Friday, May 25, 2007

Happy Birthday, Joyce Carol Thomas

Today is poet, Joyce Carol Thomas’s birthday, so I offer this tribute to her from my upcoming book, Poetry People; A Practical Guide to Children’s Poets. This is an excerpt from the entry on her and her poetry.

Joyce Thomas was born on May 25, 1938, in Ponca City, Oklahoma. She attended San Francisco City College and the University of San Francisco, but received her bachelor’s degree from San Jose State College in California. She also earned a master’s degree from Stanford University. She has worked as a telephone operator, a teacher of French and Spanish, a reading program director, and as a professor of English. Thomas has won numerous awards including Best Book and Notable citations from the American Library Association, National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council for the Social Studies; as well as the National Book Award for Children’s Fiction, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Oklahoma Sequoyan Young Adult Book Award.

Joyce Thomas’ free verse poems in Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (HarperTrophy, 1996) and the companion volume Gingerbread Days (HarperTrophy, 1997) share glimpses of family love while celebrating the beauty and heritage of all African Americans. Share the thoughtful poem, “Becoming the Tea” (from Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea) and brew a cup of tea (preferably from tea leaves) to bring the poem to life. Bring gingerbread to accompany the January poem from Gingerbread Days, a collection of a dozen poems loosely linked to the months of the year. Pair this with Lilian Moore’s poetry collection based on the calendar year, Mural On Second Avenue and Other City Poems (Candlewick, 2004) or Eloise Greenfield’s Night on Neighborhood Street (Dial, 1991), a glimpse of life in an urban community, or Nikki Grimes’ Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury of Love Poems (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1999), a heartwarming collage of family moments.

In the poems in Crowning Glory (HarperCollins, 2002), Thomas honors the African American traditions of braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, ribbons, and scarves in adorning the head and hair. She particularly pays tribute to women, much like Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Mattie Lou at Twelve” (Spin a Soft Black Song, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) or Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Show Way (Putnam, 2005). Follow up with Kathryn Lasky’s picture book biography, Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker illustrated by Nneka Bennett (Candlewick, 2003), the founder of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company of hair care products for Black women and the richest African American woman of her times.

Thomas narrows her focus to mothers and daughters, with her poetry book, A Mother's Heart, A Daughter's Love: Poems for Us to Share (HarperCollins, 2001), full of poems designed to be read alone, together in a duet, or as a call and response. Connect these poems with Janet Wong’s collection, The Rainbow Hand: Poems About Mothers and Children (Simon & Schuster, 2000) or Pat Mora’s anthology, Love to Mama: A Celebration of Mothers (Lee and Low, 2001). Children can choose their favorite poems and tape themselves reading them to share as a special “Mother’s Day” or birthday poem tribute.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

More about Verse Novels: Sonya Sones

I’m on a roll with verse novels, so let me herald the arrival of Sonya Sones’ latest book, another young adult novel-in-verse, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, due out this summer. It’s a sequel to the very popular, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, although it changes points of view to focus on the boy’s perspective, the misfit Murphy, whose name is a synonym for “klutz” or “outcast.” We begin with the outcast Murphy and the popular Sophie madly in love and in the throes of longing.

As Soon as We Get Upstairs to My Room

It’s like there’s
no future,




The greatest

I’ve ever




Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 211

The effect of their relationship on their peers at school, however, is quite different. They are not accepted and indeed, Sophie’s friends abandon her and gradually take part in ridiculing her. Sophie is defiant and her faith in him empowers Murphy to grow in confidence—and lust! Murphy feels stunned by his good fortune and unworthy of her love and attention. However, things take a turn when he has the opportunity to mix with college students in an extra-curricular art class. For once he is accepted, even admired, and the object of attraction for another girl. Conflict ensues, choices must be made. With her usual blend of sharp humor and honest anguish, Sones creates a story of love and longing against a backdrop of art, artists, and artlessness.

Look for more books by Sonya Sones like the “prequel,” What My Mother Doesn’t Know, as well as One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. And for more poetry on the teenage boy’s perspective on love, look for poems by Ralph Fletcher, Gary Soto, and Steven Herrick.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

A pair of poems for Mother’s Day

I love my mom, but I’ve always thought of Mother’s Day as holiday promoted by the greeting card industry. Even as a mom myself, I just don’t get this whole thing. It’s nice to acknowledge our moms, of course, but the holiday is so loaded with saccharine expressions that are just a bit cheesy IMO. That said, I wanted to share two poems that I find meaningful on the subject of parents and parenting. One, “Warmth” is written by a child and the other “Grown Children,” is by New York Poet Laureate, Sharon Olds. Together, they have us looking ahead and looking backward…

By Richard Furst
Grade 10

I walked through the empty kitchen
to the door,
to leave the warmth of home
for the bitter-cold anxiety of
a Monday at school.
Ducking the old dogwood outside,
I heard a familiar call,
and turned to see my mother
waving me off to school,
sending me a small fire
to keep my heart a little warmer.

From Ten-Second Rainshowers: Poems by Young People compiled by Sanford Lyne. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

And pair with Sharon Olds’ poem about “Grown Children” which begins observing a baby toddling on the beach and ends with the lines:

Grown Children
by Sharon Olds

… And now our daughter
is asleep on the couch, not six pounds
thirteen ounces, but about my size,
her great, complex, delicate face
relaxed. And our son, last night, looking closely
at his sweetheart as they whispered for a moment, what a tender
listening look he had. We raised them
daily, I mean hourly—every minute
we were theirs, no hour went by we were not
raising them—carrying them, bearing them, lifting them
up, for the pleasure, and so they could see,
out, away from us.

From The Unswept Room. Knopf, 2002.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Seeing Emily

Back on Feb. 21, I posted an announcement about the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award: The LBH award committee recognizes a new, up-and-coming poet. The Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Reading Association Promising New Poet Award was given to Joyce Lee Wong for Seeing Emily (Abrams, 2005).

Since then, I ordered the book, got it, and read it, and found it a very worthy award selection. In this novel-in-verse, a budding teen artist, Emily Wu, is struggling with the usual adolescent issues of separating from parents, fitting in at school, finding one’s own gifts, and experiencing first love. However, in Emily’s case there is an added layer of cultural confusion that colors these experiences. Her (Chinese) parents are loving, if over-protective with high expectations, she’s expected to bond instantly with the new Chinese student at school, and her new boyfriend has an odd tourist view about having an “exotic” Asian girlfriend. Writing about her best friends (and perhaps, unconsciously, about her own conflicted relationship with her mother), she observes:

Perhaps the more familiar
someone is
to you,
the harder it is
to separate her from
the person she is
to you,
and the harder it is
to see her
as a person
in her own right.
p. 204

She also struggles with the role looks and language play in how people perceive her:

Mama and Baba say
I used to speak beautiful Chinese,
my accent clear
and the tones perfect.
But then I started kindergarten,
I remember how the other kids laughed
at the way I couldn’t understand
any English at all.
Mama says it wasn’t long
before I spoke English
exactly like my classmates.
But she said I refused
to speak Chinese anymore
Even at home
with just Baba and Mama
and no one else to hear,
they spoke Chinese to me
and I answered them
in English.
p. 220

She spends a summer in China staying with an aunt and trying to improve her command of Chinese.

Though Chinese was
my mother tongue,
English was
my native
and I didn’t quite feel
I fit in,
either her in Taipei
or even in Virginia,
where I’d lived
all my life
until now.
p. 245

This bridging of Asian and American identities is also a powerful theme in the work of Laurence Yep as in The Star Fisher (Puffin, 1992) and for younger readers, Grace Lin as in The Year of the Dog (Little, Brown, 2006). Poet Janet Wong writes about her blended cultural identity in “Face It” beginning “My nose belongs/ to Guangdong, China/… My eyes belong/ to Alsace, France” from A Suitcase of Seaweed (Simon & Schuster, 1996). And for a completely different cultural perspective, look for “Legal Alien” by Pat Mora in which she observes she is “able to sit in a paneled office/ drafting memos in smooth English,/ able to order in fluent Spanish/ at a Mexican restaurant/ American but hyphenated” from Chants (Arte Publico Press, 1985). Joyce Lee Wong’s Seeing Emily is a powerful addition to this potlatch of stories and poetry that capture the struggle for a bi-cultural identity, as well as an engaging example of a novel-in-verse that will appeal to teens who want a good girl-boy-friends story.

And for more about verse novels, look for my April 19 post on “Support Teen Literature Day.”

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Not Poetry Month

Well, it’s May 1 today and that means April, National Poetry Month, is over. I’ve enjoyed posting daily for April and hope you’ve found some useful ideas and examples. But I also have mixed feelings about moving on, as if every other month of the year we can just ignore poetry. Although I may not be able to post daily, I will continue rolling with my efforts at promoting poetry for young people. I also welcome any suggestions for new poetry-related topics to consider. But for today, I thought I would share this cranky nugget from an essay by Charles Bernstein.

"As an alternative to National Poetry Month, I propose that we have an International Anti-Poetry month. As part of the activities, all verse in public places will be covered over—from the Statue of Liberty to the friezes on many of our government buildings. Poetry will be removed from radio and TV (just as it is during the other eleven months of the year). Parents will be asked not to read Mother Goose and other rimes to their children but only ... fiction. Religious institutions will have to forego reading verse passages from the liturgy and only prose translations of the Bible will recited, with hymns strictly banned. Ministers in the Black churches will be kindly requested to stop preaching. [The musical] "Cats" will be closed for the month by order of the Anti-Poetry Commission. Poetry readings will be replaced by self-help lectures. Love letters will have to be written only in expository paragraphs. Baseball will have to start its spring training in May. No vocal music will be played on the radio or sung in the concert halls. Children will have to stop playing all slapping and counting and singing games and stick to board games and football.”

What a great point about how poetry is both something special and something ordinary. I love the subversive notion of “banning” poetry as a way of making it an irresistible temptation. I also like the idea that poetry is an intrinsic part of language and life. Here’s one of my favorite poems to illustrate this very point.

You Enter A Poem. . .
By Robin Hirsch

You enter a poem
Just like you enter a room.
You open the door
And what do you see?
A sink, for example,
A bathtub, a toilet
(Does a toilet belong in a poem?)
And you say to yourself, "Aha!
It's a bathroom."

The next time you enter
You know it's a bathroom
And you notice
The towels on the rack
And their color,
The mirror, the tiles, the sofa
(What? There's a sofa? In the bathroom?)
And you say: "Aha!
It's that kind of a bathroom."

The third time you enter
You realize
One of the towels is frayed
There are streaks on the mirror
And the person who did the grouting
Messed up in that corner.
You open the drawers and the cabinets.
You empty them,
You take an inventory:
Toothbrushes, toothpaste, cotton balls, cleanser,
Toilet paper
(Does toilet paper belong in a poem?)
Not to mention
The child-proof bottles of pills--
Which you know of course how to open--
And you say to yourself: "Aha!
It's that kind of a
This is how you enter a
I'm beginning to know this

Also in: Hirsch, Robin. 2002. FEG: Ridiculous Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children. New York: Little, Brown.

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