U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis Writes about Rights
U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis’ latest book for Chronicle, When Thunder Comes, celebrates the lives of 17 civil rights leaders, from those history celebrates (Coretta Scott King and Mohandas “Mahatma” Ghandi) to those whose stories and struggles are lesser-known (Josh Gibson and Helen Zia).
As we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month, we asked Pat to share his inspiration, writing process and the funny things he hears from kids.
How did you research the civil rights leaders profiled?
Painstakingly! Through biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.
And the Internet was a terrific source for articles on these individuals that I would otherwise have missed.
How did you make the final selection for When Thunder Comes?
With a mixture of delight and melancholy (because I had to leave out so many worthies). Obviously, any book could be written on the subject of civil rights leaders and not include even one of the illustrious men and women who appear in When Thunder Comes.
So it was a challenge to meld famous leaders (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela) with the less well-known, at least in the U.S. And yet the details in the lives of Aung San Suu Kyi, Sylvia Mendez, and others proved no less fascinating, despite their obscurity to American readers.
Illustration by Tonya Engel
Sylvia pushed into the wind,
Septembering the trees,
and hurdled over a railroad track
to a two-room shack
that never read “Browns Only.”
It did not have to.
Under the billion-acre sky,
she wondered, Did white girls
at 17th Street Elementary really
wear rainbow necklaces?
Aunt Sally took her there once.
Eyes sharp as icepicks pierced
the windowpanes as if seeing
a Mexican for the first time.
Every door was locked with a
secret combination of frowns.
How can anyone ever get in?
Sylvia asked. Someone must know
who has the right key . . .
She looked up at her mother.
What did you learn that you didn’t know about well-known leaders like Nelson Mandela and Harvey Milk?
Mandela’s nobilitythe presence of the manand that he was treated with the greatest respect by his captors throughout twenty-seven years in prison still astonishes me. And Harvey Milk’s steadfastness and courage in the face of rampant homophobia I hope is a lesson to all of us.
Illustration by Meilo So
I knew my rights meant nothing.
I kept them out of sight.
Seen and heard when the sun went down,
hidden in harsh daylight.
Then Liberation called one day
and asked would I consent
to tell the world that I was proud
of being different.
I took the fight to the city fathers.
They scolded me for that:
We don’t approve of boys who wear
an unconventional hat.
So I became a city father
to break the laws that kept
boys and girls from living lives
that Life would not accept.
They say I came before my time
but who else would redress
unmitigated suffering due
to such small-mindedness?
How important was it to include lesser-known leaders and less publicized movements?
That was the most compelling motivation for me: to shed even the tiniest light on the bravery of people overcoming overwhelming odds, people who are virtually unknown in the West, especially here in America, whose inhabitants are the most insular on the planet.
Did writing When Thunder Comes influence your own level of political or social activism?
The short answer is No, not very much. Since the Vietnam War, I have always been politically active. In fact, When Thunder Comes is a sequel of sorts to another title of mine: Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. And I am now co-authoring a book of poems with George Ella Lyon, tentatively entitled Voices from the March, 1963.
When did you first decide to write poems for children?
Absent that magical teacher who turned my synapses to poetry, I became a professor of economics. But that door finally closed and the window of poetry opened for me, serendipitously, when I was nearly forty. So good things do indeed come to those who wait.
Why is it important for children to read poems?
As others have said, poetry is: beautiful speech; a momentary stay against confusion; real toads in imaginary gardens; the best words in the best order. Or, as I’ve said, it’s frosted fire. All parents and teachers should want to surround their children with the English language at its best. Poetry, after all, is kindling for the imagination.
What does your typical writing day look like?
Happily, it’s long. I’m usually up and at it at 4 a.m., quitting at 3-4 p.m., asleep by 9 p.m. When I am not making school visits or attending conferences, I am in the chair where I now sit. Thinking, thinking, writing, reading, rewriting, thinking, rewriting, reading, rewritingin short, I’m engaged in a labor of love.
What do you say to kids who claim they can’t write poetry?
It may be shocking to relate but it’s quite true: Not everyone isor should bea poet. If you are unwilling to rewrite, as so many are, it’s likely that you will never become a poet. But so what? I’m much more interested in children who tell me that the most enjoyable part of their day is taken up with reading.
What’s the funniest thing a kid has asked you at a school visit?
A 4th gradera 4-H’erin Champaign, Illinois, asked me if I owned lambs. “No,” I said. “Well,” she replied, “I have two lambs and they both won blue ribbons at the Country Fair last month!” After I duly congratulated her, she said, “Do you know their names? Patrick and Lewis.”
I was so charmed I think my heart did a little flutter. But in the next breath, she said, “We had Lewis for dinner last night.”
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