Three Tanka Books for Children

First published in Ribbons 16:1, Winter 2020, pages 121–128.       +

It’s been common for decades for children’s books to feature haiku. Less common are children’s books of tanka, but it seems that such books have enjoyed an uptick in numbers in recent years. Two examples published in 2018 are Tony Medina’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, and Robert Paul Weston’s Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms. However, neither book seems sufficiently aware of literary approaches to tanka, although Medina’s book, in terms of tanka, is the more successful of the two. In terms of being children’s books, both publications are beautifully illustrated and successful for the audiences they intend to reach. A third book featuring tanka, intended for older youth, is Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, published in 2016. But trouble lies afoot in this book too, even if just from the perspective of adult readers.

Tony Medina et al. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Penny Candy Books2018. 978-0-9987999-4-0, hardback, 40 pages.

Let me start with Medina’s book. Penny Candy Books also recently published Sydell Rosenberg’s H Is for Haiku, and readers might well hope that the press will continue to support Japanese poetry forms. The title of Medina’s Thirteen Ways immediately brings to mind the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” with the twist of focusing on African American culture. Notes at the end of the book mention other books that have alluded to Stevens’ poem, such as Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a 1969 book of poems by Raymond R. Patterson, and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a 1997 collection of essays by Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Additional notes assume that tanka is merely 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, a pattern that is evidenced in the poems themselves, as if that’s all there is to it, but the explanation does at least add that the poem’s images should show ideas rather than explain them. Most important in the notes is the mention of place in poetry, and how these poems focus on Anacostia, an historically black neighborhood in the Southeast section of Washington, DC. Each poem depicts a person or place in the neighborhood, or presents a more universal image. Each poem, which is titled (tanka are usually not titled), is also presented with extraordinary artwork by thirteen African American artists and as such is a remarkable work of collaboration. Here’s the book’s opening poem, titled “Anacostia Angels” (6):

                Fly bow tie like wings
                    Brown eyes of a brown angel
                His kool-aid smile sings
                    Mama’s little butterfly
                Daddy’s dimple grin so wide

Such a poem may serve the book’s purpose, but would not be likely to be accepted for any of the leading tanka journals publishing in English. The book’s extensive bios for the poets and each of the thirteen artists seem more in service to the contributors than to young readers (in other words, I doubt children would read them), but they provide a context for adults that honors the ethnic background common to each contributor. The poems are the main attraction, of course (with the artwork), and the poems show different black boys in unique and celebratory ways—depicting not just children but the black “boys” of all ages that pepper this particular neighborhood, one that thereby represents any ethnic neighborhood in America. It’s a book of recognition and validation, which is more important than whether it uses tanka or not. As such, this book may appeal to the widest range of readers of the three books I explore here, and may offer wider benefits to classroom use and to families and libraries.

Robert Paul Weston, illustrated by Misa Saburi. Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms. Toronto, Ontario: Tundra Books2018. 978-1-101-91874-6, hardback, 40 pages.

Robert Paul Weston’s Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms, illustrated sumptuously by Misa Saburi, is a more traditional children’s book, in contrast with Medina’s book. This is an immigration story, dealing with cultural differences that come to be a source of joy instead of stress and loss. The story is told using “tanka,” counted out in 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, with a blank line after the first three lines, a presentation choice that might invoke renku or renga for those who are familiar with this Japanese linked-verse form that grew out of waka and is intertwined with the history of tanka—and later, haiku. Here’s the book’s opening verse, which introduces the story’s title character, a little girl named Sakura (4):

                Sakura loved spring,
                her favorite time of year.
                This made perfect sense.

                Her name means cherry blossom,
                trees that only bloom in spring.

Remaining verses unfold in a similarly prosaic, explanatory, and narrative manner. They demonstrate little feeling for the established aesthetics and techniques of tanka poetry as a literary art, but they do paint a pleasing story of the girl remembering her Japanese grandmother with whom she went to view cherry blossoms. Sakura has just moved to America because of her father’s new job. She has to learn a new language (where neko becomes cat), and that autumn has trouble fitting in at her new school. She is also too shy to talk with Luke, the boy who lives next door. But he eventually talks with her they become friends through a love of astronomy. Sakura says “Flowers are like stars,” and that they blossom and sparkle, and then “they fade, so we treasure them / because one day they vanish” (19). This thought foreshadows the girl’s relationship with her beloved grandmother. Sakura and her family soon have to go back to Japan to visit the girl’s dying grandmother, who had told her that seeing the blossoms “is always finest with friends” (9). Sakura is still sad when she returns to America in the winter. But Luke has a surprise for her, because it is almost springtime. This verse explains what happens next (36):

                The entire city
                burst to life, flowers blooming
                on every corner.

                By the river, both its shores
                blazed bright with cherry blossoms!

Sakura’s family and Luke’s family enjoy the blossoms together and Sakura learns for herself how her grandmother was right, that “watching cherry blossoms bloom / is always finest with friends” (39), giving the book a pleasing sense of closure. It’s a beautiful and heartwarming story, and a recommended book for young children dealing with the loss of a grandparent or other relative (or even a pet), or perhaps just facing the challenge of moving to a new home. It’s also a possible way to introduce tanka to young readers, but some tanka writers may feel that it does a disservice to tanka by presuming that all one needs to do is count 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, even though English syllables are not equivalent to the sounds counted in Japanese tanka. It’s a shame, even for the youngest of readers, that tanka is reduced to the following “explanation” at the end of the book (40), with no hint of a deeper understanding, and that no demonstration of tanka as a literary art appears in the poems themselves:

                I am a tanka
                a poem with five short lines
                count my syllables

                you will know I am finished
                when you get to thirty-one

One might respond that this is a possible starting point for young readers—as with haiku, you can at least begin to explore tanka by counting syllables. However, when this counting of syllables is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between the two languages, why give children such misinformation, and not say anything about more important targets? Even young children could handle a little bit more, and certainly deserve more accuracy (yet I recognize that the author is a victim of these misunderstandings too). This misinformation is perhaps more injurious to young readers because of how much more impressionable they are at that age. Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms is such a beautiful story, with lovely illustrations, but like so many tanka books for children (and more commonly, haiku books), it perpetuates a misunderstanding of the genre. While the vast majority of readers won’t care to the degree that established tanka poets will, the problem remains that children (and their unsuspecting parents) will become indoctrinated with misleading information.

Nikki Grimes. Garvey’s Choice. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Wordsong, 2016. 978-1-62979-740-3, hardback, 108 pages.

An earlier tanka book for children, one with similar issues, is Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, published in 2016, aimed at an older audience than the preceding two picture books. It’s an example of the trend of young adult verse novels, where a story is told in poetic stanzas, in this case using “tanka.” The story’s main character, Garvey, is about twelve years old, and readers see through the window of the book’s poems into his middle-school world. But why tanka, and what does the author think it to be? In a note of explanation at the end, Grimes says she chose to use the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic form, but adds that “Not every American poet follows a syllable count for tanka poems, but I think of a syllable count like a puzzle. Each word is a puzzle piece, and I like figuring out which words fit best” (107). Of course, as with haiku, the “puzzle” of tanka has greater challenges than merely counting syllables, and we see almost no attempt in these poems to meet those more significant challenges (the same was true in her prior book of haiku for children, A Pocketful of Poems, a gorgeous publication from Clarion Books in 2001). The author does say she tried to give each tanka a “mood,” but acknowledges that her focus “is more centered on telling a story” (107). Indeed, the book presents prose that is arbitrarily broken into verses of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Although the line breaks are usually artfully done, that’s not always the case, and most of the poems cannot work alone as independent poems, especially so in the following middle verse of three under the heading of “Saturday Play” (21; Angela is Garvey’s sister) and the third verse of four from “It’s Manny Now” (61):

                and it goes like this:
                Dad juggles his ball like a
                hot potato, asks,
                “Who’s up for running passes?”
                Angela always rises.

                are you staring at?”
                “Nothing. I’ve just never seen
                a sandwich like that.”
                “Mmm,” Manny hums between bites.
                “You don’t know what you’re missing.

The book’s narrative succeeds on its own inspirational and timely terms but readers will be hard-pressed to find justification for the text’s presentation in “tanka” form. Verse novels have been a recent trend in children’s literature, but here the presumed form for tanka seems incidental and arbitrary to the plot and characters (and the same issue would be true if another form of poetry had been used—many verse novels seem similarly gimmicky). The verses make no attempt to explore tanka aesthetics or most strategies commonly used by tanka poets—they just redistribute bits of prose as syllable countings (although not without care). The sets of “tanka” do give the book pacing, however, and the titles are not so much titles of individual poems as they are of “sequences” (each developing the plot or the characters in some way), even when many of the book’s sequences have just one poem. Here is the book’s title sequence, “Garvey’s Choice,” presenting the moment when Garvey acts on his decision to join his school’s chorus at an audition (54):

                Ignoring my nerves,
                I march into the classroom,
                squeak out why I’ve come.
                Feeling numb, I take a breath,
                tickle that first note, then soar.

                My voice skips octaves
                like a smooth stone on a lake.
                That’s when they tell me.
                “Well, class,” says the director,
                “Guess we found our new tenor.”

As mentioned, the book is far more successful as a story than as tanka, and on this level Garvey’s Choice comes well recommended. Garvey is pressured by his dad to play sports, but that isn’t what the boy wants to do, and Garvey doesn’t understand why his dad wants to do sports together (we learn later that the dad is hoping to bond with his son, rather than just trying to promote a sport or being more “macho”). Garvey is also bullied at school, but thanks to good friendships he learns to stand up for himself, ignoring teasers and name-callers. Garvey joins the school chorus because he loves music, and through music he builds a stronger identity. Perhaps his interest in music is the thinnest possible connection to tanka, as if tanka is thereby a musical way of telling the story, but that seems to be the closest we come to understanding why tanka was used for this story. Garvey’s friends Joe and Manny “get” him, and understand his love of singing and other interests, and his lack of interest in football and basketball. Garvey also struggles with his weight, but starts jogging, inspired by his friends. He finally connects with his dad when his dad rejoins the old band he was in, as a singer—inspired by his son’s choice to join the school chorus. This is a book about self-esteem and ultimately identity, presenting issues that any middle-schooler might face, including relationships with parents. Here’s how the book ends, with a single poem under the heading of “Summer Duet”:

                Dad’s old band tunes up
                at our house on Saturdays.
                You should hear how his
                bluesy bass rhythms rock my
                high-tenor melodies—sweet!

We should all wish for positive endings like this, whether “tanka” is used to get there or not. Tanka poets may well find themselves distracted by the usurpation of tanka in this manner, but if they can look past that, they will find a beautifully written story. This is a characteristic that all three of these books share in common, and we might hope for a more informed sort of tanka to find its way into future children’s books, but for now we can celebrate at least small steps in the direction of more and more tanka appearing in books of poetry for children.