Saturday, February 23, 2008

Counting on Your Fingers, Tap Dancing on the Roof

If you had walked down the hall at my grade school a few decades ago and peeked through the doors of each classroom, you would have seen groups of frustrated students hunched over their desks, scrawling on paper with one hand while using the fingers on their other hand for counting.

No, we were not doing math problems.

We were no doubt writing haiku.

It seemed like every year our English book contained a unit on haiku. It was also the standard “go to” assignment for busy teachers. What did we do for bell-work? Haiku. What were told to do if we finished a test early? “Quietly work on haiku.” And substitute teachers loved them: “Listen, I’m actually a high school typing teacher, not a grade school history teacher. ...So why don’t I just pass out some nice paper and you all can work on haiku. You do know about haiku, don’t you? It’s a traditional three-line Japanese poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third.”

Yes, yes, we KNEW that. I hate to think how many hours of my childhood were spent sitting slumped over a desk trying to think of something new to say about the moon or a flower or a firefly, while counting off five, seven, five on my fingers.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about Linda Sue Park’s new book, TAP DANCING ON THE ROOF, is that it introduces a form of poetry that has similar rules to haiku, but offers a bit more latitude for young writers. Sijo is a traditional Korean poem that had it origins as early as the sixth century B.C. Although the most sophisticated sijo are based on stress count (instead of syllable count), the beginning writer may want to try the basic format of three lines, each containing fourteen to sixteen syllables. What makes these poems irresistable -- to read or to write -- is that the last line contains a twist or joke that turns the earlier lines on their head. Consider the first poem in the collection:


For this meal, people like what they like, the same every morning.
Toast and coffee. Bagel and juice. Cornflakes and milk in a white bowl.

Or -- warm, soft, and delicious -- a few extra minutes in bed.”

Linda Sue Park’s collection contains sijo about spring, frogs, and crocuses, as well everyday kid-concerns such as brushing teeth, school lunches, and bedtime snacks. Expressive and witty, these sijo are accompanied by Istvan Banyai's primitive ink drawings and enhanced by splashes of color. The book includes an historical note, a bibliography, and tips on writing sijo. Kids constrained by haiku’s emphasis on nature and strict syllable count will be pleased to have a wider range of subject matter to work with here, as well as more syllables to tick off on their fingers, AND the opportunity to tell a joke or spring a surprise with the last line.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not trying their hand at this form. Here’s mine:

"I went to the park to write sijo but it was too distracting --
Using hands to swat skeeters, ‘stead of counting on fingers.

Next time I’ll seek inspiration from another Park: Linda Sue."

Sijo (Poems) by Linda Sue Park; Pictures by Istvan Banyai.
Clarion, 2007

Why this book may be collectable:

It is the only book for children about sijo that’s currently in print.

The author is a Newbery Medal winner.

Those who collect children’s poetry books will want this unusual volume for their collection.

First edition points:

Glossy picture-cover binding.

Price of $16.95 on front dustjacket flap.

Copyright page (which faces title page in this book) indicates 2007 copyright and includes the descending number print key: “TWP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”

Difficulty in finding first editions:

Since the book was just published in the fall of 2007, copies should be readily available at cover price.

However, if the book should take off with teachers, I can see it become quite collectable in the years ahead.


skynyc said...

Ordered this on your recommendation and the fact that I love LSP's writing and Istvan Banyai's illustration. I particularly love his Zoom, a wordless almost freak-out of a book from Viking in 1995.

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The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.