Monday, October 8, 2007

Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems

George, Kristine O'Connell. 2002. Swimming Upstream: Middle School Poems. Ill. by Debbie Tilley. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0618152504

Plot Summary
Kristine O'Connell George captures the life of the first year in a middle school through the voice of a young girl. George creates clever poems about the day to day trappings of those awkward middle school years and the experiences that students face during this time of development.

Critical Analysis
Kristine O'Connell George creatively transported me back to those three challenging years of my life--middle school. Through her poetry, George shows the timeless experiences that middle school holds through the voice of a young girl. While reading, I wasn't sure of when these poems took place until almost half way through the book, there was a reference to email in the poem "So Much Better Than I Expected" (45).

The imagery George shows through her poetry is accurate. The reader can see what is important to the narrator. She uses rhyme in some of her poetry, but many are free verse. Either way, the images are timeless. These experiences that George shows in her poetry show careful observation of life in middle school. In the poem "Group," George shows how friendships form, "Friday night is our first official United Nations Slumber Party." Since I went to a middle school with a variety of people, I could relate to this poem and thought the name of the slumber party was cute.

In the poem "Network, " the reader gets a sense of urgency by the use of space in the poem. "Late breaking news" is spread out to four lines, and the "news" is squished together. The reader gets a sense of how important this information is because it must be shared very fast.

One of my favorite poems from this book is called "Un-Tied Tongue" because I often have this experience. George shows through her diction and visually that our words do get tied up in our mouth. "I knock chotato pips off the runch loom table. My mind scrambles like a gabble scrame, and I even mangle his name" (60).

Will boys understand these poems? Most are universal experiences, but what about when the girls are giggling in the bathroom at the dance waiting to be asked by a boy (47)? It is hard for me to see if a boy will understand this one.

In "Zach's Watch" the narrator observes her fellow classmate giving an eighth grader information about his watch. George concludes by stating that the eighth grader doesn't give Zach "the time of day" (56). This is one example of how George uses puns and humor in this collection.

Although I did not play flute, I appreciate George's haiku about playing it. In the beginning of the book, the flute "is broken" (24) and then it "suffers severe case of laryngitis" (30), but as the year progresses, the narrator does get "a few flutelike notes" (44) from the flute and finally recognizes a tune "After a few notes, this song seems familiar. Twinkle little star?" (58). I think anyone who has tried to play an instrument feels the same as the narrator about her flute.

No subject is off limits to George. She writes about young love in "Does He or Doesn't He" by sharing the note passing experience and what is next. "Does he like me? Well, he kind of does. Now what?" (54). In "Growth and Development," George writes about that movie. I remember watching that movie. George captures the moment perfectly when she writes that the girls "then peek to see if anyone else is really watching that movie" (69). The experience is universal.

One of the most touching poems to me was "That One" in which George examines the school bully. The narrator overheard a conversation that she wasn't supposed to hear and learned that the boy who scares them so much "is coming to school hungry, sleeping in the garage to hide from his dad, who hasn't seen his mom in two years" (64). George sets these stanzas apart from the rest of the poem. It gives the reader a visual sense of how the bully is apart from the group.

Debbie Tilley does a good job reinforcing the text with her illustrations. On each page, there is a wavy vertical line and circles all over indicating that movement of a stream. Sporadically in the book are four double page illustrations. These pencil illustrations are like photographs of what happens in the hallway, the lunchroom, the band hall and the classroom. The subjects of the illustrations are clever. For example, in the hallway illustration, one student must stand on a stack of books to reach the top locker. This shows how Tilley understands the physical development of a middle school student as well as the irony of the "short kid" getting the top locker.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the poems that George created to expose the middle school experience. These are tough years, and George does not treat them dismissively. She understands and respects the trials that middle school students face and humorously gives these experiences voice.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Readers facing this upstream swim can get their feet wet here, and those toweling themselves off afterwards will find much they can relate to in this engaging volume."
THE HORN BOOK: "George's poetry is unpretentious and down-to-earth; the voice is believably that of a twelve-year-old."


Look at Kristine George's website at for a class discussion guide and related activities

*Acrostic poem: have students write a poem using their name (see "SNOB" page 41).

*Have students take photos of different aspects of their school life (lockers, eating in the cafeteria, pep rallies, students reading, etc.). Have students pick one photo and write a poem about the picture.

*Do some free writing about the daily experiences one faces. How can those thoughts be turned into poetry?

Related books: Bagert, Brod. Hormone Jungle: Coming of Age in Middle School. ISBN 0929895878

Ambrosini, Michelle. Poetry Workshop for Middle School: Activities That Inspire Meaningful Language Learning. ISBN 0872075176

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