of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author
or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or
an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on
only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive
for focus pieces from previous months.
Naomi Shihab Nye
I had the pleasure of seeing Naomi Shihab Nye when she addressed the Champaign Children's Literature Festival as the keynote speaker in fall of 2001. Her presence was calm and clear, like a still pool of water, and her manner of speaking was soft and low, but her words were passionate as she spoke of her love of poetry and the power of the written and spoken word to uplift us all.
Nye's career as a poet was solidly established with her poetry written for adults long before she came back to the remembered delights of children's literature as an author. She describes the birth of her own child as one step in this return: "One of the delights of having our son was that it was now legitimate for me to return to that part of the library I so loved when I was young." 1
In her poetry, Nye captures everyday details of life in all their simplicity and complexity. She balances her own perspective with a keen sense of the impact of details in the life of a child, which gives her work immediate accessibility for a young audience. In her poem Spinning (from the book Come With Me: Poems for a Journey), Nye demonstrates this concrete understanding of a child's world: "Measuring in blocks how long it takes/ to get somewhere, you never understand/ why it feels shorter coming home." In the next two-line stanza, she reveals something of her adult perspective while still remaining true to the essence of childhood experience: "First grade takes twenty years to get through./ But second grade takes only ten."
In addition to her strengths as a poet, Nye also exhibits great skill in collecting and arranging poems, subtly allowing varied works by different writers to complement one another in topic, form, or tone. She takes a strikingly democratic approach to her poetry selection, including internationally known writers alongside young adults and children from her poetry workshops. Her compilation Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets presents poems from participants in her many school-based poetry workshops; all the writers in the anthology were school-aged at the time of their writing, which offers an implicitly encouraging message to would-be writers. Nye's anthology What Have You Lost? captures the angst of young adults losing their own childhoods, as they move into the next stage of their lives. Nye invited poets from all over the world to contribute their poem on the topic of loss. In the introduction to What Have You Lost? Nye reiterates this inclusive sensibility in addressing the reader: "Maybe you are writing one now."
Her own background as a child of immigrants from the Middle East who settled in Texas puts Nye in an unusual position to offer bridges between two cultures that have been subject to much mutual misunderstanding. With her two anthologies This Same Sky (1992) and 19 Varieties of Gazelle (2002) Nye strives to combat threats of war with timely collections of poetry, hoping that sharing art will lead to greater peace. Speaking of her motivation for compiling This Same Sky, Nye says: "It was during the Gulf War, and the country was pulsing with hatred for Arabs. It was a scary time for me, and I wanted to bring the war down to the human level for the children I was working with. So I found some poems by Iraqi poets and had the kids read them and let them see that these people were no different than we were. They had the same daily needs, the same inner lives." 2 Similarly, Nye's recently released collection, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, offers hope for understanding in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 as tensions once again intensify between the two parts of the world that Nye has called home.
Nye's books continue to open the door to the experience of poetry for young people. Her works have earned her many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Jane Addams Children's Book Awards, a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets and other honors too numerous to mention here. Readers can only hope that Nye will continue her amazingly fruitful poetic career, continuing to add refreshingly accessible poetry and beautifully crafted anthologies to world of children's literature.
--Kate McDowell, Reviewer
1 Hile, Kevin S., ed. Something About the Author, v.
86. Gale Research, 1996.
A Selected Bibliography of Works by Naomi Shihab Nye