Friday, November 10, 2006

POETRY FRIDAY: Science & Poetry

Last week I wrote about Joyce Sidman, Poet & Scientist. I love her books. I love the way she writes fine poetry and weaves scientific information into it seamlessly. She is not the only poet to have written poems that include scientific information. Other children’s poets, such as Barbara Juster Esbensen, Tony Johnston, Jane Yolen, Marilyn Singer, Kristine O’Connell George, Frank Asch, and others have succeeded at the endeavor, too. Two poets that have done it in humorous verse are Douglas Florian and Judy Sierra. (See Florian’s INSECTLOPEDIA, IN THE SWIM, and LIZARDS FROGS, AND POLLIWOGS and Sierra’s ANTARCTIC ANTICS.)

There are many books of poetry that can be used in the science curriculum. These are poetry collections and anthologies with poems about nature, weather, the seasons, animals, plants, the sea, space, and more.

Here are two of my favorite poetry books that I used to help teach science and to help give my students another perspective to scientific topics that are often taught with a cut-and-dry—the facts, Ma’m, just the facts—kind of approach.

Written by Barbara Juster Esbensen
Illustrated by Helen K. Davie
Published by HarperCollins

Published in 1996, this book is now out of print. If you can locate a copy sitting on a library shelf or purchase one from a store that sells used books, you will see what an award-winning children’s poet can do to combine science with fine poetry. This book, which is beautifully illustrated by Davie, is divided into five sections: Spirals, Branches, Polygons, Meanders, and Circles. The poems are grouped in this way to help readers see the patterns that are repeated in nature. The Spirals section includes poems about the nautilus shell, galaxies, the cochlea in a human ear, hurricanes, tornadoes, and ferns.

From the Spirals Section:

Uncounted galaxies
send their silver light
the blackness of space

Above our heads in the night sky
the Milky Way—
a starry roadway a pinwheel
of stars a
spiral of dusty light…

From the Circles Section:

set in wood—concentric
a round calendar
Its widening rings grow slowly
and out and out
from the old tree’s
earliest day
to the shore of

Written by Tony Johnston
Illustrated by Tom Pohrt
Published by Farrar Straus Giroux (1999)

Johnston was inspired to write this collection of poems after her visit to the Galapagos in 1995. The poems tell of an island being born and of the species of plants and animals that the live on this cluster of islands and the waters that surround them—iguanas, the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguins, long-horned grasshoppers, and the lava cactus. Most of the thirty-four poems in this collection are written in free verse. The book also includes three haikus. There is an Author’s Note at the back with information about the devastation that took place in the Galapagos after the arrival of humans. Johnston also writes briefly about Charles Darwin’s visit there in 1835 and of groups that are trying to preserve this special area of the world. And at the very beginning of the book, there’s a two-page map of the Galapagos Islands.

From the Birth of Fernandina Island

One molten morning
the world
in sprays of sparks,
plumes of smoke,
of lava,
spitting, spurting,
from the sea’s crucible
with a great hiss
to make this terrible

Look at Johnston’s use of alliteration in Beetle:

Out of dimness dawns the day.
A beetle creeps over the lava
one dark gleam,
one perfect polished pebble
feeling its way along the rim
of morning…

I admire the ways these two poets use language. Their images are fresh; their use of language is inventive. And just think of the enriching vocabulary children are introduced to in these few examples I have provided: concentric, crucible, plumes, spewing. I was able to teach my students so much about language through sharing poetry like this with them. They learned about alliteration, imagery, figurative language, similes and metaphors. They were getting language development right along with science.

As an elementary educator who tried to cover everything I was supposed to teach in every subject every year—I learned that the best way to accomplish this was by integrating different subjects in my units of study. And I know my students benefited from this approach.

Here is a book that nicely integrates science and poetry—and prose and poetry—for very young children.

Written by Grace Lin and Ranida T. McKneally
Illustrated by Grace Lin
Published by Charlesbridge (2006)

In OUR SEASONS, we follow a multicultural group of children named Ki-Ki, Owen, Lily, and Kevin through the year. This book has an attractive layout. Each two-page spread has information about the seasons and weather written by McKneally and a haiku written by Lin. McKneally provides her information in a question and answer format. Her prose is clear and concise. The questions include the following: Why do leaves change color? Why do I see my breath? Why do bees like flowers? Why do fireflies glow?

Lin’s haikus are very child-friendly and would serve as good models for a classroom haiku writing activity. Here are two of her poems:

Ki-Ki sees her breath
She pretends she’s a dragon
Blowing out hot steam.

Lily hears thunder.
“You don’t have to yell!” she calls.
Still the sky grumbles.

I have been an admirer of Grace Lin’s picture book art since I first saw RED IS A DRAGON, since before I met and got to know her. Her illustrations in OUR SEASONS are done in typical Lin style—with a palette of bright colors, with lots of different patterns, and with swirls in the sky. Her exuberant illustrations of children raking leaves, climbing trees, building a snowman, and catching fireflies on a summer night help to unify the poetry and prose. This book is a neat little package that would make a wonderful resource for a kindergarten or primary grade classroom.


Anonymous said...

Elaine, I'll look for the Grace Lin book. Sounds great. Did the authors name the characters after Kevin Henkes and his mice Owen and Lily?

Elaine Magliaro said...


I'll have to ask Grace about that. I do know that Grace's sister Alice is also called Ki-Ki.

Have you read Grace's first novel THE YEAR OF THE DOG? It's based on her childhood. Ki-Ki is a character in that book, too.
It's a great book--a really charming little gem of a novel for children in grades 2-5. I'd send you to the review of it at Fuse Number 8--but we all know what happened to many of her reviews!!!

Nancy said...

You've been rounded up! Thanks!

Elaine Magliaro said...

Thanks, Nancy!

Anonymous said...

Ooh, good choices, Elaine. I'll have to look for the Esbensen one, it sounds lovely.

I loved Our Seasons, too - which is why I nominated it for the Cybils in Nonfiction Picture Books. It combines so many great elements - the poetry, illustrations, and the question-answer format. Just lovely.

Grace Lin said...

Thanks Elaine for the "Our Seasons" review (and eisha for nominating it for the Cybils).

Ki-Ki is the name of my younger sister, Lily is the name of my niece (though my sister has asked me to do another book with Lily as the hapa she really is instead of a black girl!) and Owen was a name of a friend's son. No mice reference, though it would've been a nice homage to Kevin Henkes. Maybe I will lie and say it is from now on...