What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

June 4, 2020 § Leave a comment

In the preface to her scintillating picture book of poems for young readers, Mahogany L. Browne provides this definition of “woke”:

It means to be aware. It means to see your surroundings and challenge how we strengthen our relationship with the government, the community, and nature. To be WOKE is to fight for your civil rights and to fight for the rights of your neighbors…The idea of being aware of your surroundings, especially in a time when we are taught to be quiet and not rock the boat, can be difficult to embrace, but this is where our freedom begins.

The events of the last week are calling us to become woke. They are calling us to listen, especially to Black voices unleashing decades of pain and injustice. They are calling us to expand our bookshelves and our social media feeds to include more voices of color (@hereweeread and @theconsciouskid are a great place to start for parents). They are calling us to talk to our children about difficult topics like race, privilege, and racism and help them revise their summer reading lists to include stories by people of color. They are calling us to begin the uncomfortable and long-overdue work of examining the way our own whiteness makes us complicit in the sickness of systemic racism, because until we change what’s in our hearts, we can’t lead our children to do the same.

Topics like police brutality and racial profiling can be overwhelming and frightening to children of all races, but we can also use these conversations to empower them. “Rocking the boat” starts with finding the words to describe what’s happening and how it makes us feel—and then turning these words into beacons of inspiration, hope, and change.

We are being called to help our children find their voice, and I can think of no better vehicle than Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Ages 8-12). Historically, poets have been on the forefront of social movements. Here, Mahogany L. Browne’s poems sit alongside those from Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, serving as “instruction manuals and anthems,” as “literary heartbeats and blueprints of survival,” for our children to sift through cruelty and injustice and find the words and courage to speak out about them. Several of the poems address racial history and discrimination. Others speak to gender bias, immigration, activism, body image, physical disability, intersectionality, and our relationship with nature. Taken as a whole, the poems celebrate a definition of community that’s richer for its diversity of voices, skin colors, and genders. Double-page illustrations by Theodore Taylor III enhance the vibrancy of the poems. As “Instructions on Listening to the Trees” concludes, “We are all part of someone else’s journey/ That’s the way communities are built/ Each root sprawling toward the edge of an infinite smile.”

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Gift Guide 2018: Give a Year of Poetry

November 29, 2018 § 2 Comments

Raise your hand if you’re still reading poetry to your kids over breakfast. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this.) We had a good run of it, but like most of my inspired parenting ideas, I eventually forgot about it. Turns out, I have just the book to resurrect this ritual. (Goodness knows we could use a return to Zen in our mornings.)

Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year (Ages 6-12) is a gorgeous and hefty anthology, perfectly designed for Poetry Breakfasts (or the daily mindfulness of your choice). Each of the 365 poems has been astutely selected by Fiona Waters for a different day of the year, then evocatively illustrated in watery brush strokes and mixed media by Frann Preston-Gannon. « Read the rest of this entry »

Young Trail Blazers (Celebrating Women’s History Month)

March 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you had told me ten years ago, after my first child was born, that three years later I would quit my job, move across the country, and stay home with by then two young children, I would not have believed a word of it. Not in the least because I loved my job, loved the social outlet of going to work every day, loved having others validate my successes, loved a paycheck, and loved having the childcare that allowed me to do all that and still relish quality time with my little one. Sure, I had days when I felt pulled in way too many directions and fantasized about going off the grid. But I never really expected I’d feel fulfilled any other way. I was, after all, a self-identified feminist. I had minored in women’s studies in college. I always intended to model for my children what it meant to be have a successful, robust career outside the home.

And then, for a host of reasons I never saw coming, I made the choice to stay home. « Read the rest of this entry »

Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

April 21, 2016 Comments Off on Standing Greek Gods On Their Heads

"Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths" by Marilyn Singer & Josee MasseMy eight year old has been on a Greek mythology craze for the past six months. For years, he has been hearing references to mythology made in his mixed-ages classroom, has been seeing classmates walk in and out of school with related books tucked under their arms, has even been listening to one classmate proclaim the pomegranate seeds in her lunch to be the “fruit of the gods”—but he has never showed any genuine interest himself.

Until now. « Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time… « Read the rest of this entry »

Hibernating with Poetry (Joyce Sidman Style)

February 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick AllenNews flash: right now, under your very own backyard or front porch, there could be as many as 20,000 garter snakes huddled together, using the body warmth of one another to wait out these cold winter months. SAY WHAT? If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. And now you, too, can be reminded of said news flash by your seven year old every morning as you leave the house. All thanks to one of twelve poems in Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Ages 6-12), the latest lyrical and visual masterpiece by poet Joyce Sidman and printmaker Rick Allen.

Thankfully, Winter Bees IS a masterpiece, so you won’t mind reading about snakes, which may or may not be lurking in “hibernaculums” beneath the ground on which you tread (if you remember, our snake obsession started here). Thankfully, too, most of the poems in Winter Bees are more beautiful than creepy, inspiring awe for animals like tundra swans, moose, beavers, moles, and chickadees, as well as frosty events, like ice crystal formation. « Read the rest of this entry »

Fueling Up With Poetry

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas FlorianOn the Monday morning following Easter, JP crawled into my bed with a new book and proudly announced, “Mommy, I am going to read you some poems. I have lots of favorites. Some of them are very funny. Also some of them are very weird. A few of them I don’t even understand!” And hence followed one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes that I’ve had in awhile. All thanks to J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian’s new Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Ages 5-10).

“Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees, and sleepers into dreams…Poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood.” So begins a recent online article in The Guardian about a movement among educators and publishers to bring back children’s poetry from “near extinction.” Why, if poetry is so intuitive, so enticing, for children, is it in danger of dying out? The article points a finger at booksellers, many of whom (and I admit to being guilty of this at one time) struggle with how to display and shelve a hard-to-pin-down category. Not considered picture books, not considered chapter books, they end up in their own “poetry” section way off in No Man’s Land. When was the last time you sought out the poetry shelves at your bookstore? « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »

Seasonal Inspiration from a Zen Master

March 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. MuthNormally, I’m all for aspiring to live in the moment. But not right now. Not this week. Because, it’s March, people, and the ground is once again covered in snow; we’ve lost another two days of school; it’s grey and cold and, frankly, there’s nothing to be gained from living in this moment.

Instead, our family is busy making plans for the future—and living in the delicious anticipation of those plans. My kids are dreaming up the giant sandcastles they intend to make on our upcoming trip to Florida (I am dreaming up the cocktails I intend to make). We are gazing out the window at the trees we planted last fall, wondering what they are going to look like with new, green leaves. JP is plotting how much money he might make selling freshly-squeezed lemonade on the hottest of summer days. And, because September is only six months away, both kids are beginning the daily debate about what their birthday parties should entail. Normally, I might interject a dismissive, “well, we’ll have lots of time to discuss that when it’s closer to the date”; but, right now, what else do I have to do? Sure, let’s talk about how the cake needs to have your name on it (“so everyone knows it’s my birthday”) and how the balloons need to be tied down just right so that they don’t blow away (“like that one time”). Bring it.

I’m betting that others are in the same boat. And that’s why I’m betting that Jon J. Muth’s brand new Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons (Ages 3-8) will be a sure bet for anyone in need of some assurance that spring (and summer) are just around the corner. « Read the rest of this entry »

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).

But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).

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Saving the Trees

April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The LoraxEarlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.

The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Year That Lies Ahead

January 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

A Child's CalendarOn the morning of January 1, my five year old crawled into our bed and asked with great solemnity, “Is the year of Christmas over?” I’m not entirely sure what he was getting at; did he mean to say month? or season? or was he actually inquiring as to whether the Year of the Great Christmas of 2012 had ended? I’ll never know exactly what was ruminating in his little head, but it was a sweet reminder of how bewildering the concept of time is to children—even to a five year old who has plenty of memories of past years.

We as adults take for granted our assurance about the cyclical nature of time: that all seasons, all holidays, all of nature’s dramatic transformations, will occur again and again with each passing year. It will probably come as no surprise that my instinctual reaction to JP’s question on New Year’s morning was to send him downstairs to fetch some relevant reading material. One of my all-time favorite children’s books (a book so precious to me that it actually resides on the “adult” shelves of our living room library) is A Child’s Calendar (Ages 5-10), a 1965 treasure of poems by John Updike that was later given a ’90s makeover with the addition of award-winning illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

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