The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry is one of my favorite poetry collections of the year, rightly billed as being both an introduction to poetry as well as a family classic. The big book is packed with poems from contemporary writers including Janet Wong (mountain gorilla), Kelly Ramsdell Fineman (sea jelly), Jane Yolen (spoonbill), and Joyce Sidman (porcupette) along with poems written by greats from the past such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. They were compiled by J. Patrick Lewis, the U.S.Children’s Poet Laureate, who’s published more than fifty collections of poetry. Animals are often a theme, including two books about the First Dog, but he also writes about famous people from history, particularly artists, and important places. The introduction shows his down-to-earth joy in the form, as he suggests ears should have as much fun as mouths. At the end of the book, he suggests ways for children to write their own animal poems, with swift instructions for shape poems, haiku, limericks, and free verse.
The stunning photographs (hey, this is National Geographic) of a wide variety of animals will pull in readers. Their seeing is sure to be sharpened, and engagement deepened, by the mostly short poems that appear on the same page. It’s like being outside with a friend who’s attentive, witty, and kind. One sees and hears more in good company. The poems are arranged in sections including the big ones, the little ones, the winged ones, the water ones, the strange ones, the noisy ones, and the quiet ones: not your traditional classifications, but the order makes sense, with poems about the same animal grouped together. Many photographs are close-ups of animals we’d never get to see so eye to eye, and enlargements make both what’s peculiar and beautiful more visible. The poems sing along.
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