2014 was an amazing year for youth poetry, an occurrence that was rightly acknowledged with the ALA Youth Media Awards. Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover won the Newbery Medal, while Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson was a Newbery Honor book. Also receiving praise was How I Discovered Poetry by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, which was a Coretta Scott King author honor book (the top award went to Woodson).
An autobiography in verse, How I Discovered Poetry tells the story of Nelson’s childhood in 1950s American. The daughter of a serviceman, Nelson spent time across the country in a variety of military bases. Each fourteen line free verse sonnet is prefaced by a location, indicative of the fact that Nelson’s life was hardly static, something to which I can definitely relate. Nelson embodies her younger self, and we readers get to experience her adolescent worldview. In “Church,” Nelson writes about mistaking the language of a sermon and wondering why Lot and his wife had to leave with their “flea.” “Poor Lot: imagine having a pet flea.” As time marches forward, young Nelson encounters friendship, racial barriers and lives through the “Red Menace.” In “Attic Window,” a twelve-year-old Nelson starts to question the world around through the books she reads, disdaining her sister Jennifer “and that letter she’s writing to Santa.” Nelson touches upon big moments and little ones, each one informing the person she grew to be.
In “Sputnik,” Nelson uses poetic language to describe the feeling of being a child in a military community. “My base school classmates play musical chairs,” she writes, meaning that children come and go. When her best friend Helene moves away, Nelson writes that she will “feel lonely as Sputnik” (emphasis by the author). Any child that has been separated from a friend will understand this feeling. Being structured as a series of free verse sonnets makes How I Discovered Poetry read easily. As the subject matter is often very deep and thoughtful, the short format makes the ideas more digestible.
Like Brown Girl Dreaming, How I Discovered Poetry is an intensely personal expression. Readers are privy to Nelson’s innermost thoughts and memories of her childhood. But because of Nelson’s deft touch, the book is never weighted down. It never becomes too much to comprehend. Adolescence is messy, and in reliving her specific experience, Nelson is sharing universal truths of childhood.
“My face, as foreign to me as a mask,/ allows people to believe they know me,” writes Nelson in “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl.” Nelson uses this final sonnet to express her feelings of identity and her wish to express herself. Using poetry as a personal expression of identity is a very powerful exercise. Students can embrace the sonnet form, or go unstructured in telling truths about themselves, and recognizing differences between what they feel and what other people see.
Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry. New York: Dial Books, 2014. ISBN:9780803733046