I’ve always been a reader and a writer. I have always loved poetry. So, it only made sense to me that I would like books written in poetry. Out of the Dust, Sold, and the Sonya Sones titles were staples in my classroom library–my go-to books for some of the girls in my class, but always recommended with a hint of caution: It’s written like a poem, so it might seem a little odd, but give it a try. They always came back for more.
Last week, on the way to school, I heard an NPR interview with Jason Reynolds about his new book, Long Way Down. It sounded like a book my students would like, and Reynolds made a compelling case for the rest of us to read it, too–a glimpse of understanding into the street culture and codes that influence young people to make dangerous, life-altering decisions. Still, it was low on my list of books to read–a story about a boy setting out to avenge his brother’s murder is a little too edgy for my bedtime YA reading routine.
Then, toward the end of the interview, David Greene asked him why it was written in poetry. What? Did I just hear that? I sat in the parking lot and was blown away by the thoughtful response Reynolds–a seemingly tough guy–gave, not just about his choices in the book, but about my students, too.
He spoke candidly about the problems of illiteracy (and maybe more importantly, aliteracy) among young men. He wants them to be able to read–and to think–about the book, so he has figured out a way to encourage them to read by limiting the number of words on a page and keeping the action going.
A lightbulb went off in my head; why shouldn’t the boys like books written in poetry? Poetry gets to the heart of the story–fast. I’m sure this is part of the reason the girls in my class loved the poetry books I gave them. As Jason Reynolds said, these books avoid the boring stuff.
Inspired by Reynolds, I spent some time reading “boy” books this week.
Last summer, at the International Literacy Association annual conference Kwame Alexander was the rock star. My colleagues who attended swooned over his autographed books and they now hold a prominent position on their classroom bookshelves–when they’re not checked out to a student. Booked focuses on divorce, first love, and soccer; The Crossover tells of love (and its problems) and basketball (and its problems). Even though the characters in both books are in middle school, the issues–families, first girlfriends, bullies, and sports–ring true to our 9th graders. They don’t look or feel like middle school books, so our boys (and girls) that missed them in 8th grade can still apply the basketball rules to their own lives:
Basketball Rule #5
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
As a teacher–and lover of words–I enjoyed the way Alexander works in his own love of language, and the characters come around to thinking that words and books are cool, too. I’ve added some titles (All the Broken Pieces and –the other one mentioned in Booked) to my reading list at Nick’s (from Booked) suggestion.
I did read Long Way Down, also–not at night, but in one sitting early in the morning before school. And, as Reynolds said, it can be done in 45 minutes, but the image of glowing orange cigarettes and the stories told in that elevator will be haunting me for quite a while, too. This is one I will recommend to students, but with a little more than just the caution that it’s poetry. It’s poetry that will make you think.