Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (Walk Two Moons)

Happy Poetry Friday! It's still summer. Let's enjoy some late summer fruit today, wild blackberries warmed by the sun.

Blackberries grow wild in Maryland.

Today's Poetry Friday host is Irene Latham
at Live Your Poem. Live it up today -- stop by
Irene's blog for more poetry links.
This is the sixth post in a series called Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers and I are pairing books we've read this summer with a poem that complements the novel.

So far, we've paired:

Shared by guest blogger Janet Wong

I've been working a lot this summer. The educational consulting office where I work part-time is 40 minutes from my home, so much of my summer reading has been audio-books in the car.

Here is my Public Service Announcement for today. Do not listen to Sharon Creech's classic MG novel WALK TWO MOONS on your way to work, especially if you are wearing mascara. You may, like me, find yourself listening to the final chapters of the book, wondering whether you should pull over because you are crying so hard, and eventually arrive at work a bleary-eyed, mascara-smeared, emotional wreck.

Which cover do you prefer?
There are many middle grade and YA novels about a child who is either searching for a missing parent or in search of information about a parent who has died. WALK TWO MOONS sat on my shelf (yes, I have a paperback copy) for years. Maybe I wasn't ready to read about a grieving child. Maybe listening to the book felt more comfortable.

Did I love WALK TWO MOONS? Yes! I loved the story-within-a-story structure. I loved the voice of Sal (Salamanca). I loved the rich descriptions of settings, people, and first kisses. And grandparents in love -- how sweet is that?

It's those grandparents-in-love that made me enjoy the book, despite my messy tears. Because Sal spends most of the novel with her grandparents, the reader *always* knows that Sal is loved and supported, even though she has lost her mother.

Poetry appears in WALK TWO MOONS. Sal and her class discuss Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls." While some students love the musicality of the poem, Sal and her friend Phoebe (whose own mother is missing), focus on the character of the traveler. Sal and Phoebe are angry that their class is discussing a poem that romanticizes death or suicide. (My HS students often had the same reaction when we studied Romeo & Juliet.)

However, I'm choosing something else to pair with this novel. Blackberry poems. Why blackberry poems? Because of this section of the novel, which helps characterize Sal's mother so beautifully:

One morning when I awoke very early, I saw my mother walking up the hill to the barn. Mist hung about the ground, finches were singing in the oak tree beside the house, and there was my mother, her pregnant belly sticking out in front of her. She was strolling up the hill, swinging her arms and singing...  

As she approached the corner of the barn where the sugar maple stands, she plucked a few blackberries from a stray bush and popped them into her mouth. She looked all around her-back at the house, across the fields, and up into the canopy of branches overhead. She took several quick steps up to the trunk of the maple, threw her arms around it, and kissed that tree soundly.

Later that day, I examined this tree trunk... I looked up at where her mouth must have touched the trunk. I probably imagined this, but I thought I could detect a small dark stain, as from a blackberry kiss.

Creech takes this moment and builds the blackberry kiss into a symbol that runs through the rest of the novel.

I have three delicious blackberry poems.

1. Read "Blackberrying" by Sylvia Plath at the Poetry Foundation

2. Listen to "Blackberry Eating" by Galway Kinnell

3. A poem I share with my elementary school students is "Blackberrying" by Crescent Dragonwagon. This poem appears in the (sadly, out of print) anthology FOOD FIGHT: Poets Join the Fight against Hunger with Poems to Favorite Foods. I am only sharing a portion of the poem here, but I hope you will get a copy of the book and read the entire poem.

Available at ABEBooks.Com
Great for teaching food poems!
by Crescent Dragonwagon

the green arched bramble branches hung thick
with blue-black berries,
summer Christmas trees,

catching at us, we bent to pick
(and only our backs got sunburned)
catching at us, scratching (and we got mosquito-bit too)

now there's a shelf full of blackberry jam
and that night, pie

next winter it will be cold
we will spread that sharp sweet dark
on breakfast toast
and think we remember what hot really felt like

Enjoy the rest of August and the last of the season's blackberries.

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse? I'm still looking for guest bloggers. The series will continue until summer ends on Monday, September 22. For more information, find a full explanation of this series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown)

Happy Poetry Friday, everyone!

Mary Lee and Franki are hosting
today's round-up
at A Year of Reading.
This is the fifth post in a series called Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers and I are pairing books we've read this summer with a poem that complements the novel.

So far, we've paired:

I'm not normally a vampire person.

Interview with the Vampire ... meh.

The Historian? It turns out historians are dull, even when they're on the trail of Nosferatu.

I read Twilight as a cautionary tale for teen girls: How to tell when your boyfriend is a controlling stalker.

Source: The Afictionado

However, I make an exception for two smart, strong, complicated teen girls -- one who is a vampire queen, the other who is infected with vampirism.

My first favorite vampire is Marceline the Vampire Queen from the TV show Adventure Time. The second is Tana from Holly Black's urban fantasy THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN.

I promised some geekiness today, and geekiness you shall have.

This weekend, I'll be going to Otakon with my teens. It's a celebration of anime, manga, and all-things Japanese pop culture. Even though Adventure Time isn't an anime, people still cosplay characters from the show.

People like me.

Marceline is an easy character to cosplay. Most of her outfits can be built from things you already have in your wardrobe. Add a long, dark wig -- gray stage make-up, fangs, and bite-marks if you're really into it -- and you're all set.

Then I started thinking, I'm going to have to carry a purse and it's going to look really dumb, carrying a purse dressed as Marceline the Vampire Queen. That is how I came up with a brilliant idea -- my best idea in many years of being crafty. I would make tote-bag shaped like axe-head Marceline's bass guitar.

Another time, I will write out directions, which started out simple and became totally lengthy and complicated. Here is the finished product:

Believe it or not, there is totally a normal-sized black tote bag inside this thing! With magnetics snaps and everything.

Before I swoon from craftiness, let's move on to Tana.

When my kids were little, we loved THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. Since then, I've dipped into Holly Black's YA fantasies once in a while. I loved WHITE CAT from  her Curse Workers series, so this summer, I tried THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN on audio.

Tana and her ex-boyfriend are the only survivors of a vampire massacre. She escapes the scene with her ex, who's been infected with the virus for vampirism, and with a mysterious vampire-on-the-run named Gavriel. Together, they head to a quarantined "Coldtown." There, Tana gets caught up in the complicated personal and political relationships of ancient vampires. She learns that being a vampire isn't as glamorous as reality television makes it out to be. And she learns that she'll do anything to survive Coldtown with her humanity intact.

The poem I'm pairing with this novel is also suited for upper YA.

Grief Puppet
by Sarah Beasley

In the nearby plaza, musicians would often gather.
The eternal flame was fueled by propane tank.
An old man sold chive dumplings from a rolling cart,
while another grilled skewers of paprika beef.
Male turtledoves would puff their breasts, woo-ing,
and for a few coins, we each bought an hour with
the grief puppet. It had two eyes, enough teeth,
a black tangle of something like hair or fur,
a flexible spine that ran the length of your arm.
Flick your wrist, and at the end of long rods
it raised its hands as if conducting the weather.
Tilt the other wrist, and it nodded. No effort
was ever lost on its waiting face. It never
needed a nap or was too hungry to think straight.
You could have your conversation over and over,
past dusk when old men doused their charcoal,
into rising day when they warmed their skillets.
The puppet only asked what we could answer.

Read the rest of the poem at The Academy of American Poets.

Even though "Grief Puppet" is not a vampire poem, it caught my attention as a discussion partner for Tana's story. The two works share several images: street food, the puppet's lack of humanity (which reminded me of the vampire characters in the novel), the walled town, the coin (an important prop in the book is shaped like a coin).

It's the walled town at the end of the poem that wowed me, though. Until I read that line, I had not thought of Black's setting -- a quarantined, lawless town surrounded by high walls -- as a metaphor for grief. 

Tana *is* grieving -- for a mother turned vampire, for all of her friends killed in the massacre she survived, and for the "normal" childhood she did not have.

Because of the poem, I have a deeper understanding of Holly Black's novel. My hope with this series is that we'll continue to find novels and poems whose interplay deepens our experience of reading both.

I promise some middle grade novels next week (and some cosplay photos from Otakon)!

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse? I'm still looking for guest bloggers! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (The Impossible Knife of Memory)

2014 has been the summer of the audio book. Between family visits, my son's college search, and driving kids back and forth to camp, we've racked up enough miles on the Mars Rover for a cross country trek.

(The kids nicknamed our red mini van "The Mars Rover" many years and over 120,000 miles ago. Because we are geeks. But more about that on Friday.)

I can only listen to Coldplay, Queen, and Temples so many times. That's why my first stop on any road trip is the local library, which has a great selection of audio books.

Recommended listening

For this edition of Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse, I'm pairing one of my road trip books with a poem. If you'd like to know more about this series -- in which guest bloggers and I are matching a summer read with a poem that complements the novel -- check out this post.

My daughter went to field hockey camp at University of Delaware last month. I spent both drives -- dropping off and picking up -- listening to Laurie Halse Anderson's most recent novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY.

featured on NPR
After spending years on the road together, high school senior Hayley Kincaid and her veteran father decide to settle down. Hayley hopes that returning to their run-down family home will help her father recover from PTSD. When living in her childhood home triggers her own long-buried memories, Hayley begins to realize she can't care for her father alone.

If you're following this series for classroom discussion ideas, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY is upper YA. The poem that I'm pairing with it is complex enough for high school juniors and seniors to dig into.

The you that's left
     In memory of 1523 Calliope St., New Orleans  

by W.M. Rivera

The end is not, so wrote Herodotus on looking back,
apparent from the outset. Amazing what's forgot
or not, the blanks, nostalgia, childhood's steps
or aches to see that silent gnaw, the house a vacant
lot, a broken jar, remaining bits of too-long
absent egos. What's the use to know it,

far-off thunder, that earlier ignorance, who thought
grown-up was ten-times tall, conceiving
secrecies at each closed door, and running running
never still, the sky off blue--few cares, slow

leaping walks again. All this on un-retaining walls
in chalk expecting rain, while forward's still a stop
an aimless nowhere and that endless wait
for one you never meet, the you that's left.

There are so many lines in this poem that speak to Laurie Halse Anderson's book. The phrase "ten-times tall" fits the way Hayley saw her father when she was little. "Amazing what's forgot/ or not, the blanks,/ nostalgia, childhood's steps" reminded me of the holes in Hayley's memory and how images begin to seep back in, helped by being in the physical space of this house. Most of all, I felt that the last three lines of Bill's poem could be in Hayley Kincaid's voice. She's got to deal with the part of herself, and of her father, that are left. She can't wish either one of them back to wholeness.

Huge thanks to Maryland poet W.M. (Bill) Rivera for giving me permission to post "The you that's left" today. The poem is from his chapbook, The Living Clock, published by Finishing Line Press.

Want to check out more posts in this series? Here you go!

So far, we've paired:

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers are welcome! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (Stargirl)

Last Poetry Friday, I kicked off a series called "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse" -- novels we have read this summer, paired with a poem that complements the book.

So far, we've paired:

Today, I'm thrilled to have guest blogger Janet Wong sharing her "Chapter & Verse" for Jerry Spinelli's YA novel STARGIRL. 

Buy the book here.
You will thank Janet later.
But first, Poetry Friday is hosted this week by the wonderful poet and educator Margaret Simon of Reflections on the Teche. Margaret has the round up of Poetry Friday posts this week.

Now, let's hear it for Janet!

Janet Wong is a poet, publisher,
and Poetry Friday regular.
Visit Janet's website
and Poetry for Children,
where Jane'ts co-publisher,

Sylvia Vardell blogs.
Stargirl is one of my favorite books. I read it before I knew Eileen, when it first came out in 2000, and read it again recently because Sylvia and I will be hosting a panel at NCTE (11/21/14) with Eileen and Jerry Spinelli on it and I wanted to have specific examples to talk about in our session. 

(AA aside: There is so much to love about STARGIRL. The Hot Seat scene. Senor Saguaro. The way the novel ends. If you visit Jerry Spinelli's website, you will see a scrolling message: STARGIRL has been nominated by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best YA novels of all time. Back to Janet...)

This recent reading was so different for me from the first reading because: 1) my son is now grown, so I've seen high school popularity issues from the hypersensitive eyes of a mother; 2) I now know Eileen and have received her delightful cards, so I can picture her as a young Stargirl; and 3) I kept thinking about Eileen's "Poem for a Bully," especially at that part where (I'll try to avoid a spoiler here) "that girl" [blanks] Stargirl and Stargirl then [blanks] that girl? Well, that is exactly what "Poem for a Bully" is about, isn't it? 

Poem for a Bully
by Eileen Spinelli

Somewhere deep inside you
there’s a softer, kinder place.
I know this will surprise you—
but I’ve seen it in your face.
Your eyes are often sad, although
you wear a surly grin.
Sometimes when you stand all alone
your “mean” seems worn and thin.
I wish that you would take a step—
a small but brave one, too—
and look inside yourself to find
the good I see in you.

from The Poetry Friday Anthology 
by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong 
Posted with permission.

Eileen's poem "Advice to Rapunzel," on the other hand, is about the other major question in Stargirl: wondering if a person's goodness is too good to be true, which we see both in the skepticism of "Hillari's Hypothesis" and also in the behavior of Prince Charming at the critical moments. (Spoiler Alert!!! Stop reading now if you haven't read the book!!) Leo might not have had the heart of a toad, but we all [hoped] that he'd had more courage, right?—and that Stargirl had been more cautious. The dance scene makes it seem like she got over him quickly, but I'll bet her wagon pebble count was mighty low for a long, long time.

Advice to Rapunzel 
by Eileen Spinelli

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel beware.
Be cautious and wise
when you let down your hair.
Who is this Prince Charming
who claims to be true?
Who claims to be caring for
nothing but you?
Be sure you’re not blinded
by his gold and crown
before you go letting
your lovely hair down.
Is this prince a kind boy
who rides down the road?
Or is he a cad with
the heart of a toad?
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel beware.
Be cautious and wise
when you let down your hair.

from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School
by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong 
Posted with permission.

Janet Wong is a poet-turned-publisher who, with Sylvia Vardell, created The Poetry Friday Anthology series ( that features these two poems by Eileen Spinelli (

On her transition from poet to publisher, Janet says: I was at an NCTE conference when some teachers told me they needed more help with teaching poetry—specifically, teaching it in a way that worked with this "new thing" called the Common Core. A few months later, Sylvia Vardell told me that Texas librarians were clamoring for help with the new "Poetry TEKS," similar to the Common Core standards for ELA/Poetry. We had already collaborated to produce the PoetryTagTime series, the first original ebook anthologies for young readers, and we liked the feeling of being publishing pioneers. After some R&D, Sylvia and I came up with the "Take 5!" approach to teaching poetry; and The Poetry Friday Anthology series was born. 

One of the neatest things about our series is that, because of the Common Core and TEKS connections, we are reaching a whole new audience of teachers who aren't very familiar with poetry. Many teachers come up to us after a workshop to let us know that they've been avoiding poetry, which is why they needed to come to our session—to figure out how to teach it now that their students need to know at least some poetry basics. Sylvia and I have found ourselves with standing-room-only crowds where people don't know who J. Patrick Lewis or Joyce Sidman are—but when they hear a poem they like, you see their faces light up. I might be reading Eileen's "Poem for a Bully" or "Advice to Rapunzel"—two of my "regulars"—and they'll whip out phones to start videotaping. It's like it is with good barbecue, good soap, good anything--when you meet it, you know it. 

Janet, I agree. When I do poetry residencies, many classroom educators tell me, "I was afraid to teach poetry before. Now I love it." By modeling how to make the discussion and writing of poetry fun and personally meaningful for students, we are winning converts to poetry education.

Thanks to Janet Wong for this Poetry Friday guest post, and to the amazing Eileen Spinelli for giving us permission to share her poems.

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers are welcome! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (Darius & Twig)

On Friday, I announced a new series of posts called "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse." Thanks for all of your comments and interest! I'm still looking for guest bloggers to share novels they have read this summer, paired with a poem that complements the book.

If you'd like more information, you can find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

When Walter Dean Myers passed away a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of one of his recent novels, DARIUS & TWIG.

Local indie bookstore Politics & Prose has it!
Teenagers Darius and Twig are best friends with big dreams. Darius is a gifted writer. Twig burns up the sidewalk, training to be a runner. Both boys know their gifts could be a ticket to college and out of their Harlem neighborhood. But they struggle against discouraging teachers, shootings and racism, and classmates who don't seem to want anyone to succeed.

DARIUS & TWIG was released in 2013 (Amistad Press). I had to look up the date of my poem match, "We Real Cool," by Gwendolyn Brooks. Though Brooks' poem was first published in 1959, she speaks in the voice of Darius and Twig's modern-day classmates.

We Real Cool


The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. 

Read the poem's conclusion and listen to a recording at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading the novel and revisiting this poem has me thinking about the culture of urban poverty. Looking at the two side by side makes me wonder how much, if anything, has changed in the 50 plus years since "We Real Cool" was written. In Walter Dean Myers' novel, Darius and Twig hear the voices and feel the pull of characters like Brooks' pool players. Going to college means leaving home and an entire culture behind -- the kind elders and close friendships as well as the violence and sense of hopelessness.

Walter Dean Myers obituary at CNN.

Do you have a Chapter & Verse to contribute? Let me know. Instructions are in this post.

Just following along? Here's how you can use the Chapter & Verse series:

Recommended Reads -- If you're on a summer reading binge (I am!), and you're looking for something new and different to take to the beach, look no further.

Back to School -- Already planning lessons for the school year? Add some poetry to your reading units. The pairings in this series are perfect for jump-starting classroom discussion.

Next up: Janet Wong's Chapter & Verse is a double dose of Spinelli. Look for Janet's guest post on Poetry Friday.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Poetry Friday Announcement: A New Series

Hey there, Poetry Friday crowd. I'm starting a new series today. Anyone can join in. If you'd like to  guest post, leave me a note in the comments.

Find more Poetry Friday
posts at Poetry for Children.
My favorite part of summer isn't the beach (we haven't been there yet), the hot weather (I prefer blizzards, thank you), or no school (can I have my routine back yet?) It's summer reading.

My nephew, demonstrating that a book
can be enjoyed anywhere, even
sitting on the floor by Auntie's front door.

I've been on a Sharknado-worthy reading binge, chomping up novels, gliding through the library looking for delicious fantasies, never roaming far from shore without an audio-book to satisfy my story-hunger.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to slow down and *enjoy* what I'm reading. Taste the flavors. One way to stop my book-hopping and think about each novel I'm reading is through poetry.

The idea for this series dates back to my years teaching high school. My ninth graders were about to do a unit on Betty Smith's classic coming of age novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.

Find it here.
I wanted to add more poetry to my lessons, so I used the poem "The Lake Ilse of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats to help introduce the themes of the novel. The class talked about dreams, especially dreams of place.

When we finished A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, we went back to the poem. What a rich discussion we had. The students' ideas about dreams and the importance of place had developed as they read the novel. Circling back to Yeats' poem gave them a way to focus their thoughts.

How about you? During your summer reads, have you come across a book that made you think of a favorite poem? That's what this series is all about.

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse

To participate, you can go simple and share a pairing of book and poem. I'll post as is, giving you credit for the contribution!

If you want to step it up, include a paragraph about the book you read and a few lines about why you paired it with a particular poem.

For those of you who really want to dig in and discuss your Chapter & Verse, write a blog post of 500-750 words. Tell us what you liked about the novel you're sharing. Expand on what made you think of this poem as you were reading the book. How does one complement the other? Explain how reading the poem with the book deepens your understanding of novel, poem, or both.

Here is a sample pairing from my own summer reads.

Author Amok's Chapter & Verse

Find it here.
Genevieve Valentine's retelling of "The 12 Dancing Princesses" is a historical YA novel, set in 1920s New York. Here, the dancing princesses are society sisters. The Hamilton girls are locked in their ritzy home by a misogynistic father who is embarrassed by his large family and lack of male heirs. The girls sneak out several nights a week to dance at New York's speakeasies and get a taste of life outside their father's walls.

I'm pairing THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB with Edna St. Vincent Millay's most famous poem.

First Fig
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
The Hamilton girls are burning the candle at both ends. What I love about this pairing is how the poem emphasizes the balance between frenetic joy and risk. That's what keeps drawing the twelves sisters back to the dance floor. It can't (and doesn't -- gasp!) last forever.

If you'd like to share your Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse, leave me a note in the comments or send an email to I'll post another sample next week.

Have fun out there, book sharks!

Find it here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where You'll Find Me... Guest Blogging

I'm having a Pisces kind of day today ... swimming in two directions.

This is in my writing life. Add kids, work, the usual stuff of momness, and I feel more like an octopus than a fish.

So: Two directions. (Not to be confused with boy band.)

Today, you will find me elsewhere.

Direction #1

Children's author me is thrilled to be visiting Brenda Drake's blog today. Brenda interviewed me and my good friend/writing mentor Joy McCullough-Carranza for her Pitch Wars Success Stories series.

I think our story is like Cinderella. Joy is the fairy book-mother who helped get my manuscript ready for the ball. It felt like everyone wanted to dance with my book, but midnight came with the end of the Pitch Wars contest, and my book went home with no agent to love. Until that glass slipper moment when Stephen Barbara returned. As an agent, he's been a perfect fit.

How to make these mirrored platform shoes:
DYI "The Fairest of Them All"
Click to read the Pitch Wars Success Story interview with Brenda Drake here.

Direction #2

Poet and editor me is blogging at Little Patuxent Review's website today. Submissions for our Winter 2015 issue, Food, open on August 1. To warm up your taste buds, I am sharing what I call "Pesto: A Love Story."

Pesto from The Italian Dish.
It's about falling in love with a guy, a culture, and a green pasta sauce all in the same summer. Now -- when your basil plant is full of leaves -- is the perfect time  to try my recipe for pesto sauce. Great on pasta, but also delicious to top chicken or salmon on the grill.

I'll be back at AuthorAmok for Poetry Friday. Meanwhile, keep swimming!