Hanging around young children makes poets of us all. It is a serious stuffed shirt who can resist riffing on a kid’s name, inventing noises, repeating phrases, asking ridiculous questions, or dredging up shards of nursery rhymes and song lyrics. Poets for the youngest listeners harness this kind of daft, joyous energy and transform it into something worth capturing in print, something capable of divulging greater riches with each reading.
In Rainbow Shoes, B.C. poet Tiffany Stone plays with two surefire preschool concepts: clothes and rainbow colours. One can imagine the “Purple Pants Poem,” with its spot-on rhythm and implied invitation to shake your booty, becoming a regular accompaniment to getting dressed: “My pants, my pants, / my purple pants! / Put one leg on – / I do a dance. / The other – / see me strut and prance, / so fancy / in my purple pants.”
Line arrangement, punctuation, and some nice typographical flourishes provide helpful read-aloud cues, and Stone is adept at surprise endings. In “Orange Socks,” we don’t realize until the final stanza that the “speaker” is a clothes dryer, though Stefan Czernecki’s illustrations – graphically pleasing in colouring- book style – have given us a strong hint.
Readers can learn colours from this collection, but more enticing is the chance to encounter six new words for blue or to discover that Dad can talk like a pirate: “What do pirates wear at night? / Pink pajamas. Arrr, that’s right! / Perfect for a pillow fight.”
Veteran poet Robert Heidbreder celebrates the trochee in his Noisy Poems for a Busy Day, a collection of (mostly) five-line poems that recreate the sounds and actions of a prechooler’s day by replicating the rhythms of a trampoline. “Teeth Need Brushing / Bristle-thistle. / Toothy rub. / Chompers get / A sun-up scrub. / Smile!”
The collection is structured in the shape of a day, and Lori Joy Smith’s child-like illustrations introduce us to five children whose lives involve toast and jam, goofing around, playing tag, kissing dogs, turning somersaults, going down the slide, and watching clouds. Sound and sense dance together in Heidbreder’s invented words and the real ones that he bends to his will. Midday finds the kids climbing trees: “Treetop Climb / Shimmy-jimmy, / clutchy-creep. / Climb up tree, / scary steep! / Whoa, down there!”
In Stone and Heidbreder’s books the child is front and centre, the poems purpose-built for kids and the adults who read to them. With JonArno Lawson’s Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, we are in different poetic territory: the commons where people who enjoy wordplay, wit, logical conundrums, riddles, and absurdity gather.
These poems feel like genuine nursery rhymes – mysterious, welcoming, polished by time and telling, concerned with real-life dilemmas, and suffused with an energetic appreciation of a rich variety of creatures, both animal and human. We meet a budgie and a toucan who get into a fender-bender, a deluded octopus, a couple named Audrey and Aubrey, and some inventive mash-ups like Little Red Riding Wolf and moonwolves with their “weightless lunar-lupine hearts.” We are introduced to what sounds like a firm of lawyers, only to be tossed into a loopy rhyme: “Greenblatt, Goldblatt, Grenby, Grinch. / Schoolyard, scrapyard, inchworm, inch. / Obadiah would you trya little bitta jumbalaya? / Spoonful, capful, peanut-butter pinch!”
Lawson’s rigorous craftsmanship results in structures that are sturdy and welcoming. We encounter Michael and Mike: “You can tell the second you meet them / the moment you see what they’re like: / Mike’s more a Mike than a Michael – / Michael’s more Michael than Mike.” And Lawson’s right: we do know these people. In other poems, Lawson invites debate: “When speaking of the top is it / the bottom that’s the opposite? / Or is it what we find above / the top we should be speaking of?”
Alec Dempster’s papercut illustrations are graphic and powerful, capturing the weirdness – if not the warmth – of this generous collection.
Geared to different ages and stages, these three collections all celebrate the fact that poetry comes from ordinary life. It is there waiting for us; we just have to reach out and grab it.