Book Review Wednesday (on Thursday, oops!)

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Sidman, Joyce and Zagarenski, Pamela. This Is Just To Say. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2007.

Perhaps it is fitting that I begin this post with an apology. I’m so sorry that I missed Wednesday. It startled me, then melted away like the first snow. (Responses welcomed in the comments.)

In the first section of Joyce Sidman’s poetry collection, This Is Just To Say, fictitious sixth grade students and their teacher are inspired to write poetic apologies after reading William Carlos William’s (often anthologized) “This Is Just To Say.” In the second half of the book, those they have injured answer with poetic responses.

The whimsical collage illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski fit the collection perfectly. The student introduction tells us that a student and the art teacher created the images and Zagarenski’s minimalist drawing approach makes this believable. I especially applaud her use of school related papers in the images. Houghton Mifflin editors chose the same illustrator for Sidman’s, Red Sings From Treetops, for her wonderful ability to create fantastical settings.

The subject matter of these poems is enough to evoke emotion in the reader: a dying dog, a hurt sibling, an absent father, a missing class pet. However, some of the apologies are lighter: a stolen jelly donut or brownie, a hard hit in dodge ball, a loved school statue.

I suppose I am a little bit of a poetry traditionalist but I thought that the poems that employed more formal devices were the most effective. “The Black Spot” uses an imbedded dot of pencil lead as a metaphor for the simmering anger between siblings. “Dodge Ball Kings” a poem in two voices that captures the excitement and energy of the boys with onomatopoeias. “Haiku for Carmen” which follows the traditional 5-7-5 syllable form. “What Girls Want” in which the student poet uses a series of metaphors and parallel phrasing that builds to a final contradictory line that really packs the emotional punch of the poem.

When the poems are less formal in their organization the collection lags. Many of the poems are prose poems and I felt that the line breaks were somewhat arbitrary. Many of them could have used more condensed language and the line breaks could have been better chosen to create more impact. If you read some of these poems aloud the listener might think you were just reading a paragraph.

That said, I highly recommend this book for any middle grade reader. By immersing the reader in the characters that people Mrs. Merz sixth grade class, Ms. Sidman makes each of these situations relevant and readable to a child audience. If children visit her website, they can hear Ms. Sidman reading her poems.

The book, published in 2007, has won many awards including:

Claudia Lewis Poetry Award

Cybils Poetry Award

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book

IRA Teacher’s Choice Book

Texas Bluebonnet Award Nomination

New York Public Library’s "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing"

School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Book Links Lasting Connection Book

If you are looking in your library for This Is Just To Say, it is probably housed in the juvenille poetry section where some of the most wonderful and overlooked books are just waiting to be rediscovered.