Everything Old is New Again

In prepa­ra­tion for a lec­ture I was giv­ing on the use of poet­ic ele­ments to enhance prose, I dug through a few old news­pa­per and mag­a­zine arti­cles I’d writ­ten for sam­ple pas­sages in which I had done pre­cise­ly that. In the midst of my search, I came across a piece of reportage from 1977 that had par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance. The title of the piece was “Broad­way Orches­tras: A Pit of Dis­crim­i­na­to­ry Hir­ing,” and it was all about a lack of diver­si­ty in Broad­way the­ater orches­tras, dis­cussed at a pub­lic hear­ing I was sent to cover.

newspaper article

“Dur­ing this year, the Hous­ton Opera Com­pa­ny pro­duced two major Black shows. The first, Scott Joplin’s Treemon­isha, fea­tured 35 musi­cians in its orches­tra. The sec­ond, Por­gy and Bess, fea­tures a 43 man orches­tra. Of these 78 musi­cians only sev­en were black. 

“Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton, of the Com­mis­sion on Human Rights, brought these facts to atten­tion recent­ly in a pub­lic hear­ing enti­tled “Hir­ing Prac­tices for Broad­way Musi­cal Orches­tras: The exclu­sion­ary Effect on Minor­i­ty Musi­cians.”                       

“The hear­ings, designed to ‘deter­mine which recruit­ment and hir­ing prac­tices result in this (exclu­sion­ary) pat­tern…’ brought out some of Broad­ways key pro­duc­ers, con­trac­tors, and Black musi­cians. Among them were pro­duc­ers Nor­man Kean and Philip Rose, con­trac­tors Earl Shen­dell and Mel Rod­non, musi­cians Gayle Dixon and Jack Jef­fers, and actor, pro­duc­er, direc­tor Ossie Davis. 

“What brought on all the hooplah?” 

Akua Dixon
Akua Dixon (pho­to: James Rich)

Read­ing this piece gave me chills, for a range of rea­sons. For one, Ruby Dee, wid­ow of the late Ossie Davis, had just passed. For anoth­er, the vio­la play­er Gayle Dixon, sis­ter of friend and cel­list Akua Dixon, was a per­son­al acquain­tance. Akua had just recent­ly men­tioned Gayle, who passed years ago. These twin facts were rea­son enough for my goose-bumps, but there was a third. The piece was about diver­si­ty or, more pre­cise­ly, the lack there­of. In this case, it per­tained to Broad­way orches­tras. These days, a lack of diver­si­ty most often per­tains to chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, a sub­ject I have addressed on more than one occa­sion. Appar­ent­ly I’ve been bump­ing up against, and speak­ing out about, this issue for quite some time.

I won­der about the state of Broad­way orches­tra pits today. It’s been a long time since I last fol­lowed up on the sub­ject. I’ll have to get the skin­ny from Akua. As for diver­si­ty in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, well, in case you haven’t been keep­ing up, the stats remain pret­ty dis­mal. But this isn’t a piece about sta­tis­tics. This isn’t even a piece about the dol­lars and sense of pub­lish­ing and mar­ket­ing a more diverse selec­tion of books for an ever-expand­ing, diverse pop­u­la­tion of read­ers. Instead, I want to talk about the good of it all. What comes from shar­ing books fea­tur­ing chil­dren of one race or cul­ture, with read­ers of anoth­er? That’s what I want to speak to.

The Road to ParisI know a thing or two about shar­ing chil­dren’s books across the col­or line, and not because I’ve tak­en polls, but because I’ve writ­ten and pub­lished more than 60 books since I entered this field, in 1977. Over that time, I’ve gath­ered hun­dreds of let­ters and emails from read­ers. I haven’t crunched the num­bers, but I’ll wager that a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of them are some­thing oth­er than African Amer­i­can. Some are Asian, some are Lati­no, and many are white. How do I know that? It’s usu­al­ly easy enough to judge from the name but often I don’t have to because the read­ers, unbid­den, choose to men­tion their eth­nic­i­ty. Yes, they write to tell me how they feel about my books, but also to intro­duce them­selves. In the process, they share basic infor­ma­tion about who they are: their names, ages, schools, grades, where they come from, and their eth­nic back­grounds. Mind you, if we adults did­n’t make such a big deal of the lat­ter, these young peo­ple would­n’t either!

The notes and let­ters I receive from chil­dren and young adults across the coun­try, and around the world, are very telling. Here’s what I’ve learned from readers:

They like humor.

They enjoy being moved and inspired.

Some have come to my books dis­lik­ing poet­ry, but have come to love it. Many have since tried their hand at poet­ry, themselves.

Some come to my books as reluc­tant read­ers, but leave as avid readers.

They relate to my con­tem­po­rary storylines.

They see them­selves in my characters.

As for the col­or of my char­ac­ters? Basi­cal­ly, my read­ers could care less. When they com­ment on race at all, it is only to explain exact­ly why race does­n’t matter:

Bronx MasqueradeMari­ah T. says: “I’m white but to me race does­n’t mat­ter, not one bit, and I’m read­ing your book Bronx Mas­quer­ade, and so far, I love it.”

Zach A. writes: “I think that if most of the char­ac­ters in a book are not the same race as you, that should not stop you from read­ing it. That’s racist and just plain silly.”

Ary B. com­ments: “I stick my nose in your book, and have a hard time tak­ing my nose out of it. I can put myself in your char­ac­ters’ shoes and pre­tend to be them, even though I am white. I think African Amer­i­can authors should actu­al­ly be rec­og­nized more, because it is nice to think that instead of assum­ing every­one is white, which white peo­ple tend to think, we are look­ing at the world in a whole new perspective.”

Can I get an Amen?

Unlike adults, chil­dren and young adults get it: the thing that mat­ters most about a book is Sto­ry. And when read­ers are giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dive into sto­ries across lines of col­or and cul­ture, they walk away with valu­able lessons, such as:

  • ­We are more alike than we are different.
  • We all bleed.
  • We all expe­ri­ence joy and laugh­ter, suf­fer­ing and pain.
  • We all need love and blos­som when we have it.
  • We are all capa­ble of both good and evil.
  • What sep­a­rates us is not our col­or, but our character.

Planet Middle SchoolWe live in a coun­try that, in word at least, cel­e­brates its cul­tur­al mul­ti­plic­i­ty. Isn’t it past time that the books we share with our chil­dren reflect that, as well? There is only one right answer to that ques­tion, by the way.

If we live in a cul­tur­al­ly diverse world—and we do—it behooves us to learn some­thing about the cul­tur­al groups we live among. One of the least intim­i­dat­ing ways to learn those lessons is between the pages of a book. Yes, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.

As we in the diverse chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty like to say, let’s move the nee­dle. This issue has been stuck on pause long enough, and it’s our children—Native Amer­i­can, Asian, Lati­no, African-Amer­i­can, and white—who are pay­ing the cost.


Roommate and Tawfiqa
In my col­lege dorm with a spe­cial room-mate,
my daugh­ter, Tawfiqa

I just got back home from see­ing the movie, “Heav­en is for Real” and I’m baffled.

“Heav­en is For Real,” based on a book of the same name, is the sto­ry of a four-year old boy who has a near-death expe­ri­ence. Once he returns to his body, he begins relat­ing anec­dotes of his vis­it to heav­en. He’s quite mat­ter-of-fact about it all. Sad­ly, no one else is. Not the mem­bers of the church board, who prayed fierce­ly for his recov­ery; not his moth­er who leads the church choir; not even his father, who is the church’s pas­tor. And that’s what’s baf­fling. A man acquaint­ed with the holy scrip­tures, which declare the exis­tence of heav­en, in no uncer­tain terms; a man who has read about, and, I’m sure, preached on the promise that, when a believ­er dies, he or she will enter heav­en and be greet­ed by loved ones who passed on, before—this man does not actu­al­ly believe that his son has seen heav­en, or that heav­en phys­i­cal­ly, literally—not metaphorically—exists.

What is such a man doing in the pul­pit? What exact­ly is his wife singing about every Sun­day morn­ing? Why do mem­bers of the church board both­er to gath­er, at all? That is what baf­fles me. After all, when it comes to the Nicene Creed, Heav­en and Hell, death, res­ur­rec­tion and eter­nal life are pret­ty basic.

In May of 1974, I rocked back and forth over the grave of my daugh­ter, Taw­fiqa, my one and only child. She died just before her fourth birth­day. As a poet and author, it’s fair to say that I am quite the word­smith. How­ev­er, believe me when I say this: I do not pos­sess the lan­guage to make you under­stand the depth of the pain I felt at the loss of my child. The pain I feel. The pain I will con­tin­ue to feel until the day I die. What makes it pos­si­ble for me to stand, let alone laugh and know joy in my life, is the cer­tain­ly that I will one day see my pre­cious child again. The Bible has taught me that. The Spir­it of God has impressed that upon my heart. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who died on Cal­vary, then con­quered death by ris­ing again, did so, in part, to make that very reunion pos­si­ble. If you believe that, as I do, you live your life with pow­er. If you don’t, as the pas­tor in this film did not, then you live with­in the con­straints of your own human pow­er, which is to say, with no pow­er at all. Let’s face it, human pow­er is, at the end of the day, an illu­sion. I’m not inter­est­ed in liv­ing with the lim­i­ta­tions of man. Are you? But I digress.

My cen­tral ques­tion, here, is why any­one would pour him­self into the work of the church uni­ver­sal if he does­n’t even believe in its most basic doc­trines. And when he, for a moment, began to con­sid­er that maybe heav­en actu­al­ly was real, why did he care that peo­ple made fun of him for it? If, in fact, he’s going to heav­en, he will most cer­tain­ly have the last laugh. When peo­ple mock my faith, that’s what I hold onto. But then, he is not me.

Maybe the gen­tle­man in this sto­ry was placed near the Light so that his own son could lead him ful­ly into it. Yeah. That could be it. Of course, what this par­tic­u­lar man was doing in that par­tic­u­lar church pul­pit is real­ly none of my busi­ness. It’s God’s. Bet­ter I should direct my time and ener­gy into feel­ing grateful—grateful that I believe in the Christ who died so that I could live for him here on earth, and with him some day in heav­en; grate­ful that I can look for­ward to see­ing my beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, again, as well as my fos­ter broth­er, and many oth­ers whom I’ve lost along the way; grate­ful that my belief in such things is matter-of-fact—not because such things aren’t mirac­u­lous, but because the God of the Uni­verse has shown me mir­a­cles time and time again.

What about you? Have you run into any angels late­ly? Have you expe­ri­enced the mirac­u­lous? Do you even want to? The one great pow­er we humans have is choice.

What a Word is Worth

letter writingLet­ter writ­ing has become a lost art. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I wish it was­n’t true. Beyond sim­ply lan­guish­ing in a sea of despond over the mat­ter, though, I do my best to hold the line. I write let­ters, at least ran­dom­ly, if not rou­tine­ly. No mat­ter how much time I need to set aside for the task, I’m nev­er sor­ry that I did.

In recent months, a dear friend of mine lost his part­ner of over 30 years. Her death was both sud­den and gris­ly. As you might imag­ine, her pass­ing left my friend spin­ning. I’ve buried enough loved-ones to more than empathize.

I was rocked by the news when it reached me, one time-zone and hun­dreds of miles away. Imme­di­ate­ly, I want­ed to cov­er the crack in my friend’s heart with my own two hands, but I could­n’t. I want­ed to offer my shoul­der for those unut­ter­able moments when he could no longer hold back the tears, but I could­n’t. I want­ed to hop on the next plane and, lit­er­al­ly, fly to his side. But, for a host of rea­sons, I could­n’t. And yet, I was des­per­ate to be present for my friend.

I sat down to write him a let­ter, one of the things I had it in my pow­er to do. I’ve writ­ten sev­er­al let­ters since, penned a poem just for him, and sent a col­lec­tion of verse that might bring him a lit­tle heal­ing, a lit­tle light. I sent each with the appro­pri­ate postage, and some­thing more: I sent each with a prayer, and I hoped. I hoped that my mea­ger attempts at being present, from a great dis­tance, would, in some small way, matter.

The oth­er day, I received a card from this friend, with a care­ful­ly word­ed, hand­writ­ten note. The first words made my heart leap:

“Dear­est Nikki,

Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

In the body of the note, my friend let me know that my words on paper had spo­ken hope to his heart; that they had giv­en him glimpses of a future in which he would, once again, be able to step into the light; that my sim­ple words of encour­age­ment and con­nec­tion had mat­tered to him in this extra­or­di­nary time of need, and had mat­tered deeply.

When was the last time you wrote a let­ter? I’m not talk­ing about a hasti­ly dashed-off email, sent between sips of cof­fee, or bites of a ham­burg­er dur­ing lunch. I’m talk­ing about an old-fash­ioned, care­ful­ly con­sid­ered, hand­writ­ten or typed let­ter. When?

I know you’re busy. Who isn’t? But when did we become so busy that we don’t make time for a friend who hungers for the words of encour­age­ment, hope, advice—or even humor—that only we, as friends, can offer? Yes, find­ing the time to write a let­ter can be dif­fi­cult. How­ev­er, when those words mat­ter as deeply as they do, isn’t it worth the l sacrifice?

Maybe one day, you trade the time you’d spend hang­ing out on Face­book, or check­ing your Twit­ter feed, to com­pose a let­ter instead. Or maybe you give up one episode of that half-hour sit­com to do the deed. The fact is, time can always be found for the things that mat­ter. All I’m say­ing is, this is one of them.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say on the sub­ject, except this: What are you wait­ing for? Some­body needs to hear from your heart, and a let­ter can be the per­fect pack­age in which to send it.

A Question of Perspective

AwardNovem­ber has come crash­ing in, with adver­tis­ers’ ear­ly and relent­less push for Christ­mas. I, on the oth­er hand, am strug­gling to stave off the end-of-year book award sea­son blues that fol­low on the heels of this hol­i­day. I love Christ­mas but, for now, I’m cor­ralling my thoughts to keep them focused on, say, Thanks­giv­ing. Besides, I’ve plen­ty to hold my atten­tion between now and the end of Decem­ber. There are con­fer­ence pre­sen­ta­tions to com­pose, inter­view ques­tions to answer, guest blogs to write, fan mail to respond to, and, of course, scads of work to be done on var­i­ous works-in-progress. Still, it’s hard to ignore the lure of those best book lists. If only I did­n’t care.

At the ripe old age of 63 (63 is the new—what?), I’m fac­ing the hard fact that I may nev­er achieve some of my career goals. I may nev­er win that cer­tain award, receive that par­tic­u­lar acco­lade, attain a last­ing place in the chil­dren’s book lit­er­ary canon. It occurs to me, at long last, that my work may not be as wor­thy as I have imag­ined, that I have, per­haps, thought of my tal­ent more high­ly than I ought. Ouch. Whether or not that’s true, anoth­er thought has begun to creep in. What if the work was wor­thy, and what if I did win those cer­tain awards or acco­lades? How much would it real­ly mat­ter, in the end?

I’ve had a num­ber of elder­ly friends in the busi­ness who, at the top of their game, were acclaimed, estab­lished, even “hot.” But, in their final years, they were fair­ly unre­marked, large­ly unrec­og­nized, and—saddest of all—their works were most­ly out-of-print. I used to sym­pa­thize with them. Now, how­ev­er, as I approach a good old age myself, sym­pa­thy has turned to empa­thy. I real­ize I’ll be lucky to be remarked upon a gen­er­a­tion from now. Heck, even ten years from now, as fast as things are mov­ing, these days. Not exact­ly the immor­tal­i­ty most authors imag­ine! What is that line from Eccle­si­astes? Van­i­ty, van­i­ty. All is vanity.

At my church, we’ve been study­ing the Book of Daniel late­ly. There’s a lot in this book about vain­glo­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly towards the end. In Chap­ter 11, there’s a com­pressed report of nations ris­ing to pow­er, often by virtue of intrigue, deceit, and hasti­ly arranged alliances, only to be sup­plant­ed by the next con­quer who comes along with visions of empire danc­ing in his head. None of the king­doms ever last, of course. In fact, many are lost to the annals of his­to­ry for­ev­er. Like I said: vainglory.

As I read Daniel, I real­ized nations aren’t the only enti­ties guilty of vain­glo­ry. I’ve been wrestling with a case of my own. I’m hard­ly pre­pared to employ intrigue, deceit, or polit­i­cal alliances to climb to the top of the lit­er­ary lad­der, but what if I did? I would all-too-soon be pushed from my perch by the very next hot author to come along. And she or he, in turn, would only enjoy the lime­light until the next hot author emerged, and so on, and so on. Don’t get me wrong: lit­er­ary hon­ors are love­ly. The more, the mer­ri­er, I say. But, here’s the kick­er: They sim­ply don’t last. If that’s true, and it is, why con­sume pre­cious amounts of time in their pursuit?

I know. It seems so obvi­ous, but it’s hard not to be ambi­tious in this world. We’re con­stant­ly bom­bard­ed with mes­sages that we deserve more, need more, should strive for more. The least lit­tle ember of dis­sat­is­fac­tion in us is fever­ish­ly stoked—by adver­tis­ers, talk­ing heads, and, often, well-mean­ing friends and fam­i­ly. The notion that acclaim is some­thing to right­ly aspire to is whis­pered in our ears, day and night. For­get the need for speed. We lust after legit­i­ma­cy, recog­ni­tion, applause! And, for me, the desire for acclaim is also wrapped up with the need to make a liv­ing at my craft. There is always the hope, mis­placed or not, that greater awards will lead to greater earnings.


It’s hard not to get sucked in.

There is a way, though. What if I stopped lis­ten­ing to the whis­pers of the world? What if I shut out all the voic­es except God’s and my own? Could it real­ly be that simple?

Years ago, I gave up my sub­scrip­tion to Pub­lish­ers Week­ly because every time I read an arti­cle about a ran­dom author who closed a deal on a six-fig­ure con­tract, it gnawed my insides. Why not me? I moaned. It took me awhile, but I even­tu­al­ly real­ized that was­n’t healthy. So, I can­celled my sub­scrip­tion and end­ed the insan­i­ty, which helped. A little.

In the years since, I have found myself cring­ing at the approach of book award sea­son. Hard as I’d try not to, I’d read the list of win­ners each year, and whine, why not me? Why not my book? (Remem­ber, that was before I came to the real­iza­tion that I might not be all that and a bag of chips!). Thank­ful­ly, as the years have pro­gressed, I’ve spent less time belly­ach­ing about imag­ined slights, and have learned to move on rather quick­ly to con­grat­u­lat­ing that year’s win­ners and hon­orees. I may not be new and improved, but I am get­ting better.

The oth­er day, I read a post about a young author who was recent­ly hon­ored with an oppor­tu­ni­ty that has nev­er come my way, and prob­a­bly nev­er will. And I sud­den­ly real­ized that’s okay. That’s his sto­ry, not mine. I can be hap­py for him and wish him well with­out feel­ing any sense of loss. He is doing good work, and he is being faith­ful to the sto­ries he has to tell. That’s as it should be.

Friends occa­sion­al­ly remind me that there are those who view my sto­ry with a hint of envy. Of course, I nev­er see things from that per­spec­tive, because my atten­tion is on what I haven’t yet acquired, or achieved, or done. Enough!

Last week, I can­celled my cable sub­scrip­tion. It may seem like a small, unre­lat­ed step, but it is one in the right direc­tion. There’s less sta­t­ic com­ing into my home, now. There are few­er voic­es telling me what I need, or deserve, or should want. After just one week, I’m already begin­ning to rec­og­nize the sound of my own thoughts, again. I’ve made space for my brain to breathe, cleared room for my inner self to reemerge, cre­at­ed qui­et in which I can exam­ine my own heart. In the qui­et, I can remem­ber what tru­ly mat­ters, can recon­nect with the pure joy of work­ing with words. In this third act, I can focus on mak­ing the deep­est impact I can, here and now, with the gen­er­a­tion of read­ers I’ve been giv­en. That’s the job. That’s the one goal com­plete­ly with­in my grasp. If I stick to it before, dur­ing and after book-award sea­son, I’ll have no time to wor­ry about singing the blues.

I can already feel a sense of peace descending.

The Poetry Pool

poetry wordleI love a good laugh. I laugh every day. I even make a point of giv­ing oth­ers cause to chuck­le, even if it’s some­times at my own expense. Laugh­ter is cleans­ing, heal­ing, and nec­es­sary. God him­self has a phe­nom­e­nal sense of humor. He made us, did­n’t he? Yes, laugh­ter is to be appre­ci­at­ed, enjoyed.

That said, I also know there’s more to life than laugh­ter, and there’s more to chil­dren’s poet­ry than light verse. The two are not syn­ony­mous. One might not know that, though, judg­ing from the nar­row pool of chil­dren’s poet­ry books that are most often high­light­ed and rec­om­mend­ed. The con­stant slant towards humor­ous verse leads me to cry out for diversity.

Big buzz-word, that! To be clear, I’m not talk­ing about racial or cul­tur­al diver­si­ty in chil­dren’s poet­ry. That’s anoth­er dis­cus­sion, entire­ly. No, I’m allud­ing to diver­si­ty as to type, top­ic, form. There’s a depth and breadth to chil­dren’s poet­ry that rarely gets its due, poet­ry specif­i­cal­ly writ­ten for chil­dren that scales the heights of heav­en, plumbs the depth of death, and graces all the notes in between. There are chil­dren’s poems that chal­lenge, inspire, dis­turb. There are poems that cre­ate space in a child’s heart for the release of tears, as well as laughter—and both are heal­ing. There are lim­er­icks, yes, but also odes, son­nets, tan­ka, and more. There are poet­ry col­lec­tions that explore his­to­ry and the men and women who’ve shaped it. There are col­lec­tions that take read­ers for adven­tures on the high seas. There are poems that probe the minu­tia of Nature, and the vast­ness of out­er space. This genre is deep, and wide!

As for cul­tur­al diver­si­ty, today’s offer­ings include chil­dren’s poet­ry by Native Amer­i­cans, Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­cans, Chi­nese Amer­i­cans, Viet­namese Amer­i­cans, Kore­an Amer­i­cans, Latin Amer­i­cans and, yes, African Amer­i­cans. The field of chil­dren’s poet­ry is incred­i­bly rich! Let’s make sure young read­ers have access to the full range avail­able because it mat­ters. Chil­dren ben­e­fit from see­ing them­selves in all guis­es, in all moods. Some­times, when a child is hav­ing a dif­fi­cult day, rather than a moment of laugh­ter, he most needs a work that reflects his angst, a poem that shows him he is not alone, a poem that acknowl­edges both dark­ness and light in the world—even the world of a child.

Meet Danitra BrownPoet­ry, all forms and facets of poet­ry, can be pow­er­ful. Dr. Joyce Briscoe dis­cov­ered as much, many years ago, when she shared the—then—newly pub­lished Meet Dan­i­tra Brown with stu­dents at Clara Bar­ton Ele­men­tary in Cal­i­for­nia. Her so-called low-achiev­ing stu­dents respond­ed to the work to such an extent that, over time, she devel­oped a sub-cur­ricu­lum around Dan­i­tra Brown and found the mate­r­i­al use­ful in moti­vat­ing both read­ing and writ­ing among stu­dents the sys­tem had writ­ten off. Soon, teach­ers through­out the dis­trict were fol­low­ing her lead. By the time I vis­it­ed Clara Bar­ton, I found poet­ry blos­som­ing every­where, and it was a thing of beauty.

At Bar­ton Ele­men­tary, each grade lev­el was giv­en a poem to mem­o­rize, and then a num­ber of les­son plans revolved around that poem. One class was assigned the poem “Pur­ple,” one of the humor­ous, boun­cy poems of the col­lec­tion, and cer­tain­ly a favorite. How­ev­er, one girl in this class told her teacher she pre­ferred to mem­o­rize the poem “Sweet Black­ber­ry”: 

Dan­i­tra says my skin’s like
dou­ble choco­late fudge
cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it anoth­er way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, peo­ple might think
you ain’t noth­in’ but a piece o’ sky.”

I nev­er cry, but inside
there’s a hurt­ing place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me,
“Next time, hon­ey, you just say
The black­er the berry,
the sweet­er the juice.”
Now that’s just what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t both­er teasin’ me no more. 

The teacher asked her why she pre­ferred this poem, and she said, “Because when­ev­er I read it, it makes me feel beau­ti­ful.” How’s that for power?

Chil­dren haven’t changed that much in the inter­ven­ing years. They still have a range of emo­tions to play to. Poet­ry that tick­les the fun­ny bone should only be part of the equa­tion. I encour­age you to explore the poet­ry mar­ket, to jour­ney up and down each aisle. Fill your cart with poet­ry that tick­les the imag­i­na­tion, inspires awe, paus­es on the sub­ject of death, lingers over loss, reveals the cost of war. Add jaw-drop­ping poet­ry about the beau­ty of Nature, the won­ders of sci­ence, the mys­ter­ies of his­to­ry. Choose poet­ry that makes you cry and, yes, poet­ry that makes you laugh. Include them all in the poet­ry diet you feed your stu­dents. Trust each read­er to dis­cov­er his or her favorite dish. Make room for that to hap­pen. Please.

When I first entered the chil­dren’s lit­er­ary mar­ket, I felt like an endan­gered species. There did­n’t seem to be many poets around. Today, how­ev­er, the mar­ket is pos­i­tive­ly burst­ing with won­der­ful new poet­ic voic­es, and they all deserve to be heard, shared, read. My hope is that they will be, not only for the sake of the poets, but also for the sake of the stu­dents who need pre­cise­ly the gift each poet brings.

Who are some of my favorite con­tem­po­rary poets? The list is incred­i­bly long, but here are a few—a pre­cious few! —in the realm of chil­dren’s literature:

[ezcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=“”]Marilyn Nelson
Jane Yolen
Gary Soto
Joyce Sidman
Helen Frost
Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye
Car­ole Boston Weatherford
Lau­ra Pur­die Salas
Paul Janeczko
Janet Wong
Mar­gari­ta Engles
Allan Wolf
Jack Prelutsky
Alice Schertle[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=“”]J. Patrick Lewis
Pat Mora
Kris­tine O’Con­nell George
Joseph Bruchac
Geor­gia Heard
Sara Holbrook
Ralph Fletcher
George Ella Lyon
Jamie Adoff
Eloise Greenfield
April Hal­prin Wayland
Arnold Adoff
Rebec­ca Kai Dotlich
Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins (the world’s most pro­lif­ic anthol­o­gist of chil­dren’s poetry)[/ezcol_1half_end]

You can also enjoy the work of our US Chil­dren’s Poet Laureates:

Jack Pre­lut­sky
Mary Ann Hoberman
J. Patrick Lewis
Kenn Nesbitt

Want a more com­pre­hen­sive list? Hit me up on Face­book.

The Problem with Poetry

For the record, just because a par­tic­u­lar notion is repeat­ed, over and over again, does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make it true. The earth is not flat, nor is it the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Peo­ple of African descent are not intel­lec­tu­al­ly infe­ri­or to the white race. And con­trary to what you may have heard, over the years, from (well-mean­ing?) edi­tors and agents, poet­ry can, and does, sell.

Par­don me if I pre­sume to know what I’m talk­ing about, but I am, in fact, sit­ting on a love­ly sofa, set in a small, but beau­ti­ful home, paid for by a career built on writ­ing chil­dren’s poet­ry and nov­els-in-verse. I believe that qual­i­fies to say a thing or two on the sub­ject, yes?

Poetry booksI recent­ly spoke at a con­fer­ence at which I heard it stat­ed, unequiv­o­cal­ly, that poet­ry does­n’t sell. When those words hit the air, I want­ed to leap out of my skin. I’ve been hear­ing that old adage since I first entered this field more than 30 years ago. Had I, for a moment, tak­en that oft-repeat­ed state­ment to heart, I’d have no career. The 50-plus books I’ve pub­lished, most of them chil­dren’s poet­ry, or nov­els-in-verse, would not exist. I would nev­er have won the NCTE Award for Excel­lence in Chil­dren’s Poet­ry, nor awards for my body of work, or the ALA Nota­bles, Coret­ta Scott King Award and Hon­ors, or any of the oth­er awards and cita­tions my poet­ry has earned. None of it would exist if I’d believed that well-worn idea.

To be fair, if you are a poet, it is high­ly unlike­ly that you will become wealthy work­ing in this genre, no mat­ter how well you hone your craft. That much is true. But chances are, you already know that. I would wager that most writ­ers, keen on this par­tic­u­lar genre, aren’t look­ing to make a killing in the mar­ket­place. They sim­ply have a pen­chant for the lyri­cal line, and a pas­sion for metaphor. Like me, they pen poet­ry because they, quite frankly, can’t help them­selves. Poet­ry is in them. It’s part of their DNA. Poets don’t val­ue their work in terms of fis­cal weight, and that’s where we dif­fer from agents and editors.

Agents and pub­lish­ers are in the busi­ness of mak­ing mon­ey by sell­ing books. We all under­stand that, although I wish inter­est in pro­duc­ing a rich and diverse vari­ety of qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture for the next gen­er­a­tion, were more wide­spread. Still, we should­n’t be sur­prised when agents and pub­lish­ers push for vam­pire lore while the genre is hot, or dis­cour­age dystopi­an nov­els when they feel the trend is wan­ing. Not so long ago, writ­ers were dis­suad­ed from cre­at­ing books for teens, as there was yet no per­ceived mar­ket for them. That makes sense, right?

But. Aren’t we glad Judy Blume ignored the naysay­ers, back in the bad old days, and wrote nov­els for teens any­way? Aren’t we glad Jack Pre­lut­sky and Shel Sil­ver­stein beat the poet­ry drum before verse was in vogue? Aren’t we grate­ful for Myra Cohn Liv­ingston, and Eloise Green­field, and Lucille Clifton, and Arnold Adoff, and a host of oth­er poets who’ve enriched the lives of young readers?

poetry books and books-in-verse

I attend­ed the first inau­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, in 2009. One of my favorite moments of the cer­e­mo­ny was the read­ing of a poem. I love that poet­ry has played a part in inau­gur­al cel­e­bra­tions of the past. Each time a poet has risen to that great podi­um it is a reminder that this genre has some­thing sub­stan­tial to offer. Poet­ry can pro­voke, chal­lenge, dis­turb. It can soothe our souls, or spur us on to great­ness. It can inspire, uplift, and make the heart soar. How­ev­er, poet­ry can accom­plish none of these things if it is not written.

I’m all for being hon­est with poets about the real­i­ties of the mar­ket­place. I know that poet­ry, in the main, does not sell as well as prose. But it can, and does, sell. Is the field extra­or­di­nar­i­ly com­pet­i­tive? Absolute­ly. Is craft­ing qual­i­ty poet­ry dif­fi­cult? Of course it is. All good writ­ing involves a huge invest­ment of time, ener­gy, and often, research. But that’s a lousy excuse for telling a gift­ed poet, who has a han­ker­ing for haiku, who eats and sleeps sim­i­le, who mires him­self in metaphor that he or she should give up the very idea of pen­ning poet­ry as a lit­er­ary career.

Here are a few thoughts: the next time you come across a poet who clear­ly demon­strates a gift for this genre, don’t tell him to hide his light under a bas­ket. Instead, tell poets to be smart about their choice of sub­ject, to research the mar­ket to make sure their ideas haven’t already been done, to con­sid­er the needs of school cur­ricu­lum and shape their work accord­ing­ly so that their books of poet­ry will be as mar­ketable as pos­si­ble. Encour­age them to con­sid­er nar­ra­tive books in verse—novels, biogra­phies, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, cre­ative non-fiction.

On the oth­er hand, if the writer has no gift for this genre, tell him so. If his poet­ry is not top­i­cal, tell him that. If his poet­ry is not age-appro­pri­ate, tell him that. If you, per­son­al­ly, lack the know-how, or frankly, the inter­est in sell­ing poet­ry, tell him that. But please, what­ev­er you do, don’t tell a poet not to be a poet. That’s a bit like telling a leop­ard not to have spots!

ph_novelsinverseOne last thing: While poet­ry may, indeed, be dif­fi­cult to place, it is not impos­si­ble. So please, please stop telling tomor­row’s poets that poet­ry does­n’t sell. If you do, you might as well tell them that New York Times best­seller Ellen Hop­kins is a fig­ment of our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion; that Sonya Sones and Prince Hon­oree Helen Frost do not exist; that New­bery Hon­oree Joyce Sid­man does not exist; that J. Patrick Lewis, and Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye, and Paul B. Janeczko, and Jack Pre­lut­sky, and Sara Hol­brook, and Jamie Adoff, and Tony Med­i­na, and Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, and Geor­gia Heard, and Mar­i­lyn Singer, and X.J. Kennedy, and Jane Yolen, and Mar­gari­ta Engle, and Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins, and Pat Mora, and Allan Wolf, and Gary Soto, and Eloise Green­field, and Nik­ki Grimes, and a host of oth­er work­ing, pub­lish­ing, award-win­ning poets do not exist. And that, my dears, sim­ply isn’t true.