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:

[ezcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]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[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]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)[/ezcol_1half_end]

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.

The Problem with Poetry

Posted February 26th, 2013

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?

Poetry booksI 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?

poetry books and books-in-verse

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!

ph_novelsinverseOne 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.

Nine Not-to-Miss Novels

Posted October 13th, 2011

National Book Awards readingComing up with the title for this blog was a breeze. As a poet, I’m partial to alliteration. However, I fell in love with a good deal more than nine books this summer, so I’ve decided to list all of my faves and let someone else worry about the final tally.

First, a couple of caveats: I don’t generally talk about specific books on this blog because that’s not what it’s for. I’m making this lone exception because, as a judge for this year’s National Book Award, friends have been asking me what wonderful titles I found along the way. So, this once, I’ll give you my two-cents worth of commentary on some of the latest, and what I, personally, consider the greatest YA titles entering the marketplace this year. Again, this is a one-time thing, so please don’t send me any books to review, because I won’t. That’s not my gig. You’ll also notice, I did not include publisher, price, or grade-level. Again, not my gig.

Second, the titles on this list are not the only good books published in 2011. There are many more, I’m happy to report, but you won’t find all of them here. These, in addition to the five finalists, are simply my own, top-tier favorites.

I love me some novels-in-verse, don’t you know. Besides Inside Out and Back Again, I found three titles to add to my collection. Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle gets my vote. An evocative story of adventure on a pirate ship and an island along the Caribbean Sea, this is a gem of a book with a lyrical lure. Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller shows us the impact of WWII on a farm boy in the Heartland. True and tender. Then there’s Allan Wolf, who does not disappoint. This time around, his tome is The Watch that Ends the Night, a novel about the Titanic. Written in the voices of those intimately connected with the story—including the iceberg! (I love that)—Wolf steers the story place it’s never gone before. Kudos, Allan!

I’ve never been one for sci-fi novels, but one novel so catalogued got my attention. Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky was fascinating, and thought provoking. It answers the question “What if online communication completely replaced face-to-face human interaction?” The answer will give readers a lot to ponder, and they’ll enjoy the journey along the way.

Sara Zarr is up to nothing but good once again. How to Save a Life, a novel about a baby in need of a parent, and a parent in need of a mother, is a big story with an even bigger heart. When you’re done, you’ll want to give this book a hug.

Speaking of babies, do pick up Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan. I guarantee you’ve never met a character quite like Eleanor Crowe, nor thought of placing a pregnant teen in a so-called fat camp. Yes, there is some hilarity, but that’s not the half of it. What can a pregnant teen learn about herself in this environment? Read to find out.

I love books about tough-talking girls, and I could not put down The File on Angelyn Stark by Catherine Atkins. This smart, and smart-mouthed, teen is rough around the edges, and with good reason. But she fights to claim the good in herself, and discovers the courage to set her life on a healthy path. She’ll make you a believer.

Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a break-out title about the impact boxing legend Joe Louis had on Depression-era America, in general, and on the African American community, in particular. The voices are authentic, and often joyful, and the historical detail brings the period to life. An uplifting story about hope and the human spirit, this would make a great classroom read. The author’s note and back matter expand nicely on the historical detail. Fabulous job, Andrea!

Another novel of note for its historical theme is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys. This novel explores a Holocaust story few have heard before. This book reveals the horrors suffered by citizens of the Baltic States, under the heels of both Hitler and Stalin. A powerful story of survival, compassion, and amazing grace. Another title that cries out for the classroom.

Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada is a small, but important contribution to the national dialogue on immigration. This gently written story takes readers inside the duality of being a first-generation American, with a foot in two cultures. The reader is challenged to examine what it means to be an American.

As most of you know, I am not a fan of profanity in books for young readers, but sometimes it’s necessary to make an exception. Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe is one. In this novel about a boy wrestling with OCD, the rough language is a powerful expression of the severe frustration this character experience every day of his life. He struggles, and often fails, to hide or control his symptoms, often teetering on the edge of despair. But he never gives up on himself, and neither will the reader. This is a great book for engendering empathy for those around us who battle their own disorders, whether they are physical, psychological, or economic. This book is one worth checking out.

Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams stole my heart, broke it, and then pieced it back together. This is a beautiful book about hope, with a character who emerges in layers. Loved, loved, loved this book!

There’s another Lynch on my list. The wonderful Chris Lynch rocked it out with Angry You Man. In this story about, quite literally, being our brother’s keeper, we are reminded to check the timber in our own eyes before judging the mote in someone else’s. That will make little sense until you read the book, and I suggest you do. And, oh yeah, there’s a bit of eco-terrorism thrown in, so I’d call this title rather timely. Lynch is a master of the powerful voice, so you’ll be hooked in no time.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Need I say more? A light-filled combination of visual and literal storytelling, as only Selznick can produce. This tale is richly imagined, and gives a glimpse of the World’s Fair in NYC, then brings the story forward. This book is a treat. Do yourself a favor and get this one.


Hey 13! by Gary Soto

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Lie by Caroline Bock

Bloody Times by James Swanson (non-fiction)

A Girl Named Faithful by Richard Bernstein

Joseph’s Grace by Sheila Moses

The Summer of Hammers and Angels by Shannon Wiersbitzky

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy


Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson (absolutely stunning!)

Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack

We Are America by Walter Dean Myers

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright

Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson

Eliza’s Freedom Road by Jerdine Nolen

St. Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

So, there you have it! I’m sure I left off some important titles, but after reading 279 books in one summer, I’m doing good to be able to narrow the list at all! So forgive me. I hope this list gives you a good starting-off point. That’s the most I can hope for.