Thursday, February 2, 2017

Spotlight on Jeannine Atkins + DMC Challenge


Jeannine Atkins is the author of several picture books, chapter books, and novels for young readers, about courageous women who forge ahead in their lives and careers despite formidable odds and personal sacrifice. She has distinguished herself as a critically acclaimed poet with her biographical novels-in-verse Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters (Henry Holt & Co., 2010), Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science (Atheneum Books/Simon & Schuster, 2016), and her latest, Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis (Atheneum Books/Simon & Schuster, 2017).

When she's not writing, Jeannine teaches children's literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing at Simmons College. As much as I'd love to sit in on her classes, I learn plenty just by following Jeannine's blog Views from a Window Seat.  In 2013, I was fortunate to win a copy of Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life (reviewed HERE) and have been a huge fan of her work ever since. You can find out more about all of Jeannine's books, including resources for students and educators, at her website.

The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, January 10, 2017
ISBN: 978-1481459051
Find at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or via
There was a time I would have been reluctant to review Stone Mirrors on Today's Little Ditty. Intended for readers twelve and up, it does have some disturbing content that makes it less than "ditty-like." But among the changes I've decided to embrace this year is the tide of verse novels that has been building momentum and taking the kidlit world by storm. I'm ready to dive in and take Today's Little Ditty with me. Of course I'll continue to feature poetry collections and rhyming picture books as well, but if Today's Little Ditty is going to thrive, it needs to reflect my interests and explore new directions.

I was truly captivated by Stone Mirrors. Apparently, so were Kirkus and Booklist who both gave Stone Mirrors starred reviews. It's the powerful and inspiring story of Edmonia Lewis—a woman of African-Haitian and Native American (Ojibwe) descent, who is presented with the opportunity to study at a newly interracial Oberlin College during the Civil War years. While there, she is accused of attempted murder, subjected to a violent attack, and later accused of theft and forced to leave one semester short of graduation. Incredibly, she goes on to eventually become an eminent sculptor living in Rome, though not without carrying the scars and ghosts of her past with her.

Quoted in "Letter From L. Maria Child,"
National Anti-Slavery Standard, 27 Feb. 1864

One of the things I love most about Jeannine Atkins's work is the respectful way she shines light on lesser known women in history. The records of Edmonia Lewis's life are scant at best, but Jeannine ensures that they are not lost altogether. While keeping to the facts of real events, through rigorous research and empathic imagining, she pulls out details and emotion—filling in the gaps with an entirely credible rendering. What's more, there's something about the way Jeannine writes that grabs hold of more than just your imagination. Her work engages the reader not only in story, but like other sensuous art forms, her books remain memorable on a visceral level long after you put them down.

Take a look at this opening poem from Stone Mirrors:


Old branches crack as Edmonia breaks
a path through the woods. She wants
to outrun fury, or at least make a distance
between herself and the poison spoken
at Oberlin. The school is a shop where she can't buy,
a supper she's never meant to taste,
a holiday she can't celebrate
though she doesn't want to be left out.

She runs under trees taller than those in town,
where they're sawed into lumber,
turned into tables, rifles, or walls.
These woods are as close to home
as she may ever again get.
When she was given a chance to go
to boarding school, her aunts' farewell was final.
People who move into houses
with hard walls don't return to homes
that can be rolled and carried on backs.

Edmonia crouches to touch tracks
of birds and swift squirrels sculpted in snow,
the split hearts of deer hooves.
Boot prints are set far enough apart 
to tell her the trespasser is tall,
shallow enough to guess he's slender.
Her cold breath stops, like ice.
She looks up at a deer whose dark gaze
binds them, turns into trust.
Then a branch breaks. The deer flees.

                              From Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis
                              by Jeannine Atkins (Atheneum Books/Simon & Schuster, 2017)
                              Used with permission.

See what I mean? There are several themes and images here that echo throughout the book—cracking and breaking, a desire for belonging, poison, ice, home, trust... I could go on. But even in this one selection, you can experience the grip of poetry and the pull of story. As Jeannine describes it,
Verse narratives can be the perfect way to use poetry's precision along with the wondering of "What happens next? And then?"

Uncovering mysteries may be what Jeannine does best, but now it's time to crack open the mystery that is Jeannine Atkins, author and poet. We'll begin, as always, with five favorites.

Favorite childhood memory:  
          Trees: climbing, playing or reading underneath.

Favorite subject in school:
          English was kind to me. I was a fan of diagramming sentences.

Favorite teacher in school:  
          Mrs. Shaw, my fourth grade teacher, because she once held my hand
          walking down the corridor.
Jeannine Atkins and Kirby

Favorite pastime:  
          Walking my dog where he can be 

Favorite children’s poet:
          Marilyn Nelson and Karen Hesse have
          been inspirational.

What drives you to write books for young readers and what aspect(s) of your career do you enjoy the most?

Young readers can be so passionate. Who wouldn’t want readers who might slip your book under their pillows?  I like learning about the past, but while I read some bulky biographies and history books, I prefer forms that touch the past more lightly. Verse lets me use both facts and imagination.

A young fan gives Jeannine a picture of a princess scientist!

You do a tremendous amount of research before sitting down to write. For Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, you researched for a year and wrote for an additional two. What was your experience like for Stone Mirrors? How do you know when it’s time to pull yourself away from the research phase and start writing?

I spent about fifteen years, off and on, researching and writing Stone Mirrors. It just takes a lot of time, so I choose subjects I love for the long haul.

Edmonia Lewis
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

I first wrote about Edmonia Lewis in prose, as a historical novel. I realized I could do more with the imagery in verse, but it still took me years to get it right. After each of the many rejections, I tried again to show why I thought this was a life that needed to be known. It helps to be stubborn.

Beyond the care you put into research, the lyrical language and evocative imagery in your verse novels is extraordinary. Jane Yolen has said that when she writes, she begins as a poet. She doesn’t make a distinction between prose and poetry until later in the process when she goes back to make sure she has properly addressed character, plot, etc. You, on the other hand, have said “…except for occasional lucky accidents, most of the poetry comes late in the process.” I find this so intriguing! Does this mean that you consider your affinity with poetry something learned rather than something that comes naturally?

When I first read your question, I thought: I must have it wrong! I’d like to follow Jane Yolen’s path, and let a poem crystallize around a few right words. Then I remembered we all have our process, and these can keep changing. Most of my inspiration comes from history, so I read through a lot of generally un-poetic pages in search of imagery that strikes me, scenes I might expand into a poem, and a general arc for a series of poems. Once I have those bigger patterns, I play with imagery and listen for rhythms and sounds.
To me it’s like spreading lots of paint on paper, and only then focusing on each square inch or so, trying to get each spot to look just so.
I guess that means the poetry is learned or that it comes with lots of patient looking. The pleasure is that with each day’s work of cutting a path through many wrong words, I get to see something shinier emerge from a sprawl.

Photo: Debra Paulson

What inspired you to tell Edmonia Lewis's story?

I like writing about artists, because that might be a path I’d have taken if not for choosing writing. Also, like her, my life was shaped partly by a sense of not being able to talk about things that I knew were tremendously important.
Much of my writing begins with reading about a strong woman who makes me think:
                       Why had I never heard of her?
I admired Edmonia Lewis’s courage, but needed to also show her fear. Like the marble she sculpted, both fear and courage can be broken.

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra (1876)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, photo: Jeannine Atkins

In an author’s note at the end of the novel you explain,
(Mary) Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-1907) never spoke or wrote much about her past, and some of the stories that have come down through time are vague or contradictory.... I imagined my way into a vision of what might have been, the way a sculptor of historical figures starts with givens but creates her own vision.
With no clear-cut map to follow, were there points in the writing of this novel that you felt unsure about the direction you were taking? If so, how did you get past that insecurity?

There were so many points where I felt uncertain! I always come back to the small details of a life such as the sculpting tools she would have used and the meals she likely ate. Small sensory details often can set my direction.

for more details of Edmonia's life and work.

Please share a favorite passage from Stone Mirrors and tell us why it’s meaningful to you.
The past changes every time we look back.

… History is not only caught 

in vaults or glass cases, but is what’s shoved aside

or deliberately left out: The letter left within the pages

of a book, what was whispered over cake or soup.

This sums up why I write, looking for the common moments that can reveal what’s crucial.

Jeannine (L) with her grandmere and sister.
In an interview with Sylvia Vardell, you say "it’s [a] joy to introduce young readers to women who pursued their dreams. Reading can show us we’re never alone.” What role models or books have shaped who you are today?

I write about people from the past because biographies and historical fiction was my favorite reading as a girl. I didn’t make much distinction between fact and fiction, and found alternate homes for myself with Louisa May Alcott’s March family, Harriet the Spy, Joan of Arc, Virginia Dare, and Abigail Adams.

What’s coming up next for you?

I just finished a novel for middle readers with a bit of magic in it.    

                       —So tantalizing!

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

I’d go with most anything that Mr. Rogers has said.

Read more Fred Rogers quotes at Goodreads.

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

Like most of us, Edmonia Lewis tries to avoid painful memories, but she also makes an art of memorializing people in statues. As I thought about the conflicting forces of memory in her life, it seemed memory had a life of its own. I personified Memory.

Here’s an example from Stone Mirrors:
She pulls away,

skids through a puddle, meaning to escape

Memory, who creeps through the dark,

but pounces in broad daylight, too.

… Memory can find her anywhere.

So here’s your challenge! Decide on an important feeling for a character, then let that be external. Maybe your character will have a conversation with personified feeling such as Joy, Fear, Anger, or Gratitude. Or maybe you will write about the personified feeling in some other way. Even if the personification drops out in a later draft, I bet you’ll have clarified the feeling!

How intriguing!

Please keep in mind that your poem can take any form, including lyrical prose. But if you do go with prose, please limit your passage to fewer than 200 words.

Won't you join me in thanking Jeannine Atkins for this wonderful interview?
And while you're at it, thank her for offering a personalized copy of Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis to one lucky DMC participant chosen randomly at the end of the month—HURRAY!


Post a poem that uses personified feeling on our February 2017 padlet. Stop by any time during the month to add your work or to check out what others are contributing.

By posting on the padlet, you are granting me permission to share your poem on Today's Little Ditty.  Some poems will be featured as daily ditties, though authors may not be given advanced notice. Subscribe to the blog if you'd like to keep tabs. You can do that in the sidebar to the right where it says "Follow TLD by Email." As always, all of the poems will be included in a wrap-up celebration on the last Friday of the month—February 24th for our current challenge.

TEACHERS, it's great when students get involved! Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to learn about working poets and authors while having fun with poetry prompts. Thank you for spreading the word! For children under 13, please read my COPPA compliance statement in the sidebar to the right.

FIRST-TIMERS (those who have never contributed to a ditty challenge before), in addition to posting your work on the padlet, please send your name and email address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com. That way I'll be able to contact you for possible inclusion in future Best of Today's Little Ditty anthologies.

BLOGGERS, thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please also remember to include your poem (or a direct link to your post) on the padlet in order to be included in the wrap-up celebration and end-of-month giveaway.

Now sharpen your chisels and pencils, folks, it's time to create! 

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

Many thanks to everyone who contributed a tercet and made me feel so hopeful last week! The winners of copies of HERE WE GO: A Poetry Friday Power Book by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (Pomelo Books, 2017) are:

Rosi Hollinbeck
Jan Godown Annino
Maria Marshall
and Carol Varsalona

Congratulations to all!

For this week's Poetry Friday roundup, please join Penny Parker Klostermann, my most favorite dragon-keeper, at A Penny and Her Jots. 


  1. Good Morning! TLD is one of my first stops on a Friday morning...when I have my coffee and am ready for the recess of Poetry Friday. There is so much to respond to here. Where can I begin?
    First, I'm so pleased for you and all of us that TLD is growing and reflecting your expanded interests. I share your interest!
    And, Jeannine is truly one of my favorites. I grew up much like she did with my face stuck in a book -- historical fiction or biography being my favs. I do love how she brings history, especially little known, history alive. Reading her work is impossible for me. I must read and think and then go back and study. It's just so darn fascinating to try to figure out how she puts poems together.
    Thank you for the TLD challenge. You know I've been missing it. And, it's right up my alley. See you soon on the padlet. And, thank you so much, Jeannin Atkins, for visiting today.

  2. I'm so glad you've chosen to include Jeannine's verse novel in the ditty challenge. A wonderful interview! Jeannine is such a wealth of information and shares so freely. I loved seeing into her process here. And wheels in my head are already turning toward the challenge!

  3. What a wonderful interview of a remarkable writer, Michelle. And I'm so glad you're including verse novels now, as they've become one of my favorite things. Like Jeannine, I adore reading history and historical biography, so her books are right up my alley (just ordered this one!). I love the thoughtful challenge...will need to start thinking ...

    Thanks to you both!

  4. What a treat to read this interview with one of my favorite authors! Lewis' story is one that needs Jeannine's poetic gifts - can't wait to get my copy!

  5. So nice to see Jeannine here and to learn more about Stone Mirrors. Love her books and her passion for history and notable women in the arts and sciences. Enjoyed all the pics, too, esp. the one of Jeannine when she was little -- pensive even then. :)

    Thank you both for this fabulous interview!

  6. This latest book by Jeannine, Stone Mirrors, is the only one I haven't read and they are all wonderful. I have it, will read soon. Thanks for a "wonder" of an interview, Michelle. I look forward to your posts, and this was filled with new thoughts to consider about writing, thanks to Jeannine's sharing. We should all be grateful to Jeannine and others who are telling of people whose lives been hidden too long.

  7. Wow. What a wonderful interview, and a fascinating book, and a totally intriguing prompt! I will be mulling this one over for a while, I think. Thank you, Jeannine and thank you, Michelle.

  8. Thank you for sharing both the review of Stone Mirrors and the interview with Jeannine. I loved her first book and now have some catching up to do with the next two. I love that she is shining a light on such inspirational women.

  9. I'm so glad you're including verse novels, Michelle! I've started writing one myself! I adore Jeannine and have read most of her books but not this one. I will order it! Thanks for this fabulous post- a chance to get to know a little bit more about Jeannine and glimpse her process!

  10. What a find you've shared with us, in both Jeannine and Edmonia Lewis! I was not familiar with either. Thanks for your perspectives Jeannine and what a great challenge you've offered us.

  11. "It helps to be stubborn" - what a great quote, and a great reminder to never give up on something you know to be true and worth fighting for. I'm so glad that Jeannine was willing to keep fighting to bring this story to life, because these are the sort of stories that children need to explore and experience.

  12. So interesting to learn about Edmonia Lewis (my daughter went to Oberlin, which prides itself on inclusion and progressive values. Guess every institution has skeletons in its closet...but at least Oberlin named a center for women/transgender people after Edmonia.) Thanks for the wonderful interview and thoughtful challenge. Looking forward to reading this book!

    1. Oberlin is a great college and should be very proud of its history groundbreaking for its inclusion. The college made some mistakes, bound to happen when something is so new. What they did is extraordinary. What I have a hard time with is colleges more than 150 years that don't seem to learn from past mistakes.

  13. 15 years-- yes, it does sound like persistence is key!

    Cool challenge :-)

  14. An invigorating short-course today with Prof. Jeanne A. & Prof. Michelle.
    Thank you both.
    I intend to return to follow links + look for/order VIEWS FROM A WINDOW SEAT & learn more.
    Her research & the results you've shared sound like my cuppa. I feel ignorant not to know her until this article & grateful to come in from the dark.
    With her hours of dwelling among tedious history tomes, she is still able to shed the dregs to provide lines that tingle. Here is only one of several that grab me:

    "The school is a shop where she can't buy,
    a supper she's never meant to taste,"
    c. Jeannine Atkins/ "Forbidden"/ STONE MIRROR

    Thank you for so eloquently wrapping verse novels into TLD, which you know I call Today's Little Delight. I would love to take a workshop with Jeannine Atkins some day.

    Appreciations for allowing me the honor of taking a workshop-thru-workbook with Sylvia Vardell & Janet Wong in the form of the TLD gift of HERE WE GO, the poetry power book for kiddos & their adults :)
    Today's blog & this gift news are a super weekend sendoff!
    Many more thanks to all involved.

  15. I've been wanting to learn more about Edmonia Lewis and this will be the perfect book! Loved the interview...thank you both!

  16. I'm so excited to win Here We Go. Thanks so much to you and Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. Fascinating interview. This is a tough challenge. I'm going to try, but right now I don't have a single clue.

  17. I'm honored to call Jeannine a friend, and to call myself a fan! [Jeannine, your Muse must not ever take vacation time... what a body of work, and exciting things to come.]
    Thanks, Michelle, for all these sneak peeks into STONE MIRRORS. Have to give a shout-out to Jeannine's novel about artist May Alcott (Louisa's sister)- LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE. You'd love it, too, if you haven't yet read it!

    1. Thanks for mentioning LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE, Robyn. I left it out because it wasn't a verse novel, but yes, it's a treasure as well!

  18. What a great review and interview. Jeannine is an inspiration to all of us women listening and feeling too silent in this world. What a wonderful photo of that statue by Lewis in the Smithsonian. Imagine being so talented your statue is in the Smithsonian, but almost no traces of your life are left. What a great first poem, too, with beauty, tension, suspense, cliffhanger. It's a how-to on how to start a novel-in-verse. I don't know about this challenge.... I will have to think and think and think some more. Glad you are back and every-expanding the ditty role, Michelle.

  19. Thanks everyone for the lovely comments. For those of you worried about taking on personification -- I know you can do it! Maybe start with a character in motion and think of her main feeling. Then let her or him speak to Joy, Anxiety, Peaceful Nature, Curiosity, Grief, etc to set a dialog back and forth. Or here's a prompt: Happiness, where are you? -- let Happiness answer!

  20. The fifteen years of work shows in Jeannine's work, Stone Mirrors. I was enthralled not only by the story, but by the imagery and wisdom of the words in verse. I also had the opportunity to briefly meet Jeannine at NCTE. Happy to see her here for TLD. I will be passing this challenge on to my students.

  21. I've only read a few novels in verse and I absolutley loved them. And I'm impressed and intrigued by them because I wonder about the writer's process and how they come up with the perfect line breaks that make the writing so powerful.
    Thanks for this wonderful interview with Jeannine. Michelle, you have such a talent for bringing us relevant information in your interviews.
    I loved hearing about her process and learning more about Stone Mirrors.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Penny. From a career standpoint, I probably spend more time on these spotlights than I should. But relevancy is so important to me, as well!

  22. I really have to read this book. I'm cooking an idea for a poetry month verse novel biography first draft of a little known woman...

  23. I've only read one novel in verse (which I loved) and wasn't sure which one to try next. Thanks, Michelle, for introducing a new-to-me author. Can't wait to read Stone Mirrors, Jeannine.

  24. So much emotion and imagery packed into that poem! Thanks so much for this, Michelle. I'm so grateful to have met Jeannine a couple years ago through SCBWI, and am looking forward to taking two of her workshops at our upcoming conference in April. The book sounds fantastic!

  25. Jeannine is a gem and her body of work the treasure. Another fabulous Spotlight interview and challenge, Michelle. =)

  26. Thanks Michelle for this beautifully rich blog review of Jeannine Atkins! Thanks Jeannine for giving us a glimpse into your writing. Marilyn Nelson is a favorite of mine too! The book on Edmonia Lewis looks enchanting!

  27. I loved the interview and the snippets you shared of Jeannine Atkins' wonderful writing. I'm definitely adding Stone Mirrors to my to-buy list! Thanks so much for another interesting and engaging post!

  28. I am so glad that I stopped back to read about Jeannine and her fascinating book. This post was filled with wonder and gives me much food for thought, Michelle. Thanks Jeannine for giving me a taste of Stone Mirrors.