Top 10 Signs of Hope for Own Voice Poetry by Margarita Engle
A few years ago, I was introduced at a writer’s conference as the only happy attendee, because I was a poet, and poets don’t expect to make money, so they are never disappointed. I’m afraid that’s still true for most of us, but one thing has changed: I no longer go around referring to poetry as the neglected stepchild of the publishing world. Here are my reasons:
Jacqueline Woodson and Kwame Alexander have joined well-known verse novelists such as Ellen Hopkins, Sharon Creech, Marion Dane Bauer, and Sonya Sones, whose works are widely celebrated and prominently featured, even in chain bookstores.
Statistics from the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books are still dismal, but even though the quantity of diverse books has not increased much, the quality is exquisite. Pending debuts, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Azevedo, are breathtaking.
Own voice reviewers are helping to spread the word about wonderful new books, while simultaneously pointing out offensive stereotypes in the increasing number of drastically oversimplified attempts at casual diversity.
The scope of own voice literature has expanded to include many more cultures than a decade ago. Thanhha Lai, Mariko Nagai, Bao Phi, Padma Venkatraman, and Guadalupe García McCall are just a few of the many outstanding examples of amazing poetic voices.
Many verse picture books are complex and detailed enough for older readers. Notable examples include those by Nikki Grimes, Carol Boston Weatherford, and Carmen Bernier-Grand.
Translations and bilingual editions are becoming more common. Beautiful examples include Emma Otheguy’s Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, and Jorge Tetl Argueta’s We Are Like the Clouds/Somos como las nubes.
Delightful verse biographies for younger children, such as those by Monica Brown, are no longer rare and hard to find.
There are new opportunities, such as the We Need Diverse Books Walter Awards, and the Arnold Adoff Multicultural Poetry Awards.
These honors really do help poets continue to get published.
Dedicated anthologists consistently make an effort to include a wide variety of poets representing many cultures. Notable examples are Lee Bennett Hopkins, Sylvia Vardell, and Janet Wong.
Well-established multicultural poets continue to be an inspiration. Ashley Bryan, Juan Felipe Herrera, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marilyn Nelson, Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, Linda Sue Park, Carmen Tafolla, Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Campoy, Pat Mora… The list is too long to name every veteran poet who serves as a role model for hopeful newcomers!
What can everyone else do to help?
Teach books in pairs. Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree is a gorgeous, poetic prose fantasy that can be understood even more clearly if paired with the equally poetic Yo Soy Muslim, by Mark González.
Be encouraging, not critical. Over the years, I’ve received invitations to share panels from supportive poets such as Helen Frost, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Kenn Nesbitt, Holly Thompson, and Marilyn Singer. I’m sure those poets have no idea how profoundly helpful each little note of encouragement becomes in a world that still too often views multicultural poetry as a curiosity, rather than a treasure.
Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.
Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.
Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.
Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband. You can find her online at www.margaritaengle.com and on Twitter as @YPPLaureate.