April 12, 2016

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Poetry Friday: The President Looks Like Me

Happy pre-election Poetry Friday!

I've been counting down to election week all month with poet Tony Medina's books for children. His latest is The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems, which will be out in 2013. I'm taking that as a good sign for the next four years.

My past posts featured Tony's books, Love to Langston, I and I Bob Marley, and DeShawn Days.

I am so pleased to invite Dr. Tony Medina to Author Amok. Hi, Tony!

Hey, Laura!

1. What drew you to picture books and children’s poetry collections as a form?

As a child, I didn't grow up with books in my household. The only picture books I got to explore were the ones at the school library when we had class there. It wasn't until I was an adult that I grew fascinated by children's books. I was taken by the marriage between art and text, as well as the progressive messages in the stories and poems I encountered.

I also was inspired by the wide-ranging work Langston Hughes had published. He not only wrote for adults, but children as well. (Note: Baltimore Blogger Ariel S. Winter has done a series on Hughes' children's books.)

I wanted to do that as well. I had grown disillusioned with what I perceived to be a lack of seriousness with writers and poets of my generation in NYC and I felt I needed to spend my time communicating with a younger generation.

I also felt compelled to bring the stories and images of young people of color and those from disadvantaged communities to the forefront of American children's and young adult literature. There had been books out there, but they were mostly speaking from a middle class perspective. I really didn't see kids from the 'hood depicted in the scant amount of books being published by authors and illustrators of color.

This is how my first book for young readers, DeShawn Days (Lee & Low Books, 2001), was born. DeShawn Williams is a sensitive, precocious 10 year-old child from the projects talking about his life through poetry.

2. What are some of your favorite books of poetry for children?

This is really a difficult question because I love so many poetry books for young people, from collections to narratives in verse. But I'll share a few: Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems by Eloise Greenfield (with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon); Nikki Giovanni's Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People (illustrated by George Ford), as well as her book, Spin a Soft Black Song (illustrated by George Martins); Dizzy in Your Eyes: Poems about Love by Pat Mora; Naomi Shihab Nye's A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, as well as her picture book, Come with Me: Poems for a Journey; and Gary Soto's fantastic, Neighborhood Odes.

Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People
Nikki Giovanni; Illustrated by George Martins Spin a Soft Black Song

3. I know you were involved with the anthology Hip Hop Speaks to Children, which I love. (Here is a clip of Nikki Giovanni talking about the book.) What do you think kids like to hear in a poem?

I think kids are really drawn to rhyme, rhythm, tone, color, humor and detail (specificity) in poetry. They are also drawn to poignant depictions of family, as well as struggles and triumphs in a narrator of a poem. Kids like to relate directly with a poem, as if it's coming from them. And when a poem sings, they sing.

This poem from the collection speaks to the loss of a male role model in a boy's life. It is an elegy, but it also sings. 

Uncle Pepe

Had a face
Like a dandelion
His cheeks speckled
Into a million
Gray stubbles sharp
As sandpaper sheets
Two teeth parted
By a world
Was his smile
His laughter
Brought down
A thunder
From the clouds
In his chest
He walked
The stairs
Then after
Needed rest
When your head
Was too short
To see over
The tabletop
He’d bounce you
On his knee
Dazzle you with
Lemon and lime
Feed you
Cakes, cereal,
‘Til your face
Turned red
On this memory
And the music
In his eyes
I  am fed
Not the rainy days
Of never seeing him
Again instead 

4. Tell us about your newest book for children, The President Looks Like Me. What inspired you to write it? Why did you choose a collection of poems, rather than a verse biography about President Obama?

The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems is a collection less about President Barack Obama himself and more of a multicultural collection of poems that explore a wide-range of subjects and themes from the perspective of young people. A lot of the poems are narrated from the voice of young boys of color, which is rare.

The title poem is an example of that voice: 

The President Looks Like Me

The President looks like me
The President is brown like me
His hair is like my hair:
Tightly curled and neatly trimmed but free
He has a name like me
He plays b-ball too
He is mad cool
The President makes me
Want to stay in school
Go to college so one day
I can achieve my dreams
Make them a reality

Granddad said he could not believe
He’d live to see the day
That we would have
A Black President
When Barack Obama
Put his hand on the Bible
During his inauguration
On that coldest of the coolest day
I saw a tear in my
Granddad’s eye
A smile so wide
It made me want to fly
 Many heavy issues are explored, such as hip hop, language, gun violence, fatherlessness, issues of identity, love, the seasons, food, church , family, friendship and humor. 

The book also has poetry prompts and forms (from haiku and tanka to odes and the sonnet) that would be useful for young readers wishing to write their own poems. It consists of 44 poems in 6 sections with a poetry forms and prompts addendum, as well as a list of vocabulary words and historical, pop culture and musical references. 

The cover is a dynamic original collage created by the artist Mansa K. Mussa.

I am really excited about those prompts, Tony. Arts educators like me, who do poetry residencies in the schools, love new resources and writing prompts.

5. The President Looks Like Me will be published by Just Us Books, a publisher of black-interest books for children. How do you think Barack Obama’s presidency has affected children of color? How did you hope to reflect that in your book?

The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems is meant to empower all children, but particularly young people of color who see in the first African American President the possibilities for their own hopes and dreams and aspirations to achieve in our culture.

6. Bonus Question: What are you working on next, for kids?

I have a few projects I have had on the back burner due to prior book project commitments that I wish to get back to. But I don't want to jinx myself and speak about them now. I'm still wresting with the muse on these manuscripts. I'll just say that I have not abandoned my undying love of poetry in these works-in-progress. Hopefully, I'll be able to give birth to them and they'll be able to grow wings and make their way in the world.

Here is one more poem from The President Looks Like Me to savor over the weekend:

Buttery biscuits from 


Sundays we go to church
Mama wakes me early
I wash and
Put on my dress clothes
My shiny patent leather shoes

Mama cooks a light breakfast
‘Cause after church we really
Throw down with baked chicken
Mac and cheese big buttery biscuits
Piles of mashed potato and black-eyed peas
With peach cobbler and sweet potato pie
Tastes so sweet it makes you cry—

Sundays we go to church
I sing in the choir
We stand behind our pastor
He gives his sermon that inspires
Us to do good things for other people
Which is called God’s work
The congregation says—

Mr. Russel plays his piano
My sister sings her sweet solo
Hands raise up in the air
My auntie and our neighbor Miss Rosie
Get the Holy Ghost
Everybody shouts—
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

My stomach starts to grumble
My nose catches the Holy Spirit
Of all that yummy smelling soul food
The pastor says, Let us all eat!
Come share in this bountiful feast…
My tummy shouts out

Selections from The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems posted with permission of Tony Medina. All rights reserved.

Tony Medina is the author/editor of a number of books for adults and young readers, the most recent of which are I and I, Bob Marley; My Old Man Was Always on the Lam (finalist for the Paterson Poetry Award); Broke on Ice; An Onion of Wars; and The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University.

Have a wonderful Poetry Friday, everyone. This week's host is Mainely Write.


Donna Smith said...

Great interview! I too am fascinated "by the marriage between art and text" in picture books.

Renee LaTulippe said...

Wonderful interview, Laura (with thanks to Tony for sharing)! I have been reading your Tony Medina series with great interest, and you've turned me into a new fan. As a writer of mostly humorous poetry, I am always intrigued by those who write more serious poetry for kids, and Tony has really inspired me to look at other subject areas and forms for my writing. Love the remembrance in "Uncle Pepe" and the joy of "Sundays"!

Author Amok said...

Thanks Donna and Renee. You're right, Renee. Tony's work for kids honors both their sense of humor and the fact that little guys' lives can be just as complicated as adult lives. I like that "Uncle Pepe" trusts the reader and does not spell out what happened to the speaker's uncle. That puts the poem's focus on emotion.

Ruth said...

This sounds wonderful! It's going on my wish list.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I have so much enjoyed this series! It's great to hear more from Tony about the ideas behind the books. I am putting The President Looks Like Me on our Christmas list. Thanks for sharing so many wonderful poems today!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Ruth and Andi. Andi, thanks for your comment about the series. This is the first time I've done group of posts featuring a single author's books. The feedback has been positive, so I may do it again!

laurasalas said...

Oh, that description of Uncle Pepe's face is so wonderful!

jama said...

So enjoyed this interview (great questions, Laura!). Love the poems shared too, especially "Sundays." Are you surprised? :)

It's been wonderful to get to know Tony's work better and to hear the underrepresented voices of young boys of color. Thank you both!

Author Amok said...

Hi, Laura and Jama. Laura -- I agree, it 's a great portrait poem.

Jama, thank you for paying attention to that aspect of Tony's work. Those young readers connect very deeply with Tony's characters, particularly DeShawn of "DeShawn Days."

Mary Lee said...

Thanks for an informative series!

(love the new blog banner, too!!)

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Mary Lee. I'm thinking of doing topical banners, rather than sticking with one look for the blog. I'm glad you like it.

Tabatha said...

Have you seen this photo of Obama kids' Halloween costumes?
Love it.