More than Meets the Eye: Books about Haiku

Book Links May 2007 (vol. 16, no. 5)

by Angela Leeper

Elementary school

Because of its short 17-syllable structure, haiku can be a marvelous introduction to the study of poetry. Deceptively simple, haiku encourages readers, writers, and listeners of poetry to observe their environment actively and to select only the most precise words to describe it. In Haiku (see below), author Patricia Donegan states that when children study haiku, "They learn a fresh and sensitive way to see and connect to nature and the world—and usually become happier and more respectful."

Although haiku is the shortest literary form, it has more rules than its syllabication, including being written in the present tense, containing a seasonal word, and providing a descriptive image rather than an explanation of the subject. While Jack Prelutsky’s If Not for the Cat follows these traditional haiku rules, other poets and their works, such as Miriam Chaikin’s Don’t Step on the Sky and Kristine O’Connell George’s Fold Me a Poem, prefer to convey the spirit of haiku. Paul B. Janeczko plays with subject matter in both Stone Bench in an Empty Park, a collection of haiku about the city, and Wing Nuts, a collection of humorous haiku called senryu that he wrote with J. Patrick Lewis.

This annotated bibliography also delivers books about two of Japan’s most notable haiku poets, Basho (1644–94) and Issa (1763–1827). Dawnine Spivak’s Grass Sandals and Matthew Gollub’s Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! allow readers to understand the development of this poetic form as well as these poets’ inspirations.

Accessible and entertaining, the haiku presented in these books reveal how the poems can vary in tone and imagery and, hopefully, will inspire children to express their own momentous feelings and observations through these small poems.

Poetry Collections

Chaikin, Miriam. Don’t Step on the Sky: A Handful of Haiku. Illus. by Hiroe Nakata. 2002. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805064742).
Preschool–Gr. 2. Following an introduction to haiku, a young girl describes nature throughout her suburban neighborhood, from her backyard garden to raindrops on the sidewalk. While all of the poems capture the spirit of haiku, some do not adhere to the traditional format. Combined with charming watercolors in pastels, these poems are a delightful experience for young readers.

George, Kristine O’Connell. Fold Me a Poem. Illus. by Lauren Stringer. 2005. 56p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152025014).
Gr. 1–3. This collection of haiku and similarly spare poems follows a boy from morning to night as he folds a variety of origami animals. Acrylic paintings highlight the boy’s vibrant and wonderfully patterned creations and even give life to some of the paper beings. A concluding illustrator’s note contains a list of origami books.

Grimes, Nikki. A Pocketful of Poems. Illus. by Javaka Steptoe. 2001. 32p. Clarion, $15 (9780395938683).
Gr. 1–4. From her own name, Tiana, to window boxes, pigeons, and snow, an African American girl describes her Harlem neighborhood in a combination of conversational free verse and accessible haiku. Arranged chronologically by season, the collection is illustrated with distinctive collages made from cut paper and found objects.

Harley, Avis. Fly with Poetry: An ABC of Poetry. 2000. 48p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, paper, $13.95 (9781563977985).
Gr. 3–5. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a poetry form or term (e.g., haiku, cinquain, and onomatopoeia), an original poem that demonstrates it, and a brief definition. The book ends with explanations of 14 additional poetic forms. Harley offers more types of poems in Leap into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2001).

Issa, Kobayashi. Today and Today. Illus. by G. Brian Karas. 2007. 40p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780439590785).
K–Gr. 3. In this title Karas has collected 18 of haiku master Issa’s poems to capture a year in the life of a fictional family who experiences both loss and healing. Richly textured paint-and-pencil scenes depict joyous and somber family moments against the larger backdrop of the changing seasons.

Janeczko, Paul B., and J. Patrick Lewis. Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku. Illus. by Tricia Tusa. 2006. 32p. Little, Brown, $15.99 (9780316607315).
Gr. 3–5. This collection of senryu, which Janeczko calls “the first cousin of the haiku,” resembles haiku, but instead of commenting on external nature, the poems capture human nature. Whether describing an irksome mosquito or grandpa’s underwear, the poems elicit smiles with clever puns and other plays on words. Tusa’s lighthearted ink-and-watercolor artwork adds to the fun.

A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Illus. by Chris Raschka. 2005. 64p. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763606626).
Gr. 4–8. Janeczko explains why poems have rules and then provides examples of 29 poetic forms, including haiku, concrete, and villanelle, written by such children’s and young-adult poets as Liz Rosenberg and X. J. Kennedy and such classic poets as William Shakespeare, William Blake, and Ogden Nash. Short definitions immediately follow the poems, while more detailed descriptions can be found in the supplemental “Notes on the Forms” section. Raschka adds verve and wit with watercolor and torn-paper collage illustrations and pictorial mnemonics for each poetic form.

Lin, Grace, and Ranida T. McKneally. Our Seasons. Illus. by Grace Lin. 2006. 32p. Charlesbridge, $15.95 (9781570913600).
Gr. 1–3. These haiku poems narrate four children’s experiences as the seasons change, and accompanying text explains related seasonal phenomena. As Ki-Ki rakes leaves, for example, the text explains why leaves change color. Illustrated with vibrant gouache paintings, this appealing picture book ends with a glossary of science terms.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. Cricket Never Does: A Collection of Haiku and Tanka. Illus. by Kees de Kiefte. 1997. 42p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, o.p.
Gr. 5–8. This collection of more than 60 poems, sensitively written in traditional haiku and tanka forms, is arranged by season. While most poems portray the flora, fauna, weather, and geography of the natural world, some find hidden beauty in urban environments. Thoughtful pen-and-ink sketches introduce each section.

Mannis, Celeste Davidson. One Leaf Rides the Wind: Counting in a Japanese Garden. Illus. by Susan Kathleen Hartung. 2002. 40p. Viking, $15.99 (9780670035250); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780142401958).
K–Gr. 3. A young girl in a kimono enters a Japanese garden, where she counts three bonsai trees, nine koi fish, and other parts of her surroundings from 1 to 10 in haiku. The poetry is accompanied by delicate oil paintings, with the final spread displaying the entire garden. Additional features include text with details about each garden element along with brief explanations of a Japanese garden and the haiku format.

Prelutsky, Jack. If Not for the Cat. Illus. by Ted Rand. 2004. 40p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780060596774).
Preschool–Gr. 3. A mouse, sloth, bald eagle, and 14 other animals describe themselves in traditional yet accessible haiku. Reminiscent of Japanese paintings, Rand’s beautiful and dramatic mixed-media illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to this outstanding poetry collection.

Smith, Charles R., Jr. Short Takes: Fast-Break Basketball Poetry. 2001. 32p. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525464549).
Gr. 4–7. Rhythmic, immediate haiku, rhyming, and free-verse poems convey the energy and movement of basketball. Action-packed color snapshots draw attention to the quick pace of the game and the poetry, and a glossary of poetic forms and terms is appended. Smith takes on the poetry of baseball in Diamond Life: Baseball Sights, Sounds, and Swings (Orchard, 2004).

Stone Bench in an Empty Park. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Photos by Henri Silberman. 2000. 40p. Orchard, $15.95 (9780531302590).
Gr. 5–up. While haiku typically suggests scenes from the country, as Janeczko mentions in his introduction, these poems and their accompanying sublime black-and-white photographs evoke splendor in the city. Contributors include classic, adult, and children’s poets, some of whom “fulfill the spirit of the haiku” rather than follow traditional rules.

Yolen, Jane. Least Things: Poems about Small Natures. Photos by Jason Stemple. 2003. 32p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590780985).
Gr. 1–5. Stemple’s close-up color photographs of a snail, hummingbird, tree frog, and other small creatures in nature are the inspiration for Yolen’s 14 haiku. Each eye-catching double-page spread also includes brief factual information about each animal.

Haiku-Related Books

Donegan, Patricia. Haiku: Asian Arts and Crafts for Creative Kids. 2004. 64p. Tuttle, $12.95 (9780804835015).
Gr. 4–8. This comprehensive young poet’s guide begins with a thorough look at “The Seven Keys to Writing Haiku.” It continues with examples from children and adult poets and numerous exercises that employ haiku traditions and writing prompts. Children can also expand their writing through haibun (story with haiku), haiga (drawing and haiku), renga (linked poetry), and other haiku-related activities. A glossary, haiku resource guide, and bibliography round out this excellent title. More haiku writing tips and exercises can be found in Paul B. Janeczko’s How to Write Haiku and Other Short Poems (Scholastic, 2004).

Gollub, Matthew. Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa. Illus. by Kazuko G. Stone. 1998. 40p. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781880000717); paper, $7.95 (9781584302414).
Gr. 2–5. This readable text combines a narrative on the defining moments of eighteenth-century Japanese poet Issa’s life with thoughtful and playful examples of his haiku. Each poem is rendered in Japanese calligraphy along the margins and illustrated with watercolor and colored-pencil artwork that resembles Japanese prints. Appended notes offer more information on Issa’s life and selected poems, the author’s and illustrator’s research, and the haiku form.

Myers, Tim. Basho and the Fox. Illus. by Oki S. Han. 2000. 32p. Marshall Cavendish, $15.95 (9780761450689); paper, $5.95 (9780761451907).
K–Gr. 3. In this original fable, illustrated with fitting watercolors, the famous seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho relishes sweet late-summer cherries, as do his neighboring wily foxes. The foxes agree to let Basho have all the cherries if he can write one good haiku in three attempts. When his first two haiku fail to meet the foxes’ approval, the poet begins to lose confidence in his creative abilities, until his third haiku, which stars a fox, earns him the cherries and a greater understanding of poetry. The foxes provide more adventures and poetic inspiration in Basho and the River Stones (Marshall Cavendish, 2004).

Osborne, Mary Pope. Dragon of the Red Dawn. Illus. by Sal Murdocca. 2007. 128p. Random, $11.99 (9780375837272); paper, $4.99 (9780375837289). Also available in an audio edition from Listening Library.
Gr. 2–4. In this Magic Tree House series installment, Jack and Annie are called on to visit seventeenth-century Japan and bring back one of the four secrets of happiness to help Merlin the magician, who has fallen into a deep depression. Landing in Edo’s Imperial Garden, the pair meet haiku master Basho, who introduces them to samurai, sushi, and finding “beauty in the small things of nature.”

Scieszka, Jon. Sam Samurai. Illus. by Adam McCauley. 2001. 80p. Viking, $14.99 (9780670899159); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (9780142400883).
Gr. 3–6. A haiku writing assignment lands Joe, Sam, and Fred back in seventeenth-century Japan in this Time Warp Trio volume. Samurai, Japanese cuisine, encounters with their future great-granddaughters, and learning about and composing original haiku are among their many uproarious adventures.

Spivak, Dawnine. Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho. Illus. by Demi. 1997. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $18.99 (9780689807763).
Gr. 3–5. Demi’s exquisite porcelainlike artwork illustrates this story of Basho’s inspirational walks across Japan. Each spread also contains a haiku by Basho and a single kanji related to the story. A map and explanatory note of the poet’s travels conclude the picture book.

Angela Leeper is an educational consultant and freelance writer in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and the author of Poetry in Literature for Youth (Scarecrow, 2006).