As a high school English teacher, I balk a little at the idea of April’s National Poetry Month; isn’t Poetry Month every month? I begin the school year with poem annotations, a gentle practice of noticing things about a poem: where lines break, what words get privileged placement in the poem, and what images appear and reappear. Like spring, so much of the beauty of poetry is in the noticing: the first shoots of green, the first buds on branches, crocuses and birdsong.
Spring is a welcome respite from New England’s long winters, and National Poetry Month is a great opportunity to invite still more poems onto your shelves (or into your library queue). Here are a few favorite new-ish books of poems by New England and New England-adjacent authors for readers of all ages.
For young children:
Many picture books for very young children are already in verse (ask any adult who has ever read Sandra Boynton’s “The Going to Bed Book”. But “Whoo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story” by Massachusetts author Maria Gianferrari, beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Voss, explores the drama and danger of nesting owls in 24 sweet haiku. Kids can try out their own haiku, or learn more about the life cycle of owls in the appendix.
Also of note is the lovely “In the Woods” by New Hampshire resident David Elliott. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic made for more close encounters with nature. But when are we too close? Elliott reminds readers to give the skunk a wide berth and plays with poem form in “The Millipede,” with the dramatic opening lines that mimic the movement of a millipede:
"You are a detri vore a word I’d nev er heard before."
Even the youngest kids will know that the words look “funny,” giving them permission to see poetry as play. Rob Dunlavey’s gorgeous illustrations foreground the animals and their habitats.
Or, maybe you have a young reader in your life who just really loves…trucks. The brilliant anthology “Construction People,” edited by the late Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Ellen Shi, includes several poems by New England poets: the persona poem “Cement Speaks” by Ralph Fletcher (“Slow, slow, slow. / That’s how I go”) and “Construction Project Manager‘’ by Matt Forrest Esenwine (”we’ve to get this built on time!”). An example that shows poetry can be about anything and for anyone.
For middle-grade readers:
Connecticut author Susan Hood’s “The Last Straw: Kids vs. Plastics,” a picture book in verse, perfect for another April holiday: Earth Day. Through mostly rhyming poems, Hood introduces children to the various environmental impacts of plastics, particularly on sea life. I like Hood’s realistic approach to activism (“Goof up? Fix up!”) and her focus on outside-the-box solutions, like plastic-digesting caterpillars. Hood includes a “Sources and More” section for more information, but best of all is her “Poetry Notes”; each poem in her collection is an example of a different poem form, including the elegy, the ode, and even the triolet. Making these forms accessible invites kids and adults to try writing their own. Illustrations by Christiane Engel.
“The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How To Poems,” edited by Paul B. Janeczko, introduces younger readers and writers to one of my favorite free-verse forms of poetry: the how to poem. This lovely anthology includes well-known poems older readers will recognize, like “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson,” as well as the very modern-sounding pancake poem by 19th-century writer Christina Rossetti (“How to Mix a Pancake”). Massachusetts poets are well represented here: Elaine Magliaro “How to be a Mole” and Steven Winthrop’s “How to Read Braille.” Illustrated by Richard Jones.
For YA and grown readers:
Novels in verse form are wildly popular with YA readers these days, but Melanie Crowder’s “Audacity” is historical fiction in verse, based on the life of Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish immigrant who became an important voice in labor organizing. Crowder’s short lines give quiet power to Lemlich’s experiences both as a child adjusting to a new country and language, and a young woman working in the garment industry with scant protection. Refusing to accept her working conditions, Lemlich became a leader in the Uprising of the 20,000, the 1909 strike against the shirtwaist industry.
“ain’t burned all the bright” by acclaimed author Jason Reynolds (with artwork by Jason Griffin) is a must read. Published just a few months ago, Reynolds reminds us how poetry slows us down in the most important ways: slow enough to see each other and the burning world, even when it’s easier to look away. Reynolds turns three lines of prose into 300 gorgeous pages; the result is something that resembles a found poem, an elegy, and a message in a bottle, reminding us that “we can be okay.”
Finally, “You don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves,” edited by Vermont’s Diana Whitney, is the anthology I wish I’d had as a teenager, navigating a world of self-doubt and sudden anger. Whitney includes one of my favorites, Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” as well as Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips,” Evie Shockley’s “Coming of Age,” and Cambridge poet Stephanie Burt’s “Final Exam Stephanie.” Don’t you dare, this collection of voices reminds, allow anyone to decide your life for you.
Rachel Becker is a poet, writer, and teacher of English and Creative Writing at Newton South High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.