Friday, November 30, 2018

Poetry, Principals, and NCTE

I'm catching up a bit and want to share highlights of my presentation at the NCTE conference (National Council of Teachers of English) in Houston, TX. I was lucky enough to present alongside my friend and collaborator, poet Janet Wong, Kari (K.A.) Holt, poet and author of novels in verse, and Tom Marshall, an amazing, award-winning principal from New Jersey. Our topic was "Creating a Positive School Culture Through Poetry." I set the stage with some background info and then Kari talked about how "poetry is the way you see the world" and how poetry has an ability to secretly teach empathy. Tom focused on how schools can promote literacy through poetry and find ways to create a culture of celebration. As a teacher, he would challenge students who were trying to write poetry to simply "make it look like a poem." Then, when he revealed that he wrote a poem for every single teacher on his staff, our audience was stunned! One teacher said, "Hold still, while I activate my cloning machine!" Then Janet wrapped things up by sharing a variety of ways to bring joy and happiness into daily teaching. We infused examples from our latest book, GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud, as well as examples from other books of school-themed and celebration poetry. It was inspiring just to be in the room! Here are just a few highlights from our session!

Now head on over to Carol's Corner for our Poetry Friday meet-up!

Friday, November 02, 2018

Alice Faye Duncan on Gwendolyn Brooks

Coming in January is an exciting new poetic picture book biography, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks (Sterling, 2019) by Alice Faye Duncan. It's a beautiful look at a much loved and important poet, the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks.  Duncan weaves bits of Brooks' poems throughout her very poetic telling for a lovely effect. Illustrations by Xia Gordon are similarly poetic in a palette of pinks-to-browns that move across the pages from moment to moment, scene to scene. The approach is very child-friendly with details kids will enjoy, as well as very artistic highlighting creativity, reflection and stillness. Plus, Duncan includes an author's note, timeline, suggested reading list and a bibliography-- which I always love. All together, it's a fresh, poetic, and perfect way to tell the life story of a poet. 

Today, we're lucky to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse from author Alice Faye Duncan who shares a bit about how this book came to be.

Alice Faye writes:
My new book—A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS--is an idea that began with American poet, Etheridge Knight. I met him in 1978 when a Memphis museum sponsored artists in the city schools. The museum dispatched Etheridge Knight to Mrs. Fee’s 6th grade class at Snowden Elementary. There I sat in my desk on a front row, while poet Phyllis Tickle introduced her friend to us. Mrs. Tickle called Mr. Knight a “Native Mississippian.” She said he had survived the Korean War and discovered his writing genius while serving time in an Indiana prison. She also shared that it was poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, who helped Etheridge Knight publish his first book of poems.   

During my 6th grade year, I was a disciple of Paul Laurence Dunbar. My parents owned his collected works and “In the Morning” was my favorite poem. My Mama would recite it daily as my morning, “wake-up call.” 

In the Dunbar tradition, I filled my journals with folksy poems written in the language of my community. When I encountered Mr. Knight in ‘78, I had never met a writer in person, but I loved poetry and listened with interest as he read his work. His voice was like the grumble of a gravel road and he did not feel like a stranger. Decked in a tweed cap and a scruffy beard, he looked like my Daddy. 

Ehteridge Knight read his poem, “The Idea of Ancestry.” Only a few phrases made sense to me. However, I received a grand understanding in 1978. I learned that if I wanted, I too, could publish poems and live my life as a poet like Etheridge Knight.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015. I am a middle-aged writer, who remembers 6th grade. I remember Etheridge Knight—his voice, his poem, and old tweed cap. Perhaps the poet’s struggle to overcome and his triumph with words could inspire a new generation of readers. In the summer of 2015—an idea took root. I would write a children’s book about Etheridge Knight.

Since the poet died in 1991, I would need Phyllis Tickle’s memories to write his biography. I went to the white pages and found her telephone number. A voice filled with joy answered the phone. After I introduced myself, she apologized saying, “I can’t talk long.” Lung cancer required that she use her breath judiciously. Our call ended. She said, “Send me your questions. Email is best.”

When I found her in 2015, poet Phyllis Tickle was a retired Episcopal lay minister, who had served as Publishers Weekly’s first religion editor. Our email exchange would soon alter my writing plans. 

In my first note, I asked about her connection with Etheridge Knight. She called him, “the best of all of us.” Mrs. Tickle explained that Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, was his “faithful and stabilizing friend,” who mentored him and visited the Tickle home when Etheridge lived in Memphis.

Mrs. Tickle was uncertain of the year, but in her reply, she was eager to share a story about Gwendolyn Brooks. She and her husband, Dr. Sam Tickle, were a charismatic pair, famous for hosting literary salons. In honor of Miss Brooks and her Memphis visit, the Tickles filled their living room with a sagacious crowd of poets, playwrights, and professors. Because they understood a Pulitzer Prize poet was a “big thing,” the couple’s four youngest children darted across the room with EEKS and shrills. 

When Etheridge arrived with Gwendolyn, the poised poet sat down in a harp-back chair. From the wooden seat, Miss Brooks engaged in a talk about craft. She read poems and enchanted the children with the tinkling sound of her girlish giggle.  

Somewhere in the middle of a giggle, Miss Brooks leaned back and a chair spoke broke. Phyllis Tickle wrote to me, “We thought the dadgummed chair should be reverenced afterward as something close to a sacred object.”

The Tickles never repaired the chair. Phyllis wrote, “That would be a sacrilege!” 

It is this memory that turned my attention toward Gwendolyn Brooks. If the life of Etheridge Knight was worthy of young readers—surely his literary mother deserved the highest elevation and a biography of her own. 

I dropped all writing interests in 2015 to research the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. And when Phyllis Tickle died in the Fall of that year, I searched journals for another soul who could offer a golden understanding of the Pulitzer Prize poet. 

I found my golden sage in Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, a professor from Spelman College. She wrote essays and books about Miss Brooks. Already late for a luncheon, Dr. Gayles answered her phone in a rush. When I explained the reason for my call, she praised my ambition and offered an affirming oracle to send me on my way. 

Dr. Gayles said, “Gwen has reached for you as an instrument…You are the giver of a gift.” 

Alice Faye Duncan © November 2018

Thank you, Alice Faye, for sharing this glimpse and congratulations on your lovely tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks.

Now join the rest of the Poetry Friday crew at Jama's place, Jama's Alphabet Soup where she is inspiring us all to VOTE!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

SWING + #HugLife

Have you read Angie Thomas's amazing YA novel, The Hate U Give, now a powerful movie? (+ award-winning audiobook) And now there's an excellent novel-in-verse written by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess, Swing, to pair with The Hate U Give.

As it happens, I created an educator guide for Swing (along with Cornelius Minor) which you can download if you make the #HugLife commitment at Kwame's site here. Kwame invites us to "use our voices for good by starting meaningful and encouraging conversations in classrooms and communities all over the country." I support that idea, don't you?

Swing is about two best friends, Noah and Walt (aka Swing) who are still close, but headed in somewhat different directions. Walt is a dreamer perfecting his baseball swing and working on his suave approach to girls. Noah is more hesitant, still obsessed with his childhood crush who may or may not be his soulmate. Their paths cross and diverge as they negotiate high school, love quests, and jazz and baseball, all in a restless community dealing with random American flag sightings. And watch out for that electric ending!

The educator guide includes key vocabulary, discussion question prompts, a character list, craft and structure exercises, simile and metaphor hunts, quotes and sayings, readers theater plans, notes on relevant podcasts, poetry writing ideas, cross-curricular and cross-genre connections, and a bibliography of related poetry books. Plus, Cornelius Minor offers input on the social context for this story. 

Meanwhile, here's a tiny teaser nugget from the guide:

A good place to begin in peeling away the layers of a good book is by considering the characters whose lives and conflicts drive the story. It can be helpful to identify the main characters of the story and learn their names and nicknames, an important part of this story (and the title of the book). Talk about the names of each of the major characters and speculate about the significance of each, particularly as the story moves along and you learn more about each one. 

As students read or listen to this verse novel, encourage them to visualize each of the main characters and talk about what they look like and how they talk and act. Work together to draw character sketches or find magazine or web-based images that students think depict these main characters. Some students may enjoy imagining casting their own movie version of “Swing” and deciding which actors might play which roles.

Cast of characters
Noah Wallace, the narrator
Walt (Walt Disney Jones), also known as Swing, best friend of Noah
Moses (Mo), Walt’s older brother, a soldier
Sam (Samantha), Noah’s friend and girl crush
Divya, older teen, thrift store employee, and Walt’s love interest
Cruz, Sam’s on again-off again boyfriend
Floyd, Walt’s adult cousin and source of advice
Noah’s parents; Walt’s mom and stepdad
Granny, Noah's grandmother

Hope you'll grab this compelling verse novel, another homerun from Kwame and Mary!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Behind the Scenes with David Bowles and Güero

I'm happy to share the stage with David Bowles, my teaching colleague, and an award-winning author and poet. Here's a short bio of David: A product of a Mexican-American family, I have lived most of my life in deep South Texas, where I teach at the University of Texas Río Grand Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, I have written several books, most significantly the Pura Belpré Honor Book, The Smoking Mirror.

David has a brand new book out this fall, They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems (Cinco Puntos Press, 2018), and Janet (Wong) and I had the chance to read an advance copy and it's truly unique and lovely. Kirkus Reviews noted, "Güero's voice brims with humor, wit, and bits of slang, and a diverse cast of characters offers hints of other cultures. [...] A valuable, too-brief look at the borderlands."

I asked David for a little behind the scenes glimpse of this book and am so touched to get a nod for my (and Janet's) role in the birth of this book. I think you'll also find it fascinating to read about how a single poem can turn into a whole book. [Thank you, David, for your generosity here!]

My Journey to Güero

by David Bowles

In less than two weeks They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems will arrive in all its red-headed, freckled glory. I’m proud of the little novel-in-verse, especially given its curious and unlikely origins. It’s a strange delight when fate gently sets aside an author’s well-laid plans and says, “No. Here. Write this instead.”

Where did my journey to Güero begin? I suppose I could go back forty-eight years to my birth. That seems a bit trite and silly. Perhaps it happened four years later, as I sat enrapt as my Grandmother Garza told me tale after tale.

But no. That centers me, and this book isn’t just about me at all. 

Okay. It’s November 2016. NCTE Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Trump has just won. Elementary teachers of English approach Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong with a dilemma.

Their students are confused. Scared. Taunted by bullies emboldened by the rhetoric of the president-elect. They need poetry to help them grapple with this new era. Goodness. We all do. So these two amazing poet-scholars, heroes of mine, the sort of people I want to grow into some day, rise to the occasion. They agree to put together an anthology before inauguration. 

That gives them two months. They shouldn’t be able to pull it off. 

Now, Sylvia and Janet are familiar with a poem of mine, “Border Folk,” published a year before in BorderSenses. So they reach out. 

“Could you write something like that, with the same richness of details, but for 7-year-olds?” they ask.

Yes. Yes, I can. The idea energizes me, helps me filter my own experiences as a half-Chicano child in deep South Texas in the 1970s through the lens of my son’s life and the struggles of other kids we know, undocumented girls and boys in our community who fear for themselves and their families. 

“Border Kid,” I title it.  Sylvia and Janet are pleased. They include it in their anthology Here We Go: A Poetry Friday Power Book (Pomelo Books 2017). A lovely opportunity for me. I’ve always wanted to be in a Poetry Friday Book. 

But the generosity of Sylvia and Janet doesn’t stop there. Believing strongly in the power of “Border Kid,” Janet suggests it also appear in the Journal of Children's LiteratureThey like it and reprint it just before I am inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. At the ceremony in El Paso, inductees are required to read their work for five minutes. I choose four poems for my turn at the podium, ending with “Border Kid.” 

As I step down amid admiring applause, I am approached by Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press. He gives me a hug and mutters, “If you can put together another fifty poems in that kid’s voice, I’d love to publish the book.” 

It in’t too hard, to tell you the truth. I can hear the boy just as clear as a bell. He doesn’t need a name. He’s the güero /wero/, the light-skinned kid in his extended family, a 12-year-old with one foot in mainstream America and the other in his family’s Mexican American traditions. A Gen-Z gamer who goes to Spanish-language mass, a dreaming reader who runs through the monte—the brush—with his dog. 

He is, in short, a blend of me and my son, my cousins and nephews, every big-hearted boy in every barrio on the border. And he is bristling at the hatred, worried by the fearmongering, protective of his friends. 

But just like me when I was his age, there are people who love and guide him. Storytellers. Priests. Friends. 

In a moment of magic, his English teacher pulls the lid off poetry for him, helping him see the wonders inside. 

He is hooked. He begins to write his own verse, using it to tell his stories, to understand himself, to map out his place in the world. 

To make the girl he likes fall in love with him.

To resist those who would hurt his family and friends.

To stand tall and fight back with words instead of fists. 

That’s Güero. Even boys who hate poetry are going to like him. 

And along the way, they might just fall in love with poetry, too. 

***Now head on over to The Water's Edge where Erin is gathering all our Poetry Friday goodness!

Friday, September 07, 2018

BOOK LINKS: New Voices in Poetry

Are you a BOOK LINKS (Booklist) subscriber? It's such a lovely magazine full of practical articles focused on literature for young people. I was lucky to collaborate on a piece ("New Voices in Poetry") for the latest September issue. It features six writers publishing their first major book of poetry or novel in verse in 2018. This includes:

Monica Clark-Robinson is a writer, actor, audiobook narrator, and children’s librarian working in Arkansas. Her first book, Let the Children March, focuses on the 1963 Children's Crusade. 

Elizabeth Acevedo hails from New York City, the daughter of Dominican immigrants. She is a poet, performer, and Poetry Slam competitor who has delivered TED Talks and created viral poetry videos aired on PBS and other sites. She’s published poetry chapbooks and The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her first novel in verse (published by HarperCollins). 

Juleah del Rosario was born and raised in the Seattle area and now works as a university librarian in Colorado. Her first book is the YA novel in verse, 500 Words or Less (Simon Pulse, 2018).

Katie Hesterman is a nurse, tutor, author and poet. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana with her husband and daughter. Her poetry for young children has appeared in Ladybug Magazineand her debut picture book is A Round of Robins.

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint (Dutton, 2018) is her debut novel. 

Rachel is a poet, author, and essayist who lives in San Antonio, TX, along with her husband and six sons.The Colors of the Rain (Bonnier Publishing USA, 2018), a middle grade novel-in-verse, is her first novel.

I asked each of them a few questions:
  • Can you describe your path to poetry? How did you discover poetry or develop as a poet?
  • Why did you find poetry the right fit for this particular book?
  • What do you most want readers to know about your first published book of poetry? 
  • Or what’s the “story behind the story”?
Then, I wove them into a short narrative and voila, our collaborative article became the featured article for this month's issue! HOORAY! Here are a few nuggets from their responses.

Monica Clark-Robinson
Here Monica talks about writing Let the Children March: 
I wanted to root this book in the emotions I read about, in many first-person accounts from the children who marched and in the interviews I did with them.  I wanted heart to take precedence over bald facts, and I know of no better way to get to the emotion of an event than through poetry.   I started out with the text of the book being a modified villanelle poem.  After many revisions, my agent and I decided the story might be better told in lyrical free verse.  But we maintained the rhythm of the villanelle with several repeated phrases in the book, like "Singing the songs of freedom, one-thousand strong we came."  Those lines were the original refrain of the villanelle, and I think they help the book "march" forward, so to speak.        

Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth talks about how her teaching influenced the writing of The Poet X:
I have a collection of poetry that was published before this novel, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, but for this novel-in-verse I most want readers to know that it took its time coming together. I was first inspired to write YA when I was teaching 8th grade English Language Arts and my students wanted more books that reflected their cultural heritage. And I began with The Poet X, but I didn't have the range yet. I had to write two other manuscripts before I could return to this one and finish it. Even though it's my shortest manuscript at 30,000 words, it took the longest because I needed to teach myself how to write a novel before I could come back to complete it. So this book is an homage to my incredible students, to uplifting their voices and our stories, and also to enduring the process of writing; to not quitting what felt like a most urgent task.

Juleah del Rosario
Juleah talks about how her novel came to be in verse, a surprise to her:
The first draft of 500 WORDS OR LESS was written in prose, but when I re-read this early draft, the emotional quality, the complexities, the untidy feelings I wanted to capture weren’t there. The novel wasn’t working. I had recently read a few verse novels, and the emotional qualities of these novels resonated with me. So I took a very scary risk, and rewrote the novel in verse. I told myself it was an experiment. I told myself that if it didn’t work, I could always go back to the original draft. 
The title 500 Words or Less is a reference to the grammatically incorrect usage of the phrase sometimes found in college application essay prompts.... It is also a story that explores the complexities of life that can’t be tied into a neat little bow. 

Katie Hesterman
Katie talks about how poetry was the perfect form for describing a robin's personality:
Poetry has always had a home in my heart. I love alliteration and what could be better than the anticipation that comes with great rhyme and meter? When I find myself challenged by a poem, nothing is more exhilarating than discovering the perfect verse with tongue-tripping alliteration and rhythm so strong that it nearly spills onto the page. For me, simply put, writing poetry is playing with words! When it comes to picture books, less is often more. Poetry allowed me to tell the robin’s tale in a tight and tidy manner. In A Round of Robins, word play, alliteration, rhyme and meter work hard to make the robin’s plucky personality pop. 

Joy McCullough
Joy talks about the struggle behind the story and the telling of it:
Blood Water Paint is the tenth book I wrote, but it’s my debut novel. I endured quite a staggering number of rejections on the road to publication, but ultimately I’m debuting with the book of my heart, with the perfect team behind it, at the perfect time. So for anyone frustrated in creative pursuits, keep going. Keep telling the story only you can tell. It will bear fruit eventually.
Specifically for readers of Blood Water Paint, the subject of my book, Artemisia Gentileschi, was a storyteller. She used paint and canvas, but she told her story and made her voice heard, and centuries later, her story spoke to me. I hope her story encourages other young women to speak up and make their voices heard as well. And for anyone who is not able to tell their story, I hope they take comfort from Artemisia in knowing that they are not alone. 

R. L. (Rachel) Toalson
Rachel talks about the two stories in her novel in verse:
The Colors of the Rain contains, at its heart, two very difficult stories. The first is the segregation that still existed in the South during the early 1970s, after the bulk of the civil rights movement had finished its most significant work. The second is the story of a broken family. Neither of these subjects is easy for children to understand. But poetry can say what needs to be said in a way that children can both understand and process through. There is so much that can be left unsaid in poetry; so much that the reader can bring with his or her own imagination. Poetry can be interpreted in any way the reader wants, and this story felt like it needed that open-ended interpretation. 

>>> These are fascinating books to find, read, and share, right? And these are definitely six writers to watch to see what they do next, too! For more of their responses, please seek out the whole article. It is also available online here (although this may require a Booklist subscription).

Now go check out Carol Varsalona's Poetry Friday gathering over at Beyond Literacy Link. She is doing fantastic things to promote poetry, poets, and poetry writing! 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Florian's Friends and Foes

It's back to school time!
One of the best things about heading back to school from the kid point of view is seeing your friends again! School is very much about friends and friendship in their eyes (and sometimes about the converse: bullying and ostracism, but that's another subject). With the friendship focus in mind, I wanted to stop and share a wonderful new picture book poetry collection from Douglas Florian, a kid favorite (and mine too!). 

Have you seen Friends and Foes: Poems About Us All (Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books, 2018)?

You'll find 25 poems on many different aspects of friendship, including some of the challenging parts like jealousy, loneliness, lying, and so on-- all from the child perspective (which feels universal to me!). 

Each poem is accompanied by Florian's distinctive illustrations-- and here's the kicker-- done in colored pencils and crayons on manila paper! Don't you love that? Perfect for a back-to-school poetry collection! This one is probably my favorite poem:

And if you'd like to look for a few more poetry books about friendship, here you go:

Poetry Books about Friendship

Friends and friendship are such an important part of childhood and growing up. Many poetry books focus on this topic, including the following.

Cheng, Andrea. 2008. Where the Steps Were. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills/Wordsong.
Greenfield, Eloise. 2006. The Friendly Four. Ill. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: HarperCollins. 
Grimes, Nikki. 1994. Meet Danitra Brown. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.
Grimes, Nikki. 2002. Danitra Brown Leaves Town. New York: HarperCollins.
Grimes, Nikki. 2005. Danitra Brown, Class Clown. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.
Herrick, Steven. 2008. Naked Bunyip Dancing. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills/Wordsong.
Hoberman, Mary Ann. 2000. And to Think We Thought that We’d Never be Friends. New York: Random House.  
Holbrook, Sara. 2011. Weird? (Me, Too!) Let's Be Friends. Ill. by Karen Sandstrom. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
Janeczko, Paul B. 1999. Very Best (Almost Friends): Poems of Friendship. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
Levy, Debbie. 2010. The Year of Goodbyes; A True Story of Friendship, Family and Farewells. New York: Hyperion.
Quattlebaum, Mary. 2005. Winter Friends. New York: Doubleday Books for Young Readers.
Singer, Marilyn. 1996. All We Needed to Say: Poems about School from Tanya and Sophie. New York: Atheneum.  
Singer, Marilyn. 2011. Twosomes: Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom. New York: Knopf.
Soto, Gary. 2002. Fearless Fernie: Hanging out with Fernie and Me. New York: Putnam.
Soto, Gary. 2005. Worlds Apart: Fernie and Me. New York: Putnam.
Wong, Janet S. 2003. Minn and Jake. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Wong, Janet. 2008. Minn and Jake’s Almost Terrible Summer. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

Now look for Christy's blog, Wondering and Wondering, where she is hosting our Poetry Friday fun.