Thursday, March 31, 2016

BOOK LINKS and YPPL Jacqueline Woodson

The new issue of ALA's Book Links magazine features my interview with and article about the new Young People's Poet Laureate, Jacqueline Woodson. What a pleasure to "chat" with her and dig deep into her work through the lens of poetry! Here are a few nuggets from the piece. NOTE: Now the whole article is available online via Booklist's Quick Tips, so here's the link.

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen books for young readers, a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a recipient of the NAACP Image Award, a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and she was recently chosen to deliver the 2017 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. Her work includes groundbreaking picture books, novels, and poetry, including the recent National Book Award winner, Brown Girl Dreaming, her memoir in verse. When she was named Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2015, some people may have been surprised that she was singled out as a POET, but an examination of her work reveals a consistently lyrical use of language, an intentional employment of line breaks and white space, and powerful imagery and intense emotion throughout all her writing. Here, she answers questions about the place of poetry in her life and work and about her plans to “raise awareness” about poetry as the Laureate.

SV: Can you describe the role poetry played in your childhood? When and how did you first discover a love for reading or writing poetry, in particular?

JW: My earliest memory of poetry is Mother Goose of course - my sister reciting various rhymes and my favorite as a child being about the old woman who lived in a shoe. I think I related to the tight living quarters and the tired mom. But somewhere between Mother Goose as a very young child and Langston Hughes as a much older one, I had a disconnect from poetry. Somehow I felt outside of it. I remember hearing Nikki Giovanni’s poetry on an album someone must have owned and thinking “Who and WHAT is that?” but still not making the connection between what Nikki was doing and poetry. When I heard Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations” back in the early 70s, it was a wrap - I got it! I just got it on so many levels  — levels that connected Hughes to Giovanni to Lorde to the Grimk√© sisters, to Eloise Greenfield — I was on my way.

SV: How would you say your poetry has evolved? What kinds of surprises have you discovered along the way?

Jacqueline Woodson (photo by Marty Umans)
JW: I’ve discovered that I’m not as afraid of poetry as I once was and I’m not afraid to put my work out there and call it poetry — without excuses. I think I struggled with Imposter Syndrome for a long time - thinking my work was poetic but not necessarily poetry. My writing has definitely gotten better over the years — I mean, I *have* been practicing!  I’ve discovered how vast the world of poetry is and how much of it I missed as a child. I find myself trying to read as much poetry as I can as slowly as I can as a way to study the poets who’ve come before me. Right now, I’m revisiting CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine.  It’s phenomenal.

SV: What else would you like to explore in creating poetry for young people?

JW: Everything! I want to do everything! I want to go where people haven’t gone before, create new ways of telling stories, open doors to the historically invisible and silent storytellers and poets in our country, put the voices of young people out into the world, visit places where kids think they’ve never met a ‘real’ writer and hold up a mirror for them.  It would be amazing to bring poetry to every state as YPPL. To walk into classrooms and get young people to believe they have a story, a poem, a voice.

SV:  What advice do you have for young people about writing poetry, in particular?

JW: Read poetry. Write poetry. #Noexcuse.

SV: As the current Young People’s Poet Laureate, what are your hopes for the future of poetry for young people?

JW: Oh man, I would SO love for young people to read lots and lots of poetry. I would love for them to see and recognize poetry everywhere in their lives, to talk about the poets they love and the ones they don’t, to write songs and spit lyrics and make chapbooks. I would love, love for Social Justice to be a HUGE part of what young people are writing and talking about one day. I’d love for poetry to cross lines so that poets can look up and see a whole lot of young folks in their audience and young people can look up and see more than parents and teachers coming to hear them write about changing the world.

And there is more Q & A in the article, but now we'll turn to teaching activities and strategies based on Woodson's work.

If you check out the “Poetry” link on Jacqueline Woodson’s website, you’ll see that she focuses on the many ways poetry is infused throughout her writing. She shares excerpts that help illustrate the ideas that poetry can be memoir, fiction, in the form of a picture book, sharing history, or building empathy. Let’s consider each of these areas and how we can build learning activities for young people.

1. Poetry As Memoir (Brown Girl Dreaming)
Jacqueline Woodson explores her own upbringing in her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. In talking about why she wrote it in this particular format, she noted, “This is how memory comes to me -- In small moments with all of this white space around them. I didn't think this memoir could be told any other way. It felt like it would be untrue to the story to try to write a straight narrative out of lyrical memory.” You can share three excerpts from the book at her website ( and talk with students about similar memories they may have of their own siblings, parents/caregivers, or classroom moments. Then students can work in pairs to create their own poem memoir moments, interviewing each other about a particular memory, taking notes for each other, and then each building a free verse or found poem based on those notes. To take it even further, guide students in noting Woodson’s use of italics to suggest dialogue in a poem. If time allows for further study, compare this memoir in verse with other works that offer a similar focus such as:

Ada, Alma Flor. Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba
Ada, Alma Flor. Where the Flame Trees Bloom
Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry
Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out and Back Again
McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Under the Mesquite
Yeung, Russell Ching. Tofu Quilt
Yu, Chun. Little Green; Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution

2. Poetry As Fiction (Locomotion)
In her novel, Locomotion, the narrator Lonnie Collins (nicknamed "Locomotion") writes poetry to tell his story and to express his feelings about being apart from his younger sister and living in foster care after the death of their parents. Once again, Woodson uses italics within a poem to indicate when someone is speaking (besides the narrator) which can be very effective when reading aloud. Try readers’ theater performance, so that students can get a sense of character and voice. Select poems with two parts: plain text and italicized text for two or more volunteers or groups to read aloud in turn. Then talk about how that helps us understand the poem and the points of view better. The novel in verse form offers the generous white space, short lines, and conversational tone that young readers who are still developing their comprehension expertise find helpful. Here are more verse novels for kids in the intermediate grades (grades 4, 5, 6) with younger protagonists and problems and issues like Locomotion and the sequel, Peace, Locomotion:

Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Ivan
Cheng, Andrea. Where the Steps Were
Creech, Sharon. Love That Dog
Engle, Margarita. The Wild Book
Frost, Helen. Hidden
Grimes, Nikki. Planet Middle School
Herrick, Steven. Naked Bunyip Dancing
Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn. Reaching for Sun
Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn. 42 Miles

3. Poetry As Picture Book (The Other Side)
In an interview in School Library Journal, Jacqueline Woodson noted, “My picture books are long poems really—I decide where the lines break and the flow of the story.” Read aloud and show the text of her picture book, The Other Side. After encouraging the students to respond to the story (and the friendship that transcends race), talk about how the words are arranged on the page, particularly in contrast with the usual format for text in picture books. Look at how the line breaks make the reader pause, adding weight to the thoughts expressed. Consider how they fit with the illustrations on the page. Show how it feels when you read the lines and sentences as if they were continuous narrative, then counter by pausing at the end of each line break as written. Examine some of Woodson’s other picture books to see how she arranges words, lines, phrases, and sentences in them: This is the Rope; Each Kindness; Pecan Pie Baby; Coming On Home Soon; We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past; Sweet, Sweet Memory, Our Gracie Aunt; Visiting Day; Show Way.

4. Poetry as History (Show Way)
Woodson traces her family’s roots in the beautiful picture book, Show Way, a Newbery honor book. After reading the book aloud, talk with students about the stories of each generation portrayed in the book, particularly the power of making quilts to show the path to freedom and literacy. Then focus on the story’s text and how each page and poem works together to “quilt” the story’s narrative. Woodson uses the free verse poem form with distinctive line breaks to make the reader pause and think about each scene, letting the “history” breathe a bit. This can serve as a springboard for students to interview a family member about his/her past, then take their notes and develop a free verse poem, and illustrate the scene in some way (with a drawing or old photograph, for example).

5. Poetry As Empathy (Each Kindness)
I imagine that all authors strive to reach readers’ minds as well as hearts, but I believe poets are particularly adept at moving us with their words—and with very few words, too. That’s one reason we often share a poem at a graduation, wedding, or other celebrations. Poems convey deep emotions that we struggle to express on our own and help us connect with one another in very personal ways. Read aloud Woodson’s picture book, Each Kindness, and talk with children about the story and its challenge to be kinder to one another. If possible, bring a large bowl filled with water and a small stone and reenact the teacher’s exercise with each person dropping the stone into the water while describing an act of kindness they have carried out. Then challenge students to find a poem or story excerpt that makes them feel deeply and invite them to share it with the group. Consider sharing poetry books by some of Woodson’s poet influences such as Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes, Hip Hop Speaks to Children collected by Nikki Giovanni or Amazing Faces edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Lend a Hand by John Frank, This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort edited by Georgia Heard or What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by Joyce Sidman.

The Book Links article matches each of these activities to appropriate Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and provides a complete bibliography too. FYI.



Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing these excerpts from your interview and the extension activities, as well. Fantastic! Jacqueline Woodson's enthusiasm for her role as YPPL had me nodding my head and cheering.

Maria Gianferrari said...

Love Jacqueline Woodson's work--it's so lovely and lyrical and important!! Thanks for sharing, Sylvia :)