Book Review: Poetry Speaks Who I Am ed. by Elise Paschen

I memorized some poetry when I was in 4th grade. It was a class requirement, but I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the poetry I memorized were mainly limericks; anything that wasn’t was some bit of doggerel that I read in a joke book. I never got into serious poetry, much to my eventual chagrin.

My daughter enjoys poetry. Most of what she reads is Shel Silverstein-ish poetry; a cut above my limericks, but still light. And most of the poetry geared toward kids is like that — I really think that one reason that kids have such a hard time when the hit high school and start doing more serious poetry is that they’ve been conditioned to think of poetry in very limited terms. Going from “Where the Sidewalk Ends” to Silvia Plath can be a bit disconcerting.

I’m not writing this to diss Silverstein, so don’t even comment if that’s what you’re thinking. I enjoy his work, and have memorized more than a couple of his poems. Both of my kids love his stuff, and as I keep mentioning, it’s far better than the crap I used to read and memorize. But there is more to poetry, and it’s important for kids to learn that, as early as possible.

Thankfully, there is the Poetry Speaks series. These books show kids poetry that they can relate to, that is serious (sometimes rather dark) and beautiful and emotional. There is a wide range in poets; in Poetry Speaks Who I Am, you can read selections from well-known poets like Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, and lesser-known poets as well. There is free verse side-by-side with iambic pentameter. There is diversity in style.

There is also a diversity in subject and theme. Some poems explore coming of age themes (like Phillip Schultz’s “33” and “49,” about the experience of a bar mitzvah, or even Parneshia Jones’ “Bra Shopping”). Others are classic self-exploration or self-statement (Maya Angelou contributes the classic “Still I Rise,” and of course there is Frost’s immortal “The Road Not Taken”). Elise Paschen has done an outstanding job of selecting work for this volume.

And there is audio. The book comes with a CD featuring many of the poets reading their work. I’ve always enjoyed hearing poetry read more than reading it myself (unless I’m reading out loud — odd, I know). And I think this is the part of the book my daughter (8) enjoys the most. Even after I took the book to read myself before writing this review, she was still enjoying the CD, listening to the poems.

If you have kids, you should look into this series, and this book. It will teach your kids about poetry; about rhythm, rhyme, meter, and all of that, but also about emotion and expression. It will teach them about rules, and when it’s OK to break them. And it will teach them that there is a huge diversity of poetry, and not all of it is happy. They’ll learn that some of the best poetry is born out of sorry, or difficulty, and they may learn that they like writing the stuff themselves.

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