Friday, September 21, 2012

A Poem as Big as New York City

Illustrated by Masha D'yans
Adapted by Melanie Maria Goodreaux
Edited by Teachers & Writers Collaborative
Foreward by Walter Dean Myers
Universe, 2012
$19.95, ages 5 and up, 38 pages

Winged pencils fly through a canyon of skyscrapers in New York City, as a poem rises from the streets and takes off through the pages of a picture book.

The poem, both written on the pages and personified there in art, is an exhilarating read and the result of an innovative series of writing workshops in the city's public schools.

In 2008, a group of teachers and writers asked students ages 6-18 years old to stretch their imaginations and share deep down what they see and feel when they look around their city.

The idea was to celebrate New York and as poet Walter Dean Myers writes in a foreword, inspire a "cultural reweaving of the familiar." Stale ideas of the city were to be discarded and glorious new ones, ushered in.

Then all of the poems were gathered together and poet Melanie Maria Goodreaux, who heads the project for the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, pieced words, feelings and ideas from each of them into one big poem.

"The children of New York City gave me stacks of poems on hundreds of loose leaf pages to craft this unprecedented work," Goodreaux writes in an editor's note. "They scribbled lines about how big they imagined this poem to be and wrote about their love for the city in wobbling kid-created cursive…"

The result was a melding of perspectives, descriptions, alliterative verse and sound words into a poem that feels almost as big and bold and diverse as the city itself -- a poem that when read aloud feels like it has the energy of a chorus behind it.

"By stringing these voices together in A Poem as Big as New York City, one child's line from Brooklyn now rhymes with another's from the Bronx," Goodreaux writes. "The child from Queens creates the poetic beat that bounces off the rhythm of children in Staten Island and Manhattan."

The poem begins as a notion of itself swirling around over the city.  "When I look at the New York sky, / I see little pencils fly, / flying, flying through the sky / writing words way up high, / writing a poem of many hues / reds, oranges, greens, blues," the children of the city collectively say.

On the next page, the poem bids goodbye to tired old ideas of what New York's about and declares that there is more to New York than a concrete paradise, "rough blocks, the scent of gasoline," "lives flying by, planes overhead" and "sirens wailing."

Down in the streets, the poem begins to well up as millions of people fill Times Square. Then it rises out of the crowd in the form of a child and the child takes off in a yellow cab across the Hudson River to all corners of the city, across seasons and through day and night.

As the poem dashes from one adventure to another (both in child form and in words), it echoes the school childrens' delight in being part of it. It swirls around landmarks and at times it seems as if the poem can barely catch its breath with all that it has to say.

On a ferry ride across New York Harbor, the poem seems to exhale six lines in one breath and ignore every comma. "The waves splash / and the lights flash / all the way to South Beach, / where I am scared of the jellyfish, / where I hear the dogs bark / and seagulls calling their mates." 

Illustrator Masha D'yans does a breathtaking job of mirroring the students' observations and excitement about their city. Pages burst with energy, as sweeping strokes of watercolor draw the eye up and down and all around.

The child leaps, swings, floats, flings out his arms, even break-dances from one busy scene to another. His face is big and smiling and the rest of his body is shaped out of the four letters that form the word, "poem."

The letters are capitalized, echoing the exclamatory feel of the poem. Often the "P" is a neck and head craning to see everything and the other letters fill in the core of the body. Inside those letters repeated words express what the poem feels or sees.

On one page, the poem's body is filled in with the words "splish splash" as it joyfully rises from the city's aquarium in an octopus' mouth.

The octopus, a pink balloonish creature, has tentacles that trail like kite tails and big, lashy eyes, and is holding the child up to touch the sky, where pink and white stripes radiate down from the sun and over the Chrysler building.

Across the fold the action doesn't let up. The poem bungee jumps onto a cloud, then swings from one of the cables over the Brooklyn Bridge. The scene is euphoric and echoes a wonderful description of the bridge on the opposite page.

"The Brooklyn Bridge bends down / like a person doing yoga, / stretching across the East River, / generously sharing its gigantic back with everyone, / its big cables gracefully coming down / like four massive harps for a giant to play."

In another marvelous verse, the poem is on the A-train and sees the Statue of Liberty standing next to him. Her right hand grips an overhead bar and her left arm cradles a MetroCard (instead of her tablet), as she cups her mouth to yawn.

"Oh, Statue, don't you get tired? -" the poem asks. "Looking into their eyes, / foreseeing the crowds, / the never-ending waves, / watching the city changing / like a kaleidoscope / from day to day / never the same."

Then, in a transitional line to a new subject, the poem gets silly and readers imagine the fun a child had writing it: So much depends, the line goes, upon "watching New York minutes / trickle / like / pickles…" And the words roll of the tongue like fingers sliding along piano keys.

It's fascinating to see how all the bits and pieces of thoughts were put together and how creative children got. It seems like children put aside any inhibitions they had about writing and went with the purest impression that came to them.

"Sometimes the poets show up with startling representations of the world they live in painted in a language as fresh as the city itself," Myers writes. "At other times the poets dance between the words as they accept their roles as integral parts of the city they depict."

This is a book that pops with joy and makes readers want to rally a group of kids together and write one too. I love how freely children wrote and I had goosebumps thinking about what it must have meant to them to see their words in this book.

This an amazing book -- one in my opinion, that every school library should own -- that reaches far beyond its subject matter to celebrate themes of community and creativity, ideas that many readers from many walks of life hold dear. So even if readers have never been to New York City, after one read, they'll feel like they've been there and back, and can't wait to go there again.

For more about the writing project, visit the Teachers & Writers Collaborative here.

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