PPBF – Traveling the Blue Road: Poems of the Sea

Those of you who read my Perfect Pairing post this past Tuesday may notice a theme this week: the color blue. And those of you who regularly read my Perfect Picture Book reviews no doubt will be thinking that there must be a refugee or migrant, or a few, among the poems in this anthology.

Title: Traveling the Blue Road: Poems of the Sea

Collected By: Lee Bennett Hopkins

Illustrated By: Bob Hansman & Jovan Hansman

Publisher/Date: Seagrass Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc./2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes/Topics: poetry; sea travel; history; non-fiction; migration; slavery

Opening (from the Introduction by Hopkins:

Standing on a balcony during a recent Caribbean cruise, I gazed across endless miles of water. The sea – awesome, breathtaking, frightening, filled with wonder – has always beckoned dreamers from shore to shore who have, as Rebecca Kai Dotlich phrases it in her poem “Sea,” “traveled away from,/traveled toward…” The sea has also carried less willing travelers across its wide expanses, both those compelled by hard circumstances to brave its blue distances and those captured into bondage to make bleak, terrifying crossings.

Brief Synopsis: A collection of 14 poems, penned by 14 different poets, about sea journeys from the 15th through the 21st century, including those undertaken by choice and those undertaken under duress.

Links to Resources:

  • Back matter includes Notes about each journey and information About the Poets;
  • Have you ever visited an ocean or sea or taken a sea journey? Describe the water or the journey;
  • Write a poem about the sea, a journey or a sea journey.

Why I Like this Book:

In Traveling the Blue Road, Hopkins encourages readers to think of the sea not just as a wide expanse, but also as a road, a route from here to there, along which travelers have journeyed for millennia. Arranged chronologically from the journey of Columbus and his crew in the late 15th century to the present-day journeys of refugees and the lives of itinerant fishermen on houseboats in the Philippines, these poems encourage readers to reflect on both the promise and perils of sea journeys, to gain greater insight into the bravery and fears of the travelers, and to empathize with the willing, and most especially the unwilling, voyagers.

In Voyage, a poem about Columbus’ journey, for instance, Paul B. Janeczko notes “[f]ear growing like a thunderhead”, “flea bites as common as rain”, and the weary sailors’ offering of “a prayer of thanks” when land draws near. In With Fearless Faith and Everything to Lose, Allan Wolf recounts the journey of the Pilgrims, “hopeful souls” who “huddle in the hold” of a ship that is a mere “fragile fleck” as “heathen winds harass and scold”.

Utilizing first-person point-of-view, Marilyn Nelson helps readers feel the fear of enslaved Africans in Kidnapped by Aliens about the 18th century middle passage of slaves. From the notion of the slave traders as “aliens” to the idea of lying “curled around terror, facing the blue unknown”, Nelson creates images that long will linger.

In a pair of poems about the voyages of MS St. Louis in 1939, Jane Yolen captures the hope of the “[b]lue road” in Blue the Color of Hope: On the Ship St. Louis. She then recounts the dashing of hope in Return to the Reich: On the Ship St. Louis, as first Cuba, then the US deny entry to the Jewish passengers, and “[w]e were sent back home/To a place where murderers waited.” And in Mediterranean Blue about 21st century migrants, Naomi Shihab Nye reminds readers, “[t]hey are the bravest people on earth right now,/don’t dare look down on them.”

Evoking, as they do, so many thought-provoking images, the poems in Traveling the Blue Road are targeted to the older end of the picture book range, and, I believe, are a wonderful resource for classrooms and homes, to be read as a set, or individually.

Beginning with archival images, and utilizing a predominantly blue and gray palette, the Hansmans’ pastel, charcoal, pencil, crayon, marker and cut paper illustrations evoke the past and are often, themselves, poetic and abstract, furthering the emotional impact of the poems they accompany.

A Note about Craft:

I read Traveling the Blue Road a few weeks ago because it’s a nominee for a Cybils Award, in the poetry category, for which I’m serving as a first-round panelist. The haunting poems have stayed with me, and I chose to review it here because, I believe, the historical perspective the collection offers will help children, and adults, understand better the hopes and fears of today’s desperate sea travelers – the refugees and migrants. I also believe that with its ability to evoke images and convey emotions, poetry is a wonderful medium to tackle tough subjects, such as those raised here. I invite writers to consider whether a difficult story you’re writing may work better as a rhymed or free verse poem, a series of poems, or a novel in verse.

Visit Hopkins’ website to learn more about this prolific and award-winning author, poet and children’s poetry anthologist.

Per the book jacket, St. Louis-based father-son artists Bob Hansman and Jovan Hansman first met at City Faces, a program whose “mission is to create and provide a safe haven and strong peer-based environment for all children living in Clinton-Peabody public housing”. Bob taught art classes at City Faces, and later adopted Jovan, an active participant as a young teen, who now runs the program.

An imprint of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc., Seagrass Press “aims to nurture young readers as they grow by offering a range of informative and entertaining titles.”

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

6 responses to “PPBF – Traveling the Blue Road: Poems of the Sea

  1. This book sounds interesting, and with such a crackerjack editor, it’s bound to be superb. Definitely, a thoughtful and original addition to books about migration. I’ll be putting this one on my reading list. Thank you!

  2. This sounds wonderful. I’ve always been drawn to the sea, making many crossings on cruise ships and staring at the vastness for the deep azure sea and wondering about how hard it was for my ancestors leaving England in the 1600s, Ireland in 1860s, and the many stories of slave ships. This book would appeal to me — especially with such wonderful kidlit group of poets. Sounds like a beautiful book to take your time with.

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