A few months ago I became a regular reader of Margaret Simon’s blog, Reflections on the Teche, and I almost immediately fell in love. Sometime in March, she posted yet another of her beautiful pictures of the Bayou Teche and I pretty well just asked to come visit her. She was gracious in her reply (for example, she did not say, “I don’t even know you!”), and I hope she understood what I was trying to say: her descriptions of the place around her came alive in a way that made me want to be there. I haven’t visited yet, but Margaret’s awareness of the Bayou that surrounds her infuses much of her writing, so I was delighted to learn about her new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018).
The book is a wonderful mix of elements: Margaret provides poetry and short, informative descriptions of various flora and fauna found on the Bayou Teche, Anna Amelia Cantrell offers whimsical illustrations and Henry Cancienne adds gorgeous photographs. These work together to create mini-sections: a photograph or two, some information, a poem and an illustration. But wait, there’s more! After all that, in each section readers are offered two entry points to add their own ideas to the book: a writing prompt and a sketch/drawing prompt.
I loved it – and I had a feeling my students would love it, too, but… it’s summer. No students at hand. So I turned to my favourite stand-in students: my children. I told myself that I just wanted to know if they would find the format as compelling as I did, that I was not actually forcing them to do school work during the summer… and then, I got a clever idea. You see, we’ve been on the road for a while now. First, we drove from Ontario to South Carolina to visit my family. After a ten day visit, we hopped back in the car for a series of adventures – an overnight in a cave in Tennessee, a trip to a waterpark, a drive through multiple states and, finally, a visit to my sister’s family in Kansas.
In terms of landscape, it’s safe to say that Kansas is not much like Ontario. As we drove along, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills and the sky and the farms and, well, all of it. My darling children were more engrossed in their tablets than the landscape and, even though they humored me by tearing their eyes from the screens when I called out “Look at the ________!”, their lack of interest was driving me crazy – until I realized I might have a solution at my fingertips: Bayou Song. I knew Margaret had written this book with kids in mind. In fact, I asked her about the audience she envisioned as she wrote.
“I absolutely envisioned my audience as my students. I’ve taught them poetry every year and have come to be known as the poetry teacher. I love this. My heroes are teachers like Amy VanDerwater, Laura Shovan, Irene Latham, and Laura Purdie Salas. I turn to their work over and over for teaching and writing inspiration. I also wrote it for teachers! I want teachers to find a way to enter into poetry with kids that is not intimidating but inspiring and fun.”
I had a feeling my kids and their cousins (all boys, ages 7, 9, 9, and 10) might, indeed, be inspired and have fun if I could get them to read even a bit of Bayou Song. So one morning, as we drove to the Milford Nature Center, I challenged them to observe the plants and animals around them. They were suspicious but I played up the fun and the challenge and they became champion lookers. My nephews are from Kansas while my boys are first time visitors, so their observations built on each other as we explored.
We walked through the nature center and watched the rescued bobcats, turkey vulture, kestrel, bald eagle, prairie dogs, snakes, and owls… we peered into the stream and saw the water bugs, minnows, frogs, herons… we chased down butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles as we wandered down the trail… we heard the cicadas, the bees, the birds, the water…. we found the tracks of deer, raccoon, herons, humans… In short, we immersed ourselves in the landscape for several hours.
When we got home, we turned to Bayou Song to see how our observations helped us. Margaret is a great believer in poetry for kids and asked her own students about parts of this book. Here’s what she says:
So, I followed Margaret’s lead. I asked for the kids advice: is this a good book to use in a classroom? We opened the book and the boys were immediately drawn to the Legend of Bayou Teche.
Legend of Bayou Teche
Long ago, in the days when Native American tribes lived
in harmony with the land, there lived a huge venomous
snake. The snake’s body stretched for miles and miles.
The Chitimacha tribe warriors gathered together to
conquer this enemy snake. To kill a hundred-mile-long
snake was no easy task, so it took days for the snake
to die. As the snake fought to survive, it twisted and
turned and created a great gorge in the soil, eventually
dying and decomposing, leaving behind Bayou Teche.
“Creepy,” said one. “Cool,” said another. “Turn the page!” said the third. I did, and we saw this:
“LOOK! It’s a snake and a tree!” “And it’s a river!” “There are birds.” We read the poem. The boys nodded a lot and got into a debate about creepy vs cool. Then we read the prompts:
Write it: Choose a place in nature (an ocean, a tree, a flower, an animal)
to write about. If you use personification (as in “I am a Beckoning Brown
Bayou”), you become the thing you are writing about. How would an ocean,
tree, flower, or animal feel, act, hear, smell, or see?
Sketch it: What is a waterway near you? Does it have a shape? Does the shape
match its name? Draw the waterway so that it matches its name.
We repeated this process for the first few sections – one boy lingered over the “non-fiction,” another liked the drawings, two had me read poems out loud repeatedly – until one of the kids looked at me and said, “When do we get to write?” Um, in mid-July a bunch of kids just asked me if they could write and respond to poetry. “How about now?” I suggested. I already had the paper, pens and colored pencils. The kids dove into drawing, writing, and sharing their ideas with each other. They talked about what we had seen. They thought about things in new ways – like leaves as hair or trees as rivers. All four boys were intensely focused as they worked. Here’s a peek into their creations:
(The fourth boy was also inspired, but creating his grand vision – the Kansas River and several complicated elements of animals and trees – required more stillness than he could muster in one July sitting, and he asked me not to share his unfinished product.)
Clearly, Bayou Song is an open invitation to children and adults (because, I can’t lie, I wrote a little something, too) to experience their environment and respond to it in ways that are simultaneously thoughtful and playful. When we went canoeing yesterday, the boy in my canoe was still imagining himself as various animals and noticing things as we floated by. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for more. As a teacher, I can’t wait to use it as a mentor text and as an inspiration in my classroom next year.
Would you like to know more about Bayou Song? Continue your tour at these blogs, where you’ll find more poems and illustrations from the book, interviews with Margaret Gibson Simon, and other surprises.
Friday, June 22: Michelle Kogan
Tuesday, June 26: Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
Friday, July 6: Kimberly Hutmacher at Kimberly Hutmacher Writes
Friday, July 13: Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise
Tuesday, July 17: Laura Shovan
Tuesday, July 24 Amanda Potts at Persistence and Pedagogy
Friday, July 27: Carol Varsalona at Beyond LiteracyLink
Monday, July 30 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
Friday, Aug. 3 Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work that Matters