of words, descriptions, or images; or they can contribute one line to a collaborative class poem. In a list poem, each line simply adds an image or description to support the idea of the poem. For example:

Quiet, Please!
A sound of a pin dropping
A sound of someone whispering in my ear
A sound of tumbleweeds rolling about in the desert
The sound of the wind communicating with the trees
A sound of a church mouse running down the aisles
The sound of quiet when the music plays in Ms. Smith's room
The sound of a plane soaring high up in the air.
-Jennie McCabe, grade 2

My early work with teaching poetry was inspired by Kenneth Koch's Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, now a classic in the field. Koch visited classrooms in New York City in the 1960s and got students writing list poems about wishes, lies, dreams, colors, and noises. As I got involved in the world of children's literature, I realized that some picture books are excellent for inspiring students to give poetry a try; these picture books offer a rich reading experience, a model for students' poetry, and wonderful art all at the same time.

The procedure is simple. Children should have pencil and paper ready. Read a book aloud and discuss the way the author wrote it-the poetry idea in the book. Then have students try writing their own poems. There is safety in list poems for beginning writers; they are writing one line, then another, then another, creating images from their own experience one step at a time.

Sometimes, instead of a list poem, students might make short picture books of their own. Sharon Dennis Wyeth's Something Beautiful is a favorite in our second-grade class, and after reading it students create their own eight-page picture books about beautiful things.

Something beautiful is . . .
A feeling of finishing a book
Playing baseball and winning the game
Watching the funny way my mom and dad dance
Knitting with my grandmother
Skipping rocks on a pond
-Andy Lustig

The books in the following bibliography suggest the range of possible poems: "I Remember," "Things I Hate about Winter," "Things I Love about Winter," "What Is Blue?" "I Want to Be," "I Had a Lot of Wishes," and others.

List poems can work with students of any age, and novels can suggest the same kinds of list poems. I have taught color poems and "I Remember" poems after reading Lois Lowry's The Giver (Houghton, 1993), "Good Things" poems after a scene in The Road to Memphis (Dial, 1990) by Mildred Taylor, and "Used to be / but now" poems after Good Night, Mr. Tom (HarperCollins, 1982) by Michelle Magorian.

The following books represent a range of poetry picture books. They are excellent to read aloud and can, with a little guidance from a teacher, inspire students' poetry writing.

Picture Books

Barrett, Judi. Things That Are Most in the World. Illus. by John Nickle. 1998. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-81333-3).
Preschool-Gr. 3. This lively book of superlatives is an easy introduction to list poems. Barrett completes such statements as "The funniest thing in the world is . . ." and "The wiggliest thing in the world is . . ." Nickle illustrates each item in outlandish acrylic paintings. Silly and fun, this was a definite hit with the second-graders at my school.

Chall, Marsha Wilson. Up North at the Cabin. Illus. by Steve Johnson. 1992. 32p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-09732-4).
Preschool-Gr. 3. Chall fondly recalls her childhood vacations in Minnesota in spare, nicely descriptive prose. This book comprises collection of images, both in words and in pictures; Chall remembers how she was bathed in sunlight during the ride north, and Johnson's soft, lushly colored paintings complete the picture. Along with McFarlane's Jessie's Island (below) and MacLachlan's All the Places to Love (below) and Roxaboxen (Lothrop, 1991), this book can be an effective model for writing about a special place.

Collier, Bryan. Uptown. 2000. 32p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-5721-8).
K-Gr. 3. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration, Uptown is a wonderful evocation of Harlem in words and watercolor and collage illustrations. Each page begins with "Uptown is . . .": "Uptown is the orange sunset over the Hudson River," "Uptown is weekend shopping on 125th Street." Children can write their own "My street is" or "My neighborhood is" list poems.

Curtis, Jamie Lee. When I Was Little: A Four-Year Old's Memoir of Her Youth. Illus. by Laura Cornell. 1993. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-021078-8); paper, $5.95 (0-06-443423-0).
K-Gr. 3. Kids love this amusing look at the life of a four-year-old, who points out just how much she has changed since her days as a baby. Written in the form of "When I was / Now I . . .," it can inspire list poems in the same format, similar to those in Leopold's Once I Was . . . (below).

Florian, Douglas. Monster Motel. 1993. 32p. Harcourt, $13.95 (0-15-255320-7); paper, $5 (0-15-201386-5).
Preschool-Gr. 3. Kids love creating their own monsters, each of their poems adding to the description. Extend the activity by drawing chalk monsters outside on a sidewalk or quiet part of a parking lot. Then write the children's poems next to the drawings.

Florian, Douglas. Winter Eyes. 1999. 48p. Greenwillow, $16 (0-688-16458-7).
K-Gr. 3. This is a lovely book with Florian's own watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations. He captures what winter feels like in quiet poems, pointing out both what there is to love about winter and what there is to hate about it. These can be great starting points for students to write their own list poems.

Giovanni, Nikki. Knoxville, Tennessee. Illus. by Larry Johnson. 1994. 32p. Scholastic, $14.95 (0-590-47074-4).
K-Gr. 3. Giovanni's much-anthologized poem about her childhood summers in Knoxville is complemented by Johnson's warm illustrations. Giovanni's images are simple and evocative-eating corn on the cob, listening to gospel music. The book may be used to help students write their own list poems about a special place.

Gollub, Matthew. Cool Melons-Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. Illus. by Kazuko G. Stone. 1998. 40p. Lee & Low, $16.95 (1-880000-71-7).
K-Gr. 3. The story of Issa is sad yet inspiring, and, told in this beautiful edition, can inspire students' own haiku or lunes, a variation on haiku counting words instead of syllables. Lines of three words, five words, and three words comprise the poems. These are not list poems, but students can write several in one session, giving them a sense of accomplishment.

Graham, Joan Bransfield. Flicker Flash. Illus. by Nancy Davis. 1999. 32p. Houghton, $15 (0-395-90501-X).
K-Gr. 3. This is a wonderful collection of concrete poetry, or poems whose shapes reflect their content. Graham's poems explore light and its many sources, from lightbulbs to spotlights to fireflies. Kids will enjoy creating their own concrete poems.

Grimes, Nikki. Aneesa Lee and the Weaver's Gift. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. 1999. 32p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-15997-4).
Gr. 2-5. This wonderful book contains 13 poems about the art of weaving-getting the materials, dying and spinning yarn, using a loom, and other tasks done for weaving. Grimes uses the title character, who is "a weave / of black / and white / and Japanese," to relate the subject to the broader theme of how lives and families are interwoven. "Love Is Purple" can be a model for list poems. Other poems in this collection might inspire other types of poetry, as well.

Grimes, Nikki. It's Raining Laughter. Photos by Myles C. Pinkney. 1997. 32p. Dial, $14.99 (0-8037-2003-3).
K-Gr. 3. One of my favorite collections, these poems are accompanied by 52 color photographs of African American children. Grimes' joyful poems celebrate the universal experiences of growing up-playing outside, getting teased, laughing with friends, and reading, among many others. Both the title and closing poems suggest list poems, while some of the others are good models for other kinds of poetry.

Heide, Florence Parry. Some Things Are Scary. Illus. by Jules Feiffer. 2000. 32p. Candlewick, $15.99 (0-7636-1222-7).
K-Gr. 3. Kids will identify with the common fears listed in this book and enjoy creating their own poems about scary things. I did a variation of this with my seventh-graders, in which they listed scary things from the novel we had just read, Mildred Taylor's The Road to Memphis.

Hiatt, Fred. If I Were Queen of the World. Illus. by Mark Graham. 1997. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $16 (0-689-80700-7).
Preschool-Gr. 3. Use this book to inspire students to create list poems about things they would do if they were queen (or king) of the world, just like the girl in the story, who would stay up all night and eat tons of lollipops.

Kellogg, Steven. I Was Born about 10,000 Years Ago: A Tall Tale. 1996. 48p. Morrow, $16 (0-688-13411-4); paper, $5.95 (0-688-16156-1).
K-Gr. 3. Students get to tell "lies" after hearing Steven Kellogg's tall tale. Each line of their list poem is a lie: "I taught penguins to throw snowballs on Pluto," "I had lunch with a bottlenose dolphin," " I rode the last dinosaur on the tip of its tongue." Afterward, students create a class book. They choose one line from their poems, illustrate it, and contribute it to the class collection, which is published.

Leopold, Niki Clark. Once I Was . . . Illus. by Woodleigh Marx Hubbard. 1999. 32p. Putnam, $15.99 (0-399-23105-6).
K-Gr. 3. A good introduction to the "I used to be / But now I am" list poem. Rhyming text and pictures in vivid colors present examples that illustrate the concept of change; for example, "Once I couldn't feed myself / Now I love to cook."

MacLachlan, Patricia. All the Places to Love. Illus. by Mike Wimmer. 1994. 32p. HarperCollins, $15 (0-06-021098-2).
K-Gr. 3. A wonderful book about special places, MacLachlan's story describes a family's love for its home, but points out that home is wherever loved ones are. Students like to write about places they love, too. Picking a special place and writing about an image or a memory of that place on each line can lead to excellent poetry.

MacLachlan, Patricia. What You Know First. Illus. by Barry Moser. 1995. 32p. HarperCollins, $14.95 (0-06-024413-5); paper, $5.95 (0-06-443492-3).
Gr. 3-6. As a family prepares to leave its home on the prairie, a young girl gathers mementoes that will serve as symbols of where she came from. Barry Moser's engravings are the perfect complement to MacLachlan's poetic text. I have read this aloud and asked students to write poems about "Things I Would Miss." For older students, the book connects nicely with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997).

McFarlane, Sheryl. Jessie's Island. Illus. by Sheena Lott. 1992. 32p. Orca, paper, $6.95 (0-920501-76-1).
Gr. 1-4. This story, which takes the form of a girl's letter describing the natural beauty of her island home, has become one of my favorite picture books. It is beautifully written and illustrated, and it has an important message. Jessie's letter can be used as inspiration for list poems and letters to friends.

Merriam, Eve. Quiet, Please. Illus. by Sheila Hamanaka. 1993. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $14 (0-671-79816-2).
K-Gr. 3. Merriam conjures images of quietness, which are illustrated by Hamanaka's dreamy paintings. This is usually the first book I read when I do a sequence of list poems with first- or second-graders. The beautiful images (such as the "invisible writing of butterflies") described in both words and art will inspire students' own list poems about quiet things.

Moss, Thylias. I Want to Be. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 1993. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-1286-3); paper, $5.99 (0-1405-6286-9).
K-Gr. 3. When the question "What do you want to be?" is posed to a young girl, she finds many sensitive, insightful answers. These answers can help students think about their own aspirations, which they can write in the form of "I want to be" poems.

O'Neill, Mary. Hailstones and Halibut Bones. Illus. by John Wallner. 1961; reissued 1989. 60p. Doubleday, $15.95 (0-385-24484-3); paper, $9.95 (0-385-41078-6).
Gr. 3-6. The colors of the spectrum are the subjects of these 12 classic children's poems, first published in 1961. It is always one of the first books of poetry that I read with students. Everyone is able to write about a color, using O'Neill's lively poems as models. A must for every collection.

Smith, Charles R. Rimshots: Basketball Pix, Rolls, and Rhythms. 1999. 32p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-46099-3); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-14-056678-3).
Gr. 3-6. The text in this great collection of poetry and short prose about basketball is accompanied by the author's own photographs. The poem "I Remember" makes a nice model for students. Also see the author's latest offering, Short Takes: Fast-Break Basketball Poetry (Dutton, 2001).

Stevenson, James. I Had a Lot of Wishes. 1995. 32p. Greenwillow, $15 (0-688-13705-9).
K-Gr. 3. Stevenson looks back to his childhood and remembers all the wishes, both the big and the small, that he had. One of several of the author's autobiographical picture books, this story can inspire students to try their own wish poems. Also see Stevenson's Fun/No Fun (Greenwillow, 1994).

Stone Bench in an Empty Park. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Photos by Henri Silberman. 2000. 40p. Scholastic/Orchard, $15.95 (0-531-30259-8).
Gr. 3-6. In this beautiful book of haiku about city life, the poems are accessible to beginning poets of all ages. Stunning black-and-white photographs capture the verbal images created by the poems, which encourage children to look more closely at the beauty that surrounds us everyday.

Weiss, George David, and Bob Thiele. What a Wonderful World. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. 1995. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-80087-8).
K-Gr. 3. The lyrics of Weiss and Thiele's song, made famous by Louis Armstrong, and Bryan's vibrant art inspire "I see" poems. In these poems, children write about the wonders that they see in their everyday worlds. To highlight the project, play Armstrong's music while turning the pages of the book, and then have students write their poems. Later, create a class book, with each student contributing a favorite line from his or her poem with a full-color illustration modeled on Ashley Bryan's art. I also do a similar activity with Kellogg's I Was Born about 10,000 Years Ago (see above).
Wyeth, Sharon Dennis. Something Beautiful. Illus. by Chris K. Soentpiet. 1998. 32p. Doubleday, $16.95 (0-385-32239-9).
K-Gr. 3. A young African American girl living in a troubled neighborhood searches desperately for beauty. Despite the homeless woman who sleeps wrapped up in plastic and the broken glass littering the dark alley, she finds something beautiful when she holds her aunt's baby, when she first sees her mother after work, and when she plays with her friends. Use this touching book to inspire kids to write list poems about all the beautiful things in their lives. My wife has her second-graders create eight-page books after hearing Something Beautiful.

Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.