Thursday, November 17, 2016

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Poetry and the Newbery Medal. Hmm… The two typically do not go hand in hand. Get a load of these stats:

The first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922. That means there have been 95 Newbery Medal winning books. Most, but not all, years award Honors to runner-up books and these vary in amount. In total, 309 books have received a Newbery Honor since 1922. In total, that is 404 children’s books that sport either a gold or silver Medal.

How many of those were poetry books, would you assume?


That’s right. Five. Twice, a book of poetry has won the Newbery Medal, A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN in 1982 and JOYFUL NOISE in 1989. Three times, a book of poetry has been awarded an Honor, ANAPO in 1978, THE SURRENDER TREE in 2009, and DARK EMPEROR in 2011. Five times in 404 opportunities. That is a rate of 1% of the time! Disclaimer: I did not include books like INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, which is a novel written in verse. I was simply looking for books of poetry.

The Newbery Medal is awarded to the “most distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” Maybe it’s the term “literature” that steers the committee away from poetry. Nonetheless, based on the history (if my research is accurate), it would appear that poetry has to be truly exceptional to stand out in a field of strong fiction work each year to rise to the top and win a Newbery Medal.

Well, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano is truly exceptional.

The book starts in the spring:

March 20
From a snow-covered tree
One bird singing
Each tweet poking
A tiny hole
Through the edge of winter
And landing carefully
Balancing gently
On the tip of spring

Each poem advances the reader further through each season, from Spring, to Summer, to Fall, to Winter, and ending with the same March 20 poem in Spring bringing closure to the year. The poems vary in length and style. Each poem is perfectly paired with a beautiful illustration by Julie Morstad.

June 10 (“I don’t know much about flowers”), July 10 (“When green becomes tomatoes”), and October 31 (“Pumpkin sprout”) are personal favorites but too long to reprint here. Go check the book out and read them! But to give more of a taste of the quality, rhythm and style, here are a few shorter favorites from the book:

August 3
If you want to be sure
That you are nothing more than small
Stand at the edge of the ocean
Looking out

January 30
It is the best kind of day
When it is snowing
And the house
Sounds like slippers
And sipping
And there is nowhere to go
But the kitchen
For a cookie

I've never really understood poetry, the same way I've never really understood fine wine. I've never had the palate for it, no matter how hard I try to get into it. But occasionally, I'll taste a wine that I don't need a sophisticated palate to understand how good it is. It's just good. The same can be said for WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. It's not hard to see how brilliant these poems are, and how perfect the collection is as a whole. You don't have to be familiar with, or understand poetry, to appreciate this collection. I read it once through and sat back and marveled at it. Then I shared it with my wife and kids and bragged it up to my mom and my coworkers. It's that good.

I am a reader of fiction. Poetry is outside of my comfort zone. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES is so good though, that any reader will be able to recognize its distinguished qualities. I'm certain that the Newbery Medal committee members will as well.

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