Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spotlight on Laura Shovan + DMC Challenge

                                       Photo: Karen Leigh Studios

Am I ever chuffed to be featuring Laura Shovan
as TLD's spotlight author for May!  

As many of you know, Laura has been a Today's Little Ditty contributor for the last two years, so to be able to showcase my knit-happy, Dr. Who-lovin', show tune-singin', uber-talented and ever-so-knowledgeable friend and her debut novel gives me the greatest pleasure.

Part poet, part editor, part educator, part educational consultant for teens with learning differences, and author of a brand spankin' new novel-in-verse, keeping up with Laura Shovan is not easy. Yet somehow she always manages to find time to write an engaging blog post, organize a slam-dunk poetry project, or offer a personal poetry recommendation to a friend. She's a wonder when it comes to making poetry connections, and with fifteen years experience as a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council, you can be sure Laura knows her audience and always brings out the best in the children she works with. They don't call her Mrs. Poems for nothing!

Laura is former editor for the literary journal Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Impressive, right? You can find out more about Laura, her books and achievements, and also her school visit availability at her website,

Today we'll be focusing on her latest accomplishment which is making quite a splash in the kidlit publishing world: THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, April 2016).

Wendy Lamb Books, April 12, 2016
ISBN: 978-0553521375
Find at, Barnes & Noble
or via

Request a signed copy from Laura’s
local bookstore, The Ivy Bookshop.
Just leave a note in the comments
when placing an order.
As described by Laura in an excellent interview about making poetry fun and relevant for every child,

THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is about a group of students who decide to save their school from demolition. Through a class poetry project, they describe their excitement about being the oldest kids at Emerson ES, their concerns about moving on to middle school, the changes they are coping with at home, and what makes their school special enough to fight for.

There's much to love about this book—the history, the familiarity, the poignancy, the community-building, the humor—but for me, two aspects are most noteworthy.

First, the believability.  There are eighteen students in Ms. Hill's fifth grade class, each with a unique voice and all of them credible.

Take Katie McCain, for example, from "Writing Time":

Some mornings
my words are clumsy.
They bump into each other.
They've got as much rhythm
as an octopus
doing the chicken dance.

Or Norah Hassan, excerpted from "Hijab":

When I put the hijab on
I float inside my scarf's blue cloth,
the golden threads shimmer
like sunshine on water.

                                             Or Rennie Rawlins, from "Hungry Yellow Bulldozers":

                                             I can picture them
                                             sitting at the edge
                                             of our kickball field.
                                             Two yellow bulldozers
                                             crouched outside,
                                             ready to eat our school
                                             in one greedy gulp.

The other thing I find particularly noteworthy is that this book never shies away from sensitive or controversial subject matter—homelessness, intolerance, divorce, death, identity. It's all fair game because it's all real world. No holds barred.

Take a look at this senryu titled "Shoshanna Says" by Rachel Chieko Stein:

"You can't be Jewish."
But I've never even
been to Japan. 
You can read more from Rachel at Jama's Alphabet Soup.

Or this, from Edgar Lee Jones, excerpted from "The Funeral":

The church smells too clean.
I feel like I can't breathe.
I escape to the back room,
where they've got donuts and coffee.
My brother finds me, fills a cup
halfway with milk, pours in some coffee.
I take small sips. Bitter and sweet.
The flavor makes me think of Grandpa,
his coffee breath in the morning.

With so many diverse and true-to-life personalities united in a common goal, teachers can't go wrong by incorporating this fun book into their curriculum. Laura has made it easy by including a glossary of poetry forms and suggested prompts at the back of the book. What's more, Sylvia Vardell has gone and made it even easier by creating a educator's guide for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, which you can preview HERE or download HERE.

Short of two bulldozers on a voracious rampage, I can't imagine what might prevent anyone from embracing this novel-in-verse!

...except, perhaps, me blabbing on endlessly.

Don't worry, I'm done now.

I hope you enjoy this month's spotlight interview, beginning with five of Laura Shovan's favorite things:

       Favorite sound:   
Spring peepers.

       Favorite music:
I’m an 80s girl. This summer, I’m going to see Duran Duran for the first time.
 You are not! Click HERE for one of Laura's (and my) Duran Duran favorites.

       Favorite childhood memory:
Visiting my grandparents. They lived in a big, old house called The Old Rectory in a rural part of Nottingham, England. It was as magical as it sounds.

"The Old Rectory" converted into flats, but still magical.

       Favorite teacher in school:
My third grade teacher Mrs. Khoury was my favorite. I felt that she saw who I was as a person. Also, she thought I was a good writer. I cried when she moved away.

       Favorite children’s poet:
Robert Louis Stevenson when I was a child. Marilyn Singer and Calef Brown now.

Congratulations on your debut novel, Laura!  How has the experience of writing a novel-in-verse changed or challenged you?

Thank you, Michelle! I started the book as a collection of 30 poems, each poem in the voice of one student in a fifth grade class. The biggest challenge was growing the book into a novel. The first storyline I came up with didn’t work, so I threw it out and started over. That experience reminds me of a favorite poem, Kay Ryan’s “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It.”

Persona poems are a form I love, so I’m comfortable creating characters. The biggest learning curve for me was piecing together a plot. The story had to move forward poem by poem and character by character. It felt like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Can you tell us a little about your writing routine—when, where, how you prefer to write?
Book launch at The Ivy Bookshop                  Photo: Jen Grow

Morning person here! If I can get a poem (or 1500 words if I’m working on a prose piece) written before 11 am, it’s a good day. When I was working on revisions with my editor, I created a shrine of encouraging things in my writing space: an owl card from my grad school mentor, a small vase of feathers, a Marceline the Vampire Queen figure, and other mementos.


One of your inspirations for writing THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY was Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY (1915), but I can’t help wonder how much of it was also inspired by your personal encounters with children as a poet in the schools?

My son had just finished fifth grade when I started working on the book, so many of the original characters were based on his friends and classmates. By then, I’d been working as poet in the schools for six years, so those stories were seeping into the book too, along with memories from my own childhood. The scene where Shoshanna’s mother makes her invite Mark to the movies and she’s worried other kids will think they’re going on a date – that happened when I was in fifth grade. I officially apologize to Doug Mancini!

© 2016 Laura Shovan, used by permission of the author.

As if writing a novel-in-verse wasn’t enough of a monumental undertaking, Ms. Hill’s fifth grade class encompasses 18 diverse characters with 18 unique voices— each with their own set of real-life obstacles and aspirations, many of which are sensitive in nature. I imagine you had to rein them in some to allow the novel to come together as a whole. This is probably a big ask, but can you summarize your process of managing it all?

Find out more about this shockingly huge binder
at Sharing Our Notebooks.
I spent a lot of time on the characters. More than once, I pulled the whole book apart, revised the poems of each individual character one by one, and then reconstructed the book. This was a way for me to create consistent voices. The binder is where I kept drafts of each poem, organized by character.

The earliest version of the book was 30 poems, 30 characters. Over time, I cut some of the voices and combined pairs. My editor wanted to get the voices down to 18, but she also felt that the class queen bee didn’t have enough depth. We put that character together with one whose mother was in the military, and the result is Hannah. She’s a much more layered voice as a result.

Please share a favorite selection from THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY and tell us why it’s a favorite.

That’s really hard, Michelle! I’m partial to the series of poems that are dated around Valentine’s Day. Jason’s “Self Portrait” – the concrete poem with the little secret tucked into it – was the first poem I wrote for the book.

© 2016 Laura Shovan, used by permission of the author.

For Ms. Hill’s class, fighting to save their school becomes a life-changing event. What is something you’ve had to fight for in your own life?

On a school visit with students from Northfield Elementary
I am vocal about poetry advocacy. Giving young people space to find their voices is especially important in today’s classroom.  In school, we are doing more than creating future college students and workers. We are spending hours a day with developing human beings. Sharing poetry encourages children and teens think and talk about their lives, makes them feel valued beyond their role as students, and helps them connect with teachers and peers. I may not look like I’m fighting when I visit a school, but I hope I’m showing educators, administrators, and parents this: Poetry is a powerful tool for supporting students’ growth as readers, writers, and people.
Laura Shovan, future author
(with fabulous hair)

What’s coming up next for you?

I am working on another middle grade novel for Wendy Lamb Books.

If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?

If I had all the children of the world in one room, I wouldn’t tell them anything. I’d get them working on something together: a poem, a song, painting a mural. The things they can learn from one another are more valuable than anything I might say.

Finally, what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge?

Let’s go with one of my favorites, persona poems. These can be in third person, or written like a little monologue. I like using post-cards or fine art portraits. It helps to have a face or figure to look out.

When I work with young writers on this prompt, first we list the facts of the image. These are the things we can see and know are true (no guessing). Next, we imagine what the person is thinking and doing. If we could press “play” and make the image move, what would happen next?

Wonderful— persona poems, it is! 

I know I tend to say this a lot, but I'm really excited about this month's challenge. No doubt the variety of poems will be incredible.

You've been such fun to have here today, Laura. Thank you for the interview and also for generously providing a personalized copy of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY to one lucky DMC participant chosen randomly at the end of the month.

For those still a bit uncertain as to what a persona poem is, Laura will be back here at Today's Little Ditty next Friday to explore persona poems further.  But for those of you good to go, by all means have at it!


Throughout the month send your persona poems to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. You're also welcome to send me the photograph, painting, or other image that inspired your poem as long as I can properly attribute the artist/photographer. Feel free to use your own photographs, works of art in the public domain, or works that fall under a "creative commons" license, but make sure to send me the link for proper copyright attribution.

For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.

Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up celebration on Friday, May 27, 2016.

Thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please also remember to send me a copy of your poem or a direct link to your post. That way I know I have your permission to post your poem on Today's Little Ditty.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thanks again to everyone who participated in Marilyn Singer's challenge last month to write a poem inspired by the word "echo." I'm still feeling the reverberations of such an amazing collection of poems! has determined that the winner of a copy of ECHO ECHO: Reverso Poems about Greek Myths by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josée Masse is . . .

CATHERINE FLYNNCongratulations, Catherine!

Sylvia Vardell (yes, the same Sylvia who creates such marvelous educator guides) is hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Poetry for Children. In honor of Mother's Day, you'll find a wonderful list of diverse poetry books about mothers, as well as  links all of this week's other poetry offerings.


  1. Nice to learn more about Laura! The library's copy of her book came in, was cataloged, and is now on my desk ready to check out! That's one of the perks of being a librarian--you get to be the first reader for a lot of new books! I'm looking forward to writing a persona poem--they're one of my favorite things to write!

  2. Robbie had just finished fifth grade when you started? So much persistence on your part! I love how it paid off!!
    I can see why Jason's poem is a favorite. It's a charmer.

  3. I had the privilege of meeting with Laura virtually on two occasions, a Skype with my students and a Google Hang out with me. She is generous and gentle. This book reflects her deep concern for children and their worlds. My students are loving it. Thanks for the interview and the challenge.

    1. Thank you for that, Margaret. Your students were so much fun to hang out with.

  4. Another great interview with Laura, whose book I just read last night! I love the expression on younger-Laura's face... kinda sassy, kinda "I have a secret," kinda "I dare you." A future poet, for sure! Thanks, Michelle. xo

  5. Thanks for sharing this Michelle, it's nice to learn a bit more about Laura and you 80's gals' Duran Duran obsession. ;) I admit, I'm a fan, too - although not for the same reasons as most of the girls I went to school with! I love the voices Laura's created for the individual kids, and am looking forward to reading it!

  6. Such a treat to learn more about Laura and the book. Loved seeing the Old Rectory and good hair day Laura too :).

  7. It was so much fun to learn about the process for this book.
    Oh, yes, nice hair! Great that you could capture it that day!

  8. Laura this is a wonderful look into your writing life your are a blessing I relay enjoyed being apart WRITING GROUP EAREALER THIS YEAR I will have to look for your book you are such an inspiration to all of us that write I look forward to writing for this challenge

  9. Hello dear Michelle & Laura,

    My copy of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY is already here & treasured, so I'll opt out of an entry for someone else to benefit.
    But I love this fulsome, nourishing interview.
    And you did not go on too long, Michelle. I've read several articles online about this exciting new book & you bring out fresh ideas & aspects of Laura's poetry/writing/teaching/mentoring life.

    I especially like how I didn't see the name at the heart of Laura's favorite poem before. Duh! It's precious and maybe now, my new favorite poem in the book. I also appreciate all the deertales about the give-and-take of the editorial process shared here.
    The persona poem prompt is enticing. I can't wait to return for next week's lesson & to read the results.
    Happy Mother's Day weekend to all.

  10. Love that you have Laura here today and for the month's challenge, Michelle. I do love this "last fifth grade" with all its unique characters, including the wonderful teacher! Laura's book will be a beautiful text to use in the classroom, building community through poetry, maybe being surprised because you see yourself in one of those poems, whether a fifth grader today, or long ago. Thanks, Michelle, and Laura, too.

  11. The Old Rectory is magical! I'm so looking forward to reading this soon!! Congrats, Laura & thank you, Michelle :)

  12. Love Laura and her hair. :-) It was a treat to read this. I love what you said you would tell all the children of the world if you could get them all into one room. Fabulous.

  13. Jason's poem is all heart--as is this interview! Thanks Michelle and Laura.

  14. Wonderful interview & Intro to the book, Michelle! (I was all taken aback when I read "At the Movies." You see I had a Hannah in my life all thru elementary school... Makes me want to read this book!)

  15. Hi, Michelle, thanks for participating in our wonderful Poetry Friday gathering this week. I think you know how much I love Laura's new book (and thanks for linking to the guide I created) and I love your feature with all its great nuggets and images. What a great resource for teachers and readers and writers too!

  16. I love the hole in the knees of the jeans!

  17. Such a fabulous fun to see our Poetry Friday peeps on the rise in the book publishing world!

  18. Hooray for Laura! Love this book and this challenge - persona poems are so fun to read and write. Thanks for the peek into Laura's process, too - that notebook is a fabulous! (I'm always excited for a new month so I can see what amazingness you have in store for us, Michelle. Thanks for all you do on your blog and in the world - poetry or otherwise.) Happy Mother's Day! =)

  19. I got Laura's book from the library, and it disappeared. I eventually wrested it back from my son's possession (but not till he finished it). I am amazed at how distinct the voices are for each student. Well done, Laura! What an undertaking this must have been. I'm enjoying it so far. I will have to ponder the persona poem.

    1. Thanks for that little story, Brenda. It made me smil. I'm glad you son loved the book.

  20. Just planned my first lesson for a summer creative writing workshop. A Persona Poem, of course! Thank you for the inspiration! (and instructions :) )

  21. Sorry that I never commented on this post Michelle and Laura. I read it and thought I did. I love the voices in all the poems and especially like the Self-portrait. The visual is wonderful. Off to finish my persona poems.