(How) Can we read? An interview with Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong
"Life is busy and poetry is short."
Truth: if you offered me the chance to meet the president of any country, an Oscar-winning Hollywood actor, a sports superstar, or Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong… I’d pick Sylvia and Janet.
So influential have they been on my poetry learning as a parent (and humble newsletter writer), I cannot imagine all the things I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for them.
It started with Sylvia’s five books on literature for children — written for educators and librarians but totally accessible to anyone who merely wants to know more about the world of children’s poetry and how to help children access it deeply, gladly, and often — extended to her blog, Poetry for Children, and, well, exploded from there.
One cannot delve very deep in Sylvia’s work without encountering Janet — the two have, as they will share below, worked together for years in a variety of poetry-focused ways.
So I found Janet, and then fell in love with her work. My youngest was so obsessed with the quirky Dumpster Diver (which I reviewed in issue No. 47) she took it to bed with her, and then I realized I already knew and adored many of Janet’s books — poetry titles like Twist: Yoga Poems and Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams, as well as awesome holiday ones like Apple Pie for the 4th of July. I could go on.
Sylvia is a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Women’s University and teaches graduate courses in children’s and young adult literature. She has published extensively, including five books on literature for children as well as over 25 book chapters and 100 journal articles. Her current work focuses on poetry for children. (Learn more about her at SylviaVardell.com.)
Janet is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who switched careers to become a children’s author. She is the author of more than 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including writing and revision, diversity and community, peer pressure, cheese, and yoga. Her current focus is encouraging children to publish their own writing using affordable new technologies. (Learn more about her at JanetWong.com — worth a visit to explore her Poetry Suitcase, an idea that absolutely enchants me, as well as pocket poems and other printables.)
In addition to all their books, in 2012 they started a publishing company together, with the goal of making it easy for teachers and librarians to share poetry. Their emphasis has been to highlight diversity and inclusion through a wide variety of 21st-century topics and a multitude of original and distinctive voices, both established and new.
Clearly, I am a mega-fan of Sylvia’s, Janet’s, and especially Sylvia-and-Janet.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
First, let’s talk about your work together.
You’ve created a dozen books that contain engaging poems for children and mini-lessons or useful tidbits for teachers, librarians, and administrators (honestly I find these books to be equally useful as a parent, especially at the start of our day, when I dip into them over breakfast): what drew you to collaborate? And why poetry?
Janet: Like many old friends, we have very clear (and conflicting) memories of how we came to collaborate, but here’s the correct version: Sylvia, who has thousands of former students who are now teachers and librarians, found herself being asked: “How can we teach poetry in the time that we have, which is basically 5 minutes a week?” This was such an inviting challenge, how could we not want to address it?
We decided that I would gather hundreds of poems from my poet friends and Sylvia would write a Take 5! mini-lesson to make it easy to share poetry for five minutes per week. You can find the Take 5! in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Teachers have told us that they really like using this clear and consistent approach with their students — and some families (like yours) find the Teacher/Librarian editions (and Student Editions) useful at home. Poems at breakfast: brilliant!
Sylvia: Janet’s right — we do have different memories of how it all began! She and I were presenting together at a conference (those were the days!) and I told her that one of my former students said Texas was about to begin including poetry elements on the new upcoming standardized test that was being developed. First, we were appalled that poetry was going to be tested, but then we decided teachers needed our help to prepare for this eventuality.
The rest of the story is indeed how it unfolded; Janet is our poem curator extraordinaire and I add the curriculum component with teaching activities grounded in current research about how kids learn.
I urge the subscribers of my newsletter nearly constantly to read poetry to the children in their lives.
To validate my claims that poetry matters, I ask you, two experts: why does poetry matter? Why should parents, grandparents, other caregivers, educators, librarians, be reading poetry to kids?
Janet: Life is busy and poetry is short.
Sylvia: True. But we also know a lot about how children become literate. They see the value in reading from adult models who read aloud, the closeness, the comfort, they learn how language sounds from hearing poetry, and they begin to understand the structure and impact of literary language — which is significantly different from spoken, conversational language. Poetry shows them how rhyme, helps us guess what comes next (prediction is key to comprehension), and shows children how figurative language creates pictures in your mind to help you understand written and spoken text.
It’s all fairly sophisticated processing that begins with hearing Mother Goose rhymes. In fact, author and literacy expert Mem Fox says, “Rhymers will be readers; it's that simple. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.” This is because they’ve internalized how “book” language sounds which makes it easier for them to decode words when they see them in the pages of a book.
I'm curious about one of your most recent books: HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving, published in 2020, speaks to the unique moment we’re (sort of still) living in, as an anthology that contains pandemic poetry about wearing masks and learning virtually, as well as poems that address social justice issues, encouraging readers to stand up for what they believe in.
That would have been powerful of its own accord but you decided to pair the poetry with movement: why?
Sylvia: Whenever we share poetry, we try to make it an active experience, using props to add interest, pantomiming poetry moments, inviting children to join in on repeated lines. Focusing entirely on getting kids to move with us when we read a poem out loud was a natural next step. Then, we all found ourselves more housebound and sedentary in 2020, and it became a priority. Kids need to move; they learn better when they participate physically and it’s better for their overall health and well-being — and for ours, too!
Janet: Also . . . life is busy, poetry is short, and 30-second poems give us a perfect “indoor recess” or “brain break” whenever kids need it!
Things we Do (published in 2021) and its companion book, Things We Eat (March 2022) are your first books for a younger crowd, ages 4-7, preschool to grade 1.
Can you talk a bit about poetry for little kids? Do you think those of us who have babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in our lives need to approach poetry any differently than those of us with older children? If so, how?
Sylvia: Silly rhymes and nonsense verses are a natural part of cuddling with babies and raising preschoolers! The main difference in sharing poetry with our youngest learners versus with older school-age children is to share poems in ways that maximize their physical and participatory nature. In Things We Do, every poem is about an action, so move, move, move as the poem suggests: bend, dance, hug, jump, quack, wave, etc. With Things We Eat, share poems at mealtimes or munch on bagels, cookies or zucchini when you share those poems. Point to keywords, help kids guess what comes next, let them join in and say, sing, and shout with you!
Janet: So true! A good poem is a good poem for any age, but the musical qualities of poetry (rhyme, repetition, rhythm, alliteration, and other techniques) make it especially appealing to very young children. Poems with a clear and predictable rhyme pattern or lots of repetition invite kids to read.
In addition to your collaborations in print, you started a micro-publishing company that specializes in poetry, Pomelo Books.
Janet, on your website, you write of Pomelo Books: "Goodness knows, there isn’t enough time in the day for all we need to teach and learn. How can we fit poetry in? We believe in “Poetry Plus”—poetry PLUS writing, poetry PLUS language arts mini-lessons, poetry PLUS curriculum connections for social studies and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), poetry PLUS mindfulness and movement, and poetry PLUS lots more fun!"
I adore this approach. Do you have any advice for parents and other caregivers for how they might use the idea of "Poetry Plus" at home?
Janet: Pair poems with whatever you’re doing. The day before you go shopping for food, get your children started on a list poem of their favorite foods. When they receive a gift, have them write a poem about the item as their thank you note. There is a poem for anything and everything that you do during your day. If you’re ever at a loss and can’t find the poem you need, ask me on Twitter (@janetwongauthor) for poem recommendations!
Sylvia: Call up a poem on your phone while you’re waiting in line, buy poetry books for birthday gifts, share a poem at meal times or to start the day or end it at bedtime. Celebrate those moments when your child notices a rhyme or makes a rhyme or points out a simile. Kids are spontaneous poets as they learn new words and absorb new patterns and it’s always best if we can praise their own efforts at noticing how language works.
Lastly, this is a question I ask everyone I interview: what are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
Sylvia: Oh, this is so hard because I want to recommend ALL the poetry books! I keep a list of the new poetry that is published for young people every year at my blog, PoetryforChildren, so I hope that’s a helpful resource. For young children and families, I might especially recommend poetry books by Douglas Florian, Laura Purdie Salas, David L. Harrison, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Michelle Schaub, Elizabeth Steinglass, Stephanie Calmenson, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Nikki Grimes, and of course, Janet Wong! I was lucky enough to select poems for A World Full of Poems in 2020 that is a fun mix of classic and contemporary poems that I hope you’ll check out.
Janet: Sylvia keeps close tabs on all the new poetry books—and she has great taste—so . . . what she said! Go find them and read them with your kids!
I cannot possibly thank Janet and Sylvia enough for taking the time out of their jam-packed schedules to do this interview — it was a pure delight.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful reminder of a poem from Janet Wong, which gives you an excellent idea of her work:
Thanks for reading today!
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