Poetically Speaking with Justina Chen

poeticallyspeaking2Justina Chen is the award winning author of numerous novels for young adults including North of Beautiful which was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent novel, A Blind Spot for Boys, was published in 2014. Justina is also an author I have followed since her debut Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) which is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog.

Justina is here today with an interview with Janet S. Wong and Sylvia Vardell about their poetry anthologies.

As National Poetry Month rolls around, I think not just about my favorite poem—Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou—but about the women in my life who are phenomenal. Phenomenal in the way they live—fierce and full. Phenomenal in the way they love—with passion and loyalty. And phenomenal in the way they create—with honesty and courage.

One of my mentors, Janet Wong, is one such phenomenal woman and poet. She’s a former lawyer who has become one of the most acclaimed children’s poets, writing 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects. When I was first starting to write, she swooped over to me, reading, critiquing, and editing my manuscripts. Introducing me to editors. And then launching my career when I was published by spearheading my first massive book tour alongside herself and Grace Lin. Appropriately, we called that tour, Hi-YAH! Asian American authors speak out!

What better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than to shine a spotlight on not one, but two phenomenal and poetic forces of nature? Janet, in collaboration with Professor Sylvia Vardell, has created a number of much-loved poetry anthologies. I was so delighted to interview them for Miss Print’s readers.

Justina Chen: Why is poetry important today?

Sylvia Vardell: People are pressed for time, today more than ever. Kids are stressed out—parents and teachers, too. Poetry is short. Poetry is cleansing. Thirty seconds and you feel better. Whatever you need, there’s a poem.

Janet S. Wong: If not, it takes just 5 minutes to write a first draft of one (maybe not the perfect poem, but one that will help get your mind in the right place). Whether you’re a listener, a reader, or a writer, a poem offers a snapshot that sticks in your mind with words that also touch the heart.

Justina: Why do you think there’s been such an enthusiastic embracing of your poetry anthologies?

Janet: We make it easy to teach poetry—and to use poetry to teach other content areas like science and social studies. Many teachers feel like they are being buried under the Common Core and state standards. A ton to teach and not enough time.

Sylvia: Suppose you’re a middle school teacher and you’re teaching irony tomorrow. You can use a three-page essay or you can use “Texas, Out Driving” by Naomi Shihab Nye from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (with a simple five-step “Take 5!” mini-lesson). Naomi’s poem, of course! Suppose you’re a student who needs to learn about irony. Which one would you rather read? Poetry is a win-win for both teachers and students. We provide a framework for infusing skills (like teaching alliteration, metaphor, and form) while celebrating the fun of poetry, too.

Justina: How have schools used your poetry anthologies?

Janet: One neat thing that schools are doing is taking advantage of the weekly themes in our books. In the first three books—The Poetry Friday Anthology (K-5), The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (K-5)—a whole school can read a poem on the same theme each week.

Sylvia: This is especially great if kids read poems during morning announcements; everyone can get excited about animal poems or food poems or weather poems at the same time. It helps build a sense of community while showcasing beautiful language and promoting literacy learning.

Justina: What has been the most surprising or most unexpected outcomes from creating your poetry anthologies?

Sylvia: We’ve heard from so many teachers and librarians who have said: “I’ve been avoiding poetry for 20 years because I didn’t know how to teach it—but now I do!”

Janet: We’ve had standing-room-only conference sessions where only a handful of people know the names of any poets. There are plenty of outstanding poetry books for people who love poetry.

Sylvia: Our books are for people who don’t love it—yet! We like to think we’re putting the “try” back into “poetry!”

Justina: What are you working on next?

Janet: The newest book is The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, 156 holiday poems in English (with the same poems presented in Spanish). It just came out a few weeks ago, in a Teacher/Librarian edition and also an illustrated children’s edition.

Sylvia: Now that the book is finished, we’re building a bunch of transmedia projects to enhance the book. In the next few months, we hope to:

  1. Post videos of poets reading poems online at PoetryCelebrations.com
  2. Give kids Pocket Poems™cards to print and trade
  3. Put together Poetry Celebration kits
  4. Maybe even make temporary Poetry Tattoos!

Justina: How can we support your efforts?

Sylvia: Visit PoetryCelebrations.com and start a Poetry Party at your school or library.

Janet: Tell your favorite bookseller that the Children’s Book Council is including Pomelo Books in its program for National Children’s Book Week (May 4-10) with an event kit for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. Booksellers can download all kinds of neat things in this event kit at the CBC website (cbcbooks.org). So get set to celebrate!

  • Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and has taught graduate courses in children’s and young adult literature at various universities since 1981. Vardell has published extensively, including five books on literature for children, as well as over 25 book chapters and 100 journal articles. Her current work focuses on poetry for children, including a regular blog, PoetryforChildren, since 2006.
  • Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who switched careers and became a children’s poet. Her dramatic career change has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other shows. She is the author of 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects.
  • Together they are the team behind Pomelo Books and The Poetry Friday Anthology series (PomeloBooks.com).

Thank you again to Justina for this amazing post.

If you’d like to learn more about Justina and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://justinachen.com

You can also find my reviews of Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies), Girl Overboard and North of Beautiful here on the blog.