While poetry is its own reward, it often takes the spark of a “Dead Poets Society” or other non-poetic media to get it taken seriously. The following is a review of two such books for middle school readers.
Love That Dog is a very short book. Inspired by the Walter Dean Myers poem “Love That Boy” it follows a boy who reluctantly reads, writes and eventually connects with poetry over the course of a school year. All of it is told in verse, although like many books written like this I hesitate to call it poetry; more or a proam, or cute formatting. But, as in the case of both of the books mentioned here, it serve the story well.
As a successful book, Love That Dog works on two levels. First, it is funny. As someone who teaches “The Red Wheelbarrow”, Frost and Blake it is a small hoot to hear an authentic child’s voice reacting to these poems. That only goes so far, but it is a short book and so it goes far enough until the reader is almost done. Second, the actual story of the boy and his dog is genuine and heartfelt. The story, as told, is enough of a puzzle to keep the reader interested.
And then it’s done. If this book takes you more than twenty minutes to read you are giving it too much credit. Your students–both struggling readers and high flyers–will love it. An excellent springboard into classic poetry, students writing their own poetry, having literary heroes (in this case, Walter Dean Myers comes to the school) and even satirical writing of one’s teachers, their classes, and their attempts to teach poetry (you cannot but help see your classroom in her depiction of teaching techniques and attempts to encourage writing). I was surprised to learn it was nominated for the Booker Prize and won the Newbery; it’s good, but a bit slight and not really one for the ages.
A much better, meatier work is Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge. The story of a baseball obsessed fourteen year old stuck at home with mono, it starts with protagonist Kevin Boland flipping through his dad’s poetry book as he tries his hand at it. Over time he starts exploring different techniques, his family relationships and the recent death of his mom.
Describing Shakespeare Bats Cleanup as meatier than Love That Dog rests on two points. First, the life of Kevin Boland is much richer. While dead parents may be a bit cliche (as is a baseball obsessed boy coming to like poetry), there are surprises in the details. The story grows in depth and complexity as one reads it.
Second, Koertge deftly uses the poetic style Kevin is reading about to tell his own story. While using poetry to tell a story of poetry is not brilliance, nor original, Koertge’s ability to make it seamless is. After establishing the conceit of reflecting the poetry read in the telling, reading Shakespeare Bats Cleanup the reader will soon forget Koertge is doing so, even as the protagonist tells you he is doing it. To give Koertge even more credit, the poetic styles he uses compliment the story. While a lesser author might have chosen a more random assortment, here the author matches the style with the story to be told.
That said, Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is not a life altering story, but more of an enjoyable read.
When picking out such books teachers often seem to be looking for silver bullets: that one title that will turn on a poetry switch. That book is a Brigadoon, in that it might exist for any one individual every two hundred years (and then trap you in antiquity!). Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is also touted as a reluctant reader and a “boy” book, too categories that are often used interchangeably. Do not expect that much. I get much more mileage out of “Dead Poets Society” than any single book (of course, a unit of study with great depth is best), but that is more eighth grade than fifth.
Both of these titles will make excellent introductions to poetry and writing styles. They are quick reads, funny and have a bit of depth to them. Like any short story (which is what they are, in truth) they are more of a memorable inoculation than the open heart surgery that marks great novels.