Here’s another in my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers. Today I report my interview with Sylvia Vardell (abbreviated “SV” below), who blogs at Poetry for Children. As you will see from the interview, Sylvia is a professor at Texas Woman’s University , an author, and a strong advocate of poetry for children. Choice quote: “Poetry is part music and part chocolate—delicious and unforgettable.” The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Sylvia’s blog, Poetry for Children, and the other useful resources she mentions. Click here for the previous interview in this series, with Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes.
Q: When and how did you become interested in poetry, and poetry for children in particular?
SV: I loved the rhythm and rhyme of poetry when I was a little girl and memorized a poem to perform for my Mom for her birthday when I was 7 or 8. Then came a long dormant period where poetry became more academic. I actually enjoyed analysis in college, but it wasn’t til I met a poet in graduate school that I came to see the passion BEHIND the creation of poetry and remembered how fun it could be. And that was when Shel Silverstein was a brand new voice (in the 1970’s) and his poetry persuaded my cranky sixth grade students to give the genre a chance. I used to say that Where the Sidewalk Ends was the one book I would want with me if I were ever stranded on a desert island with sixth graders!
Q: Do you write poetry for children yourself?
SV: Nope, I don’t. At least not with any intention of sharing it at all. I play with it from time to time, but mostly I love writing ABOUT poetry for children and I figure we need those voices, too.
Q: Why is poetry important? Is there something especially important about it for children?
SV: Poetry is part music and part chocolate—delicious and unforgettable. Everyone should get a taste at some point in their lives. For kids, it’s also primal, as natural as a heart beat and an organic way to learn language and from there, a path to reading.
Q: I noticed that you often emphasize reading poetry aloud. In fact, you’ve written a whole book (Poetry Aloud Here!) focused on that theme. Why is reading poetry aloud so important?
SV: Yes, reading poetry aloud is THE essential component in working with children, in my opinion. They learn through listening long before they master the complex process of reading and can take in hundreds of poems before they’re reading independently. So, there is a clear cognitive and intellectual benefit. But it also offers an affective benefit—an emotional connection; and a pedagogical benefit—it only takes a few minutes to share a poem with kids and the impact can be huge! What else offers so much learning in such a tidy package?
Q: Tell me about your blog, Poetry for Children.
SV: I am coming up on the fifth anniversary of my blog (begun July 14, 2006) and I can hardly believe it! Blogging for 5 years. Wow. I thought blogging sounded interesting—a way to share information using a technology that seemed quick and easy to learn. I looked around the “kidlitosphere” and saw several wonderful book review sites, but nothing focused exclusively on poetry for young people, so I decided that would be a niche that I would love to fill. I had published many articles (and then books) about poetry for kids, but I hoped a blog would give me an outlet that I could update on my own any time. And it has! I post weekly (usually on “Poetry Friday”), except during April when I post daily for National Poetry Month. I try to keep readers current on the whole world of children’s poetry, so it includes all kinds of things: poetry book reviews, guides and tips for using poetry with kids, news about poets and poetry awards, etc. If you follow my blog, I think I can proudly say that you’re keeping up with the field through my postings. At least, I hope so!
Q: Tell me about your exciting recent project Poetry Tag Time.
SV: Poetry Tag Time grew out of an idea that I featured on my blog last year (2010) during National Poetry Month. I thought it might be fun to play “tag” with poetry, so I asked one poet (J. Patrick Lewis) if he would share an original unpublished poem and then tag a fellow poet who would then share an original unpublished poem CONNECTED to his poem in some way. Then that poet would tag another poet friend, who would tag another, every day for 30 days. And it worked like a charm—30 poets participated and we had a lively, interactive time and generated a great response.
That led to the idea of creating a book of poetry featuring poets tagging each other with connected poems—but why not make it an e-book? So, I collaborated with poet and friend Janet Wong to do just that. We gathered 30 big name poets who had fun sharing poems and tagging poets. We published it just in time for National Poetry Month this year (2011) and it’s the first book of poetry for children that is digital only. The response has been very positive—even Roger Sutton at the esteemed Horn Book Magazine likes it!
Q: Can you share something surprising or interesting that has happened as a result of, or as part of, the Poetry Tag Time project?
SV: I learned that you don’t have to have a Kindle to read Kindle books! You can just download a free Kindle “app” from Amazon on your laptop (or cell phone) and have access to hundreds of free books to read. Very cool!
Q: Apart from Poetry Tag Time, what are some of your favorite recent books of poetry for children, and why?
SV: There are SO MANY I love! In fact, I post my list of favorites of those published each year on my blog–usually in December. [AM: Click here for Sylvia’s favorite poetry for children, 2010.]
Q: I understand you spent some time teaching and researching at the University of Zimbabwe as a Fulbright scholar. Can you share one of your favorite anecdotes from your time there?
SV: That was a wonderful experience. My whole family went with me—my husband was also a Fulbright Scholar there and we brought our five-year-old daughter and a sixth-month-old son. So, just LIVING there as a family was fascinating. It was just a few years after Zimbabwe had gained its independence so it was a time of great hope and promise. I remember people were so eager to take part in their country’s development that the newspaper sold out each day. Sold out! The schools were jammed to overflowing and there were such shortages of books and materials, but also true joy (and resourcefulness!) in the classrooms. We were there 6 months and wrote long, newsy letters about our adventures once a month which we photocopied and sent to family and friends back home. No Internet, no computers, no cell phones. What an adventure!
Q: How has your experience in Zimbabwe shaped your work since?
SV: It has made me a passionate advocate for multicultural and global literature for young people. Growing up as a German immigrant (who learned English as a second language), I was already pretty aware of the role of culture and language in one’s upbringing. But now I also experienced the role of race as a white minority living among a black majority in Zimbabwe. I realized we are all products of what we know and see and READ—thus the value of books showing many ways and many worlds.
Q: Tell me about Librarian’s Choices.
SV: The Librarians’ Choices project began as a class assignment in Fall, 2003, at Texas Woman’s University, with graduate students in Library Science enrolled in a Book Reviewing course. It has since evolved into a significant professional development activity involving about a dozen volunteer teachers, librarians, and library professionals. We spend the year reading and discussing hundreds of new books for children and young adults provided by major publishers. Then we decide which titles are most outstanding based on literary quality, appeal to children and young adults, the typical needs of a school or community library, and a comparative study of other professional review sources. We focus on developing a list of 100 titles, with approximately half of the list being designated for picture books or books for children and half of the list designated for novels or works for young adults. Poetry and nonfiction titles were also incorporated as appropriate. We also actively sought out works with multicultural content. As a culminating activity, each participant also reviews some of the titles including a description and analysis of each book, as well as connections for sharing the book with child/teen audiences, and recommendations for related books to combine or compare with the featured title. The goals of the project are twofold, to develop participant knowledge about current books for children and young adults and the ability to read and write critically about these books and to use this experience to create a professional resource for others interested in choosing outstanding and intriguing books for the young people they serve. Our latest issue is available online (librarianschoices.blogspot.com) and I’m working on getting all our previous issues posted there, too.
Q: What are some trends you see in children’s and young adult literature today?
SV: I actually see poetry getting more attention, especially novels in verse. And history is making a comeback—in historical fiction and in fantasy that incorporates historical details or even time travel.
Q: Are there things that worry you about the contemporary children’s literature scene? If so, what are they and why?
SV: I continue to be optimistic about the wonderful variety and creativity I see in the field. And when I see kids with books—whether paper or electronic—it always makes me happy to see them lose themselves in words and stories.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s literature?
SV: It’s constantly new, with new books, new trends, new writers and artists, new kids discovering books—and yet, it’s ageless, timeless, universal. Amazing!
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