Karla Kuskin is to poetry what Michael Jordan is to highlight films. Both certainly appeal to adults, but their ability to captivate kids is what's extraordinary. Their talent translates into fun.
And unlike Jordan, who has been diminished by his appetites for endorsements and gambling, Kuskin is a poet -- pure and simple and often silly -- to whom adults can turn when they need a dose of innocent delight.
To eat an egg
and eat it right
first of all you eat the white.
Then you eat the yellow yolk.
Then you take your spoon
the awful slipping, dripping stuff.
And then you yell,
'I have had enough.'
That's from Kuskin's latest collection, "Soap Soup and Other Verses," (HarperCollins, $13, ages 4-8). It's 63 pages of poems that will turn on 3-year-olds and keep second-graders -- who may be dreading memorization assignments in school -- from developing an aversion to verse.
* Kuskin is also one of the contributors to "Good Books, Good Times!" selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Harvey Stevenson (HarperCollins, $12.95, ages 5-8). It's a slim volume of poems that celebrate the joy of books, and it's a perfect fit for kids whose idea of an ideal summer is an endless string of lazy days to spend reading.
Here's an excerpt from Myra Cohn Livingston's poem, "Give me a book":
In black and white
they fill my head
With men and women --
vanished, dead --
Of hope and fear,
of wish and need.
The world stands still.
I, breathless, read,
And in their history
The untold mystery
Other poets in "Good Books, Good Times!" include David McCord, Prince Redcloud, William Cole, Jack Prelutsky and Arnold Lobel.
* The world lost one of its greatest collectors of folklore when Alvin Schwartz died this past March, at 64. Fortunately for us, he published more than 50 books in 30 years. He got more publicity for his three collections of scary stories -- parents and librarians often find them too frightening, though most kids can't put them down -- but his poetry anthologies are excellent as well.
"I Saw You in the Bathtub and Other Folk Rhymes" is a small book packed with laughs. His last book, "And the Green Grass Grew All Around" (HarperCollins, $15, all ages) is a hefty 195 pages full of street rhymes, nursery rhymes, nonsense verse and parodies that have endured from one generation to the next and the next. Remember this one?
Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the closing of the school.
We have tortured all the teachers,
We have broken every rule.
We plan to hang the principal
Our truth is marching on.
The collection is illustrated by Sue Truesdell, whose pen-and-ink sketches remind me of Quentin Blake's work, particularly in his collaborations with Roald Dahl. As usual, Schwartz included extensive notes and references at the back of the book, and his index of first lines is a great addition, sure to incite fights among adults who disagree on the exact wording of "My name is Yon Yonson, I come from Visconsin . . . ."
* Arnold Adoff created the persona of a young teen-age girl whose father is black and Protestant and whose mother is white and Jewish. He gives voice to her thoughts in "All the Colors of the Race," illustrated by John Steptoe (Beech Tree paperback, $4.95, ages 10 and up). The blank verse speaks to everyone, though.
There is so much
in the way we all live
it must be hard
for some people
daddy reaching over me
mama in the grocery,
in the street.
* Eloise Greenfield has written more than 20 children's books, including the beautiful "Africa Dream." Her latest is a collection of poems illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, "Night on Neighborhood Street" (Dial Books for Young Readers, $13.95, ages 6 and up).
The verses capture the complex layers of life in a city neighborhood, from "The Seller," who is "carrying in his many pockets, packages of death," to the arrival of a new baby: "sleep coming down, bringing dreams that swish, like the sound of warm water, rocking the baby, rocking the baby, swish, swish, swish."
There's Tonya's mama, who entertains Tonya's friends when they come to spend the night. She "feeds them sweet banana bread, hugs them when it's time for bed." And there's the house with the wooden windows: "They say the house is filled with ghosts, that boogie when the moon is right."
Taken together, the poems and illustrations convey fear and trust, anger and love. It's a book full of life.