The brilliant combination of poetry and nonfiction is what drew me to Zoboi’s amazing middle-grade biography of author Octavia Butler. Telling the story of a life in poems requires such precision and artistry. Zoboi does this in a way that is seamless and spare and beautiful.
This is one of my favorite books for young readers that I’ve read recently. Zoboi acts as a sculptor—paring, shaping, and providing just the right detail in just the right words to deliver a poetic portrait of a powerful woman and commanding writer. This beautiful book recently won an Honor in the We Need Diverse Books 2023 Walter Awards.
Don’t miss it!
On Fridays, I love taking part in Poetry Friday when I can, where writers share resources about children’s poetry. This week, Marcie Flinchum Atkins hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at her blog. Check out the celebration of poetry there today!
Playing with poetry in the classroom– that’s one of the best parts of my job as a Literacy Coach in an elementary school.
Recently, I introduced the poem “Circle of Sun” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich in the first-grade classroom I work in each morning. It’s the opening poem in the outstanding poetry book HERE’S A LITTLE POEM, collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. One reason I love this book for use in the classroom is that it’s a generous size, perfect for reading aloud to a group.
“Circle of Sun” is chock full of vivid images and lively verbs, with beautiful lines like “I’m earth’s many colors” and “I’m honey on toast”– perfect for the multiracial, multicultural school community in which I teach. It’s a joy to read aloud!
But then came the best part– we made a classroom book. Each child took a line from the poem and illustrated it. This made the poem more meaningful– each first grader focused on image and word choice in their line of the poem and used that as their springboard for illustrating.
Now we have a beautiful classroom book, celebrating our diversity and love of poetry. Thank you to Rebecca for crafting such a meaningful and memorable poem!
On Fridays, I love taking part in Poetry Friday when I can, where writers share resources about children’s poetry. This week, Karen Edmisten hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at her blog. Check out the celebration of poetry there today!
On November 20, I will be joining a poetry party in England– and you can come too!
Back in 2016, I visited London and happened upon an enchanting holiday fair. It’s where I took this picture:
Years later, I wrote a poem called “Wintertime Fair,” and it was published on the children’s poetry website The Dirigible Balloon. Edited by Jonathan Humble and based in England, The Dirigible Balloon is a free website chock full of high-quality poems for children. It’s an amazing resource for kids, teachers, and parents– and anyone who loves poetry!
When Jonathan decided to publish an anthology of poems from The Dirigible Balloon, I was delighted that he chose “Wintertime Fair” to be a part of it. (My first trans-Atlantic publication!) The book, CHASING CLOUDS, is launching with a Zoom reading on November 20 at 7 p.m. in England (2 p.m. on the east coast of the U.S!). I will be a part of the reading, and I’ll get to hear the voices and see the faces of many poets I admire and follow as well.
For more information, or to attend the Zoom launch of CHASING CLOUDS, follow The Dirigible Balloon on Facebook or Twitter, or check my social media– I’ll be sharing the link!
I recently learned of a book for young readers that combines three of my passions: poetry, history, and social justice. THE TRAVELING CAMERA: LEWIS HINE AND THE FIGHT TO END CHILD LABOR (Getty Publications, 2021) balances these three elements beautifully, along with striking images in both Hine’s photographs and illustrations by Michael Garland. I was lucky enough to interview author Alexandra S.D. Hinrichs about her process of writing this biography in verse.
Alex used lots of primary sources in her research, as well as secondary. Through a book of Lewis Hine’s letters, photo captions, and articles, she immersed herself in his words, his language, his ways of expressing what he had seen in factories, fields, and other settings where children toiled. Hine was a prolific writer fighting to end child labor; Alex also had access to the articles he penned for the Child Labor Bulletin and other newspapers.
Alex uses Hine’s striking images and poetic language to great effect in THE TRAVELING CAMERA. Hine had to make his way into factories and other settings in order to investigate and photograph. He would tell factory managers that he was photographing broken equipment, or a salesman, when in fact he was documenting the children who were working in dangerous conditions at young ages. He used the buttons on his coat to estimate the height of children, describing a child in a factory who was “three buttons tall.” These are the details that Alex employs to great impact in her poetic text.
“Poetry is my first go-to when I’m writing. It’s a natural starting point for me,” Alex explains. “My first full draft was in free verse. I do remember talking to my editor at the outline stage and she encouraged me to play, pretty much gave me free rein to be creative and think outside of the box for how to tell Hine’s story.”
Hine himself was a poetic writer, and his language shines throughout the text of THE TRAVELING CAMERA. A man who was slight in stature, Hine wrote that the clunky large camera was “a heavy load/for a featherweight/ to tote.” He was passionate about ending the injustice of child labor and wanting to humanize the children who were working in factories and fields, “Because the human spirit/ is the big thing/ after all.”
Because she had access to so much of Hine’s writing, Alex decided to weave his words into her verse. Italics mark the words of Hine in the text, and it’s a seamless way to give us a sense of Hine’s voice. I think this is a brilliant decision, and it’s noted in the backmatter.
Alex offers a peek into her process: “My biggest focus was Hine’s voice– how to capture his voice, obviously sometimes using his exact words, and then staying true to his voice even when they were my words. Relatedly, this was my first time writing poetry in a character’s voice and in a different time period. To help with both of these, I made a file of quotes and language where I just made a big list of words, phrases, and sentences he used that seemed distinct to him and/or the time period. As I revised if there were places I wanted to make his voice come through more, I turned to that list.”
I appreciate Alex offering us a peek into her process. Her techniques and craft decisions have much to offer poets and biographers. Be sure to get your hands on this beautiful book– biographies in verse are rare, and this one is especially wonderful. If you want to order a personalized copy, check here. (Be sure to specify how you’d like the book to be signed.)
On Fridays, I love taking part in Poetry Friday when I can, where writers share resources about children’s poetry. This week, Matt Forrest Esenwine hosts the Poetry Friday Roundup today at his blog Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme. Check out the celebration of poetry there today!
When you get to combine teaching with a topic you’re passionate about– that’s the sweet spot! I just finished teaching one of my favorite courses at the community college, “Poetry in the Early Childhood Classroom.”
In this class, we dove deep into poetry: how to infuse it throughout the curriculum, how it can foster social-emotional growth, how a poem can be a window, mirror, or sliding glass door for a child.
One of the assignments of the course is “Author Study of a Poet.” This summer, my students (who all teach in early childhood) focused on Nikki Giovanni, Janet Wong, and Douglas Florian, among others. They also completed Poetry Portfolios to use in their classrooms, and made big beautiful poetry charts for shared, choral reading.
It was a creative, fun class, and their final reflections show that! Here are some of their postings:
**My view on poetry in the preschool classroom has changed dramatically. Prior to this class I would have considered myself not a fan at all. I had no idea how helpful the addition of poetry could be to introducing and elevating the curriculum in the classroom. I love the idea of adding connections to the subject at hand by utilizing poetry to enhance the topics. I am also intrigued by the humor that can be added by selecting the right poem. I love to make the kids laugh.
**I never really took the time to read poetry, but now after taking this class, it has really opened my eyes to all the different ways poetry is useful. Especially tonight’s class and listening to Mary explain how poetry can be used, like as a dipstick to see what children know, or to preview a topic. I like how poetry can also be used as an emotional rehearsal. Things can always be related to poems or vice versa.
**The same way I sometimes underestimate the power of a walk through nature is the way I can “overlook” the power of poetry in the classroom.
**I will definitely take away from this class the idea of servicing through teaching in a new light. The idea of helping a child with transitions by utilizing poetry and books as windows hit me in a whole new way. I also will take away the positive impact that poetry can have on speech development and shyness.
I had that hit of “mission accomplished” as I read these comments, and I hope they inspire any teachers who read this to add more poetry to their teaching.
I recently received a bundle of letters from the kids at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. I delivered a poetry presentation there in the spring, using Jacqueline Woodson‘s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and Kwame Alexander‘s THE CROSSOVER as mentor texts.
St. Luke’s is located in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. “Mott Haven has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but it is still full of good people who struggle mightily to overcome difficult economic challenges.” (St. Luke’s newsletter)
My mother, Kitty Cronin, attended St. Luke’s as a child, the daughter of immigrants who were trying to make their way in a new country. Many of the children I met at St. Luke’s are navigating that same path, decades later.
Kitty Cronin, back in the 1940’s
The seventh and eighth graders I spoke to were vibrant, earnest, and they fell in love with the two texts, which I gave to their teacher as a gift.
Their interest in poetry and love of literature are apparent in their notes, which I will treasure.
I sent them a note in return– telling them I got to meet Kwame Alexander at a writing conference (New England SCBWI).
I told Kwame about the kids who loved his book in the South Bronx, and he sent his greetings, which I passed on!
A friend of mine recently used the term “writing as service.” Bells starting chiming in my brain.
Writing can be seen as many things: a creative outlet, a hobby or job, a business and source of income, a way of connecting to others. But the concept of writing as a way of doing service in the world* was both familiar and new to me, all at the same time.
The concept of writing as service is a balm to my soul when the “business” of writing starts chafing too deeply, when I find myself thinking too much about agents and editors and publishers and manuscript wish lists. Those noises begin to drown out the creative hum of actually writing. And those noises start to create negative associations, blocking the connection between “writing” and “pleasure.”
Teaching creative writing to an under-served population is a form of service. When I go to the Barnstable County Correctional Facility and teach writing to incarcerated women, I feel inspired, blessed, and lucky to be a writer. When I taught a recent poetry workshop at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx, I was enriched by the experience: by the kids who blossomed as they wrote, by the ones who sought me out to make a momentary, personal connection, by the adults who wanted to talk to me about writing. Again, I came away energized, refreshed, inspired.
Writing something that serves as a mirror or window for another person also feels like writing as service. I’ve had that experience, too, with my essays, with work I have shared in writing workshops or elsewhere. That chime of connection rings deep in my soul. I’m sure you’ve had that, too.
As I navigate the crooked and sometimes bumpy path of being a writer, I will keep this concept of writing as service close to me. I will use it to keep me grounded, to drown out the “static” of the writing life, to focus on the important quests: putting words on the page, and using my writing to somehow enrich the world. That, I’m convinced, will sustain me for the long road ahead.
(Thanks to Elisabeth Booze for our conversation about this term!)