Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Lee Bennett Hopkins!

In honor of Lee's upcoming birthday, April 13, I'm sharing a review of a collection of autobiographical poems, BEEN TO YESTERDAYS. This collection was first published in 1995, and continues to be one I use in my classroom.

The emotion packed poems follow young Lee through his eventful and often painful adolescence. The very first poem in the collection is my favorite because it is a reminder that a picture might be worth a thousand words, but a picture doesn't always tell the truth.

from "Smile

for the camera."
the photographer
as we posed.
all dressed up
in our best
Sunday clothes.

"Smile big now.
Smile wide.
The five of you
look like
birds of a feather

How many of us have appeared "like birds of a feather" for a photograph when things were actually falling apart?

I especially love the conversational tone of the poems, perfect for reminding us that some conversations are never forgotten such as when your parents tell you they're getting divorced. My mother was very angry when my father left us. I wish she would've softened the blow a little the way Lee's mother did in "Since."

But he's still
your Daddy.
He always will be.
He's still a good man.
Still part of me.

It's important to know
that he'll always
love you,
your sister,
your brother,
and Grandma too.

BEEN TO YESTERDAYS is always popular with my middle school students because they can identify with the topics Lee writes about. They have experienced: divorce, trying to figure out who they are, missing an absent parent, and the death of a loved one.The poems reach out to young people, even boys who claim they don't like poetry.

This is also an excellent collection to teach students about using voice in their writing. I use the poem,"Another" about overhearing parents argue and "the/dreaded/word—/divorce" as a prompt for my eighth graders to write about an overheard conversation. Kids overhear much more than we're ever aware of. Their poems retelling conversations range from hiliarious to deeply moving.

About writing the collection, Lee says, "I still marvel at my creating BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE (BoydsMills Press) published over fourteen years ago…so long I almost forget writing it.The book received great national attention including being an SCBWI Golden KiteHonor Book and winning the Christopher Medal which was presented to me by James Earl Jones! But – I couldn’t attend the affair in NYC due to a prior commitment to a friend who had asked me a long time prior to speak at a dinner meeting in South Carolina! As I was eating spaghetti all I could think of was Mr. Jones. My agent, the great-late Marilyn E. Marlow accepted the award for me…and never let me forget the moment!

…YESTERDAYS continues to be read and read and used in all kinds of programs from youth groups to Al-Anon groups. The small book has touched so many; I never knew the power of the words could have gone on so long."

If you've read BEEN TO YESTERDAYS, read it again. I discover something new every time I read it. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on a great one!

The final stanzas in the poem, "To" make a perfect ending for the collection.

this world
a whole lot

I grow up,

You sure have, made the world a whole lot brighter,Lee! Happy Birthday!


  1. wonderful!
    Thank you for sharing these poems!

  2. Thank you, Angela. It's such a fantastic collection, I had a hard time choosing the ones to post.