Thursday, July 17, 2014

Painting the Poetry Landscape

During my recent trip to Las Vegas for the American Library Association conference, I stopped by the ALA Bookstore to look for the latest installment of The Newbery & Caldecott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Honor Books (2014 Edition) just published by ALA. Why?
Because I wrote the opening essay for this guide! 

I was so honored to be invited to contribute that essay-- the only such piece in a book that focuses on thoroughly describing each of the award and honor books for these two prestigious awards. It's been 25 years since Paul Fleischman's book Joyful Noise won that Newbery award, so I focused on what has been happening in the publishing of poetry for children since then. Here are selected excerpts from that essay:

Painting the Poetry Landscape: Twenty-Five Years of Poetry for Young People
By Sylvia M. Vardell

It is hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Paul Fleischman’s book, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices was published and then won the Newbery medal in 1989. Kirkus Reviews called it, “A splendid collection of poems in many moods…. (noting) Vivid language, strong images, and the masterful use of two voices in musical duet make this an excellent choice for reading aloud.” This gem of poems for choral reading went on to be included in School Library Journal’s list of “100 Best Books of the Century,” too. It seems like a good moment to pause and examine where poetry for young people has been in the intervening years.

The last 25 years have given us a whole new generation of poets writing for young people including Douglas Florian, Bobbi Katz, Joyce Sidman, J. Patrick Lewis, Kristine O’Connell George, Janet Wong, Pat Mora, David L. Harrison, Helen Frost, Nikki Grimes, Margarita Engle, Jen Bryant, Laura Purdie Salas, and many more who have emerged since the publication of Joyful Noise. We have seen the addition of new awards for poetry for children established by Lee Bennett Hopkins for poetry books in 1993 and for new poets in 1995, by Bank Street College (the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award in 1998), and by the Poetry Foundation (the Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006). The Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) began featuring the annual Poetry Blast with poets reading from their works at the ALA annual conference in 2004 and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) initiated the annual “Poetry Notables for Children” list in 2006 The celebration of National Poetry Month (in April) has caught on in schools and libraries across the country since it was initiated in 1996. We have seen the rise of the novel in verse and the fall of the multi-poet anthology. Now poets have websites full of kid-friendly resources, many blogs and books showcase weekly “Poetry Friday” sharing, and the CYBILS award celebrates poetry (among other categories) selected by children’s literature-focused bloggers. Plus poetry for children now makes its appearance as downloadable audiofiles and as e-books and apps for cell phones and e-tablets.

But first, let’s examine our poetry past. (For a “Timeline of the History of Children’s Poetry” look for The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists.) .... The works of these great names are still worth reading and sharing. In fact, these poets are new names for any child who has not yet encountered their poetry. In fact, poetry has a special advantage in achieving timelessness—consider “A Visit from St. Nicholas” also known as "The Night Before Christmas" first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore. It is widely considered the best-known American poem of all time. Poetry has “legs” and can often maintain its appeal across several generations. Let’s consider some of the major poetry milestones along the way over the last 25 years. 

Humorous poetry
Humor found a home in the poetry of newcomer Douglas Florian with the publication of his first book of poems for children, Monster Motel in 1993. Like Karla Kuskin or Shel Silverstein, Florian created the illustrations that accompany his poems, via paintings and collages. Many excellent and popular Florian picture book poetry collections followed about animals and the natural world, as well as his longer collections of pun-filled humorous poetry, Bing Bang Boing (1994) and Laugheteria (1999), illustrated with pen and ink sketches.... Both poets excel in the use of puns and wordplay, like Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein before them, and laid the groundwork for other humorous poets that followed later such as Adam Rex, Robert Weinstock, Jon Agee, Bob Raczca, Brod Bagert, Alan Katz, Susan Katz, Carol Diggory Shields, and Kalli Dakos.  

Poets from many cultures
A new wave of poets from parallel cultures within the United States began writing and publishing poetry for young people in the 1990s. Although poetry by the likes of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton and others had been available to young readers for many years, this decade brought an emergence of a rainbow of names whose entire writing careers now focused on a young audience....
These beautiful and groundbreaking works heralded the arrival of many more distinctive poetic voices from the cultures in the U.S. and beyond including Charles R. Smith Jr., Carole Boston Weatherford, Hope Anita Smith, Joyce Lee Wong, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Margarita Engle burst onto the scene only seven years ago and has already garnered multiple Pura Belpre recognitions and a Newbery honor distinction for her novel in verse, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom. Her work is a unique amalgamation of spare and powerful free verse, unheralded historical subjects, vividly realized settings, and multiple points of view. She fuses history, poetry, and biography to tell authentic stories taken from Cuba’s rich past. 

Novels in verse
The novel in verse form emerged as a very strong poetry trend with great appeal to young readers during the 1990s. Although it had been around for awhile (some say as far back as Homer’s Odyssey), one could argue that Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (1997) put the verse novel on the poetry map in a big way as it won the Newbery medal. At the time, Publishers’ Weekly called it a “novel, written in stanza form,” School Library Journal described it as “prose-poetry,” and Kirkus labeled it a “poem/novel” as Hesse paints a heart-breaking picture of life during the Dust Bowl years.... One might even argue that the 2013 Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, was a work of poetry. Either way, it’s a tender story beautifully rendered, spare and thoughtful, written by a gorilla of a writer. Other poets who have created novels in verse well suited to the tween audience include Jen Bryant, Andrea Cheng, Helen Frost, Nikki Grimes, Eileen Spinelli, Robert Paul Weston, and Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. The best verse novels are built on poems that are often lovely stand-alone works of art. A narrative unfolds poem by poem, frequently with multiple points of view and in colloquial language. This format is wooing many middle grade children both to poetry and to reading in general—a promising trend.

The 2000s
During this first decade of the 2000s, Joyce Sidman entered the poetry scene garnering many awards for her work culminating in a Newbery honor for the third in her eco-poetry trilogy, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (2010), which followed Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems (2005) and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow (2006). Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman noted that Sidman “combines lyrical poetry and compelling art with science concepts” and Margaret Bush (School Library Journal) observed that Sidman’s work “invites lingering enjoyment for nature and poetry fans.” Joyce Sidman is also the most recent recipient of the NCTE Excellence in Poetry Award for her entire body of work.

Poetry awards
Most of the major awards that recognize poetry for young people were also established within the last 25 years. One exception: The National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry was first founded in 1977 and presented to 17 poets thus far, many of whom are profiled at Next, an award for an emerging poet, the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Reading Association Promising Poet Award was established in 1995 and recipients have included Deborah Chandra, Kristine O’Connell George, Craig Crist-Evans, Lindsay Lee Johnson, Joyce Lee Wong, Gregory Neri, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall.
            In addition, a single book of poetry is recognized by three separate awards: the Lee Bennett Hopkins/Pennsylvania State University Award established in 1993, the Bank Street College of Education/Claudia Lewis Award established in 1998, and The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry established in 2005, each with a slightly different focus. 
            In 2006, the Poetry Foundation established the Children’s Poet Laureate to raise awareness of the fact that children have a natural receptivity to poetry and are its most appreciative audience, especially when poems are written specifically for them. Recipients thus far are Jack Prelutsky, 2006; Mary Ann Hoberman, 2008; J. Patrick Lewis, 2011 and Kenn Nesbitt, 2013.
In just 25 years, the field of poetry for children has been transformed by new voices, new styles, and new formats. But those established names haven’t stopped creating either.... Lee Bennett Hopkins, 2009 NCTE Poetry Award winner, continues to produce award-winning works of poetry such as his own City I Love (2009), as well as nearly 40 anthologies in the last 20 years, including Days to Celebrate: A Full Year of Poetry, People, Holidays, History, Fascinating Facts, and More (2005) and Sharing the Seasons (2010). He is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the most children’s poetry anthologies ever!
Poetry as a form of literature has particular crossover appeal with poems easily readable for the young child, but still meaningful to us as we grow older. Poems like “The Night Before Christmas,” “Jabberwocky,” and “Dreams,” for example, speak to both children and teens and to all of us throughout our lives. Many of the first books published for children in English were works of poetry including John Newbery’s collection of English rhymes, Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle (circa 1765). And various Mother Goose collections have received Caldecott distinctions multiple times. In contemporary children’s book publishing, three of Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections are among the top 100 bestselling children’s book of all time: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. Clearly, poetry has an important place in the world of literature for young people. 
It’s exciting to see the genre of poetry grow and expand in all these different directions, exploring possibilities of poetic form, hybrids with other genres, and a creative use of design, visuals, and media. The key is in keeping our poetry collections varied, current, and in use. As Wilson and Kutiper reported (1994, 278), “one elementary school library media specialist noted an increase in poetry circulation after sharing a single poem with students each week as they entered the library.” With well-stocked shelves brimming with the poetry gems of the last 25 years and a bit of poetry promotion (in April and beyond), young people will find something to enjoy and cherish for a lifetime. 

The bibliography for this essay includes 85 books of poetry for young people! 

I'm so glad I got this opportunity to showcase the power of poetry for young readers and I hope they'll keep poetry on the radar the next time committees make decisions about Newbery and Caldecott awards!  

Don't forget to visit Tabatha's place at The Opposite of Indifference for the rest of this week's Poetry Friday posts! 

And please come back here next week when Janet Wong and I will be hosting the Poetry Friday gathering. We have a big announcement to make!


Irene Latham said...

Well done, Sylvia! This article makes me excited to be a poet, and proud to be part of a movement that's broad and still growing. Thank you for sharing. xo

Carol Varsalona said...

I loved the background information and remembered my years in the classroom using "Joyful Noises." Poetry is a gift to the world.

Carol Varsalona said...

I am enjoying getting acquainted with your blog site. Thank you for the background knowledge on Walter Dean Myers' works.

Linda said...

Beautifully written, Sylvia. I remember buying "Joyful Noises" and "I AM Phoenix" when they were first published. They were so popular with my students that I later bought several more copies!
Thanks for this excellent essay!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

What a wonderful 25 years it's been... I'm looking forward to the next quarter century. Great job, Sylvia.

Unknown said...

Can't believe it's been 25 years since JOYFUL NOISE was honored with a Newbery! Thanks for this piece -- and thanks (always) for your wisdom and inspiration about poetry for kids/teens.

Mary Lee said...

First of all, it's just a little creepy to realize that I was alive and teaching for all of those 25 years!

Thanks for a great poetic-retrospective. The only suggestion I would make for the next edition would be a mention of the Nerdy Book Club awards. They differ from the CYBILS, which has a panel of judges. The Nerdys are entirely crowd-sourced -- nominated and voted on by readers.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you all for stopping by and for your kind words and input. It was such a privilege to write this and so fun to look at the span of poetry in the last 25 years!

Mrs.Alaniz said...

Great post, Dr. Vardell! This will be a reference for many. Thank you for always teaching us about our literary history.

Steven Withrow said...
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Steven Withrow said...
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Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

I can't do much more than echo the sentiments of those who have already commented...well done, Sylvia! Can't believe it's been 25 years...and it truly is amazing to see how far children's poetry has come!

Amy LV said...

I always learn so much from you, Sylvia. Thank you for your generous spirit and all you do for poetry! xo

Keri said...

Beautifully written -- what a treasure you are to be our go-to resource for all things poetic.

BJ Lee said...

Wonderful essay, Sylvia, and great resources! Thank you! I'm looking forward to the next 25 years!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks again for all the lovely comments-- and the Nerdy Book Club Award suggestion! I love seeing how poetry continues to evolve and reach new readers.

GatheringBooks said...

This sounds like a book that I should purchase when I attend the NCTE this November, dearest Sylvia. I am so glad to see so many familiar books here. The Surrender Tree is a personal favourite, as well as Joyful Noises. :)

laurasalas said...

I've been feeling a little down about poetry's place in the world of children's literature. Thank you for helping me celebrate its success and growth, instead! I adore JOYFUL NOISE--happy to see it discussed in your essay!

Amy said...

My late mother, Sydell Rosenberg, was a NYC teacher and a charter member of the Haiku Society of America, founded in 1968 in NYC. She wrote other poetry as well as short stories and puzzles, and translated Spanish literature as well, but I think haiku (and senryu, which are more about human nature) were her favorite creative writing formats. According to her bio-sketch in a haiku anthology published years ago (I believe it was The Haiku Handbook), mom published her first haiku in 1967. She must have written hundreds of haiku and senryu over an approximately 30 year span (she died in October, 1996).

I want some of her work to live for today’s audiences – especially children. I know that, eons ago, my mom wanted to publish a haiku picture book – an A-B-C reader.She never fulfilled this dream, although she was well-anthologized and appreciated in her circle. One of her senryu poems even appeared in a novel public art experience in the heart of Manhattan in 1994 entitled, “Haiku On 42nd Street” -- in which short poems were showcased on empty movie marquees.

My thinking is that haiku, with their compact and concise, yet richly evocative format – and of course, poetry in general – can expand the scope of kids’ imaginations and help them make creative connections, as well as facilitate literacy through elegant, spare wordplay and metaphor. And since haiku poems capture nature in “nuggets,” as I like to say, I think they are ideal for “en plein air” reading and writing, as well as arts and crafts and other activities.

In my idiosyncratic way, I have made some strides in sharing her work with young audiences: I recently concluded the second Sydell Rosenberg-Arts For All haiku/art workshop series for second-graders at P.S.163 in the Bronx, in which several of mom’s animal haiku were paired with drawing and painting. The first program took place in the fall of 2013 and at the end, Arts For All – a wonderful non-profit children’s arts education organization in NYC ( -- kindly created a picture book with the students’ artwork and the haiku that were used, as a thank you keepsake. So in a way, my mom has finally gotten the picture book she wanted.

Another program recently wrapped at P.S. 163: a haiku/music workshop series for English as a Second Language learners – also second-graders. I attended three of the six sessions. They were delightful! One of the two music teachers from Arts For All developed inventive lesson plans that connected my mom’s haiku to melody and rhythm, with the words serving as the verses. The children helped to construct the melody and even their own haiku “lyrics” which served as a unifying chorus. The lead music teacher selected four haiku, each one representing a season.

Also, in 2013 I worked with NY’s Children’s Museum of the Arts on a splendid project called the PoeTree – please see this blog below. Using my mom’s haiku, and her definition of haiku, as a guide, or a kind of starting point, kids were encouraged to write their own haiku on paper leaves and suspend them from the tree. Over several months, this bright structure became populated with many colorful leaves decorated with haiku. And in 2012, an enterprising young art teacher from Teaneck High School in NJ used several haiku and senryu in his digital art class and some of the resulting student artwork were put on display at the Teaneck High School Art Show that spring. It was gratifying – thrilling, even.

In addition to the Children’s Museum of the Arts PoeTree blog, please also see this recent article about the importance of teaching poetry in schools. My partnership with Arts For All is included. Thank you for the opportunity to tell you about my efforts to keep my mom's words alive for today's young audiences. Kind regards, Amy Losak, Teaneck, NJ,