Happy Poetry Friday! (Wondering what Poetry Friday is? Click here.)
Poetry Friday is famous!!! Okay, maybe not actually famous, but it’s got a big role in Tanita Davis’ (y’all know she’s one of my Poetry Sisters) JUST-PUBLISHED middle-grade novel, Figure It Out, Henri Weldon.
From the publisher: “Seventh grader Henrietta Weldon gets to switch school
s—finally! She’ll be “mainstreaming” into public school, leaving her special education school behind. She can’t wait for her new schedule, new friends, and new classes. Henri’s dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes math challenging to process and understand, is what she expects to give her problems. What she doesn’t expect is a family feud with her sister over her new friends, joining the girls’ soccer team, and discovering poetry.”
Now, I’ll admit, I knew Poetry Friday was going to be involved in this novel, but I still got a chill when Henri’s Language Arts teacher, Ms. Grassinger, announces it’s Poetry Friday! Whee! I love how her teacher invites student opinions and doesn’t tell them “what the poem means.” Watching Henri encounter poetry and write some of her own is SO cool! I lassoed Tanita for an interview, because I know you’ll be as excited as I am to embrace a book that isn’t a poetry collection or novel in verse, but that still has a poetry element as part of its plot and character arc for the main character (who is so funny and relatable, by the way). What a great way to entice middle grade readers who haven’t yet discovered that writing poetry is awesome.
Here’s our chat, followed by one of Henri’s poems.
Laura: At what point while writing this middle grade prose novel did you decide to weave a Poetry Friday story into it, and to have Henri write some poetry herself?
Tanita: While Figure It Out isn’t wholly about poetry, I actually began the novel with the idea of adding something like poetry to what was intended to be a book about a young girl in the midst of struggle. [LPS: What?!] I feel strongly that whenever we discuss something difficult in middle grade books, whether it be an illness or a divorce or learning differences, it always works best when balanced with The Rest of Life. I love the Ernest Hemingway quotation “The world breaks everyone and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” The overwhelming way we feel emotions as young adults – heck, as anyone, adult or no – tends to exaggerate the thing we struggle with like it’s the worst, most terrible, hugest thing in the world, but even as it feels like it’s the center of the solar system, it’s truly only one part of a person’s entirety. I wanted Henri to be seen as strong at her broken places, so that readers could reconsider their broken places in that light.
I owe poet Michelle Schaub my thanks for giving me the idea after listening to her talking about how she incorporated Poetry Friday into her classroom. Having Henri leap in to writing poetry on her own seemed a natural outgrowth of being assigned something that felt doable to her and reveling in being able to do something without extra help or explanation. While not every prompt resonated, it was nice to give her the option to do well relatively easily.
Laura: Yay, Michelle! And I love that Hemingway quote, Tanita. Tucking that away.
Now, how hard was it to write poems from the point of view of a character whose thoughts and personality you knew so well? Did they flow, or was it difficult to switch from expressing Henri’s Henri-ness in thoughts and actions and dialog to expressing it through her poems?
Tanita: The poems for this novel were difficult because I was trying to write from the perspective of a person who had probably heard poetry in her life but hadn’t tuned in to the fact that poetry was something she could do, that being a poet was within her reach. Writing that poetry in the voice of a seventh-grade girl was difficult when I knew the girl so thoroughly. You’d think that would be an advantage, but it turned out to be far too easy to write poems that were …sort of “generic junior high student” and not truly Henri. I went back to the drawing board plenty. There are still poems I would fiddle with if allowed… fortunately, the copy-editing staff frowns pretty severely on that sort of thing.
Laura: Haha. Yes, they do. You know, I love that Henri’s poems sound like her, but they sound different from her thoughts. When we come to poetry, any of us, it doesn’t flow out as seamlessly as thought does (which we’ve been practicing for much longer). I think Henri’s poems sound really authentic to the character you’ve created.
Okay, not to give anything away, but Henri experiences a pretty big disappointment around her poetry efforts. Was that hard to do to her?
Tanita: That was absolutely hard. Writing poetry can be easy(ish, for a given value of “easy,” and depending on whose turn it is to set your poetry group’s challenge and where your brain is that day). All the rest, pertaining to acknowledgement and publication, is more challenging. We dither, we self-sabotage, we blow through deadlines and think, “Ah, well, next time.” I wanted so much to give Henri an easy win – an enjoyment of poetry and an ease of acknowledgement for her work – but I opted for truth instead. The struggle is part of the story.
Laura: I’m so glad to hear that. I would’ve given you a bit of side-eye if it had been easy! Finally, I’m wondering how you choose the poems Henri’s teacher shares?
Tanita: I started out looking at Poetry 180 (the Library of Congress poetry collection for use in the 180 days of the average school year) but found that many of the poems read as too complex or nuanced and mature for the characters I was writing. So, I began to collect sort of an occasional book of poems I read/heard and really responded to viscerally that I might teach if I were trying to do a comprehensive Poetry Friday with junior high students. I actually got a lot of them from social media – Instagram has some lovely poetry offerings. I had to do a lot of editing to narrow down the many, many poems I wanted to include, and these spoke strongly to themes I wanted to incorporate into the book in other ways. First, Ada Limón’s poem is about horses… but not just horses, and Henri is a girl with a big heart – who had to make her courage grow to that size and stand up to her sister and her sister’s nemesis. I love that she channeled those “lady horses.” I think every kid thinks at least once or twice about being famous – and it struck me as funny as that being the low-hanging fruit that Henri couldn’t reach. (That was a poem and a whole set of scenes I had to cut.) Finally, “Biscuit” by Jane Kenyon is so tender, and says so much with so few words. I loved that Henri got to engage with that – what it is to have the unthinking trust of something small, and what it is to have a big feeling you almost have no words for… that realization underpins her friendships – likely in ways she doesn’t yet realize.
Laura: I love the poems you chose, but even more, I love your reasoning behind them. I know you thought so carefully about each element of this novel–but of course, the poetry elements fascinate me the most :>)
So, I’m guessing the HarperCollins strike is making it challenging for you to spread the word about Henri? That must be so tough when you support the workers’ cause and yet still want your book to reach readers. And this book definitely needs to reach readers!
Tanita: Thank you so much for doing this interview with me. While I very much support the HP Strike with my whole heart, and support the industry folk who feel they’re doing the right thing by ignoring the publishing company and its imprints until it gets its act together and both pays its workers a living wage and supports diversity in its offices, it does make navigating having a book coming out tricky, so thanks for the book PR. And thanks for the thoughtful questions, too.
Laura: Thanks for answering my questions! It was fun to pick your brain.
Finally, here’s one of Henri’s poems. I picked this one because it’s from Henri’s journal, and I can just hear her frustration and overwhelm. I love that she’s using poetry as one way to express herself and to perhaps admit some things to herself. Things she might not be ready to say in prose. And that’s what poetry’s for!
Stressed. Out. Just hating test days –
My brain runs around like a rat in a maze.
“Work hard. You make your own luck!”
That’s what people say, and I tried, but I’m stuck.
–Henri Weldon in Figure It Out, Henri Weldon, by Tanita S. Davis
For lots of wonderful poetry, don’t miss the Poetry Friday Roundup with Marcie, the queen of processes. I always learn something cool from her posts. Oh, hey, she’s got a shout-out for one of MY books as a companion to one of HER books 🙂