If I were an educator who taught poetry, I’d be pleased with the wide array of contemporary poetry selections out there today. From picture books, to illustrated middle-grade books, to free verse YA novels, to a few other options in between, there are talented poets in the field who are consistently innovating, working with publishers willing to try new things. To be sure, poetry may not always get as much attention as, say, fiction or graphic novels. But if you are paying attention, you can find treasures.
Case in point is the new collection of poetry from Coretta Scott King Award-winner Nikki Grimes, who is also the recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award and the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance is a moving, timely collection in which Grimes shares a selection of poems from celebrated Harlem Renaissance poets and uses them as a launching pad for her own original poems, using the Golden Shovel form.
If, like I was, you’re looking askance and wondering if you read that correctly—I’d never heard of this poetry form before, and I’m not a complete idiot about poetry—let me pause to provide a brief explanation. (Grimes devotes some time to explaining this, too, before she kicks off the poetry.) A poet using the Golden Shovel form takes an existing poem and uses all or a portion of it—either the poem’s entirety, a stanza, or just one line—to create a new poem. It’s a type of muscular word-sculpting, as Kwame Alexander has put it. Say this poem already exists in the world:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Cookies are yummy
And donuts are too.
(A poet I am not.) I might choose the line “violets are blue” to make my own original poem. The new poem I create, springing forth from the first one, arranges the words “violets,” “are,” and “blue” in the right margin. In other words, my first line will end with “violet.” My second line, with “are.” And the last line ends with “blue.” Maybe:
He gives me shining velvety violets
Yet does not know they are
Making me blue.
I may have mentioned above I’m not a talented poet, but I have to say: having created that (it took an embarrassingly long time) makes me appreciate all the more what Grimes does in this collection. She sometimes takes a line or a stanza from an existing poem to create short-ish original poems of her own, but more than once she takes every word of a poem to create something thoroughly new. For instance, using every single word of Langston Hughes’ iconic “Mother to Son” (“life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”), she creates her own six-page poem where yet another mother addresses a son about life’s hardships.
These are poems from the points of view of contemporary African American children or their parents addressing sons and daughters, many of them touching upon themes of racial injustice and bias. But there are also poems about pride, inner strength, identity, and hope. Bookending the poems with two non-Golden Shovel ones, Grimes introduces a young child nervous about the world he and his sister live in. “How can I stay strong / in a world where fear and hate / wait outside my door?” he wonders. In the poem, his teacher suggests he explore the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, telling him to “find fuel for the future” by looking to the past. “We’ll see,” the boy responds. He isn’t entirely convinced. But in the final poem, we see that his reflection upon the poems he’s read has inspired him. “Teacher was right. / The past is a ladder / that can help you / keep climbing.”
Grimes uses poems from eight Harlem Renaissance luminaries to inspire her own – Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Waring Cuney, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Clara Ann Thompson. It is simply fascinating to see what Grimes does with these poem excerpts, often playing off the same themes in the original poem, all while telling new stories from the perspectives of what are often vulnerable, introspective children. Grimes takes the entire first stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” which describes the pain behind the forced smiles of late-19th century black Americans, and creates a poem about the insecurities of middle schoolers, wearing their own types of “masks” in school.
The book is also illustrated and includes portraits from the likes of Shadra Strickland, R. Gregory Christie, Pat Cummings, and E. B. Lewis – with vibrant cover art from Christopher Myers. Grimes evidently created her own first piece of artwork just for the collection.
Grimes speaks to Megan Labrise here at Kirkus and discusses how she came to this project, how she refuses to write down to children, and much more. It’s an inspiring chat about an inspiring book, one that makes a superb addition to, in particular, classroom and school library shelves.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
ONE LAST WORD: WISDOM FROM THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE. Copyright © 2017 by Nikki Grimes. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury, New York.