What a Word is Worth

Posted January 27th, 2014

letter writingLetter writing has become a lost art. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I wish it wasn’t true. Beyond simply languishing in a sea of despond over the matter, though, I do my best to hold the line. I write letters, at least randomly, if not routinely. No matter how much time I need to set aside for the task, I’m never sorry that I did.

In recent months, a dear friend of mine lost his partner of over 30 years. Her death was both sudden and grisly. As you might imagine, her passing left my friend spinning. I’ve buried enough loved-ones to more than empathize.

I was rocked by the news when it reached me, one time-zone and hundreds of miles away. Immediately, I wanted to cover the crack in my friend’s heart with my own two hands, but I couldn’t. I wanted to offer my shoulder for those unutterable moments when he could no longer hold back the tears, but I couldn’t. I wanted to hop on the next plane and, literally, fly to his side. But, for a host of reasons, I couldn’t. And yet, I was desperate to be present for my friend.

I sat down to write him a letter, one of the things I had it in my power to do. I’ve written several letters since, penned a poem just for him, and sent a collection of verse that might bring him a little healing, a little light. I sent each with the appropriate postage, and something more: I sent each with a prayer, and I hoped. I hoped that my meager attempts at being present, from a great distance, would, in some small way, matter.

The other day, I received a card from this friend, with a carefully worded, handwritten note. The first words made my heart leap:

“Dearest Nikki,

Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

In the body of the note, my friend let me know that my words on paper had spoken hope to his heart; that they had given him glimpses of a future in which he would, once again, be able to step into the light; that my simple words of encouragement and connection had mattered to him in this extraordinary time of need, and had mattered deeply.

When was the last time you wrote a letter? I’m not talking about a hastily dashed-off email, sent between sips of coffee, or bites of a hamburger during lunch. I’m talking about an old-fashioned, carefully considered, handwritten or typed letter. When?

I know you’re busy. Who isn’t? But when did we become so busy that we don’t make time for a friend who hungers for the words of encouragement, hope, advice—or even humor—that only we, as friends, can offer? Yes, finding the time to write a letter can be difficult. However, when those words matter as deeply as they do, isn’t it worth the l sacrifice?

Maybe one day, you trade the time you’d spend hanging out on Facebook, or checking your Twitter feed, to compose a letter instead. Or maybe you give up one episode of that half-hour sitcom to do the deed. The fact is, time can always be found for the things that matter. All I’m saying is, this is one of them.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say on the subject, except this: What are you waiting for? Somebody needs to hear from your heart, and a letter can be the perfect package in which to send it.

A Question of Perspective

Posted November 14th, 2013

AwardNovember has come crashing in, with advertisers’ early and relentless push for Christmas. I, on the other hand, am struggling to stave off the end-of-year book award season blues that follow on the heels of this holiday. I love Christmas but, for now, I’m corralling my thoughts to keep them focused on, say, Thanksgiving. Besides, I’ve plenty to hold my attention between now and the end of December. There are conference presentations to compose, interview questions to answer, guest blogs to write, fan mail to respond to, and, of course, scads of work to be done on various works-in-progress. Still, it’s hard to ignore the lure of those best book lists. If only I didn’t care.

At the ripe old age of 63 (63 is the new—what?), I’m facing the hard fact that I may never achieve some of my career goals. I may never win that certain award, receive that particular accolade, attain a lasting place in the children’s book literary canon. It occurs to me, at long last, that my work may not be as worthy as I have imagined, that I have, perhaps, thought of my talent more highly than I ought. Ouch. Whether or not that’s true, another thought has begun to creep in. What if the work was worthy, and what if I did win those certain awards or accolades? How much would it really matter, in the end?

I’ve had a number of elderly friends in the business who, at the top of their game, were acclaimed, established, even “hot.” But, in their final years, they were fairly unremarked, largely unrecognized, and—saddest of all—their works were mostly out-of-print. I used to sympathize with them. Now, however, as I approach a good old age myself, sympathy has turned to empathy. I realize I’ll be lucky to be remarked upon a generation from now. Heck, even ten years from now, as fast as things are moving, these days. Not exactly the immortality most authors imagine! What is that line from Ecclesiastes? Vanity, vanity. All is vanity.

At my church, we’ve been studying the Book of Daniel lately. There’s a lot in this book about vainglory, particularly towards the end. In Chapter 11, there’s a compressed report of nations rising to power, often by virtue of intrigue, deceit, and hastily arranged alliances, only to be supplanted by the next conquer who comes along with visions of empire dancing in his head. None of the kingdoms ever last, of course. In fact, many are lost to the annals of history forever. Like I said: vainglory.

As I read Daniel, I realized nations aren’t the only entities guilty of vainglory. I’ve been wrestling with a case of my own. I’m hardly prepared to employ intrigue, deceit, or political alliances to climb to the top of the literary ladder, but what if I did? I would all-too-soon be pushed from my perch by the very next hot author to come along. And she or he, in turn, would only enjoy the limelight until the next hot author emerged, and so on, and so on. Don’t get me wrong: literary honors are lovely. The more, the merrier, I say. But, here’s the kicker: They simply don’t last. If that’s true, and it is, why consume precious amounts of time in their pursuit?

I know. It seems so obvious, but it’s hard not to be ambitious in this world. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that we deserve more, need more, should strive for more. The least little ember of dissatisfaction in us is feverishly stoked—by advertisers, talking heads, and, often, well-meaning friends and family. The notion that acclaim is something to rightly aspire to is whispered in our ears, day and night. Forget the need for speed. We lust after legitimacy, recognition, applause! And, for me, the desire for acclaim is also wrapped up with the need to make a living at my craft. There is always the hope, misplaced or not, that greater awards will lead to greater earnings.

Sigh.

It’s hard not to get sucked in.

There is a way, though. What if I stopped listening to the whispers of the world? What if I shut out all the voices except God’s and my own? Could it really be that simple?

Years ago, I gave up my subscription to Publishers Weekly because every time I read an article about a random author who closed a deal on a six-figure contract, it gnawed my insides. Why not me? I moaned. It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that wasn’t healthy. So, I cancelled my subscription and ended the insanity, which helped. A little.

In the years since, I have found myself cringing at the approach of book award season. Hard as I’d try not to, I’d read the list of winners each year, and whine, why not me? Why not my book? (Remember, that was before I came to the realization that I might not be all that and a bag of chips!). Thankfully, as the years have progressed, I’ve spent less time bellyaching about imagined slights, and have learned to move on rather quickly to congratulating that year’s winners and honorees. I may not be new and improved, but I am getting better.

The other day, I read a post about a young author who was recently honored with an opportunity that has never come my way, and probably never will. And I suddenly realized that’s okay. That’s his story, not mine. I can be happy for him and wish him well without feeling any sense of loss. He is doing good work, and he is being faithful to the stories he has to tell. That’s as it should be.

Friends occasionally remind me that there are those who view my story with a hint of envy. Of course, I never see things from that perspective, because my attention is on what I haven’t yet acquired, or achieved, or done. Enough!

Last week, I cancelled my cable subscription. It may seem like a small, unrelated step, but it is one in the right direction. There’s less static coming into my home, now. There are fewer voices telling me what I need, or deserve, or should want. After just one week, I’m already beginning to recognize the sound of my own thoughts, again. I’ve made space for my brain to breathe, cleared room for my inner self to reemerge, created quiet in which I can examine my own heart. In the quiet, I can remember what truly matters, can reconnect with the pure joy of working with words. In this third act, I can focus on making the deepest impact I can, here and now, with the generation of readers I’ve been given. That’s the job. That’s the one goal completely within my grasp. If I stick to it before, during and after book-award season, I’ll have no time to worry about singing the blues.

I can already feel a sense of peace descending.

The Poetry Pool

Posted September 11th, 2013

poetry wordleI love a good laugh. I laugh every day. I even make a point of giving others cause to chuckle, even if it’s sometimes at my own expense. Laughter is cleansing, healing, and necessary. God himself has a phenomenal sense of humor. He made us, didn’t he? Yes, laughter is to be appreciated, enjoyed.

That said, I also know there’s more to life than laughter, and there’s more to children’s poetry than light verse. The two are not synonymous. One might not know that, though, judging from the narrow pool of children’s poetry books that are most often highlighted and recommended. The constant slant towards humorous verse leads me to cry out for diversity.

Big buzz-word, that! To be clear, I’m not talking about racial or cultural diversity in children’s poetry. That’s another discussion, entirely. No, I’m alluding to diversity as to type, topic, form. There’s a depth and breadth to children’s poetry that rarely gets its due, poetry specifically written for children that scales the heights of heaven, plumbs the depth of death, and graces all the notes in between. There are children’s poems that challenge, inspire, disturb. There are poems that create space in a child’s heart for the release of tears, as well as laughter—and both are healing. There are limericks, yes, but also odes, sonnets, tanka, and more. There are poetry collections that explore history and the men and women who’ve shaped it. There are collections that take readers for adventures on the high seas. There are poems that probe the minutia of Nature, and the vastness of outer space. This genre is deep, and wide!

As for cultural diversity, today’s offerings include children’s poetry by Native Americans, Palestinian Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Latin Americans and, yes, African Americans. The field of children’s poetry is incredibly rich! Let’s make sure young readers have access to the full range available because it matters. Children benefit from seeing themselves in all guises, in all moods. Sometimes, when a child is having a difficult day, rather than a moment of laughter, he most needs a work that reflects his angst, a poem that shows him he is not alone, a poem that acknowledges both darkness and light in the world—even the world of a child.

Meet Danitra BrownPoetry, all forms and facets of poetry, can be powerful. Dr. Joyce Briscoe discovered as much, many years ago, when she shared the—then—newly published Meet Danitra Brown with students at Clara Barton Elementary in California. Her so-called low-achieving students responded to the work to such an extent that, over time, she developed a sub-curriculum around Danitra Brown and found the material useful in motivating both reading and writing among students the system had written off. Soon, teachers throughout the district were following her lead. By the time I visited Clara Barton, I found poetry blossoming everywhere, and it was a thing of beauty.

At Barton Elementary, each grade level was given a poem to memorize, and then a number of lesson plans revolved around that poem. One class was assigned the poem “Purple,” one of the humorous, bouncy poems of the collection, and certainly a favorite. However, one girl in this class told her teacher she preferred to memorize the poem “Sweet Blackberry”: 

Danitra says my skin’s like
double chocolate fudge
cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might think
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.”

I never cry, but inside
there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me,
“Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry,
the sweeter the juice.”
Now that’s just what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more. 

The teacher asked her why she preferred this poem, and she said, “Because whenever I read it, it makes me feel beautiful.” How’s that for power?

Children haven’t changed that much in the intervening years. They still have a range of emotions to play to. Poetry that tickles the funny bone should only be part of the equation. I encourage you to explore the poetry market, to journey up and down each aisle. Fill your cart with poetry that tickles the imagination, inspires awe, pauses on the subject of death, lingers over loss, reveals the cost of war. Add jaw-dropping poetry about the beauty of Nature, the wonders of science, the mysteries of history. Choose poetry that makes you cry and, yes, poetry that makes you laugh. Include them all in the poetry diet you feed your students. Trust each reader to discover his or her favorite dish. Make room for that to happen. Please.

When I first entered the children’s literary market, I felt like an endangered species. There didn’t seem to be many poets around. Today, however, the market is positively bursting with wonderful new poetic voices, and they all deserve to be heard, shared, read. My hope is that they will be, not only for the sake of the poets, but also for the sake of the students who need precisely the gift each poet brings.

Who are some of my favorite contemporary poets? The list is incredibly long, but here are a few—a precious few! —in the realm of children’s literature:

Marilyn Nelson
Jane Yolen
Gary Soto
Joyce Sidman
Helen Frost
Naomi Shihab Nye
Carole Boston Weatherford
Laura Purdie Salas
Paul Janeczko
Janet Wong
Margarita Engles
Allan Wolf
Jack Prelutsky
Alice Schertle
J. Patrick Lewis
Pat Mora
Kristine O’Connell George
Joseph Bruchac
Georgia Heard
Sara Holbrook
Ralph Fletcher
George Ella Lyon
Jamie Adoff
Eloise Greenfield
April Halprin Wayland
Arnold Adoff
Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Lee Bennett Hopkins (the world’s most prolific anthologist of children’s poetry)

You can also enjoy the work of our US Children’s Poet Laureates:

Jack Prelutsky
Mary Ann Hoberman
J. Patrick Lewis
Kenn Nesbitt

Want a more comprehensive list? Hit me up on Facebook.