Children’s Books: Speaking Truth, Beautifully, to Shattered Young People

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Although reluctant to share her poetry at first, Xiomara finds a kind and open ear in her lab partner turned boyfriend, Aman, who shows her the joy and satisfaction of being truly heard. At the urging of her English teacher, Xiomara joins her school’s slam poetry club, where she discovers the enormous power of her voice, both on and off the stage.

Somehow, Acevedo’s powerful free verse manages to stay contained within the book’s covers. The force and intensity behind her words practically pushes them off the page, resulting in a verse novel that is felt as much as it is heard. This is a book from the heart, and for the heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if I put my ear to its cover and found it had a heartbeat all its own.

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Juan Felipe Herrera Credit Rebecca Clarke

JABBERWALKING (Candlewick, 144 pp., $22.99; ages 10 and up) is a bursting, bubbling, brain-bending adventure into poetry by the former poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” Herrera grabs readers and would-be poets by both hands and races them into his wild, word-flinging world of Jabberwalking: “That is, write & walk & write & walk nonstop.” The poem you are writing “does not want to know where it is going or even what it is saying,” so you just “Scribble what you see / Scribble what you hear / Scribble out the electric Jabber worms crawling out of your head & eyes.”

In Herrera’s world, poetry is not meant to be precious and tidy. There is no talk of syllables or rhymes. “A jabber poem is a fast poem … a wild poem. An unkempt, messy, dirty poem,” he explains. It’s meant to “BE FREE (wherever it lands) so it can loosen up your Mind-Brains so you can see things / you have not seen before.”

Interspersed with fun but useful techniques to turn your “burbles” into “Jabber poems,” “Jabberwalking” is a riotous explosion of a how-to book. Herrera flings open the door, inviting even the most reluctant poets to join him.

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Naomi Shihab Nye Credit Rebecca Clarke

In the 95 poems in VOICES IN THE AIR: Poems for Listeners (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 208 pp., $17.99; ages 13 and up), Naomi Shihab Nye reminds our “obsessively tuned in” culture of the magic, power and necessity of “quiet inspiration.” She reminds us that the more “connected” we’ve become, the more disconnected we actually are: “With so much vying for our attention,” she asks, “how do we listen better?”

Inspired and guided by the voices that surround her (voices from the past, the present and even the peonies), Nye’s free verse tells of the wisdom, solace and beauty she has found and urges readers to join her, to listen with her, to create space to make sense of their experiences in an often difficult world.

Lift those eyes. Take a look at the
sea to your right, buildings full of
mysteries, schools
crackling with joy, open porches
watch the world whirl by,
all we are given without having to own
… Hope is the only drink you need
to be drinking — jingle, jingle, step
right up.

While Nye’s message is clear, it is never heavy-handed. The poems are loosely connected but just as powerful individually. Whether dealing with the mundane (a coffee cup) or the devastating (a girl shot by a stray bullet), Nye displays a palpable, unwavering empathy and hope for a better world. Although it’s intended for teenagers, “Voices in the Air” speaks to adults, too — any, that is, who are willing to slow down and listen.

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