Category Archives: Poetry

Book Review: INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN written by Thanhha Lai


Lai, Thanhha. 2011. INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-196278-3

Hà is just 10 years old when war comes to her home town in Vietnam.  Hà’s free verse narrative opens in 1975 on New Year’s (called Tet) which “doubles as everyone’s birthday” (p. 2).  Hà, her hard-working mother, and her three brothers spend the first part of the “Year of the Cat” struggling with the social and economic repercussions of the Vietnam War. The family makes the heartbreaking decision to flee Saigon on a crowded ship when war arrives at their doorstep.  After leaving Vietnam, Hà and her refuge family take a circuitous route that ultimately leads them to Alabama. Hà and her family struggle with the radical change in customs, language, cuisine, and religion while progressively making a place for themselves in America.

Thanhha Lai flawlessly captures the naive perspective of a child with poetic and picturesque free verse in INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN.  While the story of Hà and her family is tragic and heartbreaking, the narrative is still “shot through with humor” (Kirkus Review 2011).  Through inexperienced and childlike eyes, “Hà misunderstands much about her new home” (Kirkus Review 2011).  The book is filled with vividly picturesque details that only a child would find significant. For instance, Hà describes in infinitesimal detail the dizzyingly erratic changes in her cuisine (or lack of) throughout the book.  Hà’s favorite food in Vietnam comes from a papaya tree she grew from a seed in her backyard.  When confronted with papaya in America (p. 232):


Three pouches of

Dried papaya





Not the same

at all.

So mad,

I throw all in the trash.

 This story is perfectly targeted for a 9-12 year old’s understanding of the world.  As the School Library Journal points out, “the intended reader neither knows or cares about the type of minutiae that an adult reader may expect from such a tale of flight and immigration” (Burns 2011).

Enrichment Activities:

Poetry can often be used to “serve as a jumpstart or introduce a lesson or topic, offer a transition between activities, provide closure, or extend the topic further” (Vardell 2008, 132-133).  There are several themes in this novel that can be used for a “jumpstart” to topics such as immigration, the Vietnam War, different cultures/customs of the worlds, and racism/tolerance.

Children can also be guided in writing their own free verse story of events in their own life.  Teachers or parents can share the following interview with Thanhha Lai.  The interview examines how she became a “prose poet” and came to write this moving account of her tumultuous childhood: .

Lastly, I would like to remind readers that poetry is “meant to be read aloud” (Vardell 2008, 130).  I leave you with this final video of Thanhha Lai reading a passage from INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN at the 2011 National Book Awards where she won best in Young People’s Literature:

What to Read Next:

Crossan, Sarah. 2013. THE WEIGHT OF WATER.  New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1599909677

Hesse, Karen. 2009. OUT OF THE DUST. Orlando, FL: Great Source. ISBN 978-0590371254


Burns, Elizabeth. Review: Inside Out and Back Again. November 1, 2011. (accessed February 21, 2014).

Kirkus Review. INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. January 15, 2011. (accessed February 21, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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Book Review: COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS: SPACE POEMS AND PAINTINGS written and Ill. by Douglas Florian


Florian, Douglas. 2007. COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS: SPACE POEMS AND PAINTINGS. New York: Harcourt. ISBN 978-015206625-3

COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS is a stunning mix of art, prose, and solar-system facts.  This middle-grade poetry book contains twenty playful poems about the universe and all its celestial bodies.  Douglas Florian takes readers on a whimsical journey from “Earth” (p. 1) to “The Great Beyond” (p. 45).  A “Galactic Glossary” of space terminology is included at the back of the book. In COMETS, STARS, THE MOON AND MARS, Flores merges humor, poetry, and art to make learning about our universe fun!

The poems in this book are simple and filed with scientific facts such as the phases of Earth’s moon, Jupiter’s 16 moons, and Venus’s extreme temperature.  Many of the poems in the book contain “cheeky humor” that keeps learning delightfully entertaining (Bruder 2007). Kirkus Reviews noted that the rhymes are “characteristically playful, wrapping itself around astronomical facts with ease” (Kirkus Review 2007).  For instance, this book contains humorous and fact-filled verses such as (p. 37): 


Pluto was a planet.

But now it doesn’t pass.

Pluto was a planet.

They say it’s lacking mass.

Pluto was a planet.

Pluto was admired.

Pluto was a planet

Till one day it got fired.

While most of Florian’s verse is playful and engaging, a few of the included poems “stumble on lumpy rhymes or fall flat” (Bruder 2007).  The mixed-media art and lighthearted language distract from awkward sounding verse when reading the book silently.  However, when the poems are read aloud the listener can hear the forced nature of some of the rhymes. This is unfortunate because children get more delight out of poetry when it is read silently AND aloud (Vardell 2008, 130).  Reading poetry aloud to children allows them to “develop their own oral fluency and understanding of language” (Vardell 2008, 130).

Enrichment Activities:

Florian plays with word spacing and form to merge the artwork in the poems.  For instance, the art and spiral text in the poem “A Galaxy” illustrates the varied shapes galaxies take (p. 10-11).


To enrich the lessons of this book, children can be asked to create their own mixed-media masterpiece using space facts.  They can create their own solar system using materials such as fabric, magazine pages, buttons, and so on.  If parents would like to expand on this creative theme, the website “Kids Astronomy” has a fun and free makes your own solar system game ( ).  Children can use this game to incorporate all the poems elements into their very own solar system.

What to Read Next:

Florian, Douglas. 2009. DINITHESAURUS: PREHISTORIC POEMS AND PAINTINGS. La Jolla, CA:  Beach Lane Books. ISBN 978-1416979784

Sklansky, Amy. 2012. OUT OF THIS WORLD: POEMS AND FACTS ABOUT SPACE.   New York:  Knopf Books. ISBN 978-0375864599


Bruder, Jessica. “Children’s Books: COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS.” New York Times Sunday Book Review. June 3, 2007. (accessed February 19, 2014).

Kirkus Review. “COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS: Space Poems and Paintings.” March 15, 2007. (accessed February 18, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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Book Review: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN written by Katherine Applegate and Ill. by Patricia Castelao


Applegate, Katherine. 2012. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Ill. Patricia Castelao. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0061992254

The ONE AND ONLY IVAN is the bittersweet and beautiful middle-grade story of a gentle and artistic silverback gorilla named Ivan.  This book is a fictional narrative based on the true story of Ivan the gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo (Applegate 2013). The following picture of the real Ivan was taken from Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN website (

real ivan

At the story’s launch, Ivan inhabits his “domain” at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with his friends Stella the elephant and Bob the dog.  The animals in this menagerie live a lonely and solitary existence.   The overall emotional theme of loneliness and isolation is even evident in the book’s title, THE “ONEAND “ONLYIVAN.  Ivan spends his days staring at his TV, gazing out the window, and painting pictures that are sold in the mall gift shop.  While Ivan loves to listen to stories from Stella’s past, he has blocked memories own painful early history.  The animals live a monotonous existence until the day that the baby elephant names Ruby comes into their world.  A powerful promise, protective “Mighty Silverback” instincts, and abuse/neglect at the hands of his owner force Ivan to admit that his “domain” is really a cage.  He vows to change their situation and save baby Ruby.   He finally becomes, not just THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, but the silverback gorilla he was always meant to be.

This 2013 Newberry Award winning book is told in free verse from Ivan’s point of view.  Ivan tells his story, “in short, image-rich sentences and acute, sometimes humorous, observations that are all the more heartbreaking for their simple delivery” (Kirkus Review 2012).  The use of potent imagery and descriptive language, coupled with sparse sentence structure, seem to mimic animalist or “gorilla-like” thoughts.  The School Library Journal declared, “His thoughts are vast and complex but restrained (by choice, to a certain extent, and by nature itself)” (Bird 2012).  This lends a sense of realism to the story and the protagonist.

Enrichment Activities:

Verse novels, such as the ONE AND ONLY IVAN, are growing in popularity with the middle-grade and young-adult crowd (Vardell 2008, 116).   They are “a promising trend and a fun format for dramatic read aloud” (Vardell 2008, 116).  Moreover, this book is perfect for opening a discussion on the Western Lowland Gorilla and endangered animal conservation with children.  While the real Ivan has sadly passed away, the Atlanta Zoo has placed his biography, a short film, and a slideshow of pictures on their website ( ). Various facts about the Western Lowland Gorillas can be found on the National Geographic Kids website ( The World Wildlife Foundation website has endangered gorilla information about how we can help save these powerful creatures from extinction (  A trip to a local zoo to view this majestic animal could also help children make real world connections to this poignant fictional story.

What to Read Next:

Hoare, Ban. 2008. EYEWITNESS: ENDANGERED ANIMALS. New York: DK Publishing. ISBN 978-0756668839

Nichols, Michael & Elizabeth Carney. 2009. FACE TO FACE WITH GORILLAS. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Children’s Books. ISBN 978-1426304064

Hartnett, Sonya.  2011. THE MIDNIGHT ZOO.  Ill. Andrea Offermann. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-0763653392

Book Trailer:


Applegate, Katherine. “The Real Ivan.” THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. 2013. (accessed February 19, 2014).

Bird, Elizabeth. “Review of the Day: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate.” School Library Journal. March 17, 2012. (accessed Febuary 18, 2014).

Kirkus Review. “THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN .” January 17, 2012. (accessed Feburary 18, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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