Friday, November 24, 2006

National Book Award + Poetry Connection

Last week the National Book Award was announced and M. T. Anderson won in the Young People’s Literature category for his historical novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press, 2006). I had the chance to hear Anderson speak (he goes by “Tobin Anderson”) last weekend at the NCTE conference and found him to be so intelligent and articulate— and YOUNG. He spoke about the research behind this award winning novel and his strong desire to get the language right— true to the period, but still engaging for young adult readers. This was wonderful prep for me, since I had not yet read the book. I have now finished it and have come away very impressed with this powerful story of an African American boy raised by a house of philosophers who experiment on him and his mother in increasingly bizarre and brutal ways— all against a backdrop of our country’s uncertain struggle to be an independent nation.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Marilyn Nelson’s stunning poetry book, Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (Handprint 2004), the story of an 18th century African American slave whose skeleton is preserved for anatomical study. Here, she presents six poems told from differing points of view about the man, his life, and his times. Together, these books offer young adults a riveting look at the place of the Black man during a painful time in our history. Discussions about the intersection of race, science, and politics in both these accounts should be interesting-- along with a consideration of the authors' amazing use of language in each book.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Nikki Grimes receives NCTE Poetry Award

Greetings from Nashville, Tennessee, where I am attending the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. I just realized I’ve been coming to this conference for 25 years! Geeze, that’s a long time! This is one of my favorite events, bringing together teachers, authors, publishers, and all kinds of lovers of books. I’ve been involved in this organization in many different capacities over the years, particularly within the Children’s Literature Assembly, a sub-group of NCTE—that’s an especially wonderful and dedicated group of people. At this year’s conference, I have the privilege of co-chairing the committee that bestows the Excellence in Poetry for Children award. We officially presented the award to Nikki Grimes, the fourteenth recipient of the honor, at the Books for Children luncheon yesterday. Nearly 500 people were in attendance, including two dozen OTHER authors and poets—quite an auspicious occasion. Nikki spoke briefly sharing her thoughts about poetry, what it is, what it does, and wove together readings of some of her poems from WHAT IS GOODBYE, WHEN DADDY PRAYS, and her newest book-length poem, WELCOME, PRECIOUS. It was a lovely, thoughtful speech that ended with her becoming quite emotional as she thanked everyone for the encouragement for “following my heart.” It was a very honest, moving moment.

In addition, there was also a conference session on Friday during which Nikki had the opportunity to speak at greater length. We kicked off the session by having members of the Poetry Award committee (Yours truly, Peggy Oxley, Dan Woolsey, Janet Wong, and Gail Wesson Spivey—Jan Kristo and Georgia Heard were not able to attend) read aloud some of their favorite Nikki Grimes poems, inviting the audience to join in on the oral reading in various ways. We shared “Snow” from A POCKET FULL OF POEMS, “Attendance by Tyrone Bittings” from BRONX MASQUERADE, “Coke-bottle Brown” from MEET DANITRA BROWN, the title poem from A DIME A DOZEN, and "Photograph ~ Poem for Two Voices” from WHAT IS GOODBYE? What fun! And what a lovely way to show the breadth and variety of Nikki’s work in both style and format. Then Nikki spoke for nearly an hour and kept the crowd in the palm of her hand the whole time. She wove together bits of autobiography, personal commentary, and life wisdom along with readings of poems from many, many of her works. It was a gem of a speech, beautifully prepared and delivered. Here is one of the nuggets that I particularly noted, “Poetry is portable… it can be carried in the hip pocket of the mind.”

If you haven’t checked out the poetry of Nikki Grimes, it’s time to do so. The poem below will help you get started; “At the Library” appears on the Poetry Award bookmark that was created for the occasion by NCTE. Enjoy!

At the Library
by Nikki Grimes

I flip the pages of a book and slip inside,
Where crystal seas await and pirates hide.
I find a paradise where birds can talk,
Where children fly and trees prefer to walk.
Sometimes I end up on a city street.
I recognize the brownskin girl I meet.
She's skinny, but she’s strong, and brave, and wise.
I smile because I see me in her eyes.

from IT'S RAINING LAUGHTER. New York: Dial, 1997.

Check out Nikki’s “meaty” web site for more about her and her work:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

National Children's Book Week

Get ready for National Children’s Book Week, coming Nov. 13-19. This tradition of celebrating and promoting children and their books goes back 85 years and is sponsored by the Children’s Book Council The Council provides posters and other promotional materials featuring art by a different children’s book illustrator every year. In addition, they commission an original poem about books and reading to use on the Book Week bookmark. One of my favorite poem anthologies is a collection of these bookmark poems:

Rich, Mary Perrotta, ed. 1998. Book Poems: Poems from National Children’s Book Week, 1959-1998. New York: Children’s Book Council.

Poets have been writing about the power of reading and books for generations. I collect book-poems and have a box full now! I tried to decide which ONE poem about reading and books was my favorite… but I couldn’t. So, here are seven of my favorites. Share one-a-day for every day of National Children’s Book Week. Enjoy!

“Books Fall Open”
by David McCord
From: ALL DAY LONG (Little Brown 1966)

“Don't Read This Book, Whatever You Do!”
by Kalli Dakos

“Good Books, Good Times”
by Lee Bennett Hopkins
From: GOOD BOOKS, GOOD TIMES! (HarperTrophy 2000)

“The List”
by Naomi Shihab Nye
From: A MAZE ME; POEMS FOR GIRLS (Greenwillow 2005)

“The First Book”
by Rita Dove

“This Book”
by Joyce Sidman
From her web site

“Read… Think… Dream”
by J. Patrick Lewis

Friday, November 03, 2006

Happy Birthday, Emily

Today is my daughter’s 23rd birthday and I am thinking back with great fondness on her slow arrival, her cranky babyhood, her effervescent toddlerhood, her drama-filled childhood, her diligent adolescence, her adventurous college-hood, and all the magical moments in between. Happy birthday, Emily. Here is my poem-gift to you today— one of my personal favorites. For an extra treat, you can hear Robert Frost himself read this poem on the web site of the Academy of American Poets ( at:

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.