Thursday, August 30, 2018

Spotlight on Naomi Shihab Nye + DMC Challenge

Photo Credit: Ha Lam

Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a "wandering poet." For much of her life she's traveled the world sharing her words, listening to and collecting others in notebooks, exploring, learning, and teaching students of all ages.

Most often, we can't change things, but as poets, we can notice.
                    – Naomi Shihab Nye

Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, Naomi grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio is home base still, where she is Professor of Creative Writing – Poetry at Texas State University. Drawing from her heritage, travels, and life experiences, her writing is strongly influenced by place and culture, and attests to our shared humanity—her poetry carries us into a larger human experience.

19 Varieties of Gazelle (Greenwillow Books)
was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Author and anthologist of more than 30 volumes, Naomi Shihab Nye has written award-winning collections of poetry for children and adults, as well as essays, novels, picture books, and short stories.

Her many accolades include a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes, the Robert Creeley Prize, the "Betty Prize" from Poets House for service to poetry, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, and several other honors for her poetry and children’s literature, including two Jane Addams Children's Book Awards. She has also been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress), and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2015.

Following are some recommendations for young readers at home or in the classroom. (You'll find a more extensive list of titles HERE.)

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winners (all three from Greenwillow Books): What Have You Lost?
A Maze Me: Poems for Girls (Honor) and Is This Forever, or What?: Poems & Paintings from Texas (Honor)

Sitti's Secrets (picture book: Simon & Schuster), The Turtle of Oman (middle grade novel: Greenwillow Books)
Habibi (young adult novel: Simon Pulse) and Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets (Greenwillow Books)

"Famous" is one of Naomi Shihab Nye's
most beloved poems, beautifully illustrated 
in this 2015 picture book by Wings Press.
When I reached out to Naomi for an interview and to discuss her latest poetry collection, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners (Greenwillow Books), I wasn't convinced she would be interested... or have the time. If you google her, you won't find a lot of blog interviews, but you will find videos and transcripts of interviews she's done for national media outlets (I especially enjoyed NOW with Bill Moyers, PBS NewsHour, Dialogue with Marcia Franklin, and On Being with Krista Tippett), as well as absorbing presentations of her speaking and reading her own work. (This reading from her 2017 keynote at the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival includes three poems from Voices in the Air; she talks about the art of teaching poetry in this clip; or, for something longer, check out this presentation at Boston College.) I confess, it's been difficult to write this introduction because every time I sit down to do so, I distract myself with more and more "research"!

Not only did Naomi accept my invitation (lucky us!), but in corresponding with her for this interview, I discovered that she shares many of the same qualities found in her poems—she is kind, gracious, generous, warmhearted, thoughtful, appreciative.... If you're already familiar with her work, this probably won't come as a surprise. Naomi Shihab Nye is the kind of person who makes friends of strangers and reassures us that we are never alone. Her latest collection illustrates that point beautifully.

Greenwillow Books (February 13, 2018)
ISBN: 978-0062691842
Available for purchase at an independent bookstore near you.

One thing I love about Naomi's poetry collections is that her introductions are as nourishing as the poetry itself. In Voices, she talks about the need to listen better—how to reclaim a quiet, slower pace in our lives in order to become more receptive.
Reminding ourselves of what we love feels helpful. Walking outside—it's as quiet as it ever was. The birds still communicate without any help from us. In that deep quietude, doesn't the air, and the memory, feel more full of voices? If we slow down and intentionally practice listening, calming our own clatter, maybe we hear those voices better. They live on in us.

The 95 poems that follow are organized into three sections: Messages, Voices in the Air, and More Worlds. While I've read several of her collections, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners is special to me. Judging by reviews, I'm not the only one who feels that way. I love the range of poems included—the breadth of tone, style, and subject matter—but perhaps most of all, I strongly connect with the book's purpose—
[to] honor the artists, writers, poets, historical figures, ordinary people, and diverse luminaries from past and present who have inspired her. Full of words of encouragement, solace, and hope, this collection offers a message of peace and empathy.

This is a book that celebrates inspiration, yes; but for me, Voices in the Air also is also a book of love poems. Not the romantic sort, but poems that honor the deep connection and heartfelt respect for the subjects of these poems. Sometimes grateful, other times searching, Naomi's poems are, at all times, mindful conversations with people, places, and events that have accompanied her on her journey thus far. You'll also find biographical notes at the back of the book for each person referenced, as well as recommendations for where you might turn for further exploration.

As I read through these poems again and again, I find myself connecting with Voices on a profoundly personal level. I discovered sources of inspiration that Naomi and I have in common, as well as stories and relationships that echo my own. Listening for the wisdom of these voices, Naomi asks questions, seeks understanding, uncovers beauty, comes to terms, and, through her poems, we, too, are strengthened and motivated to open our hearts and live more connected and fulfilling lives.

The poem is not a closed experience, it remains open. It invites you in, hopefully.
                    – Naomi Shihab Nye

Now I invite you to make yourself comfortable, silence your phone and other distractions, and enjoy my interview with Naomi Shihab Nye. But first I'd like to share one of my favorite poems from Voices in the Air. It's called "Reserved for Poets" and, in my mind, it speaks to the reason Today's Little Ditty exists, and why our community of practicing poets is so important to me.

© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.
(Click image to enlarge.)

There's always room. And speaking of making room, we usually begin spotlight interviews with five favorites, but Naomi gave me six. Think of them like birthday candles—we get an extra one to grow on.

William E. Stafford (1914-1993)
Read some of his work HERE.
Favorite Poet:  

Forever and ever, William Stafford. If you have never read him, start now. If you read him a long time ago, reread. I find his poems have more to give us at any moment of our lives than anyone else's. And I knew that instantly when I was 17. 

Favorite music:  

Tom Waits – this is for the last 43 years at least.

Favorite children's author right now:

Visit Kevin Henkes's website

Kevin Henkes. Every day I spend with our little grandson, age 2, we read Egg and A Good Day (both from Greenwillow) at least 3 times each. But I love ALL his books, YA and picture books alike. I have always been fascinated by Kevin's exacting perfection.

Second grade poet, Naomi Shihab


Favorite teacher in school:

The legendary Mrs. Harriet Barron Lane, Central School, second grade, Ferguson, Missouri. I just found a letter Mrs. Lane wrote to my mom about my brother. She said to go easy on him about practicing a certain song. "He's just a small boy." 

In her class we read and wrote poetry every day. She thought poetry was at the center of the universe. Nothing was above our heads. Emily Dickinson was our friend.

Favorite pastime: Puttering.

Favorite quote: "It's really fun if you can stand it." Dorothy Stafford

You began your poetry practice early on, writing your first lines at age six and sending poems off to be published a year later. Do you recall any of those early works? Have you ever considered a different career path?

Yes, I recall quite a lot of them. I wrote about simple things—our cat, the crickets in the evening, my friend moving away, the creek we played around. No, I never considered doing something else. I always knew I could keep working in restaurants, as I did early on, as a back-up cook in various kitchens! —and keep writing poems.

Like your journalist father, you have great respect for the power of language and believe that writing comes with the responsibility of sharing your voice with others. As an Arab-American, you voluntarily entered the spotlight after 9/11 and continue to be politically vocal today. Was there ever a time when you questioned your desire to be so public with your thoughts?

Never. We have voices – we use them as we can.

Invitation to the NSA

Feel free to scrutinize my messages. Welcome. Have
fun fanning through my private thoughts on drones,
the Israeli Army chopping down olive trees, endless
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, horrific from the get-
go, and we told you so, but no one listened because
there was a lot of money and oomph in it, so feel free
to listen now. Bombs have no mothers. That is an
insult to mothers. See what I think about Bashar
al-Assad vs. the children of Syria, pass it on, please,
or weapons in general, the George W. Bush library in
Dallas which I refused to drive my mother past. I like
the sense of you looking over our shoulders, lifting
up the skirts of our pages, peering under my fury
at how you forget Palestine again and again, forget
the humble people there, never calling them the
victimized innocents as you call others. You forget
your promises, forget religion, Thou Shalt Not Kill,
and yet you kill, in so any ways, so what do we
care? You might as well see what we say.
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

On PBS NewsHour you said that absorbing too many “breaking news” headlines, it’s easy to feel broken—assaulted by all the tragedy in the world. In our current political climate, I know of a number of poets who have been finding it difficult to write, especially for children, for precisely that reason. How do you walk the line of being present with today’s current events while at the same time protecting and nurturing your creative muse?

I try to spend a significant amount of time outside, and with small children.  Also, I read writers whose voices nourish me, and try to stay in touch with people in encouraging ways.


"The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it
gets dark."
                           —John Muir

Lyda Rose asked, "Are you a grown-up?"
The most flattering question of my adult life.
She darted around me like a hummingbird,
knotted in gauzy pink scarves,
braiding thyme into my hair.

There, on the brink of summer,
all summers blurred.
"No," I said.
"I don't think so.
I don't want to be."

"What are you then?"
Her dog snored by the couch,
little sister dozed on a pillow.
When her mom came home, we'd drink hot tea,
talk about our dead fathers, and cry.

"I think I'm a turtle," I said. "Hibernating."
"And a mouse in the moss.
And sometimes a hummingbird like you."

She jumped on my stomach then.
Asked if I'd ever worn a tutu
like the frayed pink one
she favored the whole spring.

No, not that.

"I have a shovel though," I said.
"For digging in the garden every night
before dark. And a small piano like yours
that pretends to be a harpsichord.
And I really love my broom."
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

In your introduction to Voices in the Air, you recommend that we take time to unplug from our devices, from “that sense of being nibbled up—as if message minnows surround us at all moments, nipping, nipping at our edges.” You introduce the Japanese word Yutori, “life-space,” as “a place to stand back to contemplate what we are living and experiencing. More spaciousness in being, more room in which to listen.”

I wonder, in your four decades of visiting schools and working with students, have you found that young people’s increased dependence on multitasking has made deeper listening more difficult to come by? Is writing poetry somehow less interesting or achievable for them because of a lack of calm and focus?

I don't think so. Everyone is writing! Everyone is reading! Perhaps our attention spans have changed—I think mine has—to more blip-blip-quick-change energy—and we need the oasis of calm available while working on single poems or pages more than ever—but we just have different tools now. Everything is at our fingertips. That's pretty amazing. Perhaps we need to work a little harder to find our quiet times? Or make a clearer intention about times when we DON'T stay connected through any device. Take breaks. We need more breaks. Someone told me we check our phones—was it 70 or 80 times a day? I'd prefer it to be 7 or 8.

Please share a favorite poem from VOICES IN THE AIR and tell us why it's a favorite.

I actually like a section divider best.

© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

I was driving up to my parents' old house in Dallas after my father died when that popped into my mind. Very comforting.

If you could have a conversation with anyone from history, who would it be?

Aziz Shihab (1927-2007)

My dad. Aziz Shihab. His last book was Does the Land Remember Me? A Memoir of Palestine (Syracuse University Press). I recommend it.

Aziz Shihab with daughter Naomi in 1953
For Aziz

I had not noticed
the delicate yellow flower
strikingly thin petals
like a man with many hopes
or a woman with many dreams
the center almost a tiny hive
ants could crawl in and out of
if they wished

Had not noticed the profusion
of flowers on the path
Had not stooped
to absorb the silent glory
of many-petaled yellow
or remembered the freshness
of my father's collar
for some years now
the rush of anticipation
circling his morning self
despite so much hard history
and searing news

Who can help us?
     Yellow beam
          sprial sunshine
© 2018 Naomi Shihab Nye, from Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Used with permission of the author and Greenwillow Books.

What's coming up next for you?

A beautiful hot summer day babysitting with a 2 year old and writing some notes in my notebook before he gets here.

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

Have fun. You matter. Stay true to yourself.

Stuart School, Princeton, New Jersey

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

Write a letter to yourself in which you ask some questions that you don't have to answer.

Any questions, poets? 

          Save them for your poems! [wink]

Seriously, though, I will offer one clarification for the ditty challenge. We've had letter poem challenges here before. This time you don't need to focus on a specific letter poem structure, complete with salutation and sign off. You can use one if you like, but I don't want you to get hung up on form. What we're looking for are introspective poems that ask questions. (Answers are optional.)

I look forward to hearing and sharing your voices throughout September!

In the meantime, please help me thank Naomi for being here today—for sharing her thoughts and poetry with us, as well as her encouragement and heart.

AND for offering a personalized copy of Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners to one lucky DMC participant!   

(Winner to be chosen randomly at the end of the month.)


Post your poem about what you see out your window on our September 2018 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—September 28th 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 let me know about it, so I can share your post! 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.

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

The winners of last week's giveaway for a copy of GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books, 2018) are:

Joy Acey
Linda H.
and Penny Parker Klostermann


Please send me your address at TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com.

Children's Author, poet, and artist Robyn Hood Black is hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Life on the Deckle Edge. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Back to School: GREAT MORNING! (Giveaway!)

Can you find six year old me? At the end of this post I'll let you know if you're right.

How I adored my first grade teacher, Miss Liles—Dori, as she invited us to call her. She was progressive, creative, nurturing, fun, and she instilled a love of learning that I never outgrew.

You may have guessed, I was one of those children—the kind who treated each school year as an exciting new adventure, the kind who liked to hold my teacher's hand, the kind who lived for storytime and painting at the easel (but not so much for climbing the rope in gym class), the kind who enjoyed playing school and completing worksheets at home just for fun

"Playing School" Boston Public Library

Those were the days before too much homework and standardized testing, mind you. But my kids, before the jaded teen phase set in, felt the same. The eagerness may have worn off some, but the anticipation of a new school year is pretty darn compelling, even for them. As adults, I think many of us still crave that feeling of a fresh start, whether it comes in the form of a New Year's resolution, a new job, a new creative project... a new ditty challenge perhaps (wink).

Kenn Nesbitt's delightful poem to welcome the new year can be found in Sylvia Vardell's and Janet Wong's most recent gift to educators, GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (Pomelo Books, 2018). 

GREAT MORNING! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
Pomelo Books, 2018
ISBN: 978-1937057282
Available for purchase at

As is the case with all of the Pomelo Books offerings, the concept of this anthology is brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness.

Sylvia and Janet have made it easy for principals, parent volunteers, student news crews, or a rotation of teachers and staff, to bring poetry into the lives of young people on Poetry Fridays or any other day of the week. To start with, they've chosen nearly 40 short poems relevant to the school year that can be read to students as part of morning announcements. I'm so pleased and honored to have my own "Look for the Helpers" included among them!

To make it even easier, they've also provided an attention grabbing introductory ("Did you know?") paragraph for each poem and a "Follow up" paragraph to help students personalize and carry the poem's positive message into their day. Watch the video of principal Steven Wilfing on Poetry for Children to see just how simple it is!

from GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
by Sylvia Vardell & Janet Wong ©2018 Pomelo Books

You'll also notice a third section titled CONNECT. Here, you'll find a poem recommendation to partner with the original poem as a reinforcing set. The recommended poem might be read and discussed in the classroom by a teacher or librarian, for example, to expand upon the theme, or to discuss the hidden language skills that are regularly used in writing poetry.

"New Year is Here" connects with "What We're Learning" by Janet Wong.

This poem makes me think of my son, who we recently delivered to his new temporary home on the campus of the Florida Institute of Technology.  He's not only building new skill sets having to do with aerospace engineering, but also time management, money management, roommate management, laundry management, and other such college survival skills. I, too, am learning new skills as I struggle to adapt to the empty chair at the dining table. But I digress.

What makes GREAT MORNING! so incredibly user-friendly is that Janet and Sylvia have done all the preparation—they supply the instructions, poem topics, connections to more poems and poetry resources, teaching tips, follow up activities, mini lessons, and even a sample letter to send home to parents to get them involved. It's all there. The only thing you need to supply is your enthusiasm and an understanding of the value poetry brings to students' lives.

I recently ran across a 250 year old quote that applies well when it comes to Janet and Sylvia, and the role Pomelo Books plays in the teaching lives of educators:

"Instruction does much, but encouragement everything."
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Letter to A.F. Oeser, Nov. 9, 1768)

I cannot overstate the impact Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong have made, and continue to make, when it comes to poetry advocacy in the schools. I was lucky enough to see them in action at ILA last year in Orlando. As excellent as the instruction was, what won the audience of teachers over was Janet and Sylvia's enthusiastic and encouraging approach to delivering that instruction. They make poetry seem simple and doable—which it is.

An interactive poetry session with Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong at ILA, July 2017.

I honestly think that many (most?) teachers see the importance of incorporating poetry into their classroom routines, but they're just not sure how to go about it. They need tools, resources, and, maybe most of all, confidence. Pomelo Books supplies all three. But don't just take my word for it! Paul Hankins knows what an asset Sylvia and Janet are to the educational community. Don't miss his comprehensive (and glowing) review of GREAT MORNING! from a teacher's perspective on Goodreads. 

Click HERE to learn more about Sylvia and Janet in my spotlight interview from 2014.

If you'd like to win a copy of GREAT MORNING!, leave a comment below or send an email with the subject "Great Morning Giveaway" to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com by Tuesday, August 28th. Three winners will be chosen at random and announced next Friday. Many thanks to Pomelo Books for providing these copies!

So, did you figure out which one of those adorable and well-behaved children at the top of this post is me? I'm in the second row on the far right wearing an orange turtleneck that my mom ordered from the Sears catalog. You can't see it in the photo, but it had a small Winnie the Pooh embroidered on it. Sigh. I miss that shirt.

Mike Mozart

Who's ready for a ditty challenge?

It's great to be back! And I am SO excited about TLD's featured author for September! While I usually post interviews on the first Friday of the month, I've decided to move this one up by a week to make sure I can share as many daily ditties as possible. I'm keeping the author's name a surprise for now, but do be sure to come back next week to find out who is in the spotlight.

Join teacher and poet Margaret Simon for this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Reflections on the Teche. She introduces a fun poetry project called a zeno zine.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018