friday feast: A Poem in Your Pocket by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas (+ “Mr. Cornelius Picks a Pocket”)

A Poem in Your Pocket by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) is the perfect Poetry Month book, as it will get kids excited about writing their own poems and reading them aloud. The story centers around Elinor, a conscientious model student who struggles with a major case of writer’s block when she tries too hard to write the perfect poem.

In this third book in the series about Mr. Tiffin’s class, Elinor and her classmates are very excited that Emmy Crane, “a great American poet,” will be visiting their school on Poem in Your Pocket Day. The plan is to learn as much as they can about poetry by reading and memorizing poems, and by writing poems in their journals. They will then select one of their poems to put in their pockets, which they will read aloud at the school assembly for Ms. Crane.

Supremely confident, somewhat braggy Elinor plans to wear jeans with six pockets when Ms. Crane comes, with an original poem stashed in each one. She dives right into studying everything and anything about poetry a full month ahead of the class. When April rolls around, Mr. Tiffin teaches them about figures of speech (similes, metaphors), and different poetic forms (haiku, acrostic, concrete). Everyone has fun reading sample poems and writing their own, while strangely silent Elinor has nothing to share, reassuring the others that she will come up with something amazing for Ms. Crane’s visit.

Mr. Tiffin takes the class outdoors so they can practice using their “poet’s eyes.” Another day, he gives them each a brown paper bag and asks them to write a poem about what’s inside. Everyone is eager to read their poems aloud for the others to guess, but Elinor’s journal remains blank.

The weekend before Ms. Crane’s visit, Elinor’s struggle with perfectionism intensifies as she writes draft after draft of haiku, brown bag poems, rhyming poems — only to throw them all away. Nothing is ever good enough. She just can’t find the perfect words for her perfect poem. On the day of Ms. Crane’s visit, she wears a dress with only one small pocket and nothing inside.

At school, excitement is at fever pitch. The halls are decorated with all kinds and sizes of pockets containing poems, and of course all the other students are carrying poems in their pockets. Elinor makes a last ditch effort to write her poem during the course of the day to no avail.

At the assembly, Ms. Crane reads some of her poems and answers student questions. Soon it’s time for Elinor’s classmates to go up on the stage to read their poems. Mr. Tiffin tells Elinor she doesn’t have to go up if she doesn’t want to, but Elinor doesn’t want to disappoint Ms. Crane. She tells the famous poet how hard she tried to write the perfect poem. Kind Ms. Crane tells Elinor that “No poem is perfect,” then asks her to close her eyes and tell her about the poems she wanted to write.

Thinking about the poems she had studied, remembering what she saw outside with her poet’s eyes, and describing the object in her brown bag, Elinor finally finds her voice as she shares the poem in the pocket of her mind. Ms. Crane assures her that these “words from the heart” are where poetry begins.

This touching, sensitively told story will resonate with anyone who’s ever wrestled with perfectionism and how it impedes creativity. Not only is this a wonderful introduction to the basic elements of poetry, it also reinforces the idea that a poem should begin with a feeling, and that a poet should trust rather than judge it.

Both Mr. Tiffin and Ms. Crane exhibit empathy, kindness and understanding, all crucial to an ideal learning dynamic. Lively class discussions are fun to read, as the students eagerly embrace new information and happily share their work. I like how Mr. Tiffin never talks down to Elinor, instead providing gentle guidance and reassurance so she can try to resolve the problem on her own.

Karas’s gouache, acrylic and pencil illustrations of the school setting with its diverse group of busy, energetic students are warm, amiable and inviting. I think most readers will feel right at home in Mr. Tiffin’s classroom. Spot-on facial expressions and posturing trace Elinor’s gradual loss of confidence and ever growing despair.

When you see Elinor in her single pocket black dress on the day of the author visit looking so forlornly in the mirror, and then standing on the stage with her head bowed beside Ms. Crane, you can’t help but feel for her. And when she finally realizes that what she had been thinking about all along was good enough, oh, the joy and relief on her smiling face!

After reading this story, kids will never think of pockets the same way again. The words of a poem, like any other treasure we may choose to carry with us, suggest a specific time, place, feeling or memory. And isn’t it gratifying to know we all have poems in the pockets of our minds? Such a good book. 🙂

*   *   *


Mr. Cornelius liked this book so much he had to tell his friend Max all about it. Max was a poet, after all, and Cornelius knew he had a lot of pockets.

So what was in them? List poems of Max’s favorite things.

Cornelius had a lot of favorite things too, but he didn’t have a coat like Max’s. All he had was rumpled fur. He felt sad and so, so — pocketless.

But thinking about Poem in Your Pocket Day cheered him up. He could write down some of his favorite food poems and give them to all his friends with pockets. Then when April 30 rolled around, they could feast on his poems for breakfast, lunch or dinner and pass the poems on to their friends.

He tucked a poem into Chef Paddington’s apron.

Chef Andre and Albert were happy to get theirs.

Corduroy didn’t have a pocket, but Cornelius gave him a poem anyway. Something told him he’d be getting a pocket soon.

Of course he had to give Big Screen Paddington a couple of poems (both about marmalade).

The Easter Bunny didn’t have a pocket, just an empty basket. Cornelius gave him a poem about eggs.

Teddy Roosevelt liked his poem,

as did the English Bobby, who had 4 pockets. He promised to read his poems to 4 pickpockets.

Finally, he gave Raggedy Ann three poems, because she is very big.

There, now everyone would be ready for Poem in Your Pocket Day!

But something still didn’t feel right. Cornelius didn’t have a pocket of his own. Where would he put his favorite poem?

He thought about what Emmy Crane had said to Elinor. What did he feel strongly about? Food, food, food.



Cornelius put Mark Strand’s poem in his very own pita pocket.

And then he thought, I am a poem! Call me Bear-ku!

And my other friends are poems!

He could hardly wait for April 30.

What’s in your pocket?

*   *   *


written by Margaret McNamara
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
published by Schwartz & Wade Books, January 2015
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
**Starred Reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal**

Click here for a downloadable poster and Activity Guide

*   *   *

poetry fridayThe talented and immensely creative Robyn Hood Black is hosting today’s Roundup at Life on the Deckle Edge. Scamper over there — she might have an Oatmeal Jama Bar in her apron pocket. 🙂 Enjoy the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere this week!


*Interior spreads from A Poem in Your Pocket posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Margaret McNamara, illustrations © 2015 G. Brian Karas, published by Schwartz & Wade Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

47 thoughts on “friday feast: A Poem in Your Pocket by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas (+ “Mr. Cornelius Picks a Pocket”)

  1. You know that I just wrote about pockets, too, Jama. I love this, will try to find it for the teachers of younger students. What a beautiful idea, the “pockets in our minds” carrying poems. It looks delightful, like your review! Thank you!


    1. Yes, I saw your wonderful post about pockets at Author Amok! Looks like your school celebrates Poem in Your Pocket day with real style and enthusiasm! Love Brynn’s poem — perfection!


  2. I’m in love with poet Elinor and her mentor Mr. Tiffen. And that sharp Ms. Crane, of course a poet invited to school would know just how to help Elinor find her voice.
    Appreciations Jama, for again lifting up a book title I didn’t know. I think it will be so welcome in many classrooms across the land.

    It’s sweet to see the iconic line from the famous poem carried as an entire great-illustrated book theme. Brava! to Margaret McManara & Bravo! to G. Brian Karas.

    And Mr. C! He’s the poet’s muse with the most A pocket full of the words

    maple syrup
    brown sugar
    sugar cane stalks
    watermelon syrup

    if he wants to stop by any ol’ time.
    And of course, April 30 will find my pockets full of poems, I expect.

    Sweet, sweet post.


    1. Mr. C is lapping up those sweet words in your comment, Jan! He is especially fond of maple syrup!

      Hope you get to see this book soon — it’s a touching story that I think all writers can identify with. We all have a little Elinor inside us. And thank goodness for kind and inspiring mentors like Mr. Tiffin and Ms. Crane. 🙂


  3. Jeans with six pockets, that’s hilarious! I’d love to read this to my kids and introduce them to poem in your pocket.


  4. I had not heard of this book before–it looks like a gem, and is going to the top of my to-read list! I’m so glad Mr. Cornelius shared poems with his bearry best friends and that he found a comfy pocket for himself.


  5. Ooh, this is a Nephew Book. Must have it. I want so badly for him to grow up to be a kid who is relaxed about poetry – but he’s not relaxed about anything, poor love, he’s already so sensitive and such a perfectionist that I look for EVERY book that could possibly bring a kid down off of that ledge effectively – this sounds perfect and it’s also so colorful and fun. Thanks for sharing it.


  6. What a kind-hearted, wise book. And what adorable, nicely-tied pocket poems Cornelius shared! Wherever did he find *two* poems about marmalade?


    1. Cornelius won’t divulge the source of his marmalade poems. Apparently there is some kind of underground bear network that he belongs to.


  7. Jama, I’m very excited to read about this book! One of my favorite workshops to do with elementary schoolers is pocket poems. We used Calef Brown’s poem “Eliza’s Jacket” as a model for student poems, and we do a pocket poem craft. It looks a lot like the denim pocket spread you featured here. Off to order the book!


  8. I just checked my pocket and all I have is . . . a pedometer. Clearly not much poetry in that (although I did get 15K steps). Does Cornelius make house calls? Loved this post, and the book looks wonderful–definitely going to look for this one.


  9. What a fantastic book, for readers/writers/perfectionists of any age.
    And Mr. Cornelius has been so busy – how thoughtful of him to make sure everyone stuffed and otherwise has a poem for his or her pocket.
    [A secret underground bear network? Now THAT sounds intriguing…]


  10. Jama- you always have the most wonderful posts! Each one really is a feast! I haven’t seen POEM IN YOUR POCKET. I have to get this book for my students! Thanks for sharing it!


  11. So, so, so cute, Jama! Cornelius in a pita is brilliant. And this book is a MUST HAVE! I’m doing a Poem In Your Pocket lesson for my daughter’s 5th grade class – but I’ll be getting this book first!


    1. Seems to me this book is a must have for anyone celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day. 🙂 At the center of it is a very meaningful story — double takeaway!


  12. When are you going to write another book?!?!? This post was all kinds of your usual fabulousness, and that pita pocket surprise at the end was publication-worthy!


    1. Thanks for all your enthusiasm and support, Mary Lee! I am humbled by your words. Mr. Cornelius sends you a great big hug! 🙂


  13. I can definitely relate to poor perfectionist Elinor! Took me a long time to realize that opening myself up to poetry (and letting it simmer in the pocket of my mind) works much better than trying to force it out. And what a lovely story about Cornelius spreading (and finding) pocket-poem joy! Don’t tell anyone, but I, too, like to snuggle into carbs on occasion.


    1. I can relate to Elinor too — one would think by this time I would know better. When I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Maira Kalman speak last year, she offered valuable words of advice about perfectionism — she said when you set the bar so impossibly high you end up stymying yourself.

      I won’t tell anyone about your carb snuggling ways, Michelle :D. I’m guilty of that too.


  14. I am so honored and proud to see this review, Jama! Huge waves of gratitude are coming your way. Can you feel them? Thank you for featuring so much of Brian’s pitch-perfect art, too.

    And for those of you worried about Cornelius — I’m sure he keeps a poem in the pocket of his mind, just like Elinor.

    Thank you for doing this important work!

    All the best to you and your readers from Margaret McNamara.


    1. Hi Brenda! Thanks for taking the time to comment, and thanks to you and Brian for creating this fabulous book. There’s nothing more fun than riffing on picture books I truly love. 🙂 I’ve been a big fan of Brian’s work ever since he illustrated Truman’s Aunt Farm back in the 90’s.

      Cornelius loves you for writing this story!


    1. This is a wonderful book to share during Poetry Month. I’m surprised no one ever thought to write about Poem in Your Pocket Day before.


Comments are closed.