Getting Messy with Poetry

Cynthia Compton - March 28, 2018

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Two of my favorite themes combine in a new title from Clarion this week: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s charming poetry collection With My Hands: Poems About Making Things, a book celebrating creativity and all the messiness of making art with children. We are big believers in process over product here at 4 Kids Books, and our own story and art sessions (Paint-a-Story Mondays: the Messier the Better)  are usually some combination of the illustrator’s artistic medium and “all the mess your mom won’t let you make at home,” so this book seems especially suited to both our store activity schedule and our philosophy of celebrating childhood.

From the first poem, “Maker”:
I am a maker.
I am making something new with my hands / my head / my heart.
That’s what makers do. 
A maker starts with empty space / ideas / hope and stuff.
Indeed, if there was a piece of inspiration I would want to pass to all my young customers, it would be to start with ideas, hope, and stuff.

Steve Johnson

The mixed media illustrations created by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson are a perfect extension of the “let’s experiment”  theme of the text. These masters of picture book illustration have collaborated on more than 50 picture books, including the posthumously published Dr. Seuss manuscript of My Many Colored Days (Knopf). Using found objects, recycled materials, and a bit of computer-savvy manipulation, they create relatable (but not too cute) representational images that not only echo the themes of the poems, but provide inspiration for the reader’s own projects.
From Lou and Steve: “We hope our art demonstrates that you can make art out of almost anything—and it’s fun.

Lou Fancher

Kids already know those things and adults who’ve forgotten it can always relearn. All that’s needed is stuff and wonderful words to spark imagination.”
As a parent and an adult reader, I appreciate both the children pictured who are engaged in creating art, shown with paint on their faces and concentration in their gaze, but also actively playing with the rockets and sock puppets they invent — turning the artistic process into further pretend play.
On her poetry education/exploration blog The Poem Farm Amy writes:
“I could not be happier to share this book as I have loved making things with my own hands since I was a little girl. Truth be told, I am never happier than when I am knitting, baking, carving a rubber stamp, drawing, or otherwise creating.”
 She explores all of these artistic mediums and more, in poems that focus on specific materials, such as “Painting”, “Clay”, and “Collage,” as well as those that are more project focused, like “Bird House” and “Piñata.” Even those poems that are directional in outlining the steps of a project, like “Tie-Dye Shirt” (….twisted. Tied it. Dipped it. Dyed it. Rinsed. Untied it…..) are more invitational than directional — I remembered dunking a tightly rubber-banded t-shirt all the way into that icy water mixed with Rit Dye, and seeING the blue and green stains on my fingers at camp as I read that poem.

The original photograph of paint on asphalt

The same photo with a bit of color manipulation

My favorite entry in the collection was a flashback to my second grade Girl Scout troop, where we were presented with bars of Ivory soap and a real penknife (the author wisely recommends a plastic version). The illustration process on for this page spread is fascinating, beginning with a picture of painted asphalt from outside the artists’ studio, altered with a bit of color, and then incorporated into the final illustration as the back of a whale and ocean waves. Art, indeed is all around us when we look.
“Soap Carving”
A whale hides in this bar of soap. / I’m carving with my plastic knife/ a little here, a little there/ so I can bring the whale to life.

I love that each poem mixes both the “how to” of the process, as in “Leaf Pictures”:
…We brought them all home/laid them this way and that/on long sheets of wax paper./We ironed them flat……
but keeps each project open ended and inspirational as in “Drawing”:
I learn to draw by watching. / I learn to draw from books. / I pay attention to my life./ I notice how it looks.
We often talk about the need for kids to create, to experiment, to use hands-on materials to develop both problem solving and creative thinking skills, but we offer little opportunity for children to do so in our overly-scheduled lives. In spite of the trendiness of maker spaces, and the national obsession with Pinterest and other craft sharing sites, there is precious little time allowed either in school or outside of it for our children to just find interesting materials and make stuff without a kit or a set of directions. In the compressed, achievement-oriented childhoods we have created, even a child’s natural attraction to artistic expression (“look, I drawed a tree”) is greeted with an enrichment class, an after school program, or “art lessons.” There is little time between T-ball and karate and math team for just messing around with paste, or using found objects to build a “Fort”:
Make one out of fuzzy blankets./ Make one out of fallen sticks./ Make one out of packing snow./Make one out of mud and bricks./…….Make whatever kind you wish./Make a fort to call your own.”
The invitation to paste, paint, and stitch is one that appeals to children of every age and experience, and calls to the artist inside each of us.
When I make something new/ I am never the same. 
I can never go back/ to the person I was.
For the thing that I made/is part of me now.
I changed it./ It changed me.
I am different because
I brought a new something to life with my hands.
If you are a maker/ then you understand.  (With My Hands, by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater)

What shall we make together today?


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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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