Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 11, 2011

Young Poets as Protagonists

I just read a picture book and a novel for teens, both published this year, which show a poet as the central character. Both charmed me in their own ways.

THE SECRET RIVER by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon begins in a forest in Florida with trees “so tall that the sky is like a blue veil over their leafy hair.” This is the story of a girl named Calpurnia “because she was born to be a poet” and her dog Buggy-horse, whose belly droops and whose back dips in the middle. Calpurnia writes her first poem about him:

“My dog’s name is Buggy-horse.
Of course.”

The poems often truly read like the work of a child, and the book reads like a folk tale, with Calpurnia trying to save her family and everyone around from hard times. It’s her imagination as well as steady courage that bring us to the happy ending, written as one of her poems. This is a shortened version of the only tale the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning THE YEARLING wrote for children, published posthumously, and it won a Newbery Honor in 1956.

The illustrations by the two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon depict not only the poet, hair often in braids she decorated with paper roses, and her adorable dog, but sometimes show poetic transformation: Calpurnia wants to catch fish to save her family from hunger, so thinks like one, and in the process we briefly see her as part-fish. As the trees watch with both kindness and menace, she’s not afraid.

TAKING OFF by Jenny Moss is a novel for teens, told from the viewpoint of a girl who from the first page we see is inspired by Vincent van Gogh, colors, words, and stars. Annie struggles with who she is in a city full of scientists: Houston, Texas in 1985, when space was at the center of many family’s lives, but Annie never wavers from her identity as a poet. I love this about her. She has her own way of seeing stars as she finds love, adapts to her mother’s new relationship and her parent’s divorce (from years before, but it still leaves a hole), and figures out what to do after high school. We feel the rush of a new romance as well as see the way words sometimes just come to her, and what she does with them. We listen in on conversations with her English teacher, a thoughtful professor, and Christa McAuliffe, famous as the first teacher scheduled to go into space, who despite her tragic death left a strong legacy of the importance of following a dream. Annie has conversations about ways reading can expand horizons, the struggle to make a living as a poet, and how words and experience can clash and create. Star metaphors add sparkle to the prose, and I love Annie’s own “launch;” taking the risk of sending out a college application.

For more poetry on a Friday when we can surely use it, please visit Liz Garton Scanlon (and congratulate her on her picture book just out, Noodle & Lou) at Liz in Ink.

And for Raspberry Rapture, or the poetry of muffins, visit sweet Jama Rattigan!



  1. Both of these sound so good! Love the way you get to the heart of the books, say just enough and dazzle with your words: “Star metaphors add sparkle to the prose.”
    I bow to you, oh Muffin Queen . . . 🙂

  2. Thank you. 🙂

  3. I am FIRST on the list for The Secret River–what a beautiful book! The Dillons, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, can’t miss. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  4. Two fabulous find…I especially love the fact that both protagonists are girls – strong, imaginative, spirited girls. We need more of them in YA fiction!

  5. Thank you, Jama, for the thoughts… even if I’m not so sure about the new name!

  6. Thank YOU for writing such a wonderful book.

  7. Usually the idea of an abridgment of a book would make me wonder, but I think the essentials are here and the fewer words let it reach its intended audience, with such glorious illustrations.

  8. Yes, Annie is not astonishingly brave, a genius or an iconoclast, but an ordinary and strong girl to whom I think so many can relate, which makes her special.

  9. I’ve added the Rawlings/Dillon book to my shopping list for my library. We love to keep classics on the shelf and find new ways to introduce them to classic stories!

  10. Thanks for stopping by and letting me know about your shopping list and what sounds like a wonderful library. The theme of making it through hard times is certainly current, and Calpurnia’s bravery seems modern, but I love the slower pace of the story and the old fashioned language. I think some children will delight to hear parents and child address each other as “darling daughter” and “Mother, dearest” — without the sarcasm that’s kind of in vogue!

  11. Wow, the cover art on both books is breathtaking.

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