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This multi-award–winning author discusses the powerful effects that poetry, in various formats, can have on young readers, and the way she implements it in her own work.
In addition to being the author of more than two-dozen books for young readers, Jacqueline Woodson is also a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a recipient of the NAACP Image Award, and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner; in addition to these accolades, she was recently selected to deliver the 2017 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. Her work includes groundbreaking picture books, novels, and poetry, including the 2014 National Book Award winner, Brown Girl Dreaming, her memoir in verse. The breadth of her accomplishments is such that some may have been surprised when she was singled out as a poet after being named the Young People’s Poet Laureate (YPPL) by the Poetry Foundation in 2015, but an examination of her work reveals a consistently lyrical use of language, an intentional employment of line breaks and white space, and powerful imagery and intense emotion throughout all her writing. Here, she answers questions about the place of poetry in her life and work, and about her plans to “raise awareness” about poetry as the laureate.
VARDELL: Can you describe the role poetry played in your childhood? When and how did you first discover a love for reading or writing poetry, in particular?
WOODSON: My earliest memory of poetry is Mother Goose, of course—my sister reciting various rhymes, with my favorite as a child being about the old woman who lived in a shoe. I think I related to the tight living quarters and the tired mom. But somewhere between Mother Goose as a very young child and Langston Hughes as a much older one, I had a disconnect from poetry. Somehow I felt outside of it. I remember hearing Nikki Giovanni’s poetry on an album someone must have owned and thinking “Who and what is that?” but still not making the connection between what Nikki was doing and poetry. When I heard Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations” back in the early 1970s, it was a wrap—I got it! I just got it on so many levels—levels that connected Hughes to Giovanni to Lorde to the Grimké sisters, to Eloise Greenfield—I was on my way.
VARDELL: What do you like best about poetry? What do you find in poetry that you don’t find anywhere else?
WOODSON: I love that poetry has such an intentionality to it. You step in, have the experience the poet is bringing to you through the poem, understand what the poet is trying to say and step out of the poem someone different than you were before you read that first line. You have a similar experience reading a novel, I guess, but the intensity is different.
VARDELL: On your website, you write about poetry as memoir, fiction, picture book, history, and empathy—all of which are reflected in your body of work. So how do you decide which you are writing?
WOODSON: The story decides for me. I write not really knowing where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but as I write, I pay deep attention to the rhythm the story is taking on, and soon, I’m breaking lines or thinking about my own childhood and putting that on the page or shaping the story into vignettes because I suddenly realize the urgency needed to tell it, or letting the language flow and meander a bit because the story is about our space in time.
VARDELL: How would you say your poetry has evolved? What kinds of surprises have you discovered along the way?
WOODSON: I’ve discovered that I’m not as afraid of poetry as I once was, and I’m not afraid to put my work out there and call it poetry, without excuses. I think I struggled with impostor syndrome for a long time, thinking my work was poetic but not necessarily poetry. My writing has definitely gotten better over the years—I mean, I have been practicing! I’ve discovered how vast the world of poetry is and how much of it I missed as a child. I find myself trying to read as much poetry as I can as slowly as I can as a way to study the poets who’ve come before me. Right now, I’m revisiting Citizen, by Claudia Rankine (2014). It’s phenomenal.
Which poets, writers, or artists have influenced your writing of poetry for young readers, and how?
WOODSON: Eloise Greenfield, Langston Hughes, Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, Nikki Giovanni, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Butler Yeats, Nick Flynn, Major Jackson, Maya Angelou—my list goes on and on. They’ve influenced me mainly by being in the world and writing. Reading poetry made it easier for me to find my own writer’s voice. The above poets are very different from one another, but share that love of story and bring to the page deep, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking memories. Reading them helped me get to all that I remembered from my own childhood. It’s this sense of not knowing what you know until someone, through their own memories, reminds you of yours, even if yours are completely different in place and time. It’s hard to explain how important it is to read if you want to write.
VARDELL: What else would you like to explore in creating poetry for young people?
WOODSON: Everything! I want to do everything! I want to go where people haven’t gone before, create new ways of telling stories, open doors to the historically invisible and silent storytellers and poets in our country, put the voices of young people out into the world, and visit places where kids think they’ve never met a “real” writer and hold up a mirror for them. It would be amazing to bring poetry to every state as YPPL. To walk into classrooms and get young people to believe they have a story, a poem, a voice.
What advice do you have for teachers, librarians, and/or parents and caregivers about sharing poetry with children?
WOODSON: Visit the Poetry Foundation’s website if you don’t know where to find poems—or even if you do. Bring poetry to the table: recite a poem at dinner or breakfast, talk about poetry, deconstruct the songs young people listen to, and show them the poetry in the music they love. Most of all, don’t be afraid. Don’t think poetry is something “for someone else.” It’s for all of us.
VARDELL: What advice do you have for young people about writing poetry, in particular?
WOODSON: Read poetry. Write poetry. #Noexcuse.
VARDELL: As the current Young People’s Poet Laureate, what are your hopes for the future of poetry for young people?
WOODSON: Oh man, I would so love for young people to read lots and lots of poetry. I would love for them to see and recognize poetry everywhere in their lives, to talk about the poets they love and the ones they don’t, to write songs and spit lyrics and make chapbooks. I would love, love for social justice to be a huge part of what young people are writing and talking about one day. I’d love for poetry to cross lines so that poets can look up and see a whole lot of young folks in their audience and young people can look up and see more than parents and teachers coming to hear them write about changing the world.
Brown Girl Dreaming. 2014. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399252518). Gr. 5–8.
Coming on Home Soon. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2004. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399237485). K–Gr. 3.
Each Kindness. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2012. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399246524). K–Gr. 3.
Feathers. 2007. Penguin, $15.99 (9780399239892). Gr. 4–6.
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This. 1994. Puffin, $7.99 (9780142417041). Gr. 5–9.
Locomotion. 2003. Putnam, $15.99 (9780399231155). Gr. 3–6.
The Other Side. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2001. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399231162). K–Gr. 3.
Show Way. Illus. by Hudson Talbott. 2005. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399237492). Gr. 3–5.
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration. Illus. by James Ransome. 2013. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399239861). Gr. 1–3.
Further Reading: Novels in Verse
The below titles in verse, many of them memoirs, have a similar focus to Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) and make excellent teaching companions.
How I Discovered Poetry. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Hadley Hooper. 2014. Dial, $17.99 (9780803733046). Gr. 7–12.
Inside Out and Back Again. By Thanhhà Lai. 2011. Harper, $15.99 (9780061962783). Gr. 4–8.
Little Green: Growing Up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. By Chun Yu. 2005. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9780689869433). Gr. 5–9.
Tofu Quilt. By Russell Ching Yeung. 2009. Lee & Low, $16.95 (9781600604232). Gr. 3–6.
Under the Mesquite. By Guadalupe Garcia McCall. 2011. Lee & Low, $18.95 (9781600604294). Gr. 7–10.
Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba. By Alma Flor Ada. 1998. Atheneum, $19.99 (9780689806315). Gr. 3–6.
Where the Flame Trees Bloom. By Alma Flor Ada. 1994. Aladdin, $9.95 (9781416968405). Gr. 4–6.
Common Core Connections: Jacqueline Woodson
If you check out the “Poetry” link on Jacqueline Woodson’s website, you’ll see that she focuses on the many ways poetry is infused throughout her writing. She shares excerpts that illustrate the ideas that poetry can be memoir, fiction, or picture books, and can share history or help young readers build empathy. Below are suggestions for implementing the Common Core Standards with Woodson’s work and other similar titles. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Jacqueline Woodson explores her own upbringing in her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014). In talking about why she wrote it in this particular format, she noted, “This is how memory comes to me—in small moments with all of this white space around them. I didn’t think this memoir could be told any other way. It felt like it would be untrue to the story to try to write a straight narrative out of lyrical memory.” Find three excerpts from the book at her website, and talk with students about similar memories they may have of their own siblings, parents/caregivers, or classroom moments. Students can work in pairs to create their own poem-memoir moments, interviewing each other about a particular memory, taking notes for each other, and then each building a free verse or found poem based on those notes. To take it even further, guide students in noting Woodson’s use of italics to suggest dialogue in a poem. If time allows for further study, compare this memoir in verse with other works that offer a similar focus (suggested titles above).
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.9. Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.5. With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
In the Classroom: In Woodson’s novel Locomotion (2003), the narrator, Lonnie Collins (nicknamed “Locomotion”), writes poetry to tell his story and to express his feelings about being apart from his younger sister and living in foster care after the death of their parents. Once again, Woodson uses italics within a poem to indicate when someone is speaking (besides the narrator) which can be very effective when reading aloud. Try a readers’-theater performance, so that students can get a sense of character and voice. Select poems with two parts—plain text and italicized text—for two or more volunteers or groups to read aloud in turn. Then talk about how that helps us understand the poem and the points of view better. The novel-in-verse form offers the generous white space, short lines, and conversational tone that young readers who are still developing their comprehension expertise find helpful.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7. Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.2. Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
In the Classroom: In an interview in School Library Journal, Woodson noted, “My picture books are long poems really—I decide where the lines break and the flow of the story.” Read aloud and show the text of her picture book The Other Side (2001). After encouraging the students to respond to the story (and the friendship that transcends race), talk about how the words are arranged on the page, particularly in contrast with the usual format for text in picture books. Look at how the line breaks make the reader pause, adding weight to the thoughts expressed. Consider how they fit with the illustrations on the page. Show how it feels when you read the lines and sentences as if they were continuous narrative; then counter by pausing at the end of each line break as written. Examine some of Woodson’s other picture books to see other ways she arranges words, lines, phrases, and sentences.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.4. Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.7. Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.
In the Classroom: Woodson traces her family’s roots in the beautiful picture book Show Way (2005), a Newbery Honor book. After reading the book aloud, talk with students about the stories of each generation portrayed in the book, particularly the power of making quilts to show the path to freedom and literacy. Then focus on the story’s text and how every page and poem work together to “quilt” the story’s narrative. Woodson uses the free-verse-poem form with distinctive line breaks to make the reader pause and think about each scene, letting the “history” breathe a bit. This can serve as a springboard for students to interview a family member about his/her past, take their notes and develop a free-verse poem, and illustrate the scene in some way (with a drawing or old photograph, for example).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.7. Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.6. Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2.3. Ask and answer questions about what a speaker says in order to clarify comprehension, gather additional information, or deepen understanding of a topic or issue.
In the Classroom: Poems convey deep emotions that can be otherwise difficult to express, and they help us connect with one another in very personal ways. Read aloud Woodson’s picture book Each Kindness (2012), and talk with students about the story and its challenge to be kinder to one another. If possible, bring a large bowl filled with water and a small stone and reenact the teacher’s exercise from the story—each person drops a stone into the water while describing an act of kindness he or she has carried out. Then challenge students to find a poem or story excerpt that makes them feel deeply, and invite them to share it with the group. Consider sharing poetry books by some of Woodson’s poet influences—for example, Honey, I Love, by Eloise Greenfield; The Dream Keeper, by Langston Hughes; Hip Hop Speaks to Children, collected by Nikki Giovanni; Amazing Faces, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins; Lend a Hand, by John Frank; This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort, edited by Georgia Heard; or What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings, by Joyce Sidman.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5. Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.3.2. Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Sylvia M. Vardell, a professor of children’s and young-adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, is the author of the Poetry for Children blog and coeditor (with Janet Wong) of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations: Holiday Poems for the Whole Year in English and Spanish (2015).
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