Poetry in the Wild: Ice Cycle and Fungi Grow by Maria Gianferrari
Book Review + Author Interview + Activity
An author as versatile as the subject matters she presents, Maria Gianferrari always finds a fresh perspective. Maria has written several picture books including: Hawk Rising (Roaring Brook Press), Whoo-Ku Haiku (G.B. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers), You and the Bowerbird (Roaring Brook Press), and Thank a Farmer (Norton Books for Young Readers). All of these books uncover the joy in nature, from sights seen to sounds heard.
I first noted the strength of Maria’s work in the book Ice Cycle: Poems about the Life of Ice (Millbrook Press), where the unassuming world of ice takes on such tangible qualities with her words. Artwork by Jieting Chen parallels Maria’s poetry with multiple textures and styles. The poems are short and sound-driven, taking the reader on a journey from frosty freshwater ice to the outer limits of crackling sea ice. With its accessible text that emphasizes real-world observation, Ice Cycle could be a great piece in both language arts and science classrooms (or just a fun read with your kids!).
Gianferrari’s upcoming release, Fungi Grow (Beach Lane Books), illustrated by Diana Sudyka, has a boldness in color and word that yet again presents the delight one can find in the natural world. There is an overall narrative about types of fungi, with images that allow the reader to take a closer look at the amazing unseen world of mushrooms. Diana Sudyka’s illustrations encourage imagining the bigger story about fungi with water color paintings that dance and often become one with the words.
Overall, both books show the beauty of art joining science. As noted, Gianferrari is a writer with expert craft, so although both Ice Cycle and Fungi Grow are poetry, they contrast in style. I had a conversation with Maria Gianferrari that centered on modes of communicating well in STEAM writing that could inspire our scientists to consider how essential art is to their cause.
Maria, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me, especially about poetry, something I am extremely passionate about. I wanted to focus our conversation on how “form follows function”. I have in front of me two beautiful poetry books you have written. One in a more vignette style: Ice Cycle: Poems about the Life of Ice, illustrated by Jieting Chen, and one in a lyrical style: Fungi Grow, illustrated by Diana Sudyka.
So first, Ice Cycle: I love the consistency of Ice Cycle, in that it is clearly written by a poet who knows what she is doing. Not a word is wasted! It uses many poetic devices like onomatopoeia and anaphora, which could be taught directly at a higher level, or in a more indirect way at the elementary level. What made you choose this form for talking about ice?
Thanks for inviting me here, Danielle, and for your very kind words about the books.
The first poem that I wrote is the second one that appears in the book, ICE GROWS. The inspiration for the book itself began with a frost photograph that editor Carol Hinz had posted on Instagram. I was enthralled by the beautiful feathery patterns, and I wanted to mimic movement—the way that frost fans and forks and flowers and forms these gorgeous and intricate patterns—that is the visual poetry; and how the alliterative and liquid fricative sounds are the aural poetry (so are the whimsical names, like pancake and cat ice). Writing the ICE SPEAKS poem was fun—using onomatopoeic sounds mumbling and grumbling to personify it in a way.
Poetry and science really go hand in hand and it was the best way to celebrate both the visual and the aural aspects of ice. Illustrator Jieting Chen did such a lovely job of bringing ice to life in her beautiful art.
Image Credit: Jieting Chen/Millbrook Press
From a whole book standpoint, I like how Ice Cycle follows a narrative arc, journeying from land ice to sea ice. Can you explain how this idea came to be?
That really came about during the revision process. I didn’t write the poems in the order that they now appear in the book, but upon revising, I felt like I needed a kind of universal thread to connect everything together. That’s when I came up with the narrative life cycle type of structure: the birth of ice, growing, flowing, playing, speaking, and taking on various forms and shapes, fresh and sea and ice at sea, then melting/dying and beginning again. I also liked the kind of play on words with Ice Cycle/Icicle.
Now to your upcoming release, Fungi Grow. The poetry within this book takes a more lyrical approach. What was your thought process when choosing the format for Fungi Grow?
Fungi Grow also takes a circular life cycle type of approach—it begins and ends with the spores the “sort of” seeds, but takes more of a flowing than a vignette-y approach if that makes sense. The vignettes are visual, in the way that Diana chose to frame some of the sections, which is such a lovely idea.
In Ice Cycle, the headings were like a poem in and of itself. Fungi Grow acts as the refrain for each spread and covers a particular aspect of fungi/mushrooms—whether it’s how spores spread, mycelium threads or how mushrooms fruit and erupt from dead stuff. What both books have in common are the use of vivid and playful verbs, and lots of movement and dynamism because of those word choices.
Image Credit: Diana Sudyka/Beach Lane Books
The artwork provides strong support for your lyrical poetry within Fungi Grow, with words often incorporated into the artwork. Can you talk a bit more about the relationship of art and words in this book, and perhaps others that you have done?
I have long been a fan of Diana’s art, so I was absolutely thrilled when she signed on to illustrate! Her style of art is so organic and whimsical and it’s really the perfect match for the movement in the text. I love how she echoed the onomatopoeic sounds in the hand-lettering, from the fluffiness of PUFF!, to the way the stench is emanating in squiggly lines from the PEE-EW of the stinky stinkhorns.
Image Credit: Diana Sudyka/Beach Lane Books
As a picture book author, I have been so fortunate to work with a multitude of multi-talented illustrators/artists/creators, and they always add in those details that take the text to new heights, a visual voice if you will. My job as the author is to leave enough space for them to work their magic (and white space for readers to pause and reflect and take both the words and the art in). Spare, poetic text gives artists that space to explore.
Both books clearly have a STEAM emphasis. Do you think the different formats present a unique tone that will impact how the reader interprets the science?
In general, I think that poetry is one of the best ways to frame and present scientific STEM/STEAM information because of the way that it’s imagistic, being able to distill both complex ideas into comprehensible chunks and express emotion. I think, or at least I hope, that both have tones that are inviting to the readers—they are definitely both celebratory in nature, weaving in scientific language and concepts. Then for back matter nerds like me, there is a lot more detailed information presented there for those fact-loving info-kids.
Any advice for how science or language arts teachers might use both of these books?
To begin with both can be used for classroom read alouds. For Ice Cycle, educators can read the poems out of order, or take a kind of “browse aloud” approach, reading a selection of them. Fungi Grow works well as a read aloud too. Educators can focus on the main text and ask students to identify verbs and how they’re being used. What emotions or feelings do they evoke?
Both books have cross-curricular appeal—language arts educators can focus on craft, literary devices, diction and structure. Science teachers can take more of a STEM angle and talk about information in the back matter. For Fungi Grow, they can focus on the sidebars (aka layered text) where the science is explained in more detail and discuss how the sidebars echo the information presented in the main text.
Another fun thing to do is also one I learned in grad school, to create an “imitation.” Take one of the poems or spreads and, using a different topic/subject matter, create their own poem, piece or of lyrical writing that follows a similar pattern. It’s a way of working out those poetry muscles.
Now to praxis. As a poet, I see poetry in almost every moment of the day. How do you see the “poet’s mindset” translating into scientific observation? How can our children benefit from this?
I have a poetic sensibility—it’s the way that I see the world, and the kind of writing that comes most naturally for me. Poetry and science do truly go hand-in-hand, distilling emotion and synthesizing information in a tight and effective way. Both are about observation—recording details, especially in a field book/art journal type of way (sketching/doodling what’s being observed too). A good example of this is in another recent book, You and the Bowerbird, about a budding birder, beautifully portrayed in the art by comics artist, Maris Wicks. You can see the way Maris mirrored the birding theme with the cover (under the dust jacket), and the girl-ornithologist’s notes and sketches--the book’s endpapers are her field journal.
With both poetry and science we are paying attention while using our senses: what do we see and describe in visual detail—size and shape and color? What do we hear, or smell, touch and taste? Both are about curiosity and wonder—the places we find awe, and beauty and delight—this is one of the best ways to be mindful and present, to feel peace and a sense of connectedness with the natural world. Being in the moment helps assuage feelings of fear and anxiety that are beneficial for kids and adults alike!
Image Credit: Maris Wicks/Roaring Brook Press
Is there anything else you would like to add about your craft when it comes to
Another thing I love about writing STEM-STEAMish poetry is that the scientific language in and of itself can often be so poetic, and I love weaving in those details and words and names in the text. I love the verb “calving” for the way an iceberg breaks: “Icebergs crack/and calf in half.”—it’s like giving birth (so that sort of echoes the life cycle theme again).
Image Credit: Jieting Chen/Millbrook Press
When conditions are not ideal, some spores go into dormancy, which made me think of the Italian verb, dormire, to sleep which inspired this line: “Spores sleep/and wait/for when/to begin again.” Combining poetic writing and STEM information is a form of literary experimentation—it’s fun and playful too!
More About Maria Gianferrari:
Is there anything Maria can't write about? I am unsure. Maria has written several children's books that focus on the natural world from multiple perspectives, whether it be as a human, plant, or animal. Her most recent works are You and the Bowerbird, Thank a Farmer, and Fungi Grow. Find out more about Maria at mariagianferrari.com.
More About the Artists:
Jieting Chen is a New York-based illustrator, animator, and designer. With years of experience, she produced and directed several award-winning short animations. Her illustrations are strongly influenced by oriental paintings. The point of views are delicate and sensitive.
Diana Sudyka grew up hearing stories of her grandfather, an ardent forager, bringing home chicken of the woods and maitake mushrooms for meals. Her favorite edible mushroom is the delicious morel that popped up in her yard last spring. Diana lives with her family in Evanston, Illinois.
Activity: Exploring Colors and Textures in the Natural World
The colors and textures of the natural world that are found in both Ice Cycle and Fungi Grow are bold and striking. As a result, I came up with an activity that allows children to observe these colors and textures to try and recreate them with supplies from home.
1. Go for a nature walk and take pictures. Your pictures could be broad, or they could be focused on a particular thing in the natural world. For us, we took pictures of different fungi we found, trying to achieve as large of a range of colors and types that we could.
2. Observe the pictures. What colors and textures do you see? If you want to take a more scientific approach, talk about reasons for why these colors and textures might be.
3. Gather supplies to create watercolor paintings with different textures. Some good ways of changing the texture might be:
wax from crayons
4. Draw a picture of one of the photos and paint it in. Experiment with the different textures!