Writers on Writing: Poetic Narrative/Nikki Grimes

Poetry. Poetry collections. Novels in verse. Poems in picture books. These are many of the ways that poetic works engage the minds of young readers. Yesterday’s writer, Margarita Engle is as prolific a poet as today’s writer, Nikki Grimes.
Nikki is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and a Coretta Scott King Award winner. I relied upon her expertise to enlighten us about poetic works in children’s fiction.

1. In what ways are narrative poetry different from narrative prose?
Poetry is, by virtue of the genre, more concise than prose. Whether the poetry is lyrical press72or narrative, it is a form of distillation, which is different from prose. In addition, through its delicate yet powerful use of metaphor and symbol, narrative poetry is often able to explore dark or problematic subject matter that might otherwise be inappropriate for the youngest readers. Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till comes to mind.

2. To me, it seems quite challenging to carry out an entire novel in poem form. Yet, you do it quite well. How do you make it work?
The trick to making a novel-in-verse work is to put Story first, to remember that you are creating a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, a tale with a story arc, peopled by three-dimensional characters who grow or change during the course of the novel. If, as a poet, you remember that, and you craft poetry that serves that end, you can write a novel-in-verse. If, however, you try taking an assortment of unrelated poems and attempt to jam them together in hopes of manufacturing some sort of narrative, it doesn’t work. You have to begin with Story, and then craft the poetry to serve that story. At least, that’s my approach.

3. Why do you think narrative poetry has such an appeal to young readers?
Poetry, narrative or otherwise, appeals to readers on several levels. One, for young readers especially, has to do with all that white space on the page. A young reader can pick up a 200-page novel and find the length, alone, intimidating—all those words strung across all those pages. Such books are especially daunting for the reluctant reader. But that same reader can pick up a novel-in-verse of equal length and not be intimated at all, because he sees all that white space and assumes—rightly or wrongly—that book will be an easy read. Of course, as we know, the content of the novel-in-verse and the traditional novel may be equally complex. However, the content of the novel-in-verse can be digested in smaller quantities. That, itself, is appealing to the young reader. Add to that the lyrical quality and the emotional power of poetry, and you have an attractive combination.

4. What are some of the books you would recommend to introduce readers to narrative poetry?
I assume, here, you mean narrative poetry in the narrow sense of a novel-in-verse, yes? Because there are any number of picture-book poetry collections of a narrative nature. Carole Boston Weatherford is a goldmine in this category, and so is Marilyn Singer. However, regarding novels-in-verse specifically, I would recommend a few according to grade-level. By now, everyone knows about The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, but here are a few others.


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes
What is Goodbye? by Nikki Grimes

Middle Grade:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
World’s Afire by Paul B. Janezcko
Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson
Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engles
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes

Young Adult:

What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonja Sones
Hidden by Helen Frost
Keesha’s House by Helen Frost
The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes
A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes

A bestselling author and a prolific artist, Nikki has written many award-winning poetry and prose books for children and young adults including the NCTE Award for Poetry, the Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade; the Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings; Horn Book Fanfare for Talkin’ About Bessie; ALA Notable books What is Goodbye? and Words with Wings; the popular Dyamonde Daniel chapter book series, and numerous picture books and novels including The New York Times bestseller Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope and, most recently Chasing freedom : the life journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, inspired by historical facts and Poems in the Attic.Watch for her upcoming release of One Last Word.

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