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For National Poetry Month: A Social Justice Poetry Project for Teens, a guest post by Laura Shovan

sjyalitWell. Here we are, educators and librarians. The teens we work with are consuming the same polarizing news media, current events stories, and government spin that we adults struggle to cope with every day.

 

How can we help teens interact with the news in a way that gives them some control over the language and information we’re being bombarded with?

 

One answer is poetry.

 

Over the past few months, I’ve resisted the urge to disengage from the language being used by government and media. Instead, I’m looking at that language as a poet — creating found poems to reflect what’s happening in our country and world.

 

A few days before our 45th president’s inauguration, I found I could not watch his press conference. My feelings about and reactions toward Trump were still too raw. I had to find a way to interact with his words that felt safe, but allowed me to digest their meaning.

 

I turned to poetry, printing out the text of the press conference and highlighting key phrases. The result was a found poem in Trump’s own words. 

 

The idea worked well enough that I borrowed it for the daily write-in I host each February. My goal was to help people stay aware of how language is being used in the current political climate, a skill that is crucial for teens as well as adults.

 

Whether you’re working with a teen writing club that meets once a month, a weekly poetry class, or a high school social justice committee, this exercise is adaptable for your group. It would make a great National Poetry Month project.

 

The prompt combines found poetry, current events, and a writing exercise from poet Grace Cavalieri entitled “10 Little Words.”

 

IMG_20170406_142557878 (1)Each day of the project, one member of the group chooses a news article. From that source, he or she pulls out 10 words. The task is to write a poem (or flash prose piece) using all, or most, of the day’s ten words.

 

 

What I like about this prompt is that it provides both structure and options. The ten words function like a vase, containing the poets’ raw emotional response to the news and giving it shape. But there’s also freedom to play with the words and make personal connections.

 

The best part of this current events/found poetry project is how it encourages engagement with the day’s news on a deeper level. Instead of reading and shaking our heads at injustice, writing a poem in response to the news encourages critical thinking and creativity. During difficult times or experiences, making art can help teens (anyone, really) gain an important sense of perspective.

 

Some tips on doing this project with teens:

It’s good to have a variety of topics. We all need occasional breaks from politics. Encourage each member of the group to take charge of the source and word bank for one day. The adult poets I worked with selected a variety of articles: political stories, science news, and social justice in the arts.

 

Reiterate that this exercise is about writing in community. In my February project, we post a prompt, write our response poems, and share them on a group page all on the same day. Everyone is generating new writing and ideas, so feedback is positive and supportive. The best surprises come from all the different interpretations of the day’s 10 words.

 

Some questions that might come up are:

Do I have to use all ten words? Can I use five?

I recommend poet’s choice.

 

Do I have to use the word as it’s listed?

Any delineation of the word is fine. Feel free to play. For one of the prompts, I turned “cash” into “cashew” because that suited my poem

 

Here are two sample prompts — with response poems — from the

2017 February Poetry Project.

 

Poet and librarian Diane Mayr chose our source and words on February 12.

10 Words of the Day: burning, fans, prop, platform, brushes, staunchly, magic, fringe, tombstone, epitomize

Source: “J.K. Rowling’s Twitter feud with Trump supporters is so bad she’s now fighting some of her fans,” by Travis M. Andrews, The Washington Post, February 3, 2017.

 

J.K. ROWLING RALLIES FREEDOM VIA TWITTER

By Michelle Kogan 

J.K. Rowling’s magical brushes

turned tainted Twitter fans into foes.

Tweets of burning books abound,

but Rowling’s focused on
flushing out autocrats via free speech.

With her final books published,

her political platform propped into place.

Petitions of Trump’s U.K. visit piled high,

inviting Rowling’s staunch reaction —

come “be offensive and bigoted” here,

your “freedom to speak protects my

freedom to call” you “a bigot.”

Christian criticism, bah.

Read the tombstone of Albus Dumbdore’s kin

a bit deeper, dear reader . . .

“Where your treasure is,

there your heart be also.” Mathew 6:19.

“Freedom of speech” represents

the epitome of Rowling’s heart,

freedom for all, for the fringes of society,

the unspoken, the
have-nots!

 

BOOK BURNING
By Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg

Atop the platform of
Staunch self-righteousness
Books are burning—
Breath from hot zealots
Fans their flame—
When books are fringe
Magic brushes portals
Unlocking possibility—
Drop a tombstone amid
Whatever remains—
Chisel these words:
Suppression Epitomizes Idiocy

 

WAITING
by Charlie Otting

A young boy

Stands on the train

Platform, his forehead

Burning, his suitcase

Propped against his leg

The crowds brush by

Him as he stares

Staunchly at

The brick wall

The ceiling fans give

Barely a breeze –

The screech of steel

On steel is deafening

But around him

The air is silent

As a tombstone

He can feel

The magic

On the fringe

Is that what the scar

Epitomizes?

 

On February 9, poet and educator Mary Lee Hahn found our source and ten words. Instead of creating a bank of selected words, Mary Lee gave us an eleven-word sentence to use as a writing prompt.

10+1 Words of the Day: “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”

Source: “Warren cut off during Sessions debate after criticism,” by Ted Barrett, CNN, February 8, 2017

 

TRUTH UP
By Laura Shovan

They can’t change truth,
shut up change.
Truth can’t shut up.

 

They can’t change me.
Truth can,
but they can’t.

 

Me? The truth?
Can’t shut up.
They can change.

 

IRRELEVANT
by Kip Wilson Rechea

The door slams shut behind me

with a loud, echoey bang

but I can’t wait

to put everything behind me

except the sound

of my own breath bubbling up

to the surface

as I stroke, stroke, breathe

my way across the pool

because my truth is found here

in thoughts clear

as chlorinated water.

 

 

Additional resources:

The New Verse News: E-zine with daily current events poems

Split This Rock: Social justice and poetry non-profit

 

Meet Laura Shovan

DSC_5914Laura Shovan’s middle grade verse novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, is about students protesting the closure of their school. It was a NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel and won Cybils and Nerdy Book Club awards for poetry. Laura is a Poetry Friday blogger and longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.  She is also the author and editor of three books of poetry for adults. Visit her at: www.laurashovan.com.

Book Review: Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

Publisher’s description

factoryIn order to save her family’s farm, Roshen, sixteen, must leave her rural home to work in a factory in the south of China. There she finds arduous and degrading conditions and contempt for her minority (Uyghur) background. Sustained by her bond with other Uyghur girls, Roshen is resolved to endure all to help her family and ultimately her people. A workplace survival story, this gritty, poignant account focuses on a courageous teen and illuminates the value—and cost—of freedom.

 

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Sixteen-year-old Roshen intends to continue her schooling to become a teacher. Her plans are changed for her when she is sent away to work in a factory in southern China. Roshen is devastated to have to leave her Muslim Uyghur family, who live near the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China. In addition to leaving behind her plans for school and her family, she leaves Ahmat, the boy she shares a special connection with and who it seems likely she will soon be engaged to. Roshen’s family isn’t told exactly where she will be taken, only that she will be gone for a year and is not allowed any devices or contact with her family. She and Ahmat set up a secret email address for her and devise a code, hoping she will be able to find internet stations and at least get a little information back to him. They expect that Roshen will be mistreated at the factory and discuss how she shouldn’t fight back. There may be spies and traitors among the girls, too.

 

Roshen and eleven other Uyghur girls are taken on the long journey to their factory. They’re led by Ushi, who is not only mean, but unfortunately also one of their bosses. They arrive to learn they will cut, sew, and finish work wear. It’s grueling work that’s hard on their bodies. The girls work very long hours, are hit with a rod if appearing unsatisfactory, are forced to speak Mandarin only (and penalized  if they speak Uyghur), aren’t allowed to wear their headscarves, and are often served meals with pork in them. They’re served tea with a drug in it to keep them awake so they can work longer hours. Many of the Chinese girls use clothespins to keep their eyes open. Additionally, the girls don’t even make money for many months as they are forced to pay for their trip from home to the factory, their meals, their uniforms, and the many unfair penalties they are assessed.

 

The twelve Uyghur girls are isolated from the rest of the workers and though they don’t all get along, and Roshen can’t stop wondering is someone is a spy, they bond together to help and protect one another. Roshen becomes a leader and learns how to work the system and avoid punishment as best she can. Roshen’s closest friend, Mikray, is defiant and determined to escape. Young Zuwida is in very poor health and only getting worse. Proud and haughty Hawa is selected to help the bosses by looking beautiful and being available to help placate clients. Eventually, Roshen, who speaks English in addition to Mandarin and Uyghur, is forced to go out with the boss and some clients. She is horrified by what is expected of her and receives some very unexpected (and heartbreaking) help. After returning to the factory, she is determined to allow herself to become gaunt, unwashed, and unappealing to avoid further assignments like this. Her decision has unintended consequences that leave her feeling incredibly guilty but also move her to further action.

 

Throughout all of her time at the factory, Roshen tries to remember the power of words. She clings to the songs and poems she has been taught and formulates her own. Her experience as a factory girl changes her forever. Roshen knows now that she will write, that she will tell the story of the factory girls. Generally well-written, the story’s one real downfall is the lack of development of many of the Uyghur girls, who don’t feel necessary beyond showing they are part of the block of girls isolated and most abused. At the same time, it’s the development of the girls who do carry pieces of the story, and their friendships and support, that make this story especially interesting and powerful. My ARC didn’t include the afterword, which apparently provides more context for the story and how La Valley came to tell it.  This harrowing story of exploitation, abuse, and forced labor is a compelling (and horrifying) look at a story (and a setting) not often seen in YA. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544699472

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 01/10/2017

Lists, Letters, and More: YA Books with Characters Who Write

National Words Matter Week is March 1-7, so it’s the perfect time to set up a display of books featuring characters who write. What are they writing? Well, everything!

 

The characters in these books write lists, letters, zines, diaries, poetry, even obituaries. As a teen who was obsessed with writing (those are just some of my teenage diaries in that picture over there), I always loved finding characters in books who wrote. What did I write as a teen? Lists, letters, zines, diaries, poetry… no obituaries. I edited the school newspaper and the literary magazine. Thanks to the world of zines (a world of mine you can read more about here, as well as my personal connection to Hard Love, my favorite YA book about zines, here), I had pen pals from all around the world and was never short on letters that needed replying to. I still love it when I find characters who focus on writing. I love a good epistolary novel, or getting to peek in a character’s diary.

 

Here are a few picks, both old and new, to get your display started. Summaries via the publisher or WorldCat. Have more titles to add? Leave us a comment or tweet us at @TLT16 or @CiteSomething

 

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira (2014)

When Laurel starts writing letters to dead people for a school assignment, she begins to spill about her sister’s mysterious death, her mother’s departure from the family, her new friends, and her first love.

 

 

Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You by Todd Hasak-Lowry (3/24/2015)

Through a series of lists, a narrator reveals how fifteen-year old Darren’s world was rocked by his parents’ divorce just as his brother, Nate, was leaving for college, and a year later when his father comes out as gay, then how he begins to deal with it all after a stolen weekend with Nate and his crush, Zoey.

 

 

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (2014)

Sixteen-year-old Gabi Hernandez chronicles her senior year in high school as she copes with her friend Cindy’s pregnancy, friend Sebastian’s coming out, her father’s meth habit, her own cravings for food and cute boys, and especially, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

 

 

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (1999)

After starting to publish a zine in which he writes his secret feelings about his lonely life and his parents’ divorce, sixteen-year-old John meets an unusual girl and begins to develop a healthier personality.

 

 

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian (2013)

Sex has always come without consequences for seventeen-year-old Evan. Until he hooks up with the wrong girl and finds himself in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. After an assault that leaves Evan scarred inside and out, he and his father retreat to the family cabin in rural Minnesota—which, ironically, turns out to be the one place where Evan can’t escape other people. Including himself. It may also offer him his best shot at making sense of his life again.

 

 

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and illustrated by Maira Kalman (2011)

Sixteen-year-old Min Green writes a letter to Ed Slaterton in which she breaks up with him, documenting their relationship and how items in the accompanying box, from bottle caps to a cookbook, foretell the end.

 

The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty (2004)

Three female students from Ashbury High write to three male students from rival Brookfield High as part of a pen pal program, leading to romance, humiliation, revenge plots, and war between the schools.

 

 

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend (1982)

From teenage Adrian’s obsession with intellectuality after understanding “nearly every word” of a Malcolm Muggeridge broadcast to his anguished adoration of a lovely, mercurial schoolmate, from his view of his parents’ constantly creaking relationship to his heartfelt but hilarious attempts at cathartic verse, here is an outrageous triumph of deadpan and deadly accurate, satire.

 

 

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (2014)

Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

 

Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski (2013)

During a summer internship as an obituary writer for her local northern New Jersey newspaper, sixteen-year-old Samantha D’Angelo makes some momentous realizations about politics, ethics, her family, romance, and most importantly–herself.

 

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (2010)

16-year-old Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on her favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. Dash, in a bad mood during the holidays, happens to be the first guy to pick up the notebook and rise to its challenges.

What follows is a whirlwind romance as Dash and Lily trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations all across New York City. But can their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions, or will their scavenger hunt end in a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?

 

If you would like to recommend additional titles on this topic, please leave us a comment. We always look forward to hearing what books others value and recommend.