FEATURED POET: Eloise Greenfield

One of our goals is to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) accomplished poets whose work is enjoyed by children or teens. We start with the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winners before moving on to other poets.

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ELOISE GREENFIELD

(American, b. 1929)

Eloise Greenfield was born in Parmele, North Carolina, on May 17, 1929. The second oldest of five children, she moved, as an infant, with her family to Washington, D.C. She studied piano as a child and teenager. She loved music, movies, and books. As a young wife and mother in her early twenties, while working as a clerk-typist at the U.S. Patent Office, Greenfield began a search for satisfying work. She found it in writing.

After several years of study and rejections from publishers, Greenfield had her first poem published in the Hartford Times in 1962. Her first book was published in 1972. She is now the author of more than 40 books for children—poetry, biography, picture books, and older fiction. She says her mission is twofold: (1) to contribute to the development of a large body of African American literature for children and (2) to continue to fill her life with the joy of creating with words.

Greenfield has received many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream and the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks. For Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems, she received the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books. She has received the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little; the Hope S. Dean Award from the Foundation for Children’s Literature; the 1997 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children for her body of work; the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s North Star Award for lifetime achievement; and a lifetime achievement award from the Moonstone Celebration of Black Writing.

In 1999, Greenfield was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. Furthermore, In the Land of Words was named a 2005 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (Children’s Literature Assembly/NCTE). When the Horses Ride By and The Friendly Four were chosen for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2007 Choices. Most recently, The Great Migration: Journey to the North—illustrated by Greenfield’s frequent collaborator, Jan Spivey Gilchrist—was named a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book for 2012.

Greenfield lives in Washington, D.C. She is the mother of a son and a daughter and the grandmother of four.

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INTERVIEW BY STEVEN WITHROW

First, I’d like to go back to your poetic beginnings. I read your mother’s poems in Children of Long Ago last year, which led me to Childtimes. Both are beautiful books. Could you tell my readers a little about your mother and her writing, and the effect she had on your writing early on?

I’m happy that you like those two books. My mother’s work is precious to me. She didn’t begin writing until she was in her late sixties, years after I grew up and became a writer. Mama told me that when my siblings and I were small, she wrote one story that was rejected, and she didn’t try again. But she loved books, and she read to us. That was one of my early influences. Also, in my elementary school classes, we often read poems aloud, together, pretty much in the sing-song fashion of the time. I can still hear the melody of our voices, as we recited Stevenson’s poem, “The Swing.” Even so, I didn’t begin writing, except for school assignments, until I was in my early twenties, bored with my typing job and trying to think of another way to earn a living.

How much has your childhood, particularly your years in Langston Terrace, stayed with you in the poems you’ve through the years? As a corollary, do you write for the child you were then, or for today’s children?

I don’t write for the child that I was. That child is with me still, but I write with today’s children in mind. Most of my work is not autobiographical, though there are pieces of my life that I do include, from time to time. For example, the “flying pool,” “going down the country,” and the laughing children, in the poem, “Honey, I Love,” are all from my childhood, including wonderful memories of Langston Terrace, the low-rent housing project where I lived from age 9 to 21. I devote a chapter to Langston Terrace in Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir.

One thing I love about your work is how open you are about sharing strong and sometimes conflicting emotions with children. In what ways does poetry help children, even the youngest who cannot yet read, explore their own emotional experiences and those of others?

Thank you. Human beings are fascinating to me, our complexity, and especially our contradictions. I believe that, if children are able to see emotional conflicts in characters, it will help them to see themselves and accept their own emotions and to understand and empathize with other people, as well. These are important factors, but I never think about them when I’m writing. I think about trying to bring the characters to life, so that readers can see them, get to know them and become immersed in their lives.

Your poems show that you have a keen ear for musical language and a gift for unity in sound that Donald Hall calls “sound-form.” How much attention do you pay to consonants and vowels, rhythms and line breaks, rhymes and repetitions, while you’re composing? Is much of it instinctive for you?

I’m sure that some of it is instinctive, because we are all born with a connection to music, with our beating hearts and vocal cords. In my family, music was a constant, when I was growing up—on the radio, at concerts and stage shows, in school and church choirs. We had a piano. My two sisters and I took piano lessons, and both of my parents played—not well, but often!

However, the composing I do, in writing poetry, requires conscious thought and revision. I hear the music as I am writing, and I am not satisfied until I achieve the sounds I am seeking. I revise and revise until I think I have it right. I use all of the elements you mentioned, and I would add “melody” to the list, because our voices go up and down as we talk, even in ordinary conversation. I would also add “punctuation.” For example, a period in the wrong place can bring the music to a full stop, instead of the brief pause I may want and that a comma would elicit.

We are clearly facing a difficult market (some say a dire crisis) for publishing and selling children’s poetry collections and anthologies. Lee Bennett Hopkins said that only three new anthologies were published last year in the US. Do you see this as an especially troubling development, or is it a continual challenge for poets?

I see this as very troubling, but no more so than unemployment, generally, across the country. This is a rough period for millions of people, poets included, who can’t find enough work. I do think, though, that this is different from the earlier difficulties poets experienced in trying to build a wide audience. On my many visits with schoolchildren, teachers, librarians, and parents, I see a widespread and enormous love for poetry and excitement about reading and writing poems. An encouraging factor is the commercial and critical success of children’s poetry books before the economic crisis occurred.

Many teachers are wary of encouraging meter and rhyme, as they have been taught that formal poetry is out of fashion, while others merely use forms as tools to teach grammar and vocabulary. Are meter and rhyme still vital and essential, and what does formal poetry offer young readers and writers that free verse does not?

I feel that all forms of poetry are valuable and should be taught to children. Is the poem well-crafted? Is it nurturing? Does it touch the heart, mind, and/or spirit? I think these are the important criteria for determining what children should be taught. Fashions come and go, of course, but I think it’s up to parents and educators to see that what is of value survives for children.

Is your poetry a performance art? Is it best for children to read your poems aloud and “act out” the many voices? Are we missing some of your poetry’s power by simply reading silently or listening to another person’s voice?

I don’t see this as an either/or situation. One is theater; the other is reading. Both can elicit a range of experiences. They can be engrossing, enlightening, moving, deeply satisfying, fun, etc.—all the things we want when we experience the arts. Also, silent reading is not complete silence, in the way we usually think of it, as a total absence of sound. As we read, not our ears, but our minds “hear” the words, and if children have been read to, in their early years, they will be able to choose varying moods, tones, etc., for “hearing” the poet’s words. Children and adults can be drawn into a book, as well as into a performance.

When we read to children, we can see the signs that tell us they have gone into the world of the book. The signs are in their eyes, their breathing. At appropriate times, they will look sad or break into spontaneous laughter, and we know that we have reached them.

If you would, please pick a poem of your own and talk a little about how the poem works from a craft standpoint? How is the poem constructed or formed? What are some of its salient features in sound or image?

Near the end of The Great Migration: Journey to the North, there’s a part called “Question,” in which the travelers on a train are silently questioning their decisions to leave their homes and embark on new lives. The poem begins with their question, as the train gets close to its destination. The travelers’ thoughts then take on the rhythm of the train, moving from apprehension to courage, optimism and determination. As the train gradually slows, so do the travelers’ thoughts. At least, that was my intention, and I hope it comes through. The train and the thoughts come to a stop simultaneously, with the finality of the words, “Going to make it. No matter what.”

Could you talk a little about your process of arranging the structure and order of The Great Migration?

I wanted to tell the story of this movement chronologically, from the time the people in the South begin thinking about leaving, until they arrive in the North. At the same time, I wanted to go inside the movement and show some of the individuals who made this momentous trip. Why were they leaving? What were they thinking and feeling? Who and what did they have to leave behind? I wanted to show the courage it took for these people, in particular, and for people all over the world, to pick up and move when it became necessary, to do whatever they needed to do to survive and to make better lives for themselves and their children.

Are you generally optimistic about the future of poetry for young people from both a quality and a popularity standpoint? Will we see a resurgence of poems for kids in the years and decades to come, do you think?

I’m optimistic that the situation will improve. I hope it’s sooner than later. From a popularity standpoint, a substantial and enthusiastic audience is there, waiting. They just have to be able to buy food, clothing, and shelter before they can buy books. Budgets for school and public libraries have to increase, at least to the point where they were before the crisis. From a quality standpoint, there will be innovations, some of which will be short-lived; others will stand the test of time.

In the meantime, poets will keep writing, holding to their standards of craft, as well as nourishment for children. Organizations such as PACYA serve to keep the issues of need and availability before the public and are crucial to the recovery and maintenance of a society where poetry is woven into the lives of children and contributes to their happiness and development as human beings.

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REVIEW OF THE GREAT MIGRATION BY JOYCE RAY

Eloise Greenfield, The Great Migration: Journey to the North, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. 32 pp. Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2011.

Eloise Greenfield, winner of the 11th NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and award-winning artist and writer Jan Spivey Gilchrist have collaborated on a book of poems inspired by a little-talked-about period of American history. Train travel is almost foreign to today’s children. Yet a train ticket led to a better life in the North for hundreds of thousands of African-American children in the early part of the 20th century. The Great Migration: Journey to the North chronicles such a trip in nine poems. Collage artwork using archival material lends historical authenticity to the collection. An introduction tells Greenfield’s own story of her family’s migration.

Greenfield’s free verse lets us witness a family’s goodbyes—goodbyes to the land, to inequality, and to the Ku Klux Klan.

Goodbye, crazy signs, telling me
where I can go, what I can do.
I hear that train whistling
my name. Don’t worry, train,
I’m ready.

The poems book us a seat on the overnight trip with all its uncertainties.

I hope they’re right.
I think they’re right.
I know they’re right.

Finally, we arrive in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, or another northern city where

…the people keep coming,
keep coming, keep on coming,
filling up the cities with
their hopes and their courage.
And their dreams.

The rhythm in each of Greenfield’s poems lets us hear the click clack of train wheels on the track. We feel the hope in the hearts of the travelers. Gilchrist’s haunting illustrations combine layers of artwork and archival photos. The results were achieved through labor-intensive methods without computer graphics. They draw us into the poems as if we are watching a documentary. One moving illustration plants grainy photos of African Americans in a field, like ghostly witnesses to the train’s passing.

The Great Migration, Journey to the North is a stirring account in verse of a period that opened up opportunities for America’s Black citizens and changed American history. The jacket flap says the audience is Ages 3-8. The subject matter is more suited for an older audience, such as Grades 2-5.

NCTE has this profile of Greenfield, and The Herman Agency posts this profile of Gilchrist.

Joyce Ray earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published nonfiction for children and poetry for adults. In 2008 the Vermont Studio Center awarded her an artist’s grant in poetry. Memberships include NH Writers’ Project, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults. Joyce conducts poetry workshops in New Hampshire and muses about poetry and writing at http://joyceray.blogspot.com.

2012 ALA Youth Media Awards Feature Poets

Congratulations to all the winners and honorees of the 2012 American Library Association Youth Media Awards, including Newbery Medalist Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt and Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka for A Ball for Daisy!

It is also a great day for poets and verse novelists:

  • Thanhha Lai, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN (HarperCollins), Newbery Honor
  • Eloise Greenfield, THE GREAT MIGRATION: Journey to the North (Amistad/HarperCollins), Coretta Scott King Author Honor
  • Patricia McKissack, NEVER FORGOTTEN (Schwartz & Wade), Coretta Scott King Author Honor
  • Guadalupe Garcia McCall, UNDER THE MESQUITE (Lee & Low), Pura Belpré Author Award Winner and William C. Morris Finalist
  • Margarita Engle, HURRICANE DANCERS (Holt), Pura Belpré Honor
  • Ashley Bryan, Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement

“Wordplay: The Case for Ludic Poetry” by J. Patrick Lewis

J. Patrick Lewis, 2011 NCTE Award winner and U.S. children’s poet laureate, has published online an excellent new essay about game-playing in children’s poetry in Hunger Mountain: the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal of the arts. This is a fine (and funny) addition to the growing body of critical writing about poetry for young people. Enjoy!

FEATURED POET: Barbara Juster Esbensen

One of our goals is to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) accomplished poets whose work is enjoyed by children or teens. We start with the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winners before moving on to other poets.

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BARBARA JUSTER ESBENSEN

(American, 1925-1996)

“Too many school children are worried about being right, about not being wrong, and about not saying something stupid. They don’t want to be laughed at. If you have an accepting, adventurous atmosphere in a classroom, you may find some poets.” — Barbara Juster Esbensen (Language Arts, Vol. 71, November 1994)

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From the reissue of Swing Around the Sun (Carolrhoda Books, 2002):

Raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Barbara Juster Esbensen developed the courage to play with words from the books of L.M. Montgomery. In 1939 she showed her favorite teacher, Miss Eulalie Beffel, one of her poems. Ms. Beffel’s encouragement changed Barbara’s life. She said, “You are a writer.”

Although always interested in writing, Barbara chose to pursue her bachelor’s degree in art education at the University of Wisconsin. For many years, she taught art to grades K-12 and was a creative arts consultant at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.

Barbara published her first book, Swing around the Sun, in 1965 with Lerner Publications. After taking a break to raise six children, Barbara continued writing. A complete list of Barbara’s books is available on the Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial website.

In 1994, Barbara was honored with the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children for her aggregate body of work. Barbara’s books won a number of awards, including the Minnesota Book Award for The Star Maiden, an NCTE Teacher’s Choice Award for Great Northern Diver: The Loon, a National Science Teacher’s Association Notable Children’s Book Award for Tiger with Wings: The Great Horned Owl, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Dance with Me. In 2002 she was posthumously awarded the Kerlan Award “in recognition of singular attainments in the creation of children’s literature.”

An active supporter of the arts, Barbara enjoyed visiting schools and teaching children about the beauty and creativity of words. A teaching award has been established in memory of Barbara. The award is given each year to the teacher who has made the best use of her book A Celebration of Bees: Helping Children Write Poetry.

In November 1994, M. Jean Greenlaw published an interview with Barbara in Language Arts (Vol. 71). You can download the free PDF by clicking here.

PACYA: A critical and historical resource for children’s poetry

One of my main goals for PACYA is to share and promote critical, historical, and craft-oriented writing, audio, and video about poetry for young people. As a first step, I have invited more than two dozen academic critics from the US, Canada, and the UK to join a “scholars circle” that will begin to create a digital archive of critical materials and take part in other collaborations with our advisory board and members.

Please visit our “Essays” section to read a range of thought-provoking essays. As the list evolves and grows, we will create a more comprehensive database of links. I welcome your ideas, recommendations, essays, reviews, interviews, and case studies (print or multimedia; published or unpublished) for consideration. These materials will serve a variety of audiences and purposes, from academic and pedagogical discourse to instructional and process-related pieces for poets.

Many thanks to Richard Flynn, Joseph Thomas, Sylvia Vardell, J. Patrick Lewis, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Angela Sorby, Michael Heyman, Kelly Hager, JonArno Lawson, Lissa Paul, and Rod McGillis for the first set of links.

Steven Withrow (stevenwithrow at gmail dot com)

NEWS: Book Links trumpets 2011 poetry titles

Poet Marilyn Singer points out: “There is plenty of poetry on Book Links’ Lasting Connections list: in Language Arts, Bob Raczka’s LEMONADE; Julia Durango’s UNDER THE MAMBO MOON; Lee Wardlaw’s WON TON; in Science, Marilyn Singer’s A FULL MOON IS RISING; Joyce Sidman’s SWIRL BY SWIRL; in Social Studies, Eloise Greenfield’s THE GREAT MIGRATION; and Thanhha Lai’s INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. Congratulations to all the writers on this fine list.”

FEATURED POET: Valerie Worth

One of our goals is to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) accomplished poets whose work is enjoyed by children or teens. We start with the winners of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children before moving on to other poets.

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VALERIE WORTH

(American, 1933-1994)

“Never forget that the subject is as important as your feeling: The mud puddle itself is as important as your pleasure in looking at it or splashing through it. Never let the mud puddle get lost in the poetry—because, in many ways. the mud puddle is the poetry.” — Valerie Worth to Lee Bennett Hopkins

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In 1991, Valerie Worth received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children for her body of work. At the time of the award, Lee Bennett Hopkins wrote a profile of Worth (Language Arts, Vol. 68, October 1991) that beautifully summarizes her remarkable career up to that point. You can download a free PDF of the profile by clicking the link below:

**Valerie_Worth_LBH_1991**

In 1994, Valerie Worth passed away from cancer at age 60. You can read the New York Times obituary by clicking here.

After publishing a collection of verses, At Christmastime, in 1994, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released All the Small Poems and Fourteen More in paperback in 1996. In 2002, FSG posthumously published Peacock and Other Poems, with pictures by Natalie Babbitt, a collection of 27 poems that Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, said “heralds the joy of words.” In 2007, FSG published Animal Poems, illustrated by Steve Jenkins.

Bibliography of Valerie Worth’s Works

  • The Crone’s Book of Words, 1971.
  • Small Poems, 1972.
  • More Small Poems, 1976.
  • Still More Small Poems, 1978.
  • Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs, 1980.
  • Gypsy Gold, 1983.
  • Fox Hill, 1986.
  • Small Poems Again, 1986.
  • All the Small Poems, 1987.
  • The Crone’s Book of Wisdom, 1988.
  • At Christmastime, 1994.
  • All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, 1996.
  • Peacock and Other Poems, 2002.
  • Animal Poems, 2007.

All books were published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“It has always seemed to me that any tree or flower, any living creature, even any old board or brick or bottle, possesses a mysterious poetry of its own…”                   – Valerie Worth to Lee Bennett Hopkins