What Trouper (The Three-Legged Black Lab) Has to Teach About Poetry
Hundreds of children and adults have told me how much they love Trouper, which makes my heart sing. Parents and teachers alike say their number-one reason for liking this book so much is that it teaches compassion without overly highlighting what makes Trouper different from his friends: he’s missing his back right leg. Beyond just falling for the soulful handsome Trouper and his friends, children might like the story because it’s simply fun to read (or heard read aloud).
Not all poems rhyme, but this one does.
When presenting Trouper to any group of children, I ask if they can tell that I wrote it as a poem, even though it no longer looks like one. Without fail, they tell me that’s obvious: they hear the rhymes. Some students say the words have rhythm. Yes! Not all poems rhyme, but this one does; and any good poem has to have rhythm.
The original Trouper manuscript was written in terza rima, an Italian form that Dante used when he wrote The Divine Comedy. Early on, the form worked as my way in to telling this story about a three-legged dog; terza rima is written in tercets, or three-line stanzas. This might be taking the notion of form and content to an extreme, but it worked! Later on, once I was revising with my editor to spread the text over the thirty-two pages of a picture book, I wound up breaking the form for the sake of story—but much of the sentences and many of the rhymes remained.
With Kindergarteners and first-graders, having them discover the rhymes on each page can be a fun way to teach about this simple poetic tool. For second graders and beyond, I see if they can remember any of the rhymes after hearing the story read—and then review a page or two if they’re stuck. But I don’t linger too long on this subject, as Trouper has more to teach about poetry (and writing in general) than rhyme.
Make it concrete.
Most poets tend to use concrete rather than abstract language in their work, which is something even adult students who are newcomers to poetry need to focus on. The way into concrete language is through the five senses. After a quick review of these, I talk about how concrete words are ones we can see, taste, touch, smell, or hear; and sometimes we get two senses for the “price” of one word!
Poems don’t talk about experience, they recreate it—as Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Through concrete language, poets are not only painting pictures in our reader’s minds (no need for illustrations!), we’re also planting sounds, tastes, textures, and sounds—all of which make the story memorable. I ask students, what images do students remember from the book? They name all sorts of things, some of which come from the illustrations (e.g. Trouper on the boy’s bed), but many of which come from the words themselves. Inevitably someone mentions the stones thrown by boys in the beginning of the story, and the snow that Trouper and his pal run through at the end. Words like “stone” and “snow” are wonderful concrete words, as just by saying them we see a color (grey, white) and we feel something physical (rough/hard, cold/wet).
Along the same lines, one could choose any other of the five senses and explore where they pop up in the story. Sound is a favorite—students remember dogs “howling and growling,” the dog catcher’s truck door “slamming,” and the woman at the shelter who “clucked like a chicken” when she first laid eyes on Trouper and his friends. These sounds stick with readers because they actually hear them as the story is being told—because they are concrete.
What metaphor is for…
Young people especially can find themselves full of powerful feelings and thoughts that they find difficult to express. I tell them, that’s what metaphor (and simile) is for!
At what point in the story do we know that Trouper is very sad, and maybe a little scared and lonely? Every student raises her hand at this question, knowing it’s the moment when all of Trouper’s buddies have been adopted but him, and he’s left friendless at the shelter. Does Trouper actually say, “I was sad and scared and lonely”? No. What does he say instead? Working together, most students (especially third grade and up) can remember parts if not all of the line, “My heart was a cold, starless night.” Would the story have had had the same emotional impact if instead Trouper had used the words “sad” etc? Students also know the answer is No, and the metaphorical light bulbs gleam between their ears. There are all kinds of sad—it’s an abstract word. One could be sad because her helium balloon floated away, or because grandma is in the hospital. In order for anyone know what’s meant by “sad,” it has to be compared with something else.
Making metaphors and similes works with any age student. In the story, Trouper says of the boy who adopts him, “You were skinny as a string bean.” Children have fun making up other similes for “skinny” as well as other abstract words like “beautiful” and “dark.” And then we get back around to how Trouper’s heart was feeling at that “starless night” moment, and students write about how their hearts feel. “My heart is a full moon on a night without clouds” might be my favorite (by a fifth grader) so far! This kind of metaphor-making can also lead to short, but full-blown poems using this kind of structure:
Today my heart is [a] ______________
because ____________________. Maybe
tomorrow it will be [a] __________________.
[Note: I always suggest that teachers and parents show children the three-minute video about the making of the Trouper book, so they can “meet” the dog who inspired the story. It’s found on www.megkearney.com.]
Meg Kearney is author the picture book Trouper, winner of the Kentucky Bluegrass Award and the Missouri Show Me Reader’s Award; three novels-in-verse for young adults: The Secret of Me, The Girl in the Mirror, and When You Never Said Goodbye; and two books of poems for adults, including Home By Now, winner of the PEN New England L.L. Winship Award. Meg is Founding Director of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College. (Meg loves to visit K-12 schools! Find her at www.megkearney.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @KearneyMeg.)
Giveaway Information (from Stacey):
- This giveaway is for a copy of Trouper. Many thanks to Scholastic for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Trouper, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, May 31st at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 1st.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Scholastic will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – TROUPER. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.