April is National Poetry Month and the perfect time to engage your children in reading, writing, and exploring poetry. To help inspire and inform your efforts, I’m happy to feature an interview with poet and educator Laura Shovan!
In addition to being a multi-published poet with a new middle grade novel-in-verse coming out April 12th, Laura is a former classroom teacher, a Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence, and a facilitator of writing workshops and library programs for children. She knows what she’s talking about when it comes to connecting kids with poetry!
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did! My questions are in green, Laura’s responses in purple.
1.Welcome to the blog, Laura, and thank you so much for agreeing to contribute to #RaisingReaders Monday. Would you mind telling us a little about your upcoming novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary?
The Last Fifth Grade is about a group of students who decide to save their school from demolition. Through a class poetry project, they describe their excitement about being the oldest kids at Emerson ES, their concerns about moving on to middle school, the changes they are coping with at home, and what makes their school special enough to fight for.
2. Many of my blog readers are looking for ways to motivate reluctant readers. Why are novels in verse good choices for kids who don’t naturally gravitate to books or consider themselves strong readers?
There’s so much to say about this topic! Novels in verse are a good match for reluctant readers in a number of ways. Let’s focus on one aspect (otherwise, I’ll go on for pages). The white space on the page — a function of poetic line breaks — is not only motivating, but supports reluctant readers.
For children who struggle with the visual overload of a busy page of text, the white space of a poem is inviting.
First, for children who struggle with the visual overload of a busy page of text, the white space of a poem is inviting.Having one phrase or idea on each line is a way of chunking information.
Second, the poetic line and white space can show the reader how to read the poem. They add pacing, rhythm, and cadence. In this way, the reader has guide for the way the character speaking the poem (in a novel in verse) might sound.
Third, white space acts as a visual pause. It gives the reader a moment to take in what the poem is saying, absorb it, and even form a mental image. In prose, we’re often racing ahead to read the next set of words, carried along by the narrative. In poetry, the white space focuses our attention on certain key words and ideas.
3. What can we say to children who think “poetry isn’t for me?”
I rarely hear this from elementary school students. Most children love the playfulness and rich imagery of poetry.
The tools of poetry are ones we use in natural speech. My favorite example is simile. I love to talk with kids about looking at clouds in the sky and saying to a friend, “That cloud looks like a rabbit.” Instead of teaching them what a simile is, I show them that there is a word for a technique they already use.
Hyperbole is another great example of a literary technique that has its root in how we talk and communicate. Everyone has heard a parent or teacher say, “I’ve told you 100 times…” Kids love to play with these language skills in their own writing and to point them out in the poems we are reading together.
4. Can you suggest a few other novels in verse that might just get kids to fall in love with poetry?
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is one of my favorites. It’s a perfect first novel in verse for middle grade readers. I also like Helen Frost’s verse novels.
Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover is a great example of how a novel in verse uses white space and the look of a poem on the page to help readers really get to know a character.
Fans of historical fiction will enjoy verse novels by Jeannine Atkins, Carole Boston Weatherford, Margarita Engle, and Caroline Starr Rose.
For readers who are transitioning from MG to YA, I recommend books by Holly Thompson, Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade series, and Kelly Bingham’s Shark Girl books.
There are many choices for young adult readers. For those who like edgier books, I recommend Ellen Hopkins, Carol Lynch Williams, Sonya Sones, and Ron Koertge’s The Brimstone Journals.
5. Are there any poetry collections or anthologies that you think are particularly good for introducing young children to poetry or getting them excited about it?
Calef Brown’s books are playful and kooky, both poetically and visually. I think they make a great introduction to poetry. Start with Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks or Flamingoes on the Roof. My favorite when I was growing up was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, still in print today.
If a child has a particular area of interest, look for a book of poems on that topic. For instance, fans of the Percy Jackson books, who will eat up anything related to Greek Mythology, will love Marilyn Singer’s new book of poems, Echo Echo.
6. My family, with kids in 1st to 5th grade, likes to read books together – books we can all enjoy. Sometimes I read to everyone, sometimes we take turns reading aloud. Do you have any suggestions?
My children are 19 and 16. I miss the days of reading aloud together! If we’re talking about building poetic skills, one great thing to do with your family is to create parodies of songs you love. When I was little, my family took a long road trip. My brothers and I entertained ourselves by making up a song about our cat to the tune of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” I think it’s a great way to work on rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay.
(BTW, I couldn’t agree more. Song parodies are pretty much a competitive sport in my house. Taylor Swift would be APPALLED with what we do to her hits.)
Poems like those in Calef Brown’s book are easy to memorize and fun to perform if your children are willing. I also like Poetry Speaks to Children and use it in the classroom. It comes with a CD — it’s always fun to hear the poets performing their poems and compare that to how we might read them. There are two more anthologies in that series, both excellent: Hip Hop Speaks to Children and Poetry Speaks Who I Am. (I consider this to be the best anthology specifically for middle schoolers).
Last, I’d have some wordplay and tongue twister books on hand. Our family’s favorites were Charlotte Pomerantz’s Piggy in the Puddle and Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss.
7. Can you recommend any favorite activities, websites, or books for kids who want to learn more about writing poetry of their own?
I like the Teen Ink website for older kids. It’s an online community where they can share their creative writing and read and comment on peers’ work.
Every week, there are dozens of kid lit bloggers who participate in Poetry Friday. That’s a great way to find current book reviews, poetry prompts, and classroom lessons, and stay aware of what’s going on in children’s poetry. You can find more information on the blog KidLitosphere Central, which lists the weekly Poetry Friday host.
For those who’d like to try writing prompts, The Last Fifth Grade has a list of them at the back of the book, including mentor poems from the novel.
Plus, follow Laura on Twitter and look out for the creative writing contest and giveaway #MyFifthGradeAsHaiku, coming later this month! (Yes, it is just what it sounds like.) Check out her previous books and all her adventures at Laurashovan.com.
Laura Shovan’s April 12th middle grade release, The Last Fifth Grade at Emerson Elementary, has been touted as:
“A delightful book, with an endearing cast of characters who can help teach the craft of poetry while sharing their own diverse personal stories.” – MARGARITA ENGLE, Newbery Honor winning author of The Surrender Tree
Readers can request a signed copy when purchasing from Laura’s local indie bookstore, The Ivy Bookshop. Just leave a note in the comments when placing an order.