Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on February 5, 2016
The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects
By Paul B. Janeczko; Illustrated by Chris Raschka
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 3/10/2015
After a fair, but hard-won B in a children’s literature course at the state university I attended in 1987, I gained a respect and appreciation for what librarians and educators do to promote reading. I learned about the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children as well as the John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution in children’s literature. I learned that as an adult you read picture books or chapter books with selectivity and accountability, not only to scaffold content, but because children are discerning readers who demand relevant, authentic, robust reading.
One expressed regret after the course was not reading enough poetry written for younger readers. My professor indicated that the world of children’s literature did a super job of publishing, reviewing and recognizing great poetry. So, what poets might be included in a reading list? She recommended a course being offered the following semester. Other priorities kept me from following through… fueling more regret.
Which brings me to a popular anthology that would be a fantastic substitute for that poetry course I regret not taking in college.
In The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects, poems are expertly culled by Paul B. Janeczko and wonderfully illustrated by Chris Raschka for their geographical, cultural and historical context.
This anthology is quite unlike anything at refining a reader’s knowledge of poetry. Janeczko forms the basis of the perfect class syllabus in the introduction. He organizes the collection around 50 objects with poetry across major literary periods since the early Middle Ages through the Postmodern Period. He even encourages readers to seek more poetry in the smaller eras and movements within the major eras… poets from the Harlem Renaissance, which popularized African-American writing and art through the 1920s, for example.
O, sweep of stars over Harlem streets,
O, little breath of oblivion that is night.
A city building
To a mother’s song.
A city dreaming
To a lullaby.
Reach up your hand, dark boy, and take a star.
Out of the little breath of oblivion
That is night,
Poems from the Beat poets, Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver are also included as well as the namesake poem of the anthology’s title.
The Death of the Hat
Once every man wore a hat.
In the ashen newsreels,
the avenues of cities
are broad rivers flowing with hats.
The ballparks swelled
with thousands of strawhats,
brims and bands,
rows of men smoking
and cheering in shirtsleeves.
Hats were the law.
The went without saying
You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.
You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.
Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.
Poetry can be abstract and dense, but this collection showcases verse that draws pain, joy or beauty from observations about objects… like hats. A few of the poets in the collection wrote verse specifically for children. Quite defensible given The Death of the Hat perfectly introduces influential poets of their time with poems about things, authentic and tangible to reading audiences ages 8 to 12. And fills in the chasms for verse-illiterates like me.
Paul B. Janeczko, who lives in Hebron, Maine, has anthologized numerous poetry collections including A Poke in the I, illustrated by Chris Raschka and Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
Chris Raschka lives in New York City. He is the illustrator of many books for children, including the Caldecott winner The Hello, Goodbye Window (written by Norton Jester) and A Ball for Daisy.
Candlewick Press, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, publishes outstanding children’s books for readers of all ages.