Thanks to Catherine at Reading to the Core for hosting today.
Laura Shovan was interviewed at the CYBILS website earlier this week. Here are follow-up questions for her. These questions were generated from the CYBILS Poetry panel and judges.,
School closings like this don’t happen very often. Did you know of a school that was closing or where this idea come from?
School closings are quite common in Maryland. Schools here are part of large, county-wide systems. Boards of education will sometimes shift entire neighborhoods from one school to another to relieve overcrowding, or even close a school that’s below capacity. For example, in 2016, the year THE LAST FIFTH GRADE came out, a high school was closed in Carroll County, Maryland. There was a lot of push-back from the community and from families who wanted the school to stay open. Despite all the research that shows how important community involvement is in making a school feel welcoming and successful, community members are rarely consulted about such closings. They tend to be a financial decision.
How did you choose the character names and did you map out the characters and classroom dynamic in a visual way?
Some of the characters’ name have clues about their situation or personalities. One is Brianna Holmes (homophone for “homes”), whose family is temporarily living in motel. Another is Newt Mathews (the word “math” is embedded in his name), who prefers form poems where he can count out syllables. And the twins, Sloane and Sydney Costley, have the small word “cost” in their last name – a nod to the fact that they are somewhat wealthy.
I’m a visual person. I had my daughter’s fifth grade school photo taped inside my revision binder. Since I come from an education background, I had to make a seating chart. That helped me to see which characters might develop friendships … or tension. I also had a list of who lived in which neighborhoods, who rode the bus together, who lived close enough to the school to walk.
What choices did she have to make to keep each voice unique?
Giving each of the eighteen characters a unique voice was something I focused on during revisions. Instead of working on the book from the beginning to the end, I pulled out each character – one at a time – and only worked on that person’s poems. In that way, I could look at things like vocabulary, cadence, and formal elements. A free verse poem in Sloane’s voice, for example, will incorporate slang and have a lot of rhythms, to capture her attitude. A free verse poem in Norah’s voice will have longer lines and more descriptive language because Norah is more observant than Sloane.
Have you as a child or your children involved in a grassroots campaign?
No. My family wasn’t very political when I was growing up. I don’t remember my parents talking about the Viet Nam war at all. I didn’t become politically active until I was an adult. My friends at All the Wonders recently did a post on this topic, featuring picture books.
What other books for children would you suggest if students want to learn more about becoming activists in their community?
There are many types of activism that are appropriate for children. I tend to like books about the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century and picture book biographies of civil rights activists. Three of my favorites are:
Andrea David Pinkney’s picture book SIT IN: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down
Debbie Levy’s WE SHALL OVERCOME: The Story of a Song.
Tony Medina’s LOVE TO LANGSTON, about Langston Hughes’ childhood.
Another great resource is this Nerdy Book Club list from 2014: Top 10 Picture Books for Activists
What advice do you have for writers who are working on a novel in verse?
I hear from a lot of authors who love reading novels in verse. But because they don’t see themselves as poets, they’re afraid to give the form a try. My advice is to think about the poems as short monologues. In a novel in verse, the main character or characters take the stage and describe their thoughts, feelings, and a moment of change or realization. Poetic line breaks add rhythm to the character’s speaking voice. I think this is what makes the novel-in-verse form so well-suited for voice-driven books. The combination of monologue and rhythm helps the reader hear what the character sounds like.
Thank you, Laura, for your insight!
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