Friday, July 25, 2008

The World's Greatest: Poems--A Book Review

When I was working as an elementary school librarian, one of the most frequently requested books was The Guinness Book of World Records. Kids seem to relish reading about the biggest/tallest/smallest/longest/shortest, etc., objects and animals and “the most” amazing human feats. My guess would be that kids who enjoy reading about such things would really appreciate J. Patrick Lewis’s most recently published poetry book, The World’s Greatest: Poems. Take note of the colon in the title. The book is not a compilation of poems that Lewis thinks are the “best” in the world--but of superlatives that have made the record books. Here is a sampling of poem titles from this book: The Shortest Street, The Longest Traffic Jam, The Winningest Woman in the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, The Most Live Scorpions Eaten by a Human, and The Most Cobras Kissed Consecutively. Now, tell me you’re not especially intrigued by those last two titles! I bet you would really like to find out who would eat live scorpions…and how many he ate, wouldn’t you? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

by J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by Keith Graves
Chronicle Books, 2008

This collection of “record-breaking” poetry is fun to read. A master of light verse, J. Patrick Lewis proves himself adept at taking factual information and writing about it with wry humor and the clever turn of phrase. These “greatest” poems are written in a variety of forms, including limerick, acrostic, and concrete poetry. Although not of historic importance, the subjects Lewis selected to write about in his rhythmic and rhyming (with one exception) poems would most likely be of interest to young readers...and listeners.

Here are some of the facts Lewis imparts in his book:

  • The smallest American newspaper measured 3 X 3 ¾ inches.
  • The biggest pumpkin weighed 1,469 pounds.
  • The longest time a person was stuck in an elevator was 81 hours.
  • The talkingest bird was a budgerigar (a type of parakeet) named Puck who knew 1,728 words.
  • Alfred A. E. Wolfam holds the record for the most Kisses. He smooched a total of 10,504 people in eight hours. (After that I bet Alfred was not only tuckered--but also puckered--out!)

Would you believe that the longest traffic jam was more than 1,000 miles long? To be exact, it was recorded at 1,093 miles! Where and when did this record-breaking jam occur? Lyon toward Paris, France, on February 16, 1980.

Here is how Pat Lewis relates the event in his poem that takes the shape of a long line of traffic:

The Longest Traffic Jam
By J. Patrick Lewis

Bleak end.

(That poem certainly resonates with me--and would probably with anyone else who has ever been stuck waiting in line near the Hampton toll station in New Hampshire on a Saturday in summer. Our longest time waiting in line to pay our toll was 2 ½ hours! One year we even got rear-ended--twice--by the same driver who tried to leave the scene of the accident…until her car conked out a few hundred feet ahead of us. She couldn't have gone far anyway--not with all that traffic! It was no minor accident. The car repairs cost $7,000.)

But…I digress from this book review. Forgive me.

The Largest Mantle of Bees provides a fine example of Lewis’s mastery of humorous verse and poetic wordplay. The poem is about a man whose body was said to have been covered by an estimated 343,000 bees. Lewis concludes it with a delightful--and “punny”--ending.

The Largest Mantle of Bees
By J. Patrick Lewis

A busy buzzy body, he’s
a hive for eighty pounds of bees.
His beard was bees,
his nose was bees,
his arms and legs and toes were bees.

His wife, they tell us, laughed so hard
she broke the hammock in the yard!
We don’t know why it struck her funny,
but ever since, she’s called him Honey!

The World’s Greatest: Poems would be a “great” book to share with children in elementary and middle school. Kids are sure to take pleasure in hearing poems about The Kookiest Hat, The Dumbest Dinosaur, The Tallest Roller Coaster, The Longest Time a Human Remained Standing, and The Highest Air on a Skateboard. The book’s illustrations done by Keith Graves in acrylic paints and colored pencils add to the fun and complement the humorous nature of this poetry collection.

Classroom Connection: After sharing this book with children, it might be fun to have them select their favorite “record breakers” from The Guinness Book of World Records and write their own "greatest" poems about them.

Note: I asked Pat Lewis where he got his idea for writing The World’s Greatest: Poems. Here’s what he told me:

The inspiration came from my having written A BURST OF FIRSTS. I thought I could extend that by choosing the biggest, tallest, shortest, smallest, et al, all of whose subjects were culled from THE GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS. I'm trying to prove in my books that there is no subject in the world that does not lend itself to poetry.

I say Amen to that!

Written by J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by Brian Ajhar
Dial, 2001

Another Note: I had planned to include a full review of A Burst of Firsts: Doers, Shakers, and Record Breakers in this post. Unfortunately, the book is now out of print. I will tell you that in this book Lewis wrote poems about both historically significant and insignificant events and people. The insignificant: the first non-Japanese sumo wrestler, the first parachute wedding, the biggest bubble-gum bubble ever blown, and the #1 lunch choice of school kids.

From #1 Lunch Choice of School Kids

ISN’T macaroni
ISN’T French fries
ISN’T plain bologna
ISN’T Moon Pies
ISN’T peanut butter
ISN’T Cap’n Crunch
ISN’T what your mother went
And packed inside your lunch!

(Pssst! It’s pizza.)

The historically significant events and figures: Ruby Bridges, the first child to integrate a white school; Jackie Robinson, the first person to break the color barrier in baseball; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men on the moon; and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

Here are the third and fifth stanzas from First Men on the Moon:

The first man down the ladder, Neil,
Spoke words that we remember now--
“one small step…” It made us feel
As if we were there, too, somehow.

A quarter million miles away,
One small blue planet watched in awe.
And no one who was there that day
Will soon forget the sight he saw.

To learn more about the talented J. Patrick Lewis and his work, click here to read the interview I did with him for Wild Rose Reader in April.

I would like to thank J. Patrick Lewis for granting me permission to post poems and excerpts from his books The World’s Greatest: Poems and A Burst of Firsts.


At Blue Rose Girls, I have a poem by Richard Hoffman entitled Summer Job.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at A Year of Reading.



Charlotte said...

This looks like a good one for my boys! thanks!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I hope they do like it. I think most kids will.

Mary Lee said...

The picture of Pat with a bubble hooked me in! Thanks for the fresh insight on how this book came to be written. So sad that A Burst of Firsts is out of print. That's a favorite in Room 222!

Elaine Magliaro said...

Mary Lee,

If A BURST OF FIRSTS is a favorite in your classroom, I'd be willing to bet THE WORLD'S GREATEST: POEMS would be too. Another of Pat's books that was a favorite in my second grade classroom that is also out of print now is A HIPPOPOTAMUSN'T. I had fun sharing the poems from that collection with my students.

Anonymous said...

Great reviews, thank you very much! I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which is a special Olympic edition) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days:,, Enjoy!