A guest post by Jeannine Atkins
The children’s literature course I teach at the University of Massachusetts is composed of enthusiastic readers, mostly English majors with sweet memories of being read to when small and taken on happy excursions to libraries. Yet some of these novel-lovers report being uneasy around poetry. So they’re pleased to meet Jack, the narrator of LOVE THAT DOG. Several confess that they were Jack, resistant to poetry, but within a few pages, found his humor and honesty pulling them through this novel composed of short verse letters to his teacher. Miss Stretchberry shows Jack that verse doesn’t have to rhyme, or be obscure, or have been written by someone now dead. Verse comes alive for Jack as he uses it to come to terms with the death of a beloved pet.
A lot happens in the very slim book, and the sequel, HATE THAT CAT, is perhaps even more brilliant. The only thing I didn’t care for is the title, and a student agreed, saying that if Jack hadn’t apologized for his cat prejudice on the first few pages, he would have been miffed. This book gives us a glimpse into Jack’s world beyond the classroom, as we meet his parents and watch Jack slowly reveal moving information in direct and vulnerable poems.
These books are often read by fourth and fifth graders, but can be loved by anyone at any age. They’re a great place to meet verse novels, for not only are there compelling narratives about love and loss, but the short poems within directly address the form and questions about it. Jack works with metaphors, similes, line breaks, “onomoto-something and alliter-something,” and puts his writerly doubts on the page, too. Most of us can relate. One student told me she loved poetry, but couldn’t write it. I think she learned this from a not-so-great teacher along the way. This book helped inspire her to try writing poems, which was all I could ask… but her results: wow.
If you pick up Caroline’s challenge of reading three novels in verse this month, these will put you more than halfway through in an evening, if you choose! And you can follow though from a great list suggesting further reading included at the back of HATE THAT CAT. What are you waiting for?
Jeannine Atkins is the author of Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J.Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters (Henry Holt, 2010). She blogs at http://jeannineatkinsonwritingandstuff.wordpress.com.