Writers on Writing: Poetic Narrative/Nikki Grimes

Poetry. Poetry collections. Novels in verse. Poems in picture books. These are many of the ways that poetic works engage the minds of young readers. Yesterday’s writer, Margarita Engle is as prolific a poet as today’s writer, Nikki Grimes.
Nikki is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and a Coretta Scott King Award winner. I relied upon her expertise to enlighten us about poetic works in children’s fiction.

1. In what ways are narrative poetry different from narrative prose?
Poetry is, by virtue of the genre, more concise than prose. Whether the poetry is lyrical press72or narrative, it is a form of distillation, which is different from prose. In addition, through its delicate yet powerful use of metaphor and symbol, narrative poetry is often able to explore dark or problematic subject matter that might otherwise be inappropriate for the youngest readers. Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till comes to mind.

2. To me, it seems quite challenging to carry out an entire novel in poem form. Yet, you do it quite well. How do you make it work?
The trick to making a novel-in-verse work is to put Story first, to remember that you are creating a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, a tale with a story arc, peopled by three-dimensional characters who grow or change during the course of the novel. If, as a poet, you remember that, and you craft poetry that serves that end, you can write a novel-in-verse. If, however, you try taking an assortment of unrelated poems and attempt to jam them together in hopes of manufacturing some sort of narrative, it doesn’t work. You have to begin with Story, and then craft the poetry to serve that story. At least, that’s my approach.

3. Why do you think narrative poetry has such an appeal to young readers?
Poetry, narrative or otherwise, appeals to readers on several levels. One, for young readers especially, has to do with all that white space on the page. A young reader can pick up a 200-page novel and find the length, alone, intimidating—all those words strung across all those pages. Such books are especially daunting for the reluctant reader. But that same reader can pick up a novel-in-verse of equal length and not be intimated at all, because he sees all that white space and assumes—rightly or wrongly—that book will be an easy read. Of course, as we know, the content of the novel-in-verse and the traditional novel may be equally complex. However, the content of the novel-in-verse can be digested in smaller quantities. That, itself, is appealing to the young reader. Add to that the lyrical quality and the emotional power of poetry, and you have an attractive combination.

4. What are some of the books you would recommend to introduce readers to narrative poetry?
I assume, here, you mean narrative poetry in the narrow sense of a novel-in-verse, yes? Because there are any number of picture-book poetry collections of a narrative nature. Carole Boston Weatherford is a goldmine in this category, and so is Marilyn Singer. However, regarding novels-in-verse specifically, I would recommend a few according to grade-level. By now, everyone knows about The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, but here are a few others.


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes
What is Goodbye? by Nikki Grimes

Middle Grade:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
World’s Afire by Paul B. Janezcko
Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson
Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engles
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes

Young Adult:

What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonja Sones
Hidden by Helen Frost
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes

A bestselling author and a prolific artist, Nikki has written many award-winning poetry and prose books for children and young adults including the NCTE Award for Poetry, the Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade; the Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings; Horn Book Fanfare for Talkin’ About Bessie; ALA Notable books What is Goodbye? and Words with Wings; the popular Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series, and numerous picture books and novels including The New York Times bestseller Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope and, most recently Chasing freedom : the life journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, inspired by historical facts and Poems in the Attic.Watch for her upcoming release of One Last Word.

review: Silver People

silvertitle: Silver People

author: Margarita Engle

date: HMH Children’s Books; March 2013

main character: Mateo

Strange as it seems, the ‘globalization’ of international trade did not begin with the Internet but was launched a century ago when a new waterway suddenly made the world seem small.” This line ends Silver People, the story of the workers who built the Panama Canal in which Margarita Engle combines the voices of workers from Cuba, Panama, Jamaica and the United States to tell the story of the conditions in which the Canal was built. From the very beginning of the story, readers are aware of the differing treatment people received that took into account details such as skin tone, country of origin and gender. Although perpetuated by the Whites in power, this racism is so institutionalized that not even they can alter this system. They’re also aware of the culture of the Panamanian people and the flora and fauna of the country.

The story begins in 1906 when young Mateo is recruited from his home in Cuba with the dream of high wages and a more satisfying life. In her trademark open verse style of writing, Engle deftly recreates the back-breaking hardships and the imposed racism that the work crews endured throughout the eight years it took to complete the project. She manages to capture the inhumanity of their treatment while at the same time realizing their character to the reader. And, she does this in a way that will neither overwhelm nor disturb young readers. Engle relates the story with gentle care and compassion by making this a story of Panama and not just the Canal. She literally brings the setting to life by giving voice to trees and monkeys. While the Canal was built to facilitate trade, the act of building it had a huge impact on the biodiversity of the region. Mateo meets Augusto and learns how to develop his artistic talents as they draw life forms found in the Panamanian rain forest.

Rich details trace the impact of non-indigenous footprints on the environment. I always enjoy Engle’s novels as they recreate less known people and places with well researched details. They’re layered in ways that each reader will truly have a unique experience with the book. While I focused on the harshness, others will wander through the jungle scenes with others will watch as relationships develop.

Engle’s other works include The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book and Mountain Dog.

Review: Words with Wings

+-+725001053_70Title: Words With Wings

Author: Nikki Grimes

Date: Wordsong; 2013

Main Character: Gabriella/Gabby

I am always amazed at how books I read one after the other share similar themes, plots or characters.

On the first leg of my trip to Amarillo, TX last week, I decided it was time to dive into Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard (1884-1962) was a European philosopher whose research was devoted to the domain of intimacy. I’ve only completed the first chapter of the book so far, but in this chapter he describes our relationship to houses both in dreams and daydreams and how the presence of a house in daydreams, literature or poetry through our intimate connection with them, provides a sense of protection. While dreams have been studied, daydreams are more difficult to capture and analyze but Gaston says still of significance.

“Poetry comes naturally from a daydream”.

He describes daydreams as creative and full of life. One who is bored to tears has no daydreams! “And the poetic daydream, which creates symbols, confers upon our intimate moments an activity that is polysymbolic”.

And, on the next flight, I happened to pick up Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes.

Words With Wings is the story of Gabriella (Gabby) who is adjusting not so much to her parent’s separation and to a new school as to her ability to constantly daydream. Gabby admits her mother cursed her from the beginning in naming her after a winged creature, the Angel Gabriel. How then could words not manage to have wings for her?

The first daydream Gabby shares takes he from her breaking dishes to hide from the noise of her parent’s arguing to the safe corner of her grandmother’s house. She goes back to the house of her childhood before feeling enough security to take us through more of her daydreams, all of which are ignited by a single word. Like most children, Gabriella doesn’t quite realize the power in her gifts but readers recognize the beauty of her daydreams and the comfort then provide her.

Nikki Grimes is a writer whose words have wings. She’s one of the few who write in open verse that actually manages to say more with fewer words.

Mine: Pretend.

Mom’s: Practical.

All we have in common

is the letter P.

In her new school, Gabby has this new teacher, Mr. Spicer (based on the real life Ed Spicer) who understands children and nurtures creativity. He’s that elementary teacher we’d want all our children to have.

I enjoyed how Grimes honored daydreaming, something that most people other than Bacheland, take very much for granted. I’d love to have a poster of the cover of this book to remind me to take my 15 minutes a day to sort through my daydreams.

Nikki Grimes also wrote Bronx Masquerade, Jazmin’s Notebook, The Road to Paris and other over 40 other books. She’s won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Works and the Coretta Scott King Award. Words With Wings is a 2014 ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book; Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book and a Junior Library Guild selection. The book made the Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2013 list; Pennsylvania Keystone to Reading Elementary Book Award Finalist list and the Nerdy Book Club finalist list.


themes: writing; daydreams; school; friendship


Bachelard, Gaston, and M Jolas. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. Print.

Male Monday: Frank X. Walker

Frank X. Walker is an African American poet from Danville, KY.  In 2013, he became the Poet Laureate of  the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Wikipedia) Hes’ the first African American and the youngest person to hold this post.In 2014, He won an NAACP Image Award for his poetry.

He’s founder of Affrilachian Poets and is a Professor of English at the University of Kentucky.


In the parking lot behind the funeral home, my eyes settle on
the bulky white noose my father has lost a wrestling match to.
Though he is not convinced Windsor knot know-how can plantwalker_frank_x
tobacco or drive a nail true, he concedes his flawed results,

abides my desire to fix it. Calling up knowledge passed to me
from a book, I execute the maneuvers with fluid precision
and imagine I am creasing and folding a Japanese paper swan.
He stares at my knuckles, smiling, perhaps seeing his own hands



Listen online to Walker reading from his work on a radio program produced by UK’s NPR affiliate, WUKY 88.1 FM, at

Male Monday

April is National Poetry Writing  month, National Card and Letter Writing Month,  Jazz Appreciation Month,National Arab American Heritage Month  and National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Here, today, it’s Male Monday! What better day for me to do something I rarely do: share a poem?

Sharif S. Elmusa was born in the village of al-Abbasiyya, Palestine. He is a widely published  scholar, and translator. He has co-edited, and contributed to, the anthology, Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry, first issued by Utah University Press in 1988, and then re-issued in 1999 in paperback edition by Interlink Books. He has translated extensively from Arabic poetry. He is currently visiting professor at Georgetown University, Qatar campus, from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he is an associate professor in the Political Science Department. And, he is a poet.

When writing about the recent Revolution in Egypt, he stated ”…writing a poem and engaging in a revolution are both acts of self-discovery. The revolution dignifies the ordinary, and elevates it, just as poetry transforms common words into rhythms and meaning.”

Nocturnal Window
A bright, three-quarters moon
beams in the eastern sky
over four million households.
Is it the same moon that
the wise Thoth fixed? This one
looks like it doesn’t wish to be alone,
could land in the lap
of a satellite dish any moment.
The neighbor’s dog howls.
My grandmother used to say
a long dog howl meant the family
was in trouble. But it is hard to tell
with such polished howl. The train,
as if hauling the vast woes of the city,
blows a grave, far-reaching whistle.
But the windows of many apartments
have already drawn their curtains.
The fountain in the square has gone to sleep.
The flowers of the Peruvian jacaranda
are completely still in the new home. 
No wind is blowing.
The world moves the mind 
like power the ceiling fan;
the poem is the breeze.


Etheridge Knight Youth Poetry Contest

Call for Entries
Legacy Continues for Legendary Poet
17th  Arts Festival
Guidelines for  the  14th  Annual Etheridge Knight  Youth Poetry Contest and applications for the   17th Annual Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts Po-Rap-Try Concert  are now online at.  The Po-Rap-Try Concert will be held  Saturday, April 12 at  4:00 pm at the Indianapolis Marion County Central Library Auditorium, 40 East St. Clair Street.
Deadline for entries March 10, 2008
For more information call (317) 524-6951 or e-mail ekfestival@aol.com.