10 Poets to Read with Your Kids (Besides Shel Silverstein)

When my oldest daughter was in 2nd grade, she had a teacher who did something I had not heard of before. Rather than playing background music while the students were working, this teacher would play Shel Silverstein audiobooks. At first, I was skeptical about this strategy. I thought it would be distracting. How could they concentrate on their work while also listening to poetry?

My skepticism (about this at least) was laid to rest by half way through the year when my daughter would start quoting Shel Silverstein poems for any life circumstance that arose. Most often this involved quoting “For Sale” at the slightest sibling annoyance!

20180425_145802

Notice the dog earred page!

This teacher inspired me. I had visions of listening to poetry in the car, in the house while the kids were playing together, during bedtime, and all other times in between. All with the dual results of the children absorbing poetry while creating a peaceful, quiet, contemplative environment. But, like most of my inspirational ideas, none of this happened.

As it stands now, my children have absorbed exactly zero poems. Well, I take that back, they know Philip Schuyler’s rap in “Take a Break” from the Hamilton soundtrack thoroughly and will quote it at any opportunity. I am of the opinion that every song on that soundtrack is poetry at its finest.

Additionally, I think an argument could be made that most picture books are actually poetry, what with all the rhythm and rhyme. If you took the text of picture books and wrote them on a single page, they would be called poems. So, now that I think of it, the kids are fine, they know more poems than I could have hoped for.

Hamilton and picture books aside, I have failed on the poetry front. This is ironic for me as poetry saved my sanity as a teenager. The reading and writing of poetry gave me an outlet for things I could not otherwise express. My love for both reading and writing was sparked and fueled by the genre. One would think that would be a motivating factor in passing on that love to my children. And yet…

Now, during the waning days of National Poetry Month, I have a renewed sense of the importance of exposing my children to poems. Here are a few of the books and poets that we have enjoyed.

  1. Kwame Alexander – For the elementary school aged kids, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets is one of my favorite, recent, collected works of poetry. It has the benefit of not only exposing the kids to poetry, but also famous poets. Alexander is most well-known for his young adult novels, The Crossover, Booked, and Solo, which are expertly written in verse. He was awarded the Newberry Medal for The Crossover.
  2. Marilyn Singer – Singer has mastered the art of the mirror poem. She is a clever and entertaining writer. Beyond mirror poems, A Stick Is an Excellent Thing is a great book of poems to read with kids.
  3. Bob Raczka – Anyone who can title a book “Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems” automatically deserves to be on a list of poets to know. It is exactly that subtle play with words that make poetry fantastic, and he has done it IN HIS TITLE!
  4. Jacqueline Woodson – In the genre of novel-in-verse, Woodson is a gift. Brown Girl Dreaming is a remarkable book that every child fifth grade and above should read at least once. She has been awarded almost every award there is, including a National Book Award.
  5. Bravo! Poems for Amazing Hispanics (Margarita Engle) – My kids and I thoroughly enjoyed these poems. When we moved to the Los Angeles area, I knew that I needed to find a way to give my kids more exposure to Spanish-speaking important figures, many of whom had a significant impact on the area we live in. This book has been an excellent introduction.
  6. Nikki Grimes – While Grimes has a great deal of poetry to her name, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissancee is my personal favorite. In this book, she takes her own poems and matches them up with famous poems of the Harlem Renaissance.
  7. Thanhha LaiInside Out and Back Again is another stand alone novel written in verse. It is a Newberry Medal Honor and National Book Award winning book that uses the power of poetic verse to convey a rarely heard story.
  8. Nikki Giovanni – While Giovanni is most well-known for her poetry aimed at adults, she does have several works that are for children. She is one of the great poets of our time and having our children exposed to her poetry is important.
  9. Patrick Lewis – Lewis has books of poetry about all manner of things ranging from cars to animals to math, math based on Edgar Allen Poe poems no less! He is clearly very good at what he does and children respond accordingly.
  10. Poetry for Young People and Poetry for Kids series – These two series are aimed at introduce “the classic” poets to young readers. The Poetry for Kids series is geared toward an elementary school age audience, while the Poetry for Young People series is more for the middle school age student. These are good introductory collections for helping students get to know the essential works of important poets.
  11. BONUS ROUNDI’m Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups (Chris Harris) is a must have! This book is an absolute delight. My favorite poem in the book is “Alphabet Book (By the Laziest Artist in the World).” You will want this book in your house. It will be read again and again.

Here’s to hoping that my children will begin quoting more “reading” by Jacqueline Woodson along with their Silverstein “The Crocodile’s Toothache.”

Advertisements

Library Cards: What’s In Your Wallet?

Some days I feel as though my brain is turning into actual mush.

I blame the years of not sleeping through the night. I blame the years of managing the family laundry/meals/schedule trifecta. I blame the years of trying to remember four different children’s names, bedtime songs, and special, un-washable, irreplaceable items.

I in no way blame the scientifically proven link between brains-turning-to-mush and years of a diet consisting solely of sugar and carbonation. I absolutely do not blame the scientifically proven link between brains-turning-to-mush and years of a perfecting a sedentary lifestyle.

Whatever the cause, it is happening. Here’s the proof. This is a series of texts between myself and my daughter’s softball coach “J.” You will notice her asking me several innocuous questions which I answer one of two ways, either with absurd inaccuracy (as in the case of claiming that my 6 year-old daughter was born in 2013) or complete misunderstanding (as when she tells me my daughter will have to move up to the next level and I say a version of “I understand, but will she have to move up?”).

 

20180410_133752

It is a humiliating tragedy of errors.

Sugar, sedentary lifestyles, and general laziness aside, what I actually blame is the whipping boy of the moment, social media. All the click bait-y titles, the numbered points typed in bold that scream “ignore the rest of this article, only read me,” the stylized block quotes in middle of the text that give you any additional information you could have possibly gleaned, and the pictures or gifs, oh my, it all works towards reducing my ability to thoroughly read through something, even a text.

While there is nothing wrong with these forms of reading and writing, in small doses, in large doses, it has begun to shift my habits. Habits that were originally honed in the library. There I learned to be thorough, precise, and exploratory.

I need those habits back. And so, during this National Library Week, I would argue that what we need more than our cellphones is our library cards.

Your library card offers you a portal into a magical world where the walls are, literally, lined with books, where there is, literal, peace and quiet, and where you can walk out the doors with your arms loaded with books…for free!

But that’s not all!

  1. Story time – Children story times have become an essential part of most libraries. Often there are Parent and Baby classes offered for babies as young as six months old. Different classes then continue all the way through preschool. During my parenting-of-young-children phase, these classes were my life line. I looked forward to them as much as the kids did. There were years in there where library story time was the only social outing we could manage in a week. And, in additional to all that, the classes are very effective in helping establish a love of books in your children.
  2. Classes – Libraries do not just leave you stranded once you start school. Throughout the week, libraries offer a variety of classes to school age children, teens, and adults. You can learn everything from knitting to coding to basket weaving and almost anything in between. Your libraries newsletter or weekly email update are an important resource for finding out what is available to you and your children.
  3. Book Sales -While this benefit is not free, it is much, much cheaper than anything else you can find. You’ll be spending so little money for so many books that it can *almost* feel like you are getting them for free (although my husband would strongly disagree). Library book sales have become so popular that many libraries are adding Friends of the Library book stores right into the library buildings. It is an exercise in self-discipline to not spend all the money there.
  4. Computer/Internet Access – Libraries offering free internet and computer access is one of the most important ways that libraries are able to significantly help the members of their community. With so much job, housing, and information searching done online, having a free place to access those resources is a start in leveling the playing field.
  5. Events – From Family Science Nights to local author meet and greets to music concerts, there is always something going on at the library that you can enjoy…for free! We have seen all manner of reptile shows, magicians, science nights, Lego building contests, art nights, and on and on. I have noticed that, more and more, libraries are also starting to have book clubs. Some are online book clubs but others are “in house.” While I have yet to participate in one, I find this option to be perfectly fitting. What could be more appropriate than meeting with a book club…in a library.
  6. Bonus Round: Inter Library Loan – Inter Library Loan is the magical technology that gives you access, not only to the books available in the library building you are in, but also libraries across your county. If you are willing to wait, your free reading options are almost limitless with this option. There is a science to getting books on hold through this system. (Oh, that would make an excellent library class!) I cannot recommend using this resource enough.

It should be pointed out that many libraries will allow you to get a library card from them even if you do not live in that town or even county! Sometimes there are restrictions, such as being unable to access the online catalog of e-books, but that is a small thing to sacrifice for the possibility of an extra library card. There is always space in your wallet for an extra library card or 5!

I have found no evidence of this study yet, but I am confident if someone were to study it, they would find a direct, scientifically proven link between the number of library cards you own and your brain-turning-to-super-power level.

So don’t worry about all the sugar, sedentary-ness, and social media, just get another library card!

 

 

 

My Journey with American Racism and the Books that are Teaching Me

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. As I have read articles, listened to speeches, and reflected on how far we still have to go, I have been challenged, on a personal level, by how far I still have to go with my own understanding of American racism.

Like America itself, I want to think of myself as post-racial. And yet, I speak up when I should be silent. I sit in silence when I should speak up. I speak out of pride rather than humility. I misplace my role, identity, and responsibility.

Recently, I had a chance to speak out loud words on behalf of Stephon Clark, the young black man shot by police in Sacramento. To my shame, I chose to be silent. And this after defending myself for posting about it on social media by saying that I speak up about these issues in my everyday life, not just online. Except, this time, I didn’t. I could list off endless reasons for why I didn’t. But the end of all of that, the simple fact is, I just chose not to speak up.

That choice has left me with an overwhelming sense that I have not come quite as far as I hoped I had in my journey with American racism. After all this time, I still pick and choose when to engage. I am still willing to let things I hear slide. I still miscommunicate. And I still sit back when it is inconvenient for me to stand up.

Couple this with an article I read called “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda,” in which I was challenged by #4 and #7,  and I am left this week humbled, convicted, and unsure of my process.

When this happens, I find it helpful to look back and remember how this process started. Growing up in Nigeria, I had identity issues the likes of which would make Rachel Dolezal squirm. Additionally, I also had to wrestle deeply with colonialism issues. But those are stories for another day. This is about my journey with American racism, so I will start when I moved here at 18.

I moved to downtown Chicago with no clue about winter, wind, and being white in America. More importantly, I had no clue what it was like to not be white in America.

Almost immediately, I realized that racism was alive and well in the United States, and in the north no less. And here I had innocently believed this to be a southern thing of the past. Not so! I could not even count the ways I saw, every day, my black peers being treated differently. It was shocking, frustrating, largely ignored, and NEVER publicly discussed. It did not make any sense to me.

It was a very confusing time of disillusionment and anger for me. I quickly learned that I did not have a place to express my frustrations. My white friends got angry, defensive, and would not talk about it, my black American friends were hurt by my ignorance and reminded me that I was part of the problem, and my international friends were just trying to figure it all out too.

Thankfully, I met very patient, very gracious black American friends who were willing to talk to me openly about what life was like for them. They helped me start to see and slowly understand the recent history that kept racial tensions so high.

Then in 1999, Amadou Diallo, a young, unarmed, black man was shot 41 times by police in New York City. His story changed the story for me. This racism problem that I had seen on a personal level, now became glaringly real on a systemic one. I was once again shocked by the callousness and anger shown towards black men.

But I still could not see my own role in the system. I’m not from here, I kept telling myself. I was raised in a black African country, this issue has nothing to do with me. I am nothing like “those people.” I was too busy working through those aforementioned identity issues to take on anymore culpability at that time.

Then, thirteen years later, Trayvon Martin was shot. And something his story gave way in me. I think because he was so young and I was a parent by then, I saw his murder in a whole new light. I was no longer willing to be silent or ignorant of my own implicit biases and role in those systemic problems. It was time to get over myself, stop seeing this as other people’s problem, and start working on my own actions and words.

There are many, many articles, posts, and most importantly, people who have helped me (and continue to do so) on this ongoing journey towards racial equity in America. It is often a one step forward, two step back kind of learning. But here are a few of the books that have helped change and shape my thinking and understanding the most.

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson) – This book revolutionized my understanding of the American justice system. It has become one of the few books I try to make a point of re-reading.

Divided By Faith (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) – If I only had one book to suggest to white American Christians, it would be this one. It serves as a vital, must-hear challenge.

Trouble I’ve Seen (Drew Hart) – I have entire chapters of this book underlined. Again, this book is of particular importance to white American Christians.

Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson) – I learned more about American history from this book than anything I ever learned in school. The true stories of the intentional, institutionalized racism that African Americans faced leaving the Jim Crow south are devastating and must be heard.

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander) – I read this after reading Just Mercy and it challenged everything I thought I knew about the “justice” system.

And Still I Rise (Henry L. Gates) – This book follows the PBS special “And Still I Rise” and is an excellent historical resource. Gates’ America Behind the Color Line is also a very good book to read.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – Something about the way Coates writes speaks to me. He has a way of conveying harsh truths in an unreserved, direct way that forces me to listen and hear him.

Tears We Cannot Stop (Michael Eric Dyson) – I will be honest, I kicked and squirmed through almost every page of this book. Dyson does not hold back in his “sermon to white America.” Everything in me wanted to say, “I don’t do that.” This is probably exactly why I needed to read this book, and then read it again.

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) – This may seem like a strange book to have on the list, but it did help me a lot. It was eye-opening and made sense of many things I had seen. But the thing that helped me most in my racial understanding, was when Vance admitted that even growing up the way he did, he, as a white man, recognized that he still had privileges available to him that a black man would not have.

We Were Eight Years in Power (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – My phone is filled with pictures of quotes from this book. I first read a library copy and couldn’t highlight. When I tried writing quotes I wanted to remember down, I realized I was just transcribing the book. Then I started taking pictures. They are many. The chapter on reparations was particularly poignant.

In addition to these current authors, there are five authors from the past that have greatly impacted my journey. They are:

  1. Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a fantastic place to start.
  2. W.E. B. Du BoisThe Souls of Black Folk should be required reading.
  3. James BaldwinNotes of a Native Son is where I recommend starting with his writing. While not in book form, the movie “I Am Not Your Negro” was made from his writing and is also excellent.
  4. Maya Angelou – Today would be Angelou’s 90th birthday and she is deeply and greatly missed. Her poetry speaks beyond her with remarkable voice. “Still I Rise” is essential reading.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr – While not immediately thought of as an author, I include him in this category because it is through reading that I have “heard” his speeches. I am consistently challenged by his speeches and writing. Letters from a Birmingham Jail has become a particular favorite, one I read regularly as a way of keeping my priorities, motives, and intentions rightly ordered.

As I have learned from these books, I am reminded that my goal and hope of arriving, of being done learning is flawed, unrealistic, and misplaced. My goal has to change. This is not a “one and done” kind of education. This is a moment by moment, day by day, self check kind of education. A continual, hopefully, progressing education. An education in humility, openness, empathy, and action.