I work at the Pennsylvania Center for the Book and a new book of poetry by local author Marjorie Maddox came across my desk recently. The title immediately caught my attention: “A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry.” I thought, collective nouns and poetry? What a great idea!
I'm a former elementary school teacher. So, I immediately started thinking about all the possibilities for this book in the classroom. Learning about collective nouns, words that describe groups of animals, individuals, or things is often part of the curriculum. When I wanted a fun way to help children understand the concept of collective nouns, I used to use a book by Ruth Heller called “A Cache of Jewels and Other Collective Nouns.” That book just gives you a page with one word, the collective noun, and a simple illustration. So, you can imagine my delight at discovering Marjorie Maddox’s entertaining poems, along with Philip Huber's imaginative scratchboard artwork.
This book takes Heller's idea a step further, with poems that beg to be shared aloud, and art that stretches the imagination. The author's note explains that collective nouns originally came from both oral and written traditions. They combined sound and meaning to give us an impression of the life each animal species leads. You're familiar with the idea that a collection of birds is a flock, but we also have a tower of giraffes, a murder of crows, and a crash of rhinos. Each of the 14 poems tells a fanciful story about a collective noun. My favorite poem is the first one in the collection, “A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes.”
A rhumba of rattlesnakes knows how to shake
their long, slinky bodies and twist till daybreak.
They wobble their heads, give their hips a quick quake.
They jitterbug tails till their skeletons ache.
They rattle maracas and rat-tat on drums,
blow in tin trumpets, uncurl their tongues
to hiss a sweet song that invites you to come
a little bit closer. But you know to run
way over here and avoid the mistake
of dancing the rhumba, with ten rattlesnakes.
Philip Huber's double spread illustration of jitter bugging rattlesnakes, dressed in beads and top hats, playing instruments and singing expresses the magnetic allure of the rattlesnake rhumba. All the other poems are just as much fun to read aloud. I envy the teachers who will have the chance to do all the learning activities that I know that this book will inspire.
Reviewer Karla Schmit is the director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book.
"A Crossing of Zebras" will be reprinted in December 2019.