Thursday, 6 January 2022

Carol Varsalona is ringing in a new year of Poetry Friday blogging at Beyond Literacy Link. Click here to find poetic offerings from around the kidlitosphere.

Happy first Poetry Friday of 2022!

Today, I’m featuring my favorite middle grade book of 2021 — the brilliant (and hilarious, and sad) climate emergency satire, ONE SMALL HOP by Madelyn Rosenberg.

Here is an abbreviated description of the story from Goodreads:

Perfect for fans of Carl Hiaasen’s classic Hoot, this humorous adventure story set in a not-so-distant future celebrates the important differences we can make with small, brave acts.

When Ahab and his friends find a bullfrog in their town—a real, live bullfrog, possibly the last bullfrog in North America—they have several options:

A. Report it to the Environmental Police Force. Too bad everyone knows the agency is a joke.

B. Leave it be. They’re just a bunch of kids—what if they hurt it by moving it?

C. Find another real, live bullfrog on the black market. Convince their parents to let them bike to Canada. Introduce the two frogs. Save all of frogkind.

Madelyn and I put our heads together and came up with several poems to pair with this book. You’ll find a poem by Seamus Heaney, at the bottom of this post, along with the links to two other poems.

5 Questions for Madelyn Rosenberg

1. Where did this story begin? With worldbuilding? Ahab’s character? A situation?
“Actually, it started with the frog. When we bought our house in Virginia more than 15 years ago, there was a small pond in the backyard, with bullfrogs so loud I can’t believe the neighbors didn’t complain. We loved them, though. I told the former owners, ‘If we move here, I’m going to write about those frogs.’ I’ve been thinking about the environment a lot, and frogs have been an environmental benchmark, seriously threatened by climate change. So when I began writing this story, I knew there was going to be a frog. The next thing I needed was a kid – Ahab – who wanted to save it. I also knew from the start that I wanted the story to be set in the future, but the close future. After that I sort of pinged back and forth between character building and world building. They were very interconnected.”

2. In ONE SMALL HOP, there is a local environmental agency called EPF. These are small town officials, a little too drunk on their limited power. In a farce or satire, how far can you push those stereotypes/characters?
“When I start writing, I tend to hold back more than I should. I have to keep reminding myself to level up, that it’s okay to go bigger and punchier. That’s something I find I need to do with plot and also with the characters themselves. When I write with a partner (my last novels were with Wendy Wan-Long Shang) we tried really hard to make each other laugh. That always helped. When I was writing on my own, I had to keep reminding myself to let things build higher to add to the humor, to give it the ‘Wendy test.’ Sometimes that means I have to amplify a character’s tendencies. It’s sort of like what happens to us when we get older – all of our habits and expressions and characteristics become a little more extreme, like someone is distilling our essence over a Bunsen burner. That’s what I do to characters, I guess, but I try to make sure there’s another layer, so if I have small town officials drunk on power, or a kid who’s a bully, they also believe they’re doing the right thing. (They aren’t, but they think they are, which makes them more honest. Also, dangerous.)”

3. I loved the road trip elements of the book.
“It was always going to be a road-trip story. It was a way for the kids to get a look at the wide, wide world. It was also a way to get them away from their parents. And it was a way for Ahab to gain some perspective on his relationship with his dad –to see who his dad had been, before he became the man he became. For a time, it makes him angrier because his dad had the potential to be this other person – a person who could have worked to save the world. And honestly, kids should be angry at their parents right now for not taking more action and demanding more action. I’m not exempting myself here.”

4. The settings in this book are brilliant, but sad, like the environmental recreation center housed inside what’s basically a big box store.
“Thanks. That was one of my favorite parts! It came out of a number of things in our world that are fake already. Fake plants (which have apparently existed for centuries). Shopping malls that are supposed to look like Alpine villages (which, granted, are better than strip malls). Adventure lands where we can bring Europe to our own corner of the universe. And everything we do virtually. And I’d seen a lot of empty big-box stores. It made sense to bring nature there, creating a life-sized diorama of the way the world used to be with piped-in nature sounds. And it was important that the builders made mistakes, so the fact that it was fake was unavoidable – tigers and dolphins living together.”

5. Since the theme of this book is the climate emergency, what happens after the story?
“In the book, the climate future is looking bleak, despite the humor (my way of making it possible to explore a difficult subject). But there is also hope and a determination to fix things. My own hope, for the real world, is that that those are the two things we need. Plus science, of course. When I was working on this book, I started by doing a lot of research. I ended up dreading that research because of the aforementioned bleakness, and at one point, made the conscious decision to just start making stuff up. Hoping this doesn’t sound ridiculously self-important, but creating fiction feels like something we can do, too. Fiction can help change the real-life narrative. It can help us believe we can make a difference. It can help us believe the story isn’t over.”

Madelyn and I went hunting for frog poems, in honor of Alph — the frog Ahab and his friends discover in ONE SMALL HOP. One we both love is “Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney.

“Though the frogs are not depicted as beautiful creatures here, you can see them and feel them!” Madelyn says.

Death of a Naturalist
By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Read the rest at Poetry Out Loud.

Along with One Small Hop, Madelyn Rosenberg has written a dozen books for kids of all ages. Her work includes This Is Just a Test and Not Your All-American Girl (with Wendy Wan-Long Shang), Cyclops of Central Park (illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov) and more. She lives with her family in Arlington, VA, where she works for an affordable housing nonprofit.

22 responses to “Poetry Friday: Going to the Frogs”

  1. Linda Mitchell says:

    What a wonderful interview! And, I love pairing poems to a text. It gives the reader more connections. Thank you, Madelyn Rosen for writing such a thoughtful book for kids. I won a copy and it’s already in my middle school library. Now I have even more reason to book talk it and get it out into my community. So glad you moved to Va. 🙂

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Linda. I can’t talk this book up enough! It’s so funny but doesn’t lose the significance of how the climate emergency has shaped the world Ahab and his friends live in.

  2. Linda Baie says:

    Well, I watched & listened to bullfrogs years ago when I lived on a lake but Heaney takes it to another level, as he often does, like those “mud grenades”. I love reading about this book & Madelyn’s ideas of writing & specifically this new book & fiction: “It can help us believe the story isn’t over.” Thanks so much, Laura!

  3. Susan says:

    A book about efforts to save all of frogkind is a book I’d like! Thanks for the interview, and for the poems, too. That Seamus Heaney poem is a treat.

  4. Laura, thanks for the very interesting look into a new book for middle school students. I can see classrooms reading the book following up with a project dealing with environmental issues. The pairings you shared are very good ones. Thanks for sharing this great interview.

  5. What an interesting book and interview, Laura. Thanks for sharing. Thanks also for the poems. “The Frog” creates a sharp contrast to “Death of a Naturalist”! 🙂

    • Laura Shovan says:

      The two poems are so different! “The Frog” fits the tone of Madelyn’s book. “Death of a Naturalist” would be great for a conversation about humans’ complicated relationship with nature.

  6. Wow – So enjoyed this. Thank you both! The book sounds fantastic. (We have a pond behind our back yard, at least most of the time, with bullfrogs which come and go. Fascinating beasties they are.) Here’s to saving the planet – this fun story is also an important one.

  7. Heidi Mordhorst says:

    Well, hello, Madelyn! What fun to meet a neighbor creator, and what an important book to highlight! I’ll be getting my hands on this tout de suite. Perhaps you’re familiar with the cult classic documentary “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History”? Not quite the same department, but a fine companion all the same. I like the way in Digges’ poem our hair becomes a part of nature, as if it isn’t a part of nature while on our human heads. Thanks, Laura!

  8. Great interview! I love to think about humor and how it’s necessary to exaggerate characters to make stories funny. I also understand how Madelyn decided the stop the depressing research and just “make stuff up” and tell the story. Such an interesting interview. I’d love to read this book.

  9. Your interview with Madelyn is ‘ribbiting’, Laura. I’m intrigued to read ON SMALL HOP. And Heaney’s description of frogspawn as: “warm thick slobber” is poetic brilliance. 🙂

  10. Linda says:

    Great interview, Laura! I haven’t read One Small Hop, so I’m adding it to my wishlist for 2022!

  11. Rose Cappelli says:

    Great interview! Thank you. This book sounds wonderful. I am putting it on my wish list and also passing the title along to my friend who loves middle grade books.

  12. Tabatha says:

    Hi Laura! I don’t know if you know that Madelyn and I are from the same hometown 🙂 She is great, isn’t she? Her new book sounds amazing! I love what she said about the “Wendy test” and writing punchier (and people being distilled, which rings true).
    More frog poems: The Last Girl by Rose Solari (not ACTUALLY about frogs, but kind of works) and At Becky’s Piano Recital by Carl Dennis. I also wrote one about The Frog Prince:

  13. Mary Lee says:

    This book is going on my TBR for sure! Thanks for the recommendation and for the companion poems. That Heaney poem took quite a turn at the end!

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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