Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Poetry of Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

As you know, I write a regular poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine and I like to highlight it here, too. (Double duty and good promo for Book Links-- which I love! It's such a practitioner-friendly publication.) Well, somehow I forgot to feature my interview with poet and author Carmen T. Bernier Grand last Fall. So let me rectify that now and share a few nuggets. 

Carmen T. Bernier-Grand has written picture books, novels, nonfiction, and poetry, scooping up three Pura Belpre honor recognitions and several other awards along the way. Her work explores the people and stories of her native Puerto Rico as well as presenting the lives of other Latino and Latina artists, dancers, and political figures. She provides a strong sense of time and place woven throughout her works. Here, we focus particularly on her biographies-in-verse which reviewers have described as “powerful,” “lyrical,” and “inspiring.” In addition, this format blending poetry, history, and biography provides excellent study texts for applying Common Core standards and skills, particularly in bridging language arts, reading, and social studies. Indeed, her books are often included on the list of “Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies” as relevant resources across the curriculum. Her book, César: ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We can!, appeared on the 2005 NCSS Notables list, Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! was included on the 2008 NCSS Notables list, and Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice was featured on the 2011 NCSS Notables list. Her focus on the people and places of her own culture make her a model author for theme study in the social studies. Here she provides some background information on her life, her views, and her writing process.

SV: Did you grow up with a strong sense of place? How did your roots shape your desire to become a writer?

CTBG: Salty breeze, yucca, moriviví weed closing its leaves when I touched them, reinita birds nesting in our Christmas tree, coquí tree-frogs singing me to sleep at night. The five senses composed millions of songs in me in Puerto Rico. The roots of their rhythms shaped me.

SV: Was poetry an important part of your childhood? When did you first discover a love for the genre?

CTBG: “Margarita está linda la mar. . .”  I can still hear my mother reciting Rubén Darío’s poems and my aunt singing, “Muñequita linda de cabellos de oro. . .” At five I pretended to be Margarita listening to my mother; I was the beautiful, little girl with golden hair in the song my aunt sang. 

SV: You’ve written several different kinds of books for young readers including fiction and nonfiction, so how did you first gravitate to the biography-in-verse form?

CTBG: My first biography in verse came from above. I felt as if Cesar Chavez was dictating it to me in that format.

SV: Do you approach writing poetry differently from your writing of fiction and nonfiction? What are the similarities or differences? 

CTBG: In poetry I think in short, lyrical vignettes. Although I like to write lyrically in any genre, in fiction and nonfiction I expand and explain. 

SV: What do you think biographical poetry might offer that a nonfiction prose biography might not? 

CTBG: It’s a limited form, but I see the illustrated biographies I write as introductions to the people I am presenting—appetizers for the very hungry.

Carmen was also kind enough
 to provide a new poem for readers too. 
SV: What kind of research goes into writing your poem biographies?

CTBG: I completely immerse myself in the culture. I eat its food, listen to its music, go to plays, watch movies, read literature of the times and, of course, research from home. The latter includes getting in touch with people who know the person I am writing about.

I write the first draft by hand (maybe because I didn't grow up with computers). Then I type the draft and revise it a million times. In the meantime, I am getting to know where the holes are. With those holes, I travel. And miracles happen! I got to meet Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, Diego Rivera's daughter, Guadalupe, and Pablo Picasso's grandson, Bernard Ruiz Picasso.

SV: Which people in history would you still like to explore in your poetry for young people?

CTBG: Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Casals, Rubén Darío. 

SV: Why are you so interested in art and artists in your poetry writing, in particular? 

CTBG: Here I have to give credit to Former Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis A. Ferré. When I was growing up, he opened the Ponce Museum of Art. I spent hours looking at art from all over the world, but also by Puerto Ricans such as José Campeche and Francisco Oller, among many on my list to write about.  How old was I? Much much shorter than I am now.  

SV: What is it that draws you to write about artists (such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso), in particular?

CTBG: I wanted to write about a woman, and chose Frida Kahlo for her painful, but colorful life. Since I had done the Mexico City research for Frida, Diego came next. Diego and Picasso were friends and their treatment of women was similar. So, why not Picasso? 

SV: So, now I'm curious... to whom is Picasso leading you next? 

CTBG: Picasso leads to Dalí...

Common Core Connections—
Here are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with biographies by Bernier-Grand. You can find more information about the standards at

What Would You Do?
Biographies are books that try "to breathe life and meaning into people and events," according to children’s literature expert Charlotte Huck, but often we have to provide a "hook" or motivation to interest children in reading biographies of people in the past. We can capitalize on their innate curiosity about people using books like Bernier-Grand’s that use verse to paint a portrait in a few, deft strokes. 

One approach considers how historical figures from the past might view today’s current events or issues. In “What Would Cleopatra Do? Applying the Wisdom of the Past to Today’s World,” Myra Zarnowski (2007) proposes that “reading and thinking about how people thought and acted in the past provides material for thinking about the present” and she suggests building “historical literacy” through helping children make connections to today by interpreting events in both historical and contemporary contexts. She reminds us that “the relevance of their ideas in today’s world is one reason their lives continue to be significant and worth knowing about today” and proposes the following four steps.
  1. Raise a current question (for someone from the past)
  2. Read historical literature about the person (what were their views on the issues of their times?)
  3. Research and discuss the current question (using nonfiction, Internet sources, etc.)
  4. Answer the current question from the point of view of the historical person 
For example:
1. What would (person from the past) think about (current event or person from the present such as gun control, immigration, terrorism, women in the workforce?

What would Frida Kahlo think about Lady Gaga (based on Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!)?
What would Pablo Picasso think about graphic novels? (read Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey)
What would Cesar Chavez think about global warming and climate change (share César; ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We can!)

Read the selected book by Bernier-Grand and talk about the views and attitudes held by the book’s subject. How did she/he feel about her/his work, parents, families, role in society, and so on. Then guide the students in discussing and/or researching the contemporary topic at hand (Lady Gaga, graphic novels, climate change). Finally, speculate on the point of view that the book’s character (Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Cesar Chavez) might have regarding each modern issue. Making these connections between the people of the past and events of the present can help children see the relevance of reading about history, as well as the timelessness of attributes such as dedication, integrity, and resourcefulness. And crossing genres from poetry to nonfiction and back again challenges students to employ multiple resources and think more critically.

Bernier-Grand uses free verse to convey the life stories of her subjects, but these same individuals have also been the focus of many works of nonfiction for young readers. Pair and compare the poetic and the expository approach using some of the following examples.

DIEGO RIVERA (Diego: Bigger Than Life)
  • Diego by Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter
  • My Papa Diego and Me/Mi papa Diego y yo: Memories of My Father and His Art/Recuerdos de mi padre y su arte by Guadalupe Rivera Marin 
  • Diego Rivera: His World and Ours by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People by Susan Goldman Rubin 
FRIDA KAHLO (Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!)
  • Frida Kahlo: The Artist who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith and Tomie de Paola
  • Frida by Jonah Winter and Ana Juan (Scholastic, 2002)
  • Me, Frida by Amy Novesky and David Diaz

PABLO PICASSO (Picasso: I the King, Yo el rey)
  • Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter and Kevin Hawkes
  • Picasso and Minou by P. I. Maltbie

CESAR CHAVEZ (César: ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We can!)
  • Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull 
  • A Picture Book of Cesar Chavez by David A. Adler
Students can work in teams to present their findings in a bulleted list form gleaned from the book of their choice. Then guide them in making a Venn diagram of facts from each source highlighting information found in multiple sources in the center of the diagram. Discuss those points that are different in each book too and why that author might have chosen to include those particular details. In addition, the Biography television channel ( and the History television channel ( both offer a wealth of information and visuals to supplement historical study that children may find surprising.

Challenge the boys and girls in your class to take on the persona of Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo in oral readings. Use both Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! and Diego: Bigger Than Life to examine how artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are presented through the poems in each book. Invite girls to select and perform their favorite examples of poems about Rivera filtered through Frida’s point of view in Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!. These might include “Diego,” “You Have Talent,” “¡Extra!,” “My Diego My Child,” “Second Marriage,” and “What Do I Live For.” Next, ask boys to do the same with poems about Frida in Diego: Bigger Than Life such as “Wings of a Blackbird,” “Devil Frida,” “An Orchid for Frida,” “Anguish and Triumph,” “Diego’s Words,” and “Death Dance.” Students can work in pairs or small groups to prepare their readings, then invite them to perform their poems (with simple props like paint brushes or costumes like an artist’s smock or flowered headdress, if desired) in a point/counterpoint fashion, with girls and boys taking turns, as follows: 

Girls: “Diego;”         Boys: “Wings of a Blackbird”
Girls: “You Have Talent;” Boys: “Devil Frida”
Girls: “¡Extra!;”         Boys: “An Orchid for Frida”
Girls: “My Diego My Child;” Boys: “Anguish and Triumph”
Girls: “Second Marriage;” Boys: “Diego’s Words,”
Girls: “What Do I Live For;” Boys: “Death Dance.”

Lead students in discussing how each artist talks about the other—about their first meeting, about their art, and about their lives together. How do their feelings change toward each other and how is that expressed? Guide students in discussing the details that converge about each figure and how the poet portrays the emotions of each person.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: 
Poetry and the 10 Themes of Social Studies 
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council (CBC) has an annual book review committee that selects books for children in grades K-12 and produces an annotated list of “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” They look for books that “emphasize human relations, represent a diversity of groups and are sensitive to a broad range of cultural experiences, present an original theme or a fresh slant on a traditional topic, are easily readable and of high literary quality, have a pleasing format, and, where appropriate, include illustrations that enrich the text.” The most recent list of Notable Books for the Social Studies (for 2012) included these five books of poetry:

Engle, Margarita. 2011. Hurricane Dancers; The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. New York: Henry Holt. 
Durango, Julia. 2011. Under the Mambo Moon. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. 
Lai, Thanhha. 2011. Inside Out and Back Again. New York: HarperCollins.
McKissack, Patricia. 2011. Never Forgotten. New York: Schwartz & Wade.
Wolf, Allan. 2011. The Watch That Ends the Night. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. 

Interestingly enough, the “Notable Social Studies” lists from the last decade included a total of 55 works of poetry on the combined lists, with an average of five poetry titles per year—and this year’s list continues that trend of including five poetry books relevant for social studies instruction. (Complete annotated bibliographies are available on the NCSS and CBC web sites.)

In addition, annotations for each book also indicate the thematic strand most appropriate to each title drawn from Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Here are the thematic strands for the social studies curriculum along with recommendations of recent poetry books that can serve as exemplary mentor texts in each area.

Thematic Strands of the NCSS Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Poetry Mentor Texts
1. Culture: Flood, Nancy Bo. 2013. Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

2. Time, Continuity, and Change: Corcoran, Jill. Ed. 2012. Dare to Dream… Change the World. San Diego, CA: Kane Miller.

3. People, Places, and Environments: Harrison, David. 2012. Cowboys. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

4. Individual Development and Identity: Cheng, Andrea. 2013. Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. New York: Lee & Low.

5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Applegate, Katherine. 2012. The One and Only Ivan. New York: Harper.

6. Power, Authority, and Governance: Lewis, J. Patrick. 2013. When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. San Francisco: Chronicle.
7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption: Hughes, Langston. 2012. I, Too, Am America. Ill. by Bryan Collier. New York: Simon & Schuster.

8. Science, Technology, and Society: Smith, Charles R., Jr. 2013. Brick by Brick. New York: Amistad/ HarperCollins.

9. Global Connections: Engle, Margarita. 2013. The Lightning Dreamer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

10. Civic Ideals and Practices: Singer, Marilyn. 2013. Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents. New York: Disney-Hyperion.

Happy Poetry Friday, everyone. See you over at Mainely Write!


Mary Lee said...

So many great resources in this post! Thanks, Sylvia!

Mary Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jone said...

Oh thanks for interview my friend. Carmen is such a dear.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks, Mary Lee! And thank you, Jone, for stopping by too. I agree-- Carmen is a special person-- and poet!

Myra Garces Bacsal said...

Hi there Sylvia, this is a wonderful resource. I am currently drafting an abstract proposal that looks into picture book biographies. I would be sure to add the links that you shared here. And I will have to hunt down more of Carmen's PBBs. :) Were you able to visit us here in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content?

Sylvia Vardell said...

Hi, Myra, so glad my post is helpful for you. No, I was not able to make it to Singapore-- unfortunately. I heard it was a wonderful event!