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"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Aint' Got That Swing)": The 2006 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 30, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 383-397 | 10.1353/uni.2006.0041

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wynton Marsalis. Jazz A·B·Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits. Illus. Paul Rogers. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2005.
Honor Books:
Marilyn Nelson. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Illus. Philippe Lardy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Naomi Shihab Nye. A Maze Me: Poems for Girls. Illus. Terre Maher. New York: Greenwillow, 2005.
Shel Silverstein. Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

This year's award winner, Jazz A·B·Z, doesn't quote the Duke Ellington number that gives this essay its title, but Wynton Marsalis's Ellington poem swings, as do the rest of the poems in this outstanding collection (fig.1). In the Ellington poem, Marsalis experiments with meter, replicating time signature shifts, "Eager to exclaim the joy of jazz" (n.p.). If, in the words of Guy Debord, poetry is "liberated language, language recovering its richness, language which breaks its rigid significations and simultaneously embraces words, music, cries, gestures, painting, mathematics, facts, acts" (115), then Marsalis's musical tour de force and the other fine and playful honor books we discuss here are certainly excellent poetry.

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Figure 1
Jazz A·B·Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits. Illustrations Copyright 2005 Paul Rogers. Text Copyright 2005 Wynton Marsalis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

Children's poetry may be a special subset of poetry, but it is, nevertheless, poetry—though perhaps more immediately connected to commerce than its adult counterparts. No one expects a collection of adult poetry to make much money, but presumably when HarperCollins releases a posthumous collection of poetry by Shel Silverstein, someone is thinking of it as a surefire moneymaker. While we were initially suspicious that Marsalis's book might be another of those recent dreadful celebrity titles, once we opened the book and read the poetry and savored Paul Rogers's dynamic illustrations, we were hooked. Sifting though the piles of this year's books, the bad and indifferent threatened to overwhelm us. We were, it could be said, on the point of despair. But we are proud that the books we've selected to recognize as this year's most accomplished volumes of children's poetry share a concern with language as matter: the sounds, the grammatical textures, and the look of language. Unlike the bad and indifferent books, all the shortlisted collections recognize the serious nature of play. And though we have reservations about the interplay between text and pictures in at least one of our honor books, there is no doubt that our winner displays playfulness not only in its superior poetic language, but also in its design.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, but we were—delightfully surprised—to find that Marsalis's musical expertise extends to his verbal poetic text. Among this year's submissions, another book about music, Quincy Troupe's Little Stevie Wonder does just about everything wrong, despite the fact that Troupe is a notable poet for adults. Garishly and busily illustrated, it is a text that we can't distinguish from prose—and relatively run-of the-mill prose at that. If it weren't packaged with a CD containing a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes, it would have nothing to recommend it. A lukewarm response by Warner, an eight-year-old reviewer writing in Black Issues Book Review sums up our reaction: "I am now eight years old and learning to play the piano and enjoyed discovering what Little Stevie Wonder could do at my age, but I enjoyed listening to the CD more than the book" ("Out of the Mouths" 41). Smart kid.

Newbery Award winning author Sharon Creech also has a book of poetry out this year, Who's That Baby? New Baby Songs. It too disappoints. Even the accompanying illustrations by the usually excellent David Diaz fall short of expectations, a bit too sweet, too cute, much like the poems, which try so hard to be sweet, they become cloying:

A tisket, a tasket
a baby in the basket!

I'm so snug
and I'm so warm
I'm so cute
I'm just born!


A more promising poem, "Leaky Baby...

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