November 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.
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.
I 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.
Poetry, 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:
Naomi Shihab Nye
Carole Boston Weatherford
Laura Purdie Salas
Kristine O’Connell George
George Ella Lyon
April Halprin Wayland
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:
Mary Ann Hoberman
J. Patrick Lewis
Want a more comprehensive list? Hit me up on Facebook.
For the record, just because a particular notion is repeated, over and over again, doesn’t necessarily make it true. The earth is not flat, nor is it the center of the universe. People of African descent are not intellectually inferior to the white race. And contrary to what you may have heard, over the years, from (well-meaning?) editors and agents, poetry can, and does, sell.
Pardon me if I presume to know what I’m talking about, but I am, in fact, sitting on a lovely sofa, set in a small, but beautiful home, paid for by a career built on writing children’s poetry and novels-in-verse. I believe that qualifies to say a thing or two on the subject, yes?
I recently spoke at a conference at which I heard it stated, unequivocally, that poetry doesn’t sell. When those words hit the air, I wanted to leap out of my skin. I’ve been hearing that old adage since I first entered this field more than 30 years ago. Had I, for a moment, taken that oft-repeated statement to heart, I’d have no career. The 50-plus books I’ve published, most of them children’s poetry, or novels-in-verse, would not exist. I would never have won the NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry, nor awards for my body of work, or the ALA Notables, Coretta Scott King Award and Honors, or any of the other awards and citations my poetry has earned. None of it would exist if I’d believed that well-worn idea.
To be fair, if you are a poet, it is highly unlikely that you will become wealthy working in this genre, no matter how well you hone your craft. That much is true. But chances are, you already know that. I would wager that most writers, keen on this particular genre, aren’t looking to make a killing in the marketplace. They simply have a penchant for the lyrical line, and a passion for metaphor. Like me, they pen poetry because they, quite frankly, can’t help themselves. Poetry is in them. It’s part of their DNA. Poets don’t value their work in terms of fiscal weight, and that’s where we differ from agents and editors.
Agents and publishers are in the business of making money by selling books. We all understand that, although I wish interest in producing a rich and diverse variety of quality literature for the next generation, were more widespread. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised when agents and publishers push for vampire lore while the genre is hot, or discourage dystopian novels when they feel the trend is waning. Not so long ago, writers were dissuaded from creating books for teens, as there was yet no perceived market for them. That makes sense, right?
But. Aren’t we glad Judy Blume ignored the naysayers, back in the bad old days, and wrote novels for teens anyway? Aren’t we glad Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein beat the poetry drum before verse was in vogue? Aren’t we grateful for Myra Cohn Livingston, and Eloise Greenfield, and Lucille Clifton, and Arnold Adoff, and a host of other poets who’ve enriched the lives of young readers?
I attended the first inauguration of President Obama, in 2009. One of my favorite moments of the ceremony was the reading of a poem. I love that poetry has played a part in inaugural celebrations of the past. Each time a poet has risen to that great podium it is a reminder that this genre has something substantial to offer. Poetry can provoke, challenge, disturb. It can soothe our souls, or spur us on to greatness. It can inspire, uplift, and make the heart soar. However, poetry can accomplish none of these things if it is not written.
I’m all for being honest with poets about the realities of the marketplace. I know that poetry, in the main, does not sell as well as prose. But it can, and does, sell. Is the field extraordinarily competitive? Absolutely. Is crafting quality poetry difficult? Of course it is. All good writing involves a huge investment of time, energy, and often, research. But that’s a lousy excuse for telling a gifted poet, who has a hankering for haiku, who eats and sleeps simile, who mires himself in metaphor that he or she should give up the very idea of penning poetry as a literary career.
Here are a few thoughts: the next time you come across a poet who clearly demonstrates a gift for this genre, don’t tell him to hide his light under a basket. Instead, tell poets to be smart about their choice of subject, to research the market to make sure their ideas haven’t already been done, to consider the needs of school curriculum and shape their work accordingly so that their books of poetry will be as marketable as possible. Encourage them to consider narrative books in verse—novels, biographies, historical fiction, creative non-fiction.
On the other hand, if the writer has no gift for this genre, tell him so. If his poetry is not topical, tell him that. If his poetry is not age-appropriate, tell him that. If you, personally, lack the know-how, or frankly, the interest in selling poetry, tell him that. But please, whatever you do, don’t tell a poet not to be a poet. That’s a bit like telling a leopard not to have spots!
One last thing: While poetry may, indeed, be difficult to place, it is not impossible. So please, please stop telling tomorrow’s poets that poetry doesn’t sell. If you do, you might as well tell them that New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is a figment of our collective imagination; that Sonya Sones and Prince Honoree Helen Frost do not exist; that Newbery Honoree Joyce Sidman does not exist; that J. Patrick Lewis, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and Paul B. Janeczko, and Jack Prelutsky, and Sara Holbrook, and Jamie Adoff, and Tony Medina, and Marilyn Nelson, and Georgia Heard, and Marilyn Singer, and X.J. Kennedy, and Jane Yolen, and Margarita Engle, and Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Pat Mora, and Allan Wolf, and Gary Soto, and Eloise Greenfield, and Nikki Grimes, and a host of other working, publishing, award-winning poets do not exist. And that, my dears, simply isn’t true.