Q&A with poet Naomi Shihab Nye

How do parents keep kids learning and playing with words, even as online classes end? The Young People’s Poet Laureate has some ideas.

Courtesy of Michael Nye
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye is currently serving as the Young People's Poet Laureate.

As students move into the summer after a spring spent in online classes, many parents may wonder how to help their children maintain a sense of progress and develop their creativity. Poetry can assist with both, says Naomi Shihab Nye, who is serving a three-year term as the nation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, a position created by the Poetry Foundation. Ms. Nye has published 18 books of poetry for adults and six for young people. Her latest collection is “Cast Away: Poems of Our Time.” She recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

Q: How can poetry expand children’s perceptions of the world and their own abilities?

Computers and tablets make it easier for kids to look up poems! There are countless poetry sites, such as Poem-a-Day and Poem of the Day, as well as many sites for kids. You can keep special files and folders of favorite poems you find or write: indoor poems, outdoor poems, grouchy poems, frustrated poems, memory poems – whatever you like! 

Even if you write them by hand in a notebook first, it’s helpful to type up your poem on a computer to see what it looks like on the screen. While you’re writing one poem, you often think of a possibility for another poem. It’s intrinsically stimulating to put words together, shape phrases and lines – and to know you don't have to be perfect. You can always revise. (But I recommend keeping drafts of your work!)

Q: For families practicing social distancing, how can poetry alleviate a sense of isolation?

Many poems have been written out of times of great anxiety and sorrow. They help you know you’re not alone, and this strange time of virus and fear is not the first bad time in history.

We’re all anxious together. Poetry offers a compass for shared navigation.

Q: Young children are poets by nature. Why is that the case?

Young children dwell in the land of metaphor from the ages of 2 to 3; it may be our richest experience of language ever, and then we forget it. A 2- or 3-year-old will make surprising metaphors without a bit of self-consciousness. Write these spontaneous gems down, oh parents and guardians! They are so refreshing. As we get older, even by the age of 4 and 5, a new self-consciousness starts taking hold and language becomes more predictable. But if we write poems, we can keep playing with words, images, connections.

Q: Does that kind of verbal play help readers and writers reconnect with a richer, more vivid use of language?

Absolutely. We all have a poetry channel inside our brains and sometimes we need encouragement to acknowledge or value it, or let it give our lives energy. We turn on the channel by becoming very quiet or mindful and listening – to what’s around us and inside us. We empty out. We open up. The poetry channel clicks into action when people ruminate, stare, daydream, let their thoughts meander. We all need it regularly and whenever we’re feeling overwhelmed is a good time to use it. Or let it hold us.

Q: What daily activities foster your creativity?

I love my ordinary life full of regular old chores. Washing dishes by hand gives me time to think. It’s private time. Sweeping gives me time to gather a few thoughts, as I collect the scraps or leaves or dust. Making a bed, I can smooth out my mind too. Everything is a metaphor.

Going outside provides the most benefit to our imaginative thinking: the air, the breeze, the sun, the light, the fog, the birdsong. (I was just digging in my quiet-looking compost heap and dug up a whole crowd of worms doing somersaults.)

Looking out a window is also helpful. What's there? What didn't you notice before?

Q: What advice would you give to parents and teachers who want to encourage young people to read and appreciate poetry?

Expose them to it – daily readings of poems at bedtime, at morning wake-up call, before dinner. Post poems around the house; give your children books of poems, empty notebooks, and nice pencils. You don’t have to be an expert on poetry to share it. Just help them feel its power and brevity.

Resources for parents and students

Books by Naomi Shihab Nye:

Voices in the Air
Greenwillow Books (2018)

This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World
Aladdin (2008)

Ms. Nye recommends a resource every month on the Poetry Foundation website. Here are some of her recent selections:

Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z
Written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, Carolrhoda Books, Minneapolis, 2020.

The Artful Read-Aloud: 10 Principles to Inspire, Engage, and Transform Learning
By Rebecca Bellingham, Heinemann, 2020.

I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage
Compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Lee & Low, Books Inc., 2019. 

The Creativity Project: No Rules, Anything Goes, Awesometastic Storybuilding
Edited by Colby Sharp, Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

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