Review (A Pocketful of Poems)

Bibliography: Grimes, Nikki and Javaka Steptoe. A Pocketful of Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Clarion Books, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0395938683.

Plot Summary: A vibrant story about a little girl named Tiana who lives in Harlem and keeps words in her pockets. As she says in the beginning, “I play with [words] sometimes./ I use them in haiku./You can borrow most of them/if you want to.” She takes you, the reader, on a tour of seasons and celebrations, providing both wordplay and a sensory language that makes a familiar world new all over again. There are free-verse poems but also haiku playing against the illustrations. This is a book that reminds young minds of the beauty around the world. It also reminds older minds of the exuberance and beauty that children can take of their own surroundings.

Critical Analysis: This book will have children analyze it time and time again. Not only by the author’s clever, pretty phrasings, but by how the illustrator plays up to the sensory language. Steptoe makes moonlight out of aluminum foil on Tiana’s quilt and has it look almost like siren blares to complement the haiku that follows across it: “Full moon, magic in/silver, speaks to me, drowning/the sounds of sirens.” Steptoe completes the feeling of sleepiness by using a real-life texture to the quilt that takes up two pages of the book.

Steptoe adds a further experience with the senses with how he texturizes so many things. Tiana’s baseball bat is made of bendy straws. The Harlem buildings are made of maps of New York. The haiku tends to blend more against the illustrations while the free-verse is traditionally set in a more blank area of the page. Most often, the illustrator and author do not work together in making the story. Usually the illustrator sees the work sent to them and interprets them their own way. So, it is

There is emotional impact in this story, and it is of love and relishing every moment. The author does this by playing with simile and metaphor. For example, for Tiana, showers are like “soap and water for the sky” and snow makes “each streetlight into a star on a stick.” One of the best parts of the book is with the poem, “Harlem.” Tiana is an African-American girl and in the poem, her father, in his own way, says to cherish her heritage on Fourth of July. As the poem goes, “HARLEM/What a restless word!/It kicks up its black heels/day and night./I slide it into my hip pocket/next to AFRICA/and zip it tight./Daddy says these/are not words to spend/but to save.” Steptoe creates an image of Tiana being embraced by her father while holding the American flay. This serves a great purpose of highlighting that there are different ways of being an American and can start an excellent discussion with a child on heritage.

In the author’s note, Grimes writes that she’s “always loved what traditional haiku teaches about Eastern cultures, but [she] also thought it would be fun to read haiku poetry with contemporary images that [she] could relate to as a Harlem-born city girl, who grew up in North America.” Reading A Pocketful of Poems will serve as a great way to show children how to analyze words and images as well as appreciate their own surroundings.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: There are no honors or awards for this book, but the author’s career has led her to gain the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literacy Award, and the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, date unknown: “Narrator and girl poet Tiana begins with an invitation to join her in wordplay, and the accompanying illustration depicts her, literally, with hands outstretched and bearing what appear to be carved letters in her palms. The poem ‘Tiana’ launches the volume, then the heroine leads readers through the seasons with more than a dozen words, from ‘Spring’ to ‘Gift’ at Christmastime… Tiana’s bubbling personality shines forth from each verse, and Steptoe…in an extraordinary feat, sculpts each of his character portraits from construction paper in a single, uninterrupted linear outline. His glorious mixed-media collages make the transition from intimate interior scenes to electric urban landscapes. Readers can only hope that this dynamic duo has many more pockets full of poems.”

Connections: This will be a great way to teach children to write their own haikus. Have the children think about their favorite places or weather and have them write out them out in haikus. Another connection will be teaching children about personifications–have the children choose a word that they can illustrate its meaning. For example, for the word, “fur” a child could draw the word with hair and a tail coming out of it.

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