Poem Sampler

She Speaks in the Voice of a Child

The Children's Poet Laureate recommends the melodic poetry of Nikki Grimes.

by Jack Prelutsky
When the Poetry Foundation named me the first Children’s Poet Laureate, I was delighted and astounded. I’d never expected anything like this. I was delighted because of the recognition for my work and astounded because there are so many other fine poets writing for children today.

Once the news sank in, I wanted to find a way to share these poets and their poems with everyone. Every month during my tenure, I’ll select a poet whose work I admire and enjoy. I’ll tell you a bit about them, feature several of their poems, and list some of their books. I expect that I’ll enjoy this, and hope you do too. –Jack Prelutsky


About a dozen years ago, I attended a poetry reading by Nikki Grimes at a bookstore in Seattle. She was wearing a purple dress, a purple coat, and a purple hat. I introduced myself, and we’ve been friends ever since. If you visit Nikki’s Web site, you’ll find a photo of us together. Purple is indeed her favorite color, and she collects pieces of glass in shades of deep blue. She’s a tireless worker, writing six days a week. (I wish I could be that disciplined.) When she’s not working on a manuscript, Nikki spends her time making jewelry and other works of art in paper and fabric.

Nikki writes an impressive variety of books, including novels, biographies, and poetry. Though poetry is her first love, she likes to explore things in a novel that she can’t in poetry, so she’ll always write both. She credits her musical ear for the sense of rhythm in her poetry and calls her poetry “the place where words and music meet.” Some of Nikki’s best poems speak beautifully in the voice of the child—in particular, her irrepressible character Danitra Brown.

Nikki GrimesNikki was born in Harlem in 1950. At the age of 13, she gave her first poetry reading, at the Countee Cullen Library, a block away from where she was born. She has won numerous awards, including the 2003 Coretta Scott King Award, given each year by the American Library Association to an African-American author and illustrator “for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” In 2006, she won the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.

Recently, Nikki sent me some of her unpublished poems. So, instead of selecting poems from her many books, I’ll share with you some of her newest ones.

Fake Tattoo
My butterfly sits
atop my wrist
as if it’s poised for flight.

My lovely tattoo
no longer new
will fade before the night.

Still, after it’s gone,
it will live on
inside my memory.

This jewel of the air—
beauty most rare—
that once was plain as me.

* * * * * *

Tree

1.
Ear to trunk, I hear
Tree sighing and dreaming of
lights, tinsel, angel.

2.
Her boughs bending, still
she welcomes Snow’s company—
temporary friend.

* * * * * *

Waiting

The orphanage
put my picture
on a postcard.
My smile says
“Pick me! Pick me!”
But mostly, people say
I’m too old to adopt,
like I’m a run-down clock
(tick-tock, tick-tock)
and the big hand says
Julie is half-past loving.

* * * * * *


What I Like About These Poems

“Fake Tattoo” — I love the melodic sensation of this poem. When you read the poem out loud, it paints an aural picture of a butterfly. In the first stanza, several words contain the short “i” sound (sits/wrist/if/it’s), which reinforces the flitting movements of a butterfly. The next stanza depends on the longer “oo” sound (tattoo/new), which helps create the sense of a butterfly at rest (and so you have a chance to really gaze at it). The final two stanzas become more contemplative as the butterfly recedes into memory. Then, if that is not enough, in the last line Nikki takes you back to the title, reminding you that this butterfly is a fake (remember, she’s describing a tattoo of a butterfly). She compares herself to this tattoo and leaves you with the question “Who does the narrator thinks she is?” A fake (tattoo) or a real person (me)? Is she as beautiful as a jewel or just plain “me”? This simple little poem about a tattoo of a butterfly is expressing some quite complicated and contradictory feelings.

“Tree” — Nikki never says what kind of tree this is, but by the end of the first stanza, you know that as the narrator leans against its trunk, she is “listening” to a Christmas tree. What else could it be with words such as “lights, tinsel, angel”? In the second stanza, you realize this tree is still standing in a field or forest, covered only in a mantle of snow. What gives this poem so much power is the projection of the narrator’s feelings of expectation onto a simple tree that hasn’t yet been cut down. Her anticipation of Christmas is so intense that she thinks everything, including a tree still in the ground, must be dreaming of Christmas, too.

“Waiting” — In just 11 lines, Nikki tells the story of a child’s life. You learn that Julie is an orphan who’s longing to find a family (“Pick me! Pick me!”). She’s also optimistic (“My smile”), but—and there is a very big “But” halfway through the poem—her hopes are dashed because others see her as too old to be adopted. Julie’s disappointment is made all the more poignant when she compares herself to a run-down clock. You can hear time ticking away “(tick-tock, tick-tock).” Julie doesn’t just say that nobody loves her; she says instead that she is “half-past loving.” This transformation of a child into the hands of a clock is more descriptive and evocative than merely telling us she is sad.

Nikki Grimes, “Fake Tattoo,” Tree,” and Waiting.” Copyright 1978 by Nikki Grimes. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Originally Published: June 13, 2007

COMMENTS (7)

On July 7, 2007 at 6:34pm sylvia joaquin wrote:
Nikki retained and perhaps nurtures the child in her, an important element in living. And that child in her, we glimpse in her poems. Nikki, live on!

On August 4, 2007 at 12:18am craze samani wrote:
i realy like very much your article.

On August 4, 2007 at 12:21am wagmi samani wrote:
Dear Mam/Sir,
Thank you very much for writing article about my favourite subject.have a nice day
thank you,
wagmi from india

On September 6, 2007 at 7:46pm natalia bradshaw-parson wrote:
Hello:

My I am the Editorial Assistant at the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. One of our major annual projects is to hold a Children's Poetry Camp here at the University. Three years ago, we started out with 15 underprivileged kids, this past summer we had 90!

We would love to have Ms. Grimes participate in our camp in August 2008.

Can you advise?

On October 12, 2007 at 11:47am Karin Beckett wrote:
I have a six year old daughter that is interested in learning how to write poetry. Can you recommend some books, websites and magazines that will help me teach her the craft.

On August 31, 2008 at 10:21am Maria wrote:
Get Pass the Poetry, Please!

by Lee B. Hopkins for your daughter. It's great-plus.

On December 3, 2008 at 6:47pm Tyeisha wrote:
I would like to say thanks to the author of this page because im starting a poet research project. Ii gave me a wonderful look at her work. :)

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 Jack  Prelutsky

Biography

Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, and when he was young he studied classical music; though he gave up pursuing a career as an opera singer to concentrate on writing, he continues to sing.

In a Scholastic.com interview, when asked where his ideas come from, Prelutsky said, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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