My own bus was going by and it didn’t even look at me.
It just left me here.
That three-line impromptu poem was spoken by Naomi Shihab Nye’s grandson. In more than one interview Nye has talked about the importance of writing three lines a day or three sentences a day (I take it for a haiku a day). When she heard his heartfelt words about one of San Antonio’s turquoise VIA buses, she wrote them down, in three-line form. I believe she was chosen as Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate for this very reason: she encourages poetry, especially in young people.
This month Nye starts her two-year term as Young People’s Poet Laureate, a position established in 2006. She has written poetry for children (Come With Me: Poems for a Journey and A Maze Me: Poems for Girls) and edited several children’s poetry collections. She also writes youth fiction, including four picture books, Habibi a YA book that won the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the middle grade The Turtle of Oman.
I read The Turtle of Oman a few months ago. It’s a quiet book, about a boy spending a week with his grandfather before moving to America with his parents. I took notes on all the sentences that sparkled at me, like this one: “He learned how to read shoes first. Then he learned to read books.”
In 2013 Nye received the Neustadt Award for Children’s Literature, known as the American Nobel. She was also given the honor of presenting the annual May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture in 2018 to the American Library Association. Reading through the list of recent honorees, some of the lecture titles (even from authors I admire) sounded a bit like taking medicine. Nye’s was titled “Refreshments Will Be Served: Our Lives of Reading and Writing.” It was about welcoming books into your life, valuing libraries, and sharing stories with children.
In her speech, she said this:
I have noticed that audiences of children have not changed much recently. But audiences of adults these days often have a more desperate feel, as if they want any speaker to hand them passwords for sanity — a magical code for survival during weird times. And all any of us can do is tell the best things we know.
The best thing I know is children.”
Children in Palestine and children in Oman and children in Ferguson and San Antonio and children in rural areas, where Nye visited over her fifteen-year stint as a visiting writer with the Texas Commission on the Arts.
Nye has said her goal in this position is to bring poetry to children in underserved areas. She also plans to share poetry book recommendations specifically for young readers.
I am excited about this not only because Nye’s poem Kindness is one of my absolute favorites, but also because her approach to poetry is welcoming. In the Arbuthnot Lecture, she gave this tip for reading poetry:
And definitely, please forget about explanations. Poetry prefers hinting, insinuating, suggesting, leaping, triggering.”
Playing hide and go seek, as it were.
Nye wrote the following poem to be read at the opening of a new library. It’s about the kind of girl Nye has met all around the world, one who remains curious despite life’s struggles, one who can find exactly what she needs in a book because “ The book has already lived through its troubles. ”
Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things
She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.
She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.
She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five and dime.
What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, a straight spine.
When the step returns to itself,
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers,
she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.
Journal With Me?
1. Using details from the poem, what are some of the difficulties this girl faces?
2. The word “spine” has more than one meaning. How might each one help you understand this girl and this poem?
3. Write a summer memory you have of going to the library.
4. If you could give this girl one book, what would it be?
Photo by lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome.
Browse more children’s poetry
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro