The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Swirl by Swirl

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature
Written by Joyce Sidman and Illustrated by Beth Krommes
Published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-547-31583-6
Grades PreK – 8
“A spiral is a snuggling shape.” So begins and ends the latest work of nonfiction poetry from acclaimed author Joyce Sidman. While the text is bookended by this comforting sentiment, on the pages between, Sidman takes us on a far reaching journey, noting the prevalence of the shape of the spiral in the natural world around our globe and out across the galaxies beyond. In a meticulously paced free verse poem, the reader explores the utility and elegance of the spiral shape – it grows, moves, defends, explores, serves, and beautifies. Back matter defines the spiral and expands the text of the poem, further explaining the roles played by the shape. Sidman also briefly introduces readers to the Fibonacci sequence. Followers of Sidman’s work will not be disappointed in this elegant offering. Sidman has once again partnered with Caldecott award winning artist Beth Krommes whose scratchboard illustrations here are nothing short of breathtaking. The dark lines of the medium accented by bold color draw the reader into the textures and patterns of the underground, forest and meadow, undersea, and the far reaches of space. Readers will want to hold close and pore over this beautiful book and there is no doubt that the text will invite people of all ages to look more closely at the wonders of the world around them.
Teaching Invitations
Grades PreK – 8
  • Patterns and Shapes in Nature. Take a field trip with digital cameras, smart phones, or iPad2s in hand. Ask students to collect photos of interesting patterns or common shapes in the natural world. You may want to explore the National Geographic photo gallery, Patterns in Nature, prior to your outing to give students ideas about what to look for. Use enlarged prints of the photos to create a class big book (or Voice Thread or PowerPoint presentation). Accompanying text for the photos could be class composed poetry or nonfiction text about the objects depicted. For a mentor text, consider Frank Serafini’s Looking Closely series or Jane Yolen’s Shape Me a Rhyme: Nature’s Forms in Poetry.
  • Composing Poetry. Invite your students to try their hand at poetry. The author’s website includes many suggestions for getting started with poetry writing. Students can be inspired to compose when given the opportunity to handle a wonder of nature, such as a shell, a pinecone, a vivid fall leaf, or a maple seed pod. Encourage students to draw upon their senses as they write.
Grades 2 – 8
  • Author Study. The depth, breadth, and quality of Joyce Sidman’s work make her an excellent subject for an author study. Gather a collection of her work and biographical information, including interviews. Read through her books as a class, noting similarities and differences across the books’ formats and styles. Take a close look at her writing techniques, noting her word choices and use of figurative language. Compile a list of ‘writing lessons’ gained from this author study and invite your students to try out some of the writing techniques you have discussed in their own writing.
  • Nonfiction Poetry Study. A study of Joyce Sidman’s books will mentor your students in a variety of techniques for expressing nonfiction information in poetic form. You may choose to further this conversation by conducting a genre study of nonfiction poetry. Gather works by poets know for their works of nonfiction, such as Douglas Florian, April Pulley Sayre, J. Patrick Lewis, Valerie Worth, and anthologist and poet Lee Bennett Hopkins (see selected titles listed below) and compare the techniques used by these authors to convey nonfiction information through poetry. Notice how the authors use a combination of prose and poetry and how back matter and glossaries are used to convey additional information. Be sure to discuss the role that illustrations and different media for illustration play in conveying the content.
  • Poetic Forms: Nature in Many Forms. Across her poetry books, Joyce Sidman employs many different kinds of poetic forms, ranging from free verse, to concrete poetry, to rhyming couplets, to diamante, and others. Gather a collection of poetry books that celebrate the natural world and engage your students in an examination of the different poetry forms found in the texts. Encourage your students to discuss any patterns that they may note in the relationships between the poems’ forms and their content. Invite students to choose a form that appeals to them and to compose nature poems of their own. Publish the results.
  • Scratchboard Illustrations. Caldecott award winning artist Beth Krommes uses scratchboard as the medium for her illustrations. Consult or collaborate with your art teachers to provide students with an opportunity to try out this artistic technique. The article from the journal Arts & Activities linked below may offer some inspiration.
Grades 3 – 8
  • Exploring the Fibonacci Sequence. Read Spiral by Spiral along with the photo essay Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature and the picture book biography, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci to introduce your students to the Golden Ratio. Students may be interested in reading an essay by a seventh grader who received the Young Naturalist award from the American Museum of Natural History for his investigation of the Fibonacci sequence in tree branch structures accessible at
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Joyce Sidman’s Website & Swirl by Swirl Book Trailer
Beth Krommes: Illustrator Website
National Geographic’s Photo Galleries: Patterns in Nature
YouTube: Joyce Sidman Accepts the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award
National Geographic’s Photo Galleries: Patterns in Nature
Scratchboard Etching Video
Arts & Activities: Showstopping Scratchboards
Cambell, S.C. (2010). Growing patterns: Fibonacci numbers in nature. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
  • Illustrated with photographs, this nonfiction text introduces readers to the Fibonacci sequence and its universality in natural forms.
D’Agnese, J. (2010). Blockhead: The life of Fibonacci. Ill. by J. O’Brien. New York: Henry Holt.
  • This picture book biography highlights the childhood and accomplishments of mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, who is characterized here as a daydreamer fascinated by numbers and the natural world.
Serafini, F. (2010). Looking closely in the rain forest. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.
  • Patterns, Shapes, and textures are featured in this photo essay (part of a series) that invites readers to guess what they are seeing.
Yolen, J. (2007). Shape me a rhyme: Nature’s forms in poetry. Photos by J. Stemple. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.
  • Mother and son team offer a collection of poems and photographs highlighting twelve shapes found in nature.
Selected Nonfiction Poetry Collections:
Florian. D. (2010). Poetrees. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Florian, D. (2007). Comets, stars, the moon, and Mars. New York: Harcourt.
  • Intriguing paintings accompany a collection of twenty poems incorporating information about our solar system. Includes back matter with additional details.
Hopkins, L.B. (1999). Spectacular science: A book of poems. Ill. by V. Halstead. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • The curiosity of scientists is honored in this collection of science poems edited by master anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Lewis, J.P. (2005). Monumental verses. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
  • Man-made structures around the world are the subject of this collection of fourteen poems.
Sayre, A.P. (2008). Trout are made of trees. Ill. by K. Endle. Cambridge, MA: Charlesbridge.
  • Building from its intriguing title, this book explores the life cycle of the trout and the interrelationships of an ecosystem through free verse poetry.
Worth, V. (2007). Animal poems. Ill. by S. Jenkins. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
  • Jenkins amazing collage illustrations depict the twenty three animals described by Worth’s clever free verse poems.
Joyce Sidman’s Books:
Sidman, J. (2010). Dark emperor & other poems of the night. Ill. by R. Allen Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • This Newbery Honor winning title features things that creep, crawl and fly in the night.
Sidman, J. (2010). Ubiquitous: Celebrating nature’s survivors. Ill. by B. Prange. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • The flora and fauna featured in this collection of poems are long-lived and far-ranging. Factual prose accompanies each poem.
Sidman, J. (2009). Red sings from rooftops: A year in colors. Ill. by P. Zagarenski. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • A celebration of the seasons, featuring poems that describe the various colors associated with seasonal change. A Caldecott honor book.
Sidman, J. (2007). This is just to say: Poems of apology and forgiveness. Ill. by P. Zagarenski Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • A fictional group of sixth grade students completes an assignment to write poems expressing an “I’m sorry…” sentiment.
Sidman, J. (2006). Butterfly eyes and other secrets of the meadow. Ill. by B. Krommes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • A collection of poetry riddles that explore the animals and plants of the ecosystem of a meadow.
Sidman, J. (2006). Meow ruff: A story in concrete poetry. Ill. by M. Berg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • A collection of concrete poems that together narrate the story of a cat and a dog and their adventures around the neighborhood.
Sidman, J. (2005). Song of the water boatman & other pond poems. Ill. by B. Prange. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • This Caldecott honor winning title is comprised of poems that explore the dynamic of the pond ecosystem.
Sidman, J. (2003). The world according to dog: Poems and teen voices. Photos. by D. Mindell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Sidman’s poems about man’s best friend are complemented by essays written by teenagers about their canine pets.
Sidman, J. (2002). Eureka!: Poems about inventors. Ill. by K. Bennett Chavez. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.
  • This collection of free verse poems features the accomplishments of sixteen inventors, both famous and little known.
Sidman, J. (2000). Just us two: Poems about animal dads. Ill. by S.Swan. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.
  • Poetry and cut paper illustrations present the roles of care-taking animals dads including the Emperor Penguin and giant water bugs.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.