In talking to children about poetry, it’s often hard to explain exactly what poetry is. In fact, modern poetry has such a breadth and range, it’s hard to define it anyone. In the 20th century, poetry evolved out of rhyming and structure and became free – a way of expressing what rhyme can’t, what prose can’t, and what other written forms can’t quite capture. And there’s a branch on the poet-tree where the shape of the words and the way words are placed on the page are as much a part of the poem as the meaning and metaphors.
I’m glad to have the book enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings by Mathew Burgess and illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, (Enchanted Lion Books, 2015) to help me explain the more intriguing aspects of poetry to children. The book gently introduces the way e. e. cummings poetry evolved from his word play as a child.
The author, Matthew Burgess, teaches creative writing and composition at Brooklyn College, and has been a poet-in-residence in New York City public schools since 2001, and his sensitivity to language and story has made this book a delight to read. The children I’ve read it to are drawn into the book and press in close to see the way the words take shape on the page, to see how words create shapes and are like a painting as well as a poem.
Kris Di Giacomo’s illustrations are textured and playful, bringing themes of Cummings work and life into the narrative. There are birds, elephants, and bunnies cavorting throughout the book. Di Giacomo used words in her layered work so that they fall like leaves from trees, swirl in snowflakes, and fly up on kite strings.
enormous Smallness shows how the loving support of Cummings’ family helped spur his creativity. His father built him a treehouse, a little room of his own, where he could let his imagination run wild. Father also spent time being an elephant for young Cummings to ride on. His mother would transcribe poems Cummings imagined when he started reciting at age three.
Extended family, teachers, and classmates encouraged and inspired him. He grew up secure in his own creativity.
And though he spent time as a prisoner of war during World War I, he kept his exuberance for life and language alive throughout his life.
The arc of this book curves around how Cummings became himself, held onto his sense of wonder through his life’s journey.
This is such a wonderful story for the kids I work with to hear. Most of them have had childhood trauma but still retain that sense of wonder that is the birthright of every child. Hanging on to it through life’s challenges can be hard.
The more books I can share with them on the many ways of keeping their exuberance for life alive, the better their chances of valuing the good things that are happening in their lives — not letting the good be overshadowed by the bad.
This picture was drawn by Reba, age 9 who loves birds:
And this one by Tomas age 5, who loved the story, and wanted to write me a letter about it. He spent quite a long time creating his own imaginary letters and words and illustrations. When I asked him what the words meant, he said in an exasperated tone, “I wrote it, you’re the one who’s supposed to read it.”
Well, the exact meaning is open to interpretation, but I know it tells a story of delight. And if you’d like a longer story of delight, enormous Smallness is the book to read.
You can read more about Mathew Burgess here. On his website, check out the book he recently edited, Dream Closet, which I’ll be reviewing soon.
Also, for another great book on the power of poetry, check out my post on the book Poet: the Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
Thanks for reading my blog. May a little bird lift your spirits today.
This Blog is a Children’s Book Week Champion. Children’s Book Week is May 2 – 8, 2016. During that week I’ll be posting reviews of books voted “the best” by young readers, as well as special books for reluctant readers, and innovative new publications for children of all ages. Plus, I’ll be re-posting book reviews of my favorites.
Established in 1919, Children’s Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the country. Every year, commemorative events are held nationwide at schools, libraries, bookstores, homes — wherever young readers and books connect!
Children’s Book Week is administered by Every Child A Reader, a 501(c)(3) literacy organization dedicated to instilling a lifelong love of reading in children. The Children’s Book Council, the national non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers, is an anchor sponsor.
You can get free downloads of both the poster and the new bookmark on their website: