Archives: Poetry Friday

Poetry Friday Giveaway: Nita’s First Signs

It’s Poetry Friday! Hooray for Sylvia Vardell, who is hosting this week’s blog roll at Poetry for Children. Thanks, Sylvia!

Hi, friends and poets. Happy Poetry Friday!

A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s book launch. I’ve blogged about YA author Kathy MacMillan before, when her debut novel SWORD AND VERSE published. (Read my post about SWORD AND VERSE here.)

Kathy’s latest book is something completely different: A board book story that teaches children and families how to use basic American Sign Language (ASL) together. In addition to being a fun read with great illustrations, NITA’S FIRST SIGNS has the *coolest* design. Hidden sliding pages reveal illustrations of how to make signs like “ball,” “love,” “more,” and “milk.”

NITA’S FIRST SIGNS is published by Familius Press.

Be sure to leave a comment if you’d like to be entered into a giveaway: A signed copy of NITA’S FIRST SIGNS, plus some other fun ASL-related treats.

Kathy and I have talked a few times about posting an ASL poem for Poetry Friday. I’m so glad to welcome her to the blog today. We’ll be taking a look at the poem “Dandelion” by Clayton Valli. As Kathy, who is an ASL interpreter and trainer,  pointed out, “This will be a new way of experiencing poetry for most of your readers.” It certainly was for me.

Welcome, Kathy!

When Laura asked me to select a poem to go with her post about my book, Nita’s First Signs, I was so excited to share some American Sign Language (ASL) poetry with her readers.

ASL poetry does not have a written form; it is composed and performed entirely in American Sign Language.  While I could give you a rough transcript of what the poem means, that would not do justice to the cleverness and beauty or the interplay of form and meaning that an ASL poet shapes. ASL poetry simply must be experienced in a visual medium. For that reason, I will give you a description of the events and meanings in the poem, and then let you experience watching it for yourself.

Meter, alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme are used in an entirely different way in a visual language. For example, a rhyme in ASL may consist of using two signs with similar handshapes to create a pleasing association, or adjusting the movement of the signs to lend visual harmony to the poem.

The poem I have chosen is a classic of ASL literature: “Dandelion” by Dr. Clayton Valli. Dr. Valli was a pioneer in ASL poetry and linguistics, and was one of the first people to analyze the characteristics of ASL poetry.

The poem, which is a little over a minute long, addresses the centuries-long oppression of Deaf people by the hearing world, which has long tried to eradicate deafness. Valli uses the image of dandelions to represent Deaf people and sign language itself.  The man who pulls up and mows down the dandelions represents the hearing world trying to destroy Deaf culture. Valli uses various linguistic tools called classifiers to show the shape and movement of the dandelions as they grow and change. In the end, just like dandelions, the Deaf community has demonstrated a will to survive.

I chose this poem because it emphasizes the intrinsic value and beauty of ASL and the Deaf community. While Nita’s First Signs can be enjoyed by any families — hearing, Deaf, or hard-of-hearing — it is, at its heart, a story about the value of communication. Some readers have told me they think that Nita is Deaf, and some say hearing.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter — because the most important gift any parent can give their child is the gift of communication.  Giving a child the tools to communicate sends the message that we truly value what they have to say.


Thanks for visiting, Kathy, and for sharing Dr. Valli’s poem.

Kathy MacMillan is a writer, American Sign Language interpreter, librarian, signing storyteller, and avowed Hufflepuff.  Nita’s First Signs, the first book in the Little Hands Signing board book series from Familius Press, was praised as “a wonderful introduction to the world of American Sign Language…for ALL infants, toddlers children AND adults” by Marlee Matlin. She is also the author of eight resource books for educators, librarians, and parents, including Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together (Huron Street Press, 2013). Her debut young adult novel, Sword and Verse (2016) was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award, and its companion novel, Dagger and Coin (2018) has been called a “complex feminist fantasy” by author Heidi Heilig. Kathy serves as the co-Regional Advisor for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia Region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  She lives near Baltimore, MD. Find her online or on social media @kathys_quill.

Check out some of my favorite photos from the NITA’S FIRST SIGNS book launch at Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop. Remember to leave a comment for a chance to win a signed book and goodies. I will draw a name on Thursday 7/19 and will announce the winner next Poetry Friday, 7/20.

Kathy signs alongside Renee Bertaux, an ASL interpreting intern.

Kathy signs “eat” with a young reader.

Find out more about Kathy’s Stories by Hand workshops here.

The Pool Is the Capital of My Summer: Odes to Place

Buffy Silverman is hosting Poetry Friday this week. Stop by Buffy’s Blog for poetry links from around the kidlitosphere.

Happy Poetry Friday and welcome back to Northfield Elementary School. Today, the third grade poets are working on odes.

I’ve been doing an elementary school workshop on odes for many years. Usually, my model poem is “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes,” by Gary Soto. When it’s time to write, I have the kids take off a shoe, put it on their desks, and really examine it.

You’ll find my article about that lesson on my *Padlet page. Look for “Article: Kids Write Odes to Their Shoes.”

This year, I wanted to try something different and get kids writing odes to a favorite place. The model poem for this workshop is “Harlem Is the Capital of My World,” from Tony Medina’s wonderful picture book/verse biography of Langston Hughes, LOVE TO LANGSTON. It is spoken in the voice of Langston Hughes.

Harlem Is the Capital of My World
by Tony Medina

Harlem is the capital of my world
black and beautiful and bruised
like me

Harlem has soul — it’s where black people
care about black people and everybody’s
child belongs to the community

Where we be stylin’ and profilin’
with concrete streets stretched out
under our feet and boulevards broad
and spread like a red carpet for royalty

The King of Swing
The Duke of Ellington
The Empress of the Blues

Harlem is a bouquet of black roses
all packed together and protected
by blackness and pride

Harlem is where I reside
where I work and stride
my dark community
from the East River to
St. Nicholas Avenue with
nightclubs and cabarets
spilling over with jazz
and bluesy urban spirituals
(it’s not miracle we survive!)

Why I fell in love with Harlem
before I ever got here!

Yeah, Harlem is where I be —
where I could be


Harlem is the capital of my world

From Love to Langston, by Tony Medina, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low Books, 2002). Shared with permission of the author.

The third graders and I talked about three important elements in an ode:
*Imagery of the five senses.
*Similes (these can be developed from the sensory images).
*Hyperbole (similes can be used to create hyperbole).

The students are familiar with imagery and similes, but hyperbole was a new concept. They picked it up quickly. In each class, someone noticed the phrase “like a red carpet for royalty” in Tony’s poem. It’s a simile — there’s not literally a red carpet running down the street in New York City. But it’s also a hyperbole, an exaggeration to make the point that Langston Hughes believed the people of Harlem were as important as kings and queens.

I loved the way that the Northfield poets incorporated some of Tony’s poetic structure into their own odes.

Poet: Desmond

The Pool Is the Capital of My Summer

The pool is the capital of my summer,
blue and wet like water.

The pool smells like weird chlorine in the water.
The kids playing like crazy fish.

The pool has toys and water slides,
tasty sandwiches after and bumpy water.

The pool is splashing.
The kids are playing.
The whistle is blowing.

The pool is where I want to be
all summer long.

Poet: Delaney

Broadkill Beach Is the Capital of My Summer

Broadkill Beach is the capital
of my summer.

In Broadkill all I
can smell is the amazing
salty ocean water.
The smell is as nice
as the smell of chocolate.

In Broadkill all I feel
is the nice warm towel I
am laying on and when
I go swimming I feel
the nice cool water engulfing me.

In Broadkill all I can
see is the amazing ocean
view. The view is as beautiful
as a shiny diamond.

In Broadkill all I can taste
is the sweet juicy taste of

In Broadkill all I can hear
is the soft ocean breeze
of the beach.

Broadkill Beach is the capital
of my summer.

Poet: Elisa

Water Country Is the Capital of My Vacation

Water Country is the capital of my vacation,
fun and amazing like the  mystical world.

Water Country is like a rainstorm in a tunnel.

The splish and splash of water
dripping down the edge of the waterslide
and hitting the ground.
The sun is as hot as the oven.

Water Country was a forest of waterslides
and a field of yummy ice cream stands.

Water Country has trees that smell like honey.
Water Country is a relaxing, sunny fun
and yummy WONDERLAND.

Poet: Suswara

The Forest Is the Capital of My Life

The forest is life.
Many animals, bushes, bark, and trees
belong to the forest.

It is their home, where their vines
make a beautiful sight.
The dirt beneath the animals’ feet
like smooth dog fur.

The vine of greenness.
The specks of rain.
The flower of happiness.

The forest is like a bunch of natural life
tucked in together.

The forest is where I love to be.
It is beside me and behind me.

The forest became my favorite place
when I first took a look at it.

The forest isn’t where I get to go every day.
I only go sometimes.

But still,
the forest is where I love to be.

Poet: Tessa

Dance Is the Soul to My Life!

Dance is the soul to my life,
elaborate, bright, and inviting
like me.

Dance has a soul.
It’s where people feel the music
and create. Everyone
has a beat.

Where we are movin’ and groovin’
we skip and jump to the beat
with lava on our feet.

The Teacher of Jazz.
The Ruler of Chackety.
The Queen of the Studio.

Dance is a painting of colorful pictures
all put together and united
to make a gallery.

Dance is where I express,
where I show my expressions
with a world of colors
so bright it sticks with you
all day and all night.

From here to there to everywhere–
ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and modern—
everywhere over the world.

When dance came to me
I finally felt alive.

Dance came to me,
it’s where I get to be

Dance is the soul of my life.

Thanks to the Northfield educators and families for allowing me to share the third graders’ wonderful poems.

Posts in the “Poems from the Northfield Third Grade” 2018 series:
Poetry Friday List Poem Lesson
A Garden of Words: 3rd Grade List Poems
The Pool Is the Capital of My Summer: Odes to Place
Third Grade Odes from Northfield E.S.
Fractured Fairy Tale Poems
Poetry Friday: Once Upon a Time
A Gallery of Poems

Poetry Friday: List Poem Lesson

This week’s Poetry Friday host is Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Margaret has a new book of poems coming out, BAYOU SONG. I can’t wait!

Welcome back to Northfield Elementary School, Poetry Friday friends.

This is my twelfth year as Northfield’s poet-in-residence, working with the third grade team. The annual poetry residency is sponsored by the school PTA’s cultural arts committee, and by an Artist-in-Residence grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. Thank you!

This has been a great teaching partnership for me. I learn new things from Northfield’s educators every year.

You will find “Words in My Pillow,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, in this anthology: FALLING DOWN THE PAGE: A Book of List Poems, Edited by Georgia Heard.

Our first workshop was the list poem, which I haven’t done in a few years. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Words in My Pillow” from the anthology Falling Down the Page was our model. You can read my initial plan for this lesson at Today’s Little Ditty.

A few years ago, I wrote my own “Words in My ___ Poem” to close out our National Poetry Month series on poems about clothes. It was titled “Words in My Closet.” You can read it at this post.

Because “Words in my Pillow” is about words and language, the third graders and I spent a lot of time talking about juicy words. A poem called “Words in My Dog” might include specific nouns (TREATS, WATER, TONGUE), descriptive adjectives and verbs (BARK, FLUFFY, FAST, LICK), but it might also have “states of being” — things we can’t really see (LOVE, COMFORT, KINDNESS).

Because this was our first lesson, I encouraged the students to stick as close to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem as they wanted to. We did this by writing a “cross-out” poem. Using a print-out of “Words in My Pillow,” the poets strike-through any words they want to replace with their own ideas. It looks like this:

Words in My Piano
By Shanthi S.

I hide words inside my piano.
Words that sound good–


No one can see them
but I find them waiting for me.
Like the strings hiding inside the keyboard.
No one can see it
but I know what’s in there —


RHYTHM is in there.
TUNING is in there.

The words are playing together
when I am saying or thinking them.

is in my piano.

My friends the words
go to play music before I do.
But they never
go away.


Words in the Gym
By Bettina

I hide words inside the gym.
Words that worry me a lot—


No one can see them until it comes out of nowhere
and crashes right in you like a ball
but I find them waiting for me as I get my hopes up.
Like the unsure hiding inside my body.
No one can see it, they’re too tall to feel it
but I know what’s in there—and all the other shorties.


CYCLES are in there.
HOPES are in there.

The words are bouncing together
When I am saying or thinking them.

is in the gym.

My friends the words
go to bed before I do.
But they never go away. And I’ll
just have to deal
with it.

Words in My Hideout
By Isabella

I hide words inside my hideout.
Words that feel cozy—


No one can see my cave
but I find it waiting for me
like a fox hiding in the forest.
No one can see it
but I know it’s there—


STUFFIES are in there.
ART SUPPLIES are in there.

The words are sneaking around
when I am saying or thinking them.

HAPPINESS is in my hideout.

My friends the words
go to play before I do.
But they never go away.

Words in My Pool
By Ashwin

I see words inside my pool.
Words that flow well—


Everyone can see them.
They are everywhere
like the person hiding behind the waterfall.
No one can see him
but I know who is in there.


BUGS are in there.
PLANTS are in there.

The words are bouncing together
When I am saying or thinking them.

is in my pool.

My friends the words
go to swim before I do.
But they never swim away.

Words in the River
Poet: Katherine

I hide words inside the water.
Words that flow good—


No one can see them
but I find them waiting for me.
Like the voice telling me to jump.
No one can see it
but I know what’s in there—


The words are splashing together
When I am saying or thinking them.

is in my river.

My friends the words
go to bed before I do.
But they never float away.


Words in My Video Games
By Ryan

There are words in my video games.
Here’s my words of VICTORY!–


But I have losing words too


Video games have names (obviously).
Mine are–

are my video games.

My friends like video  games
and so do I.
But they never
Get old!

Words in My Name
By Ella

I have words inside my name.
You might not know it—


No one can see them
but I find them waiting for me.
Like the girl inside my body.
No one can see it,
but I know what’s in there—


SECRETS are in there.
CRAZINESS is in there.

The words are bouncing together
When I am saying or thinking them.

is in my name.

My friends the letters
get written down on my paper.
But they never go away.

All poems shared with permission.

When I first ran this workshop in 2015, I blogged about what went well. Here’s what I wrote at that time, plus a few adjustments I made to the lesson.

  • This was a good choice for the first lesson of a residency. The children liked being able to focus on the basic element of a poem: words. Of course, we always focus on words in poetry. But Naomi Shihab Nye’s model poem is about the words we carry around in our heads. Starting with something so basic and important on Day 1 provided a strong foundation for future writing.
  • This is the first time I’ve encouraged students to plug into a model poem. Some of the third graders took the model poem “Words in My Pillow,” crossed out the lines and words they wanted to change, and wrote their own words into those spaces. They responded well to having this structure for our first day of writing together. (Update: This turned out to be a great strategy! This year, some students used the cross-out poem for their odes too.)
  • “Words in My Pillow” can adapt to any topic. Because what we’re really talking about is language — words — the poem could be called “Words in My Dinosaur,” “Words in My Garbage Can,” or “Words in My Suitcase.” We have the structure of the poem, but also the freedom to come up with a topic the poet cares about.

UPDATE: When we think about “juicy words,” many third graders focus on nouns — the literal things they might find in a garden, their desk at school, the refrigerator. I added a brainstorming activity to this lesson. Together, the class creates a “Words in My School” or “Words in My Teacher” poem. We break into small groups. Each group is assigned to brainstorm words for our poem.

One group comes up with 3 or more objects/nouns that would be in a school (desk, white board, cafeteria, playground). The next group thinks of adjectives to describe the school: fun, busy, loud. Another group has action words/verbs: learn, study, play. “Feeling words” was another group’s job — states of being like nervous, happy, bored. Last and most challenging — “idea words” — these are larger concepts such as community, friendship, perseverance.

Although this pre-writing activity added 10-15 minutes to the lesson, it helped the third graders stretch when they thought about which juicy words to add to the poem.

Posts in the “Poems from the Northfield Third Grade” 2018 series:
Poetry Friday List Poem Lesson
A Garden of Words: 3rd Grade List Poems
The Pool Is the Capital of My Summer: Odes to Place
Third Grade Odes from Northfield E.S.
Fractured Fairy Tale Poems
Poetry Friday: Once Upon a Time
A Gallery of Poems

Happy Birthday, Lee Bennett Hopkins!

Shh! Welcome, but come in quietly. It’s a Poetry Friday surprise birthday party.

As a debut verse novelist, I was thrilled to meet Lee at a 2016 library conference.

The guest of honor? Lee Bennett Hopkins! (Whoops — no exclamation points. We’re trying to keep this party a secret.)

Lee is not only a wonderful children’s poet and Guinness World Record holding anthologist (really — the citation is here), he has also been a mentor to many, many poets — including me.

I love sports poetry. That’s why, even though my new middle grade novel is not written in verse, I kept Lee’s anthology OPENING DAYS close to my desk while I was writing TAKEDOWN.

The rhythm, quick pace, and word-bursts of poetry are a great way to communicate the action and emotion of sports.

To help celebrate Lee’s birthday, I’m sharing his poem from OPENING DAYS, “Final Score.” Note: the book is illustrated by Scott Medlock.

This poem was one I returned to over and over as I wrote the story of two sixth grade wrestlers, a boy and a girl, who are struggling to figure out who they are on the mat, and — more importantly — off the mat.

What I find so compelling about this poem is that it’s not about the competition. It’s about the moment after. It’s a pause in the motion.

I tried — in some scenes from TAKEDOWN — to capture that same sense of quiet, of emptiness and release after the last buzzer sounds. This is what Lee masterfully portrays in “Final Score.”

By Lee Bennett Hopkins
From OPENING DAYS, Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins

a final score
have ended


no more.

No more
tossing a ball–

No more
rising up from a fall.

have been played.

They’re over.
That’s all.


Where is the surprise party happening? At Life on the Deckle Edge. Robyn Hood Black is this week’s special Poetry Friday/National Novel Writing Month/Lee Bennett Hopkins celebration host!

Happy birthday and lots of love, Lee!



Laura’s Bookshelf: The Frame-up

This week’s Poetry Friday host is Jone at Check It Out. She’s got big news about the Cybil Award for Poetry!

Happy Poetry Friday! Thanks for visiting the Poe House with me last week. I pulled a random name from the comments and Jama Rattigan is the winner of the Poe Keepsake Journal. Congratulations, Jama!

Before I get to this week’s post, I want to thank Arnold Adoff and the Virginia Hamilton Conference. Last week, I learned that my debut novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was named the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book. “Surprised” is an understatement! It is a huge honor and I’m so grateful for the recognition. Please do visit the full list of award-winners. There are some phenomenal books among the 2018 awardees.

It’s been over a year since I started keeping a personal bullet journal. (If you’re not familiar with bullet journals, start with this post.)

Inspired by my educator friends, one of the new things I’m trying with my 2018 journal is tracking my reading. I’ve kept track via Goodreads before, but charting books is allowing me to take a close look at my genre preferences and how many children’s novels I read, versus YA or adult.

So far, it looks like this:

I am very excited about my most recent read.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Frame-up is about  boy who — spending the summer with his art-gallery-director father — discovers a great secret. Paintings are alive!

Let’s say you are a portrait. You keep all of the memories of your living person (the subject of the portrait) until the moment the painting is finished.

From that point on, you become your own entity, keeping quiet and still during the day, so museum goers won’t guess the truth. At night, you visit friends and neighbors in other paintings. And by visit, I mean going into a painting of a pub to drink and dance with your buddies or, if you’re a child, hopping into a seascape with a soothing pier for you to walk around. If that seascape is so soothing that you fall asleep in the painting — the wrong painting — no worries … as long as you’re back in your own picture by the time the museum opens.

But let’s say the gallery director’s son, Sargent Singer, happens to come along to the gallery one night and notice that your portrait frame is empty. And then what if he spots you, fast asleep on a pier, in the wrong painting?

This middle grade contemporary fantasy will be available in June. Pre-order now from Indiebound.

This is how The Frame-up opens. The painting that Sargent catches is that of a girl about his age, Mona Dunn. (You can view William Orpen’s Mona Dunn here.) The two of them spark a secret friendship, chock-full of adventures and mishaps.

How serendipitous that I’d have a chance to read the ARC right now, when our February Poetry Project is in the midst of writing in response to art! I know that members of this group are going to love how vividly MacKnight imagines the personalities of several paintings — all found at the real-life Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada.

It’s also a super fun book. The climax (involving nefarious goings-on at the gallery) is exciting, both in our world, and in the world of the paintings. And the resolution? It totally tugged at my art-strings. (Get it?)

I went back to the first February Poetry Project, looking for a poem to pair with Wendy’s book. The theme that year was vintage post cards.

Many of those poems were portraits of the people pictured on the cards, but only one imagined that the people in the image are awake, thinking beings.

Luckily, this poem is a good fit for Valentine’s Week.

Cartoon Boy Meets Cartoon Girl
By Laura Shovan

You have no lips to kiss or speak.
I have no ears to listen.
Let me lean on this picket fence,
watch you hover
over a loop of jump rope,
your braids drawn up
by bat-winged ribbons.
You cannot see my baseball cap
or read my cautious expression.
Your lashes fell a moment before
the cartoonist imagined us.
But I will wait. The next panel,
with your fluttering lids, must come.
The artist — would he leave us
forever like this?

Sadly, these two are frozen in their art, unable to move or communicate. They’d much prefer being in the wonderful world of The Frame-up. Find the original post with this postcard and poem at Author Amok.

A Visit to Poe House

Sally Murphy is hosting the Poetry Friday round up today. Head down under to find all of this week’s links!

Poets, do you have a bucket list? A list of things you want to do before you — for example — turn 49?

My family and I have lived in the Baltimore suburbs for over 18 years. And for 18 years, we’ve talked about going to visit the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

I fell in love with Poe’s poetry and stories when I was in middle school. Not only was he the father of horror writing, Sherlock Holmes would not exist without Poe’s detective stories. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed mercilessly from Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”) Then my children read him in middle school and my youngest became a Poe fan too. It’s kind of hard not to love this Dark Romantic author, whose poem “The Raven” was adopted by Baltimore’s pro football team. (We are the only NFL team whose name has literary roots.)

Finally, FINALLY!, we did it.

Last Saturday, my husband, 18-year-old, and I headed out to find the tiny little row-house on Amity Street where Poe lived with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter, his cousin (later, wife) Virginia for three years.

We paid our $5 each in a front room, then headed into what would have been the kitchen. Dark. Small! No natural light. (There would have been a door, the friendly guide said, but it led to the alley and the outhouse.) There would have been a little cook-stove, not a full fireplace big enough for a cooking pot. This — we learned — was an area of the city where itinerant families lived. The Clemm family didn’t have a lot of furniture or clothing. They were poor.

Sitting room on second floor (with those steep stairs!)

You cannot believe how narrow the stairs are. I imagined how claustrophobic this house must have been, with three and sometimes more people living here. Did the compressed space influence Poe’s writing?

The second floor is a sitting room with a fireplace. A highlight for me was this wooden box, a travel writing desk that belonged to Poe.

Poet’s travel writing desk. The museum keeps a list of works Poe is believed to have composed in this house.








Peeking into the bedroom from the top of the stairs. I can’t imagine climbing up here every day.

Another impossibly tight flight of stairs went up to the bedroom. They couldn’t have all slept here! Visiting the house gave me a new appreciation for how difficult Poe’s life must have been.


I couldn’t leave without buying you a souvenir. Check out this Edgar Allan Poe Keepsake Journal. I’m giving it away to one lucky reader. Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered in a random drawing.

I brought back a souvenir.









Instead of posting my favorite Poe poem (“Alone”) today, I’ve got another surprise. Have you heard Sarah Jarosz musical rendition of “Annabelle Lee”?  When I hear this poem sung, I can’t help but think of young Virginia, who died of tuberculosis at age 24.


Poetry Friday: Come Like Shadows

Carol Varsalona is hosting Poetry Friday this week. Visit Beyond Literacy Link for the PF round-up and for Carol’s Winter Wonderland gallery.

Happy Poetry Friday! January is hobbling to its frigid, icy end. It’s been a cold month in Maryland, as the blue hues of my temperature scarf will attest.

The annual February Poetry Project members are warming up for our month of daily writing. This year’s project theme is “Ekphrastic at Home.” Each day, a member of the group will share a piece of art that they own or keep on display at home.

Today’s warm-up prompt is one of three paintings I own by my grandmother, Joy Dickson. A New Yorker, child of a German Jewish engineer and his Romanian wife, Joy was destined to be a concert violinist. While studying at Julliard, she met my grandfather, a percussionist who had moved to the U.S. from France as a young child. His name was Charles Dickson. They married, struggled to start a business together, had three children (my father was the eldest). I don’t know whether she completed her degree at Julliard, but Joy never picked up a violin again.

Still, my grandmother had a creative spirit. At some point, she took classes at Parsons School of Design. I remember her always in the midst of a project. There was the large loom taking up space in her living room, a fabric made of wool and tree bark half-woven on its strings. There was a trio of monarch butterflies from her print-making class, a found-wood sculpture she signed with the pseudonym “Jandelay” so she could ask for — and get — the honest opinions of family members on her work. There was the Thanksgiving we found out she’d gone to clown college. (She was a hobo clown.)

Oil on canvas, by Joy Dickson

Although she died nearly 15 years ago, I feel like my children have grown up around Joy because her art has always been a presence in our home. The piece I shared today, a portrait of her mother Rachel (known as Rose), was probably painted when Joy was in her teens or 20s.

It was an honor to Joy’s memory to read the poems everyone wrote in response to her painting today. Some people wrote about the deep connection between mother and daughter, as if they knew the story behind this portrait.

My own poem is a memory of the last words I heard my grandmother say. It was the summer of 2003, and she was doing hospice at my parents’ home in mountains.

Come Like Shadows

By Laura Shovan

We circled her like three witches,
stripped her clothes, the old
button-down shirt she favored
since my grandfather passed.
No one had heard her voice in days.
Her hair, once auburn, thick,
wrapped in a scarf to keep
the tumor out of sight. The shower
bubbled and when we three women
pushed her under its stream,
Joy said, “Wait a minute.”
She’d told me weeks before
she was ready for this, but
as the world rolled into shadow,
she clung to its fabric. My aunt
washed her hair and I held her,
and my mother held her. No eloquence
in her words – my grandmother’s last —
but what other demand
could she make as she leaned
out of the spray to plant
a kiss on my bare shoulder?


On Monday, I’m participating in a guest-post at Nerdy Book Club about distance reading groups. If you geek out about middle grade books, give it a read!

Currently reading: No One Waits for the Train, by Waqas Khwaja

Poetry Friday: Gingko

Happy Poetry Friday! Jan Godown Annino is putting on a poetry spread for us this week at Bookseedstudio.

This is a year of big transitions for my family. Our youngest turns 18 this week and is preparing to make the leap from high school to college. Shortly after that, Mr. S turns 50 and our eldest celebrates his 21st birthday.

(All of our birthdays, including Sam the dog’s, fall within five weeks. Mine is the last and — hard to believe — we are usually caked out by then.)

I am relying on long-term projects to sustain me in 2018. There are writing projects, of course. A new book is in the works, but my first goal is to finish the 2017 February Poetry Project prompts before February 2018’s new daily prompts begin.

27 down and 1 to go! More on that in a second.

I’m using nine colors in a variety of weights, but mostly sock yarn.

My second project combines knitting and science. A friend shared this pattern with me and I am in love. You pick yarn colors (9, 10, 15 — knitter’s choice) and create a chart of temperature ranges with corresponding colors. Over the course of the year, you chart the temperature (I’m doing daily highs), and knit a row or two in the corresponding color.

Instead of stockinette stitch — and after frogging a few false starts — I’m doing a K1, P1 rib.

I am having so much fun with this project! Here is the pattern at the Ravelry crochet and knitting site. It’s beginner friendly.

Back to poetry. When our children were small, we planted a tree for each of them not far from the kitchen window. Our eldest chose a gingko. Despite the cold weather, as evidenced by my knitting project, the tree is covered with little knobs. These will become buds in a few months.

As I work on the last few poems (late — so late!) from last year’s daily poetry project, it’s the ginkgo I see from my work space. And that’s how the tree found its way into this poem.

2/27/17 #10FoundWords prompt from Mary Lee Hahn
Source: “Could a Bumblebee Learn to Play Fetch? Probably”

10 Words: abilities, brain, decisions, fetch, flexibility, learn, memory, problem, puzzle, strategy

By Laura Shovan

The gingko tree’s ability is rest–
long months of buds capped
tight under winter scalps.
Green brains sleep there,
ready to make decisions
to become fan-shaped leaves
fetching sunlight and rain.
The tree sleeps on its problems–
draught, neglect—forms
strategies for next season.
To do: learn to be flexible
in the wind.
I like to think
memories are stored
in the gingko’s puzzling mazes
of would-be leaves, because
then it could be true for all of us.
In the place where old growth
breaks away, something new
is considering spring.


Currently reading: No One Waits for the Train, by Waqas Khwaja

Announcing the 6th Annual February Poetry Project

We’re kicking off a new year of poetry at Reading to the Core. Stop by Catherine’s blog for all of this week’s poetry links.

Happy 2018, poets and poetry lovers. Before you know it, February will be here.

That’s right. It’s almost time for our annual daily writing workout.

A little history: For four years, my blog hosted a community poetry project.

Last year, the project moved to a closed Facebook group to accommodate our growing community of about 60 poets.

  • The 2017 project theme, 10 Words Found in the News, helped us create beauty, humor, and satire in response to current events. This prompt worked so well that, when February was over, we continued to write 10 Words in the News poems throughout the year.

This year, we’re heading back to the project’s visual-prompt roots.

Find a full definition at the Poetry Foundation.

2018 Theme: Ekphrastic At-home

The theme of this year’s project is ekphrastic poetry (writing in response to works of art), but with a twist. Poet Ann Haman suggested that we write in response to art pieces owned by members of the group.

Beginning January 31, a group member will post a photograph of a work of art (loosely interpreted) from their home collection. Art pieces might include paintings, sculptures, kids’ creations, photographs, or beautiful oddities. There will be a sign-up in the group’s files for those who’d like to be in charge of a daily writing prompt.

Special thanks to Kip Rechea, a past participant who will be acting as a group moderator and providing some administrative help.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR PROJECT NEWBIES: As always, the point of this exercise is to practice the habit of writing regularly, even if it’s just for one month. Members of the project post response poems the same day so that we can focus on generating ideas and giving positive feedback, rather than polishing for publication.

Interested in joining us? You can request to join the closed 6th Annual February Daily Poem Project here.

Laura’s Bookshelf: Finding Perfect

Hungry for more poetry? Diane Mayr at Random Noodling is the Poetry Friday host this week. Visit her blog for links to more poetry posts.

Happy Poetry Friday!

I recently added a line to my email signature. Along with my title (poet in the schools) and the titles of my children’s novels (The Last Fifth Grade, Takedown), you will now see “Currently reading: —” listed under my name.

Publicly sharing what I’m reading is a practice I learned from educator friends, a way of showing the children we teach that adults — like kids — read for school and for pleasure.

This week I finished a book I’ve been meaning to read for months, Elly Swartz’s  middle grade novel, FINDING PERFECT. It’s the story of middle schooler and slam poet Molly, who is experiencing a lot of turbulence in her life. Her parents are back together after a brief separation, but her mother has taken a year-long job in Canada. Molly, her father, and her siblings are struggling with this transition. Each handles missing Mom in a different way.

On the surface, Molly is the perfect kid: a good friend, great student, and talented poet. But her perfectionism is a coping mechanism, hiding her anxiety. As the stress caused by her mother’s absence deepens, Molly’s obsessive compulsive tics begin to impact her friendships, family, and sense of self.

FINDING PERFECT is a favorite of upper elementary and middle school educators and their students. The first person voice allows readers to get to know Molly when she’s feeling mainly like herself. We travel through the story with her, experiencing the way OCD and anxiety gradually weigh her down. This is a great book to prompt a conversation about empathy.

Here is the Goodreads blurb for FINDING PERFECT :

To Molly Nathans, perfect is:

• The number four
• The tip of a newly sharpened number two pencil
• A crisp, white pad of paper
• Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines

What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are often broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Slam Poetry Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with table cloths. Molly’s sure her mother would never miss that. Right…?

But as time goes on, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control. 

FINDING PERFECT is a great read for upper elementary through early high school.

Who will like it?

  • Kids who are interested in psychology and how people’s emotions work.
  • Kids who are experiencing a difficult separation.
  • Readers who enjoy friendship and family stories.

What will readers learn about?

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder. Swartz conducted extensive research for this novel. Resources are listed in the back.
  • The importance of reaching out to peers and adults during times of stress and anxiety. Some changes are too big to handle by yourself!
  • Empathy. Molly is a relatable character who explains why some people have nervous tics and compulsions.

The poem I’m pairing with FINDING PERFECT is “Perfection” by Naomi Katz. Lines two through four describe how Molly feels as she measures, with a ruler, the space between the glass animals collected on her shelf. As a whole, the poem reminds me of how Molly pressures herself to create the perfect slam poem for a school competition.

Naomi Katz

Always that passion in the human breast,
That restless passion for The Perfect Thing,
With its sifting, sorting, rule and measure-string,
And a terrible eye for the error manifest.
Yet, well for the sometime jewel emerged from the quest!
And well for the seldom ore with the mellow ring!
And well for the hunter whose diligent hands can bring
One easeful object to the great Unrest.

Slow is the process, infinitely slow
Up the tedious road with Perfection for its goal;

Read the rest at the Poetry Foundation.

Swartz has another middle grade novel coming out in January. You can read more about SMART COOKIE here.

(Elly and I have something important in common: Both of us are Beagle moms! And both of us worked our beloved Beagles into our second books.)

I hope you’re snuggling up with a book and some holiday cookies this weekend.


Currently reading: EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid