Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures

Animal Ark is a visual treat that combines animal photographs with haiku poetry.

Picture book, nonfiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.3
4 out of 5 stars

This is a very interesting picture book collaboration between Joel Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, and Kwame Alexander, the Newbery medal winning poet. While I was first interested in reading this book because of my love for all things Kwame Alexander writes, I must admit that I think the photographs steal the spotlight.
All of the animals are shown with either a white or black background. This lets the reader really focus on some of the details that can be noticed in the close-up photographs. The other thing the lack of background does is renders each animal at roughly the same size. Frogs, birds, tigers, millipedes all appear the same size. This was intentional on the photographer’s part as he didn’t want any animal to appear larger or more important than the others. It reflects the idea that all creatures are equally important to the world.

In the Note from the Photographer at the back of the book, Sartore states:

By introducing the entire world to thousands of photographs of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even insects, I hope we can get everyone following, liking, texting, tweeting, and even talking about this wondrous world of ours…I want people around the world to look these animals in the eye, and then fall in love with creatures as dazzling as a pheasant or as odd as an octopus. And once we love something, won’t we do anything to save it?

Alexander has provided the poetry to narrate the story of the different animals. This is not a picture book that is meant to educate about the animals that we see, but is instead meant to make us feel and connect us to them. For most of the book, each animal has a three-line, haiku-style poem that captures the essence of the animal. In the Note from the Writer, Alexander makes a connection between poetry and photographs:

Both have the ability to bypass the skin and enter through the heart, transforming what is often difficult to convey into something universal.

Located roughly in the middle of the book is a longer narrative style poem, surrounded by small photos of more animals. This poem is meant to connect the reader, a human, with the world of the animals and implores us to “take care of our home.”

Animal Ark is a young reader companion book to the larger work, Photo Ark. Children will love to look at the stunning photographs, where they will notice new details about even the most familiar of animals. The short poems that accompany each photograph enhance the mood of the animal image and sound wonderful when read aloud. The longer poem on the full-page gatefold might be over the heads of very young children, but could be used with older children to open conversations about extinct and endangered animals.

A funny, blooper-style outtakes video showing the photographer at work can be found here: This would be a hit at a read aloud of the story!

More information about the Photo Ark project can be found on the National Geographic website:

Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures
Photographs by Joel Sartore; Words by Kwame Alexander
National Geographic, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4263-2767-4


This is a delightful story that plays with words and scores a nutmeg goal with the message that the best way to engage children with books is to let them select for themselves.

Chapter book, novel in verse
Interest Level: 5-8; Reading Level: 3.9
5 out of 5 stars

Kwame Alexander writes books that kids want to read. He adds sports and a true understanding of the struggles of tweens and teenagers to poetry and captures readers that would normally never look at a novel in verse. The primary and secondary characters in Booked are rich and well-developed.

Nick, the main character and voice of the story, is an eighth grader who loves soccer. He plays on a travel soccer team and has a friendly rivalry with his best friend, Coby, who plays on another team. Nick also struggles to deal with two bullies in his school, and he is trying to figure out how to talk to the girl he has a crush on.

Family is a big part of Nick’s story as well. He has a close relationship with his mother, but struggles to connect with his dad. His father is a linguistic professor who wrote a dictionary…a dictionary that he makes Nick read every night:

You’re the only kid
on your block
at school
who lives in a prison
of words.
He calls it the pursuit of excellence.
You call it Shawshank.

The changing relationship between Nick and his parents is another strength of the story. Nick’s parents announce they are getting separated and his mom is moving out. Alexander handles the confusion and mixed feelings that Nick goes through in a sensitive and honest way.

Throughout the book, Nick uses many of the fancy words found in his father’s dictionary. Alexander highlights these words by defining them in footnotes, just as they appear in the dictionary that Nick’s father created. This contrast between the hate that Nick shows for reading the dictionary and the extent that it has become part of his identity is interesting to observe.

In addition to celebrating words, Alexander celebrates books in the story. Nick ends up in the hospital and his parents make him read in order to earn time to watch TV. Forced into it, he luckily has an awesome librarian to help connect him with books that are interesting to a 12-year-old boy. Katrina Hedeen wrote in a review for Horn Book Magazine, “Alexander understands reluctant readers deeply, and here hands them a protagonist who is himself a smart, reading-averse kid who just wants to enjoy the words that interest him on his own terms.”

For students who are reluctant to read a book full of poetry, tell them that the pages have lots of white space, so it’s a pretty quick read! Then read them some of the poems:

Does it sink
like a wrecked ship in the sea?

Or wade in the water
like a boy overboard?

Maybe it just floats around and around…

or does it drown?

In Booked Alexander has crafted a book that will engage all types of readers, even many of those who say they don’t like to read. And you’ll never believe how this book ends…

by Kwame Alexander
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
ISBN 9780544570986

Jazz Day: the making of a famous photograph

by Roxane Orgill; illustrated by Francis Vallejo
Candlewick Press, 2016.
ISBN 9780763669546.
Picture book, informational, poetry
2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award
Interest level: Grades 5 and up
Reading level: 4.7
5 out of 5 stars

In 1958, in front of a nondescript brownstone in Harlem, a man named Art Kane managed to gather 58 jazz musicians, and using a borrowed camera, captured one of the most iconic photos that would symbolize the “Golden Age of Jazz.” In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Roxane Orgill tell us that “the poems in this collection were all inspired by Art Kane’s photograph Harlem 1958. The verses about the musicians are based on fact” (p. 43).

Orgill has recreated that day back in 1958 through a series of free verse poems. She begins by focusing on the photographer, Art Kane, and how he is alone on the street, wondering if anyone at all will show up. Subsequent poems focus on the arrival of some of the jazz artists, and some poems depict funny scenes involving the neighborhood children who hung around the location and were able to interact with the musicians. The free verse style of the poetry, combined with the slightly abstract style of illustrations, provides a reading experience that is both relaxed and slightly chaotic at the same time. It is laid back and free flowing, much like jazz music itself.image from inside Jazz Day

While reading this book, I was inspired to search for and listen to the jazz recordings of the artists in the book, and I am sure I am not the only one who will be inspired to do this. This book would make an excellent accompaniment to a program in jazz studies.

The topic and reading level of the poetry make this a picture book that is intended for an older reader. Kane’s Harlem 1958 photograph is included, as well as an Author’s Note, biographies of the featured musicians, source notes, and an extensive bibliography. The Author’s Note does a very good job being honest with the reader and highlighting areas where certain events or people have been fictionalized.

Overall, this is an exceptionally well done informational text that is very creative in the way that the author and illustrator have depicted the events of the day and the artists that participated.

Additional information
To watch and listen to a performance by Count Basie:

eJazzLines has lots of Jazz resources, including books about Jazz that are organized by age group:

Connections to Indianapolis — Indianapolis has a very rich jazz heritage and has been the home to some well-known jazz musicians. Learn more about jazz in Indianapolis.

A Great Day in Indy: In 2008, photographer Mark Sheldon recreated the famous Harlem 1958 featuring over 100 Indiana musicians. View Indy 2008

Discover the members of the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame

NPR provides a look at the history of the Indianapolis jazz scene: The Once-Thriving Jazz Scene Of … Indianapolis?

Book review: Words with Wings; 5 out of 5 stars #bookaday

Words with Wings book coverby Nikki Grimes
Novel in verse
Interest level: grades 3-6
Reading level: 4.3
Coretta Scott King Author Honor, 2014
Young Hoosier Book Award nominee, 2016-2017
5 out of 5 stars

This novel in verse would make a wonderful classroom read aloud. It is shorter in length, with easily understood poems that come together to tell the story of Gabby. Gabby is a daydreamer who is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce and moving to a new school.

Gabby originally began daydreaming to escape her parents’ arguing, but it starts to take over much of her life, taking the place of being mentally present in class, making real friends, and sharing life with her mother, who is less than understanding. Luckily, at Gabby’s new school, her teacher tries to understand Gabby and her daydreams, and helps design a classroom environment that will help her succeed in school and life.

The short free verse poems, switch between telling the current story, as well as letting us join Gabby in some of her daydreams. This would be a great mentor text for a free verse poetry unity about memories and everyday life, but it also can help children understand feelings associated with divorce. The teacher is also very inspirational and it is nice to acknowledge non-traditional thinking students.