by Nikki Grimes, 2023 CCIRA Conference Speaker
The subject most on my mind these days is banned books. A banned book is not the stuff of romance, nor is it a badge of courage, as some imagine. When a book is banned, it means that your readers no longer have access to the story you have poured your heart and soul into, the story you have lived, and breathed, and likely bled over for years. That book is no longer available to the audience you intended it for. In other words, a banned book is not a dream, but a nightmare.
The first of my books to land on a list for removal was Ordinary Hazards, my memoir in verse. One of the primary themes of this book is the power of words on paper, most especially the power of poetry. This is a theme that I come back to again, and again, with good reason.
I was fortunate to learn, as a child, that releasing my thoughts and feelings through poetry created space for me to breathe, and allowed me the perspective I needed to journey through childhood trauma and come out on the other side whole. Poetry is healing, both for the writer and the reader, and it is a powerful tool to put in the hands of a young person. I have often spoken of reading and writing as my survival tools, and poetry was central to that survival.
Over the last few years, COVID-19 and the virus of social injustice have added a new level of stress to the lives of children and young adults, and they need a healthy way to let those feelings out. Poetry can be that avenue. Writing an angry poem is certainly preferable to putting one’s fist through a wall, isn’t it? And the poem won’t land the student in the principal’s office! The only real question is, how do you introduce poetry to young readers and encourage them to write poetry of their own?
We are fortunate that today’s market is rich with poetry and novels in verse. You only need to start where your students are. If, for instance, they’re interested in sports, you can find collections featuring soccer, basketball, baseball, or track and field poems, for starters. If biographies are more their speed, try a variety of biographies in verse. If science is their jam, you’ll find collections on that topic. If you’ve been trying to entice readers to get through a novel, try a novel in verse. Once they see all that white space, they’ll be intrigued to give it a try. They’ll assume fewer words on the page means the story is less complex. They’ll be wrong, but by the time they figure that out, they’ll already be hooked. And once they’re hooked, it’s easy to challenge them to write a poem, possibly using the author’s poems as templates for their own.
I’ve heard from teachers who have taught Bronx Masquerade, who went on to have their students use the book as a template for a collection of poetry about their own school. Others use the seed of the book’s Open Mic Friday’s to hold open mic readings in their classrooms or assemblies. Once students are given the tools to express themselves, it’s hard to get them to stop! That’s a good problem to have.
I’ve found that students respond especially well to poetry forms that give them somewhere to begin, forms like haiku, tanka, and golden shovel. One Last Word and Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance are two collections I created using the golden shovel format. The idea is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from the poem, called a striking line, and to create a new poem using the words from the original. Say you decide to use a single line: you would arrange that line, word by word, in the right margin.
Then, you would write a new poem, with each line ending in one of these words. In the example above, that would mean the first line of the new poem would end in the word “in”, the second line would end in the word “the”, and so on.
I wake and shake off the morning as Mom tiptoes in.
“Rise and shine”, she whispers, always the
same old song. “Get up. Right
now!” I groan on cue, but she gives me no margin.
Here are a few more examples:
This line is taken from the poem, “A Light and Diplomatic Bird” by Gwendolyn Brooks. This is the first Golden Shovel poem I ever attempted.
Lashed With Riot Red and Black
Yesterday, God skipped thunder like stones, lashed
the land with pellets of H2O, each illumined with
scissored bits of lightning—a riot
of sight and sound, sharp as red,
sudden as death. Watch for grayed skies and
grief remembered. Both, for a moment, paint the world black.
Peace Be Still
Trayvon’s mom watched injustice kick peace
down the road, like a tin can. But she’ll be
retrieving it once her son is able to rest quiet, still.
One of the things I love about this format is that you can apply it to a favorite lyric, or a stunning line from a newspaper article, or even a favorite line from a book of prose. No matter where writers begin, there’s lots of room for them to pour out their own thoughts and feelings, and thereby learn for themselves the awesome power of poetry. Give this a try!
Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2022 CSK Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2020 ALAN Award for significant contributions to young adult literature, the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Medal for contributions to literature for children, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The author of Coretta Scott King Author Award-winner Bronx Masquerade, and
recipient of five Coretta Scott King Author Honors, her most recent titles
include the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults title Between the Lines,
companion to Bronx Masquerade, NCTE Notable Book Words With
Wings, the 2018 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book
Garvey’s Choice, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor One Last Word, Printz
Honor and Sibert Honor Ordinary Hazards, a memoir in verse, ALA
Notable Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, ALA Notable
Southwest Sunrise, Kirkus Best Book Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, and
IMAGE Award Nominee Kamala Harris:Rooted in Justice. Ms. Grimes
lives in Corona, California.