Janet Wong: The Children’s Poetry Scene in America: A Recap of #NCTE21

In late November, I attended the NCTE (ncte.org) convention. This conference is one of the most important annual events for children’s authors in America, where we talk about our books with thousands of teachers who work at all levels, preschool through university. There are always dozens of poetry sessions. To give you a sense of the content we share, here is a description of one of the sessions I participated in.

Equity in Poetry: Celebrating Diverse Voices in Verse

Three award-winning poets — Janet Wong, Elizabeth Steinglass, and Carole Boston Weatherford — will share poems that embrace the call for equity. In addition, we will invite audience participation with strategies that promote greater equity with movement, sign language, choral reading, visuals, music, and other tools as we co-create equitable literacy learning experiences together.

This session was hosted by Sylvia Vardell, a professor of children’s literature in Texas and one of America’s top experts on poetry. Each year in January on her Poetry for Children blog, she features a “sneak peek” list of the hundred-plus children’s poetry books that will be published that year. And all through the year, you can read interviews and book summaries, enjoy minute-long “poem movies,” and more: http://poetryforchildren.blogspot.com/.

For decades, Sylvia has been urging educators all over the world, from Athens to Auckland to Austin, to embrace the brevity and accessibility of poetry. She believes — as we all do — that poetry has the power to reach every reader, but not just because of the form or content of a poem. In anthologies that she and I have created together, such as The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, The Poetry of Science, and GREAT MORNING: Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud (please see https://pomelobooks.com/), she always includes “Poetry PLUS”— additional materials that extend the learning along with suggestions for sharing poems in a lively way. As she pointed out in the resources in HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving and also in this NCTE session, we can use movement, sign language, choral reading, visuals, and other techniques when we read a poem to create a level playing field for learning.

In addition to showcasing poetry in programs by authors and educators, another reason that NCTE has become the professional home of many American children’s poets (and poetry fans) is its poetry awards. I received the 2021 Excellence in Poetry for Children Award, a lifetime achievement award that has been given to Paul Janeczko, J. Patrick Lewis, Marilyn Nelson, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, and others. For a mini-lesson on children’s poetry in America, you can click here (and scroll down): https://ncte.org/awards/excellence-in-poetry-for-children-living-american-poet/.

NCTE also highlights thirty poetry books (collections, anthologies, and verse novels) on its annual Poetry Notables list; my book Good Luck Gold & MORE was lucky enough to be included on the current list. Here are excerpts of a poem, prose piece, and discussion questions taken from its pages.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama emphasized in her opening keynote speech for #NCTE21 that “it’s harder to hate up close.” In the closing keynote speech, poet Amanda Gorman said, “Writing — telling truthful stories that matter — is an essential service for humanity.” And in America, this is what many of us children’s poets are focusing on today: how to make our country (and the world) a better place, one poem at a time.

A note about #NCTE21: Originally planned as an in-person conference in Louisville, Kentucky, the decision was made to shift to a virtual online format in the summer before the conference as COVID-19 surged again in the United States. I’ve attended the annual NCTE conference almost twenty times in person, with a thousand good memories; but, oddly, I felt an even stronger sense of community with this virtual format. All throughout the talks that I gave and attended, people chatted, responding immediately to the content with questions and feedback. It felt to me that we were sitting together in the same room, though photos posted on social media showed people in many different settings: lounging on the couch with cats in front of their screens, munching on samosas, or sitting on their balconies as they watched. As much as I keep hearing people say that they hope we can return to in-person conferences very soon, I hope we’ll always keep a virtual element at future conferences. At #NCTE21, people logged in from all over the world. Making global participation easy is something that justifies—actually, mandates—keeping a virtual element for future in-person conferences. Fingers crossed that we see (or at least “see”) each other at #NCTE22 in Anaheim, California. Disneyland, anyone?

Janet Wong

Janet Wong is the author of more than 35 books for children and teens. Her most recent book (with Sylvia Vardell and 25 poets) is THINGS WE DO, an alphabet anthology; 100% of the profits from this book will be donated to the IBBY Children in Crisis Fund https://www.ibby.org/awards-activities/ibby-children-in-crisis-fund