Saturday, June 29, 2013

Poetry: WHAT MY MOTHER DOESN'T KNOW, by Sonya Sones

Book CoverSones, Sonya.  2001. What My Mother Doesn’t Know. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
ISBN 0-689-84114-0


Book CoverBook CoverThis novel told in verse tells the story of the fifteen-year-old somewhat boy-crazy Sophie.  The book jacket itself is in her voice: “This book is about me/ it tells/  the heart-stopping riveting story of my first love. /  And also of my second. / And okay, maybe my third love, too.”  Her first love, Dylan, lasts until about page 107, whereupon her mysterious online obsession takes the main stage until he says something so gross that she realized she really knew nothing about him.  When she runs into the class nerd, Murphy, during Christmas break, she does not intend to spend time with him, much less enjoy his company.  But she finds the boy beyond the stereotype and, in the end, is brave enough to be with him despite what the rest of her friends will most certainly think. 


Dr. Vardell reminds us that children’s poetry is not just simplified poetry.  Rather, it “is able to convey meaningfully the experiences and perceptions of the child” (110, Vardell).  What My Mother Doesn’t Know does successfully capture the highly emotional life of a teenage girl.  The short poems in this fast-moving novel vary between a wide range of emotions:

-humorous, “It’s That Time of the Month Again,” (47, Sones) with the especially cute line,  “rebooting my ovarian operating system,”
-poignant and sweet, “When Dylan Cried,” (107),
-horribly sad, “All I Want to Know Is,” (148),
-sensually sexy, “Masked Man” (137).

The emotion is strong throughout.  There is even dark humor, such as the poem, “Culture Clash,” when Dylan asks her not to mention she’s Jewish to his mother and she replies, “okay, but can I/tell her about/the HIV positive thing?” (74).    (Note that the lower-case “o” in 'okay' is the way it is in the poem.)

The poems chronicle Sophie’s absolute teen delirium of being in love, followed by her realization that certain boys aren’t as perfect as she thought, with such memorable lines as, “I used to feel like I was floating/ a few inches above the ground/whenever he was squeaking along/next to me. / But now when I hear those/ noisy Nikes of his/ I feel like/ I want to scream.” (83). Then the story continues until Sophie realizes who she really loves.

There are no illustrations, but the direct and casual language used, reflective of modern teens, makes these poems easy to grasp without images.  (The front cover of my book does have a witty image, that we later will realize is Murphy's bulletin board.  Other editions just show a girl, Sophie.)

While the poems do include rhyme, Ms. Sones does use various lengths for her lines.  The effect creates either smoothness or a harsh staccato sound that works with the poem’s topic.  There is a sensual rhythm in such lines as, “The music/ is slow/ and/ saxophony,” which contrasts to the faster-paced “If Only,” in which she writes, “If only/Dylan liked/Ferris Wheels./  If only / I liked/ roller coasters” (81).  Her poems are free-verse, though a few use shape, such as the upside down triangular shape of “I Wish” on page 66, in which she wishes she could shrink to fit in Dylan’s pocket. 

Also, Ms. Sones cleverly drizzles poems about Murphy throughout the book, so that when Sophie and he begin spending time together, we know who he is and why this is so significant, for example, “Watching Murphy During Art Class,” (15), and “The Meaning of Murphy (69). She also uses the repeated line, “Sometimes I just know things,” starting with her second poem and throughout the book in several of her poems, and concludes the entire book with that same line in a very effective manner. In poetry, elements such as rhythm, sound, language, imagery and emotion are used to convey the meaning of the poem.  These poems by Sonya Sones, woven into a novel, use most of these elements to connect well with the readers (Vardell, 124).

This novel is number 31 on the ALA’s Top 100 Most Banned Books of the Decade.  According to the website of Ms. Sones, the reason is on page 46, the poem, "Ice Capades,” which is a simple, honest poem about being aware of a newly changing body.  I suspect the poem, “Deleted” might also have something to do it with it (110, Sones.)  But anyone who thinks that these poems provide any new information for teens is fooling herself/himself.


“The poetry is never pretentious or difficult; on the contrary, the very short, sometimes rhythmic lines make each page fly.  Sophie’s voice is colloquial and intimate and the discoveries she makes are beyond formula, even while they are as sweetly romantic as popular song.  A natural for reluctant readers, this will also attract young people who love to read.”  --Booklist Nov 1, 2001.  (Booklist Editor’s Choice 2001).

“With its separate free verse poems woven into a fluid and coherent narrative with a satisfying ending, Sophie’s honest and earthy story feels destined to captivate a young female audience, avid and reluctant readers alike.”– Publishers Weekly, Oct 1, 2001  

Sones's poems are glimpses through a peephole many teens may be peering through for the first time, unaware that others are seeing virtually the same new, scary, unfamiliar things (parents having nuclear meltdowns, meeting a boyfriend's parents, crying for no apparent reason).”—School Library Journal, Oct 1, 2001.

“The poems are snappy, and each one strikes a chord that fluidly moves the reader on to the next episode.”- Voice of Youth Advocates, Oct 1, 2001.  (Named a VOYA Top Shelf for Middle School Readers, 2003)

“Laid out in a series of mostly free-verse poems, however, the text gets at the emotional state of this girl so completely and with such intensity that a conventional narrative framework would simply dilute the effect." -- Kirkus Reviews, Sept 15, 2001.

-Listed by the ALA as one of the Top Ten most Challenged books (2004, 2005, 2010, and 2011). 
-Unanimously chosen an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults (2002)
-Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (2002). 


  •  Invite students to write a series of poems about their own lives.  Keep a journal in the form of free verse poetry for a set amount of time.
  • This book could be studied in a series of other books-in-verse, such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (though I could not get past the horrific beginning of that one), Robert Cormier’s Frenchtown Summer and Ms. Sone’s Stop Pretending.  The books mentioned here are very intense, but poetry often is. This website has a list of 35 YA/MG novels in verse.  Why not choose some of these? 
  • This book could also be studied in conjunction with any love story similar in plot, but written in prose.  For example, the book Forgive My Fins involves a girl who is convinced that her one true love is one very popular guy, but she ends up falling for someone else, the guy she thought she loathed.  Then the two types of writing could be compared/contrasted.  Ideally, a book would be chosen that is also contemporary realistic fiction, which Forgive My Fins is not—it is more urban fantasy (mermaid fantasy.)
  • It could be studied with the sequel, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, which is from Murphy/Robin’s point of view.  Compare and contrast the voices of the two main protagonists.
  • Do an author study, with Ms. Sone’s works, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know and Stop Pretending.


I loved this book.  I write free verse poetry myself and found myself admiring her work the way I suppose sports fans admire a really good game.  She simply channels the voice of a boy-crazy teenage girl, one who is really trying to find out who she is, and who has so much potential.  My favorite poem was, “Suddenly I see Robin,” pg 252, because it really makes the reader (at least me) root for Robin/Murphy.   Who couldn’t love him? My second favorite was, “I Hear Footsteps,” (255) because it provides resolution with the mother.  As a mother of two girls, I wanted to know that the two of them would reconnect. 

One special note is that towards the end, at the very bottom of pages 231-259, an observant reader will notice that if you flip these pages, the dancing couple from Renoir’s painting Le Bal a Bougival, will lean close and kiss and move back away. While I would not call these tiny corner sketches, "illustrations," the artistic touch makes a lot of sense when you realize that Ms. Sones used to teach animation!

Works Referenced

Childs, Tera Lynn.  2010.  Forgive My Fins.  New York:  Katherine Tegen Books.

Cormier, Robert.  1999.  Frenchtown Summer.  New York:  Delacorte Press.

Hesse, Karen. 1997.  Out of the Dust.  New York:  Scholastic.

Mrs. ReaderPants.  “Get Your Poetry On:  3 YA/MG Novels in Verse.”  Blogger.  April 26, 2012.

Sones, Sonya.  1999.  Stop Pretending:  What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins.

Sones, Sonya. 2007.  What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know.  New York:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. 

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Grimes, Nikki.  1999. Hopscotch Love:  A Family Treasury of Love Poems.  Ill. By Melodye Benson Rosales.  New York, NY: Lothrop, Lee and Shepherd Books.
Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury of Love Poems
ISBN 0-688-15667-3


This collection of twenty-two poems shows a variety of types of love within an African-American community, complete with illustrations.  Instead of telling one story, each poem is a snap-shot into another type of love relationship, from a girl’s first love, to the love for a sister, to a Mother’s love, to the steadfast love of the grandparents still dancing at the Sweetheart Dance.  It’s a sweet collection, with a few funny poems mixed in that still manage to pull the heartstrings.


The poems are, for the most part, free-verse, with varying line lengths depending on the tone and mood of the poem.  The language is clear and to the point, without intimidating words or structures.  The poem, “Sweethearts Dance” does have rhyme, with the rhyme scheme A/B/A/B.  A Table of Contents is a handy tool to easily find which poem is desired.  Readers of all ages, except the very young, will be able to enjoy these poems.

Overall, the emotional impact is profound.  The poem, “Sister Love,” will make a reader’s throat tighten, as a pair of sisters who need a home are offered the chance for only one of them to go to a permanent home, but she opts to stay with her sister in the group home: “I squeezed my sister’s trembling hand/And whispered, ‘Thanks, but no.”  (13). 

If a poem doesn’t make you laugh, it is bound to make you tear up from the sheer sweetness of sentimental emotion.  Sometimes, the poems even manage to do both at the same time. The poem, “Eye-Luv-U” is adorable, with the final laugh-out-loud AND sweet conclusion about her notebook—and her crush:  “But he’s been grinnin’ ever since, so/ I guess I didn’t close it fast enough./  He musta seen that stuff I wrote/ about ‘Dante + me, 4-ever.” (10). 

The illustrations by Melodye Benson Rosales are realistic, artistically rendered.  Not every poem has an illustration, but the illustrations that do exist take up the entire opposite page from their related poem.  Dr. Vardell tells us in her book Children’s Literature in Action that, “We look at the book in terms of the balance of illustration and text…” (126). Happily, these illustrations do not overshadow the poems themselves.  They provide a wonderful anchor for the poetry and the expressions of the people effectively capture the emotion of each poem, representing the love of a variety of people in the African-American community.  It’s important for children of all ethnicities to see themselves represented in literary works.  This is a stellar collection of poems and artwork for inspiration.


A fresh celebration of love based on the African-American experience. The 22 selections run the gamut of all types of affection, from teenaged crushes to the feelings between siblings and the bonds between children and their parents. ...Rosales's warm illustrations, rendered in pastel pencils on acrylic-and-oil paints, reflect the mood of each selection.  This small treasury will lift readers' spirits and touch their hearts.”—School Library Journal, Jan 1, 1999

A long way from Grimes' tough, poignant YA novel Jazmin's Notebook, (1998), these 22 upbeat one-or two-page verses are mainly greeting-card sentimental, with a few funny vignettes and lots of warm affection. Melodye Benson Rosales' smiling pictures show young teens exchanging notes and cheeky glances; there are also a couple of "graying sweethearts" and a joyful mother and small son. … The lines are short; the words are very simple. The red cover and creamy pages fit with the valentine cuddly style.”—Booklist, Feb 15, 1999.

Society of School Librarians International Book Awards, 1999 Honor Language Arts K-6 United States.


  •  Invite children to write their own love poem for someone they love.  This could be for Valentine’s Day, or just any other time.
  • Use this book to make other African American poetry connections: I, Too, Am American, by Langston Hughes:, Roots and Blues:  A Celebration Arnold Adoff, Jazz, by Walter Dean Myers, Words with Wings:  A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art, compiled by Belinda Rochelle.  This could be used during Black History Month or any time of the year.
  • Encourage classes to read one of these poems a day for twenty-two days, having the teacher read it out loud once (showing simultaneously) and then having the students join in for a choral read.  By the end of the month, they will probably be much more comfortable with poetry. 
  •  Have students record their own poetry on VoiceThread ( and leave each other responses.


I found the poetry very moving. I sometimes became teary-eyed, sometimes I laughed, and sometimes I smiled ruefully, remembering that first crush-feeling captured so well in some of these poems.  I would love to own this book and share it with my family and others in my life. 

Works Referenced

Adoff, Arnold.  2011.  Roots and Blues:  A Celebration.  New York, NY:  Clarion Books.

Hughes, Langston.  2012.  I, Too, Am American. Ill by Bryan Collier.  NY:  Simon and Schuster. 

Myers, Walter Dean.  2006.  Jazz.  Ill by Christopher Myers.  New York, New York:  Holiday House.

Rochelle, Belinda (ed). 2001.  Words with Wings:  A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art.   New York, NY:  HarperCollins.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action. Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Poetry: JAZZ, by Walter Dean Myers


Myers, Walter Dean.  2006. Jazz.  Ill. By Christopher Myers  New York, NY: Holiday House, Inc.

ISBN 978-0-8234-1545-8


This collection of fifteen poems by Walter Dean Myers celebrates the music of jazz, the city of New Orleans, and the role of black Americans in both. Mr. Myers begins with an introduction, describing jazz and a summary of its development.  The book also includes a jazz timeline and a glossary of jazz terms.  The poems address the music of jazz, specific jazz musicians, specific instruments and more.


Walter Dean Myers offers poems that leap off the page with the quick-moving, unexpected pacing of jazz itself.  Syncopated rhythms roll throughout the poems, with enough rhyme mixed in to make the words simply trip off the tongue.  A few slower paced poems are also included, such as, “Blue Creeps In.”  Onomatopoeia effectively captures the sounds of jazz in several poems, such as in “Three Voices” which begins:  “Bass:  Thum, thum, thum, and thumming/ I feel the ocean rhythm coming.”

Myers uses the design of the pages thoughtfully, with some poems written diagonally across it, creating a sense of movement even in the typed words.  In the poem, “Now I Come In,” two columns show how musicians interact with each other in jazz.  The second column begins lower from the top of the page, beginning, “And now I come in/ This horn in my heart/ And I’ve got to play my part."  The ending of this column is a line in a scrawled font that simply says, “And then you come in,” dropping lower to the corner of the page with each word.  


The font changes frequently within the same poem, emphasizing certain words over others.  For example, in the poem, “Oh Miss Kitty,” her name is always written in a semi-cursive, italicized lavender font, repeated throughout the poem that honors her. In "Stride," the lines alternate with white text followed by just two words in a black, cursive font that come from the line above it, culminating in two orange words at the bottom.  The font, colors and arrangement all play a role in the poems.


The illustrations, by Walter Dean Myer’s son, are integral to the book. The vivid, rich colors, swirling like musical notes in the air, capture the sultry mood of New Orleans and the sounds of jazz.  Emerald green, maroon, eggplant, cobalt and bursts of sunflower yellow combine in such a way that every turn of the page brings a dazzling change of color while always fitting the Mardi Gras color scheme.  The art is simply stunning, with strong brushstrokes that conveys movement even when just filling in the background.  


This is a great book to share aloud, both because the vibrant artwork demands attention and because the poems are so rich when read aloud, with fun sounds and strong rhythms that are a delight to hear and to read: “There’s a drummer rat-a-tatting/ There’s a patent shoe that’s patting / While a laid-back cat is scatting/ About flying to the moon” (from “It’s Jazz.’)  As Dr. Vardell says in Children's Literature in Action, “Personally, I believe the key is sharing poems out loud and getting the kids to participate” (110).  This book can really help us share the power of poetry with children and teens, as well as introduce them to a style of music that may be new to them.


“Middle-graders will feel the sound of the words and pictures working together, and younger kids will hear and see that connection when adults share the book with them.” -- Booklist, September 1, 2006

“Following a lively, informative introduction that offers an explanation and brief history of jazz, Walter Dean Myers offers fifteen poems that bring the music to life in a fusion of rhythm and words.”  --Cooperative Book Center Choices, 2007

“A cycle of 15 poems and vivid, expressive paintings celebrate that most American genre of music: jazz…. This offering stands as a welcome addition to the literature of jazz: In a genre all too often done poorly for children, it stands out as one of the few excellent treatments.”  --Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2006

“Walter Dean Myers infuses his lines (and the rests between them) with so much savvy syncopation that readers can't help but be swept up in the rhythms.” - Publishers Weekly, September 2006

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2007, Honor Book Illustrator United States

Golden Kite Award, 2007, Award Book Picture Book Text United States


  •  Invite a jazz musician to come play at the library!  Have a jazz night and read these poems between songs! 
  • Study other works by Walter Dean Myers, such as Here in  Harlem: Poems in Many Voices.  He is a very prolific writer.
  • Use this book to make other African American poetry connections:  I, Too, Am American, by Langston Hughes:, Roots and Blues:  A Celebration, by Arnold Adoff, Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury of Love Poems by Nikki Grimes, Words with Wings:  A Treasury of African American Poetry and Art, compiled by Belinda Rochelle.  This could be used during Black History Month or any time of the year
  • These poems are great for read-alouds, specifically group reading.  Ask someone to read every word that is in a different color, for example, or have one person read one column of text while the other person reads the second column.  Shared poetry reading would work well for many of the poems in this book.  Some poems that come to mind are, “Twenty-Finger Jack,” “Stride,” and the opening poem, “Jazz.” 
  •  Have the children write their own poetry about jazz or another type of music.
  • Let students play on instruments:  drums, stick sets, recorders, triangles.  They could also make their own instruments, using beans in cans or even inside of two paper plates. 


In his Introduction, Walter Dean Myers points out, “Not all jazz will be loved by all people,” and I am proof of that.  Jazz is not my kind of music.  However, I loved the art right away.  The poems took longer for me to appreciate.  I suspect that anyone who plays jazz would immediately understand the way the words work together to evoke the musical style of jazz.  After several readings, though, I could really see his clever use of words, rhythm and rhyme to make each poem really sing.

Works Referenced

Adoff, Arnold.  2011.  Roots and Blues:  A Celebration.  New York, NY:  Clarion Books.

Grimes, Nikki.  1999.  Hopscotch Love: A  Family Treasure of Love Poems.  New York, NY:  Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books.

Hughes, Langston.  2012.  I, Too, Am American.  Ill by Bryan Collier.  NY:  Simon and Schuster. 

Myers, Walter Dean.  2006.  Jazz.  Ill by Christopher Myers.  New York, New York:  Holiday House.

Myers, Walter Dean.  2004.  Here in Harlem:  Poems in Many Voices.  New York, NY:  Holiday House.

Rochelle, Belinda (ed). 2001.  Words With Wings:  A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.