Friday, August 17, 2007

Poetry Friday: Swimming Upstream

Illustrated by Debbie Tilley
Clarion, 2002

Since I began blogging last fall, I have written quite a number of reviews of poetry books for children—most of them about collections or anthologies intended for preschoolers and children in the early and middle elementary grades. Today, I’m reviewing a book by award-winning poet Kristine O’Connell George that was written especially for kids who will be attending middle school for the first time in their lives.

Swimming Upstream is jam-packed with poems that touch on the common experiences and emotions of students who have left their smaller elementary schools behind and now must face the challenges of a much bigger school with a seeming sea of students. The poems are told from the perspective of one of the “new” middle schoolers. She worries about such things as finding her way around…where to sit at lunch…losing friends…the way she looks…people gossiping about her. There are poems about homework meltdowns, science projects, going on a field trip, band practice, free writing in class, an award assembly, and the last day of school. The poems also touch on such things as reigniting a friendship with an old friend who had moved away, making new friends, and finding out that the boy she has a crush on likes her back.

George takes us from the first day of school to the end of the year with free verse, haikus, and even an acrostic poem entitled SNOB. This book isn’t a novel in verse—but there is the thread of a story as we read about the day-to-day experiences that one girl has from September to June in her first year of middle school.

One of the book’s earlier poems is Changing Classes, which begins As soon as the bell rings/students pour out the doors and ends Pushing forward, I weave/in, out, and among/a thousand others/feeling as if/I’m swimming upstream. And the girl does “swim upstream” until she gets into the flow of making new friends and trying new things like playing the flute in the school band and adapting to the changes in her life.

By the end of the school year, she has confidence enough to honor herself with an award while listening to the principal name honorees at the award assembly.

From Award Assembly

I end the suspense
awarding myself

First Place
Most Improved
That Matters to Me

This is a great book for middle school teachers and middle school students.

I didn’t include more poem excerpts because Kristine O’Connell George has a neat page with a flip book of Swimming Upstream at her fabulous website. Click here and you’ll be taken to it. There you will be able to read several poems from this fine collection.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Elaine. My nephew is entering middle school, and I can't even believe it. I want to see this title. Thanks for the review.

Charlotte said...

Hi Elaine,

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

This new book sounds like a keeper (to extend the fish metaphors...). I well remember that salmon-like feeling from my own school days.


Anonymous said...

Hi Elaine--

I love this book and just put it on reserve a few days ago at the library to read again. I got to hear Kris speak very briefly in L.A., and asked her if she had in mind the slight story arc first, or if she wrote the poems and then just evaluated what she had. She just wrote like mad and then figured out how to arrange them.

I'm working on a collection for upper elementary age that also has a story arc but is not a novel in verse, and this is the first thing that came to mind for me. Any others you can think of and recommend?


Elaine Magliaro said...


One of my favorite poetry books for middle readers/middle schoolers is Cynthia Rylant's WAITING TO WALTZ: A CHILDHOOD. There is also BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE by Lee Bennett Hopkins, BECOMING JOE DIMAGGIO by Maria Testa, and JUDY SCUPPERNONG by Brenda Seabrooke. I have some others but they're more for YA. Oh, I just remembered one more--AMBER WAS BRAVE, ESSIE WAS SMART by Vera Williams.

Good luck with your collection.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Elaine! I'll check these out. I love Been to Yesterdays (finally bought it and had it autographed in L.A. recently) and have read Amber Was Brave...

Time to reread Amber and check out the others. Appreciate the suggestions!