Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Poem in a Blade of Grass

I've been working with a young girl from Korea since the beginning of the school year. At first she was on a Fancy Nancy reading level and couldn't understand English very well (especially Southern English). Now we are currently reading Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. We've read the entire Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, and a few other smaller books that she enjoyed including Savvy and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her reading level went from kindergarten to sixth grade and she's only in fourth grade. I. Am. So. Proud.

So yesterday afternoon as we were sitting on the university's quad reading out loud to one another I stopped her. We began talking about the difference in the English language from one book to the next. When I asked her what she thought the difference was, she said older books sound prettier. I could not agree more.

While there are wonderful children's books out there that are written in modern English and include slang kids use in school now and also a few choice words, there's something to be said about going back to the basics and reading a book that causes a child to really think. 

The two of us have enjoyed the songs in Tolkien more than anything and I have had so much fun with her as we went line by line and made an entire paragraph of story from three words in a song. I explained the hidden treasure in these words.

I recently read an explanation of Whitman's "A Child Said What Is Grass?" and as we sat on the quad I had her list every word she could think of that described the grass.

Full of bugs. (By the way, she prefers the library to the quad any day, what a girl!)

So I went with sticky. "Why on earth would the grass be sticky?"

"Because it's wet?"

"Yeah! So, if the grass is wet, and you've already said it's green, what does that mean?"

"It's healthy."

"Exactly. So we could just say it's sticky and let the reader know it's green and healthy. If it wasn't, it would be crunchy, right?"

I took this conversation and ran with it, explaining Whitman's lines such as, "Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord/ A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped/ Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners/ that we may see and remark/ and say Whose," which took us into a conversation about the tradition of handkerchiefs.

Book Cover

Also, "Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation," versus "And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves," which told us the earth could be described as young or old depending on the image.

I'm sure you can see the point I'm getting to here; our words can cause a child to think or not think. We have gotten lazy in our writing, it is much more difficult to find good vocabulary words in a children's book, and there is less to talk about. Kids are reading for entertainment, but there is no brain food there.

So, here's the writing challenge:

Choose an object, scene, or person and describe them without being direct. Use metaphors and similes that you have completely made up and haven't borrowed from other writers. Write for 15 minutes without stopping and then go back and cross out words that aren't necessary because of the descriptions you’ve created such as "sticky" instead of "green and healthy." Post your exercises below.


Courtney Warren is a writer for her local newspaper, as well as a graduate student at Hollins University where she is pursuing a degree in Children’s Literature. She has a bachelor’s degree from Delta State University, the home of the Fighting Okra (which she is incredibly proud of). She loves to read just about anything placed on the shelves but has a special place in her heart for the Harry Potter series.

When she is not writing about herself in third person, she loves to write stories about middle schoolers with spunky attitudes who intend to save the world, as well as drinking Earl Grey tea from a very prissy teacup.

Check out her blog, Tea, the Spirit, & a Pen.

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