Linda Kulp Trout

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I'm a big fan of novels-in-verse. I’ve read dozens and have an entire bookshelf full of them to prove it! Novels-in-verse are gaining popularity with teens for the same reasons I love them:  they are fast reads, character-driven, offer a strong voice, often deal with tough subject matter, and pack a lot of emotion a small space. 

Now that I have a Kindle, I can read while I'm on the treadmill.  It's been great because I can do something I love while I'm doing something I'm not so crazy about. This summer I spent a lot of time on the treadmill, lost twenty-two pounds, and read a bunch of novels-in-verse!  I enjoyed all of them, but there was one so special  that as soon as I came to the last page, I just had to read it again.

That novel is A GIRL NAMED MISTER by award-winning poet and author Nikki Grimes. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing a great read. There is so much to love about this story.  If you're familiar with Nikki's work, you already her poems and stories are filled with surprises and powerful emotions. When I’m reading her writing, I always feel like narrator is sitting next to me telling his/her story.

Mary Rudine is the main character.  Her voice and personality emerge from the beginning in a  poem where she explains how she came to be known as "Mister."

Blame it on my mother.
She's the one who named me
Mary Rudine.
The name is some throwback
her old-fashioned thinking
came up with.
Nobody but Mom
has called me Mary Rudine
since forever.
First it was Mary,
then it was M.R.
Mister is all anybody
calls me now.

Mister's life revolves around the church. She sings in the choir, attends video night, and wears a purity ring. But lately she's been wondering if something is missing. Like most teens, she longs to explore where she fits in the world.


I turned the music
of the world
way up,
my feet itching to dance
to a new rhythm,
something other than

Then she meets Trey who sweeps her off her feet, and she begins to question her beliefs.  He pressures her until she finally gives in. She becomes pregnant and her life is changed forever.

This could have been just another story about teenage pregnancy, but then that wouldn’t have been a Nikki Grimes’ story. Instead, she brilliantly weaves a story within a story as Mister searches for answers by reading a book of poems from the perspective of the Virgin Mary.

Suddenly, the reader is transported back thousands of years where Mary tells her own story.  I had never thought about the fear, shame, and confusion young Mary must have experienced being unwed and expecting a child. But that’s what great literature does, it gets you thinking in brand new ways.

Something I especially love is how through the parallel stories of Mister and Mary, the reader comes to realize the human experience hasn’t changed through time. Our stories are universal. We love, we fear, we question just as those who came before us did.  I believe every reader will connect to the emotions in this novel.

I won't give away the ending, but I'm hoping Nikki might write a sequel to this story someday.  I want to know what happens to Mister and the baby.

I try to "read like a writer."  So, I always look at techniques the author uses to bring a story to life and try to apply them to my own writing. I had some questions and Nikki was very kind to answer them for me.

1. Mary Rudine’s personality pops off the page from the very first poem where she explains how she came to be called Mister. How do you create a distinctive voice for each of your characters?

The voices come to me. It's the details I add: the family history, the back-story, the environment, etc. But the voice, that's a gift. I think it comes from a life-time of honing my writer's ear. I'm always listening to the way people speak, to their dialect, the nuances of their speech patterns, etc. I have a reservoir of voices in my mind, just waiting to be take up residence in whatever character I choose.

2. I love the parallel stories of Mister and the Virgin Mary. Why did you choose to write a story within a story? What were the challenges in doing this? Did you write each story separately, or did you alternate the way it appears in the novel?

I love working in multiple voices. I begin working on each separately, then weave the two together. As in Dark Sons, I wanted to explore the ways in which characters separated by thousands of miles, and thousands of years, are, in fact, alike. The universality of characters and story always interests me. The challenge, here, was to keep the dialogue authentic to the period for each character.

3.What are the challenges of writing a novel in verse? Do you write the entire story first, or do the revisions for each poem before moving on to the next one?

The main challenge in writing a story in verse is to strike a balance between storytelling and poetry. It would be easy for the mechanics of the story to overwhelm the text so that the poetry is lost. I've read any number of books that propose to be novels-in-verse, but which are, in fact, books of broken prose. One easy way to mark the difference is the absence, or presence, of metaphors. If you go 20, 30, 40 pages without encountering a metaphor, the book is not a novel in verse!

In the first draft, I concentrate on telling the story. With revisions, I begin to hone the poetry, pay more attention to scanning, lyricism, imagery. As I tweak the story, overall, I'm constantly looking to tweak the poetry, as well.

An advanced copy of Nikki's latest novel-in-verse, PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL arrived in my mailbox today.  I can't wait to start reading it!  PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL is available on Amazon for pre-order.The release date is Sept. 13.

Nikki Grimes is a New York Times bestselling author and the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, the novels Jazmin's Notebook, Dark Sons,and The Road to Paris (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books).Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown. You can read more about Nikki and her work on her website.

Teachers: If you haven’t discovered the poetry of Nikki Grimes, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to read some of her work. Her poems are very accessible and speak to the heart of a child. I highly recommend SOMETHING ON MY MIND, Dial Books, 1978. This is a collection of poems I’ve used for many years as writing prompts with both elementary and middle school students. My students relate to the emotions and situations in the poems and in response have written their own heartfelt poems and personal narratives. I’ve never had to “make” a child write in response to these poems because they want to tell their stories. Although it’s currently out of print, Amazon has some new and used copies. You could also check your local library. It’s worth the effort. If you’ve already used SOMETHING ON MY MIND with students, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Silence of War

Every year my students write letters to our soldiers thanking them for the job they do. The kids really put their hearts into the letters and show their support for our military men and women. I can't imagine how lonely they must be so far from home, especially during the holidays.

I was about the age of my students durng the war in Vietnam. It was a time in my life that I'm not proud of. I had the chance to ease the loneliness of one young solider, but I didn't. Something as simple as writing a letter could've made all the difference. Silence can be the worst weapon of all.

After reading the letters my students so wrote, I started working on this poem trying to figure out what I was thinking back then.

The Silence of War

We only dated once before
you enlisted in the Army.

You chose to go.
I kissed you good-bye.

Letters arrived, unexpectedly
postmarked Da Nang
long, lonely letters from Vietnam
long, lonely letters from you.

What did you mean, wait for you?
I wasn't your girl.
At seventeen, I was thinking
pale blue prom dresses

high school graduation
burgundy cap and gown—
not Army dress greens
or camouflage fatigues.

You were on the other side
of the planet— foreign to me
I couldn't promise to wait for you
Your world was not my world.

I didn't want to hurt you.
I didn't want you to think
I was waiting for you—
I didn't write back.

For fifteen months
your letters came.
I read every one.
I saved every one—

Then nothing.
No letters.
No news of you.

Yesterday, I saw you
home on leave.
You looked my way,
I turned in shame.

I could’ve made a difference
I could’ve let you know
I really did care—
Even now, I remain silent.

Poetry Friday: Villanelle

As teachers, our students often expect us to have all the answers. Many years ago, I was assigned to teach the brand new "Just Say No" drug prevention unit to 75 fifth graders. The school was located in a small low-income community. I lived just a few miles from the school and knew many of the children and their families.

As I started preparing my "Just Say No" lessons, I couldn't help but think of how the lives of some of the children had been affected by drugs and alcohol. I'd heard the stories; I'd seen the pain in their eyes. They knew much more about the subject than I did. How could I teach them about something they lived with everyday? That question led to writing this villanelle in my poetry journal.

(I don't know if it's okay to separate the last stanza of a villanelle into two couplets, but I thougtht a pause was needed. I once had a teacher who said it's better to focus on the meaning of the poem than stick to a strict form. What do you think?)

Preparing a Lesson on Drug Abuse

I see in their eyes what they try not to show,
these ten year olds living in anger and fear.
What can I teach them they don’t already know?

Sam’s mom left him for drugs— six months ago
But he still hasn’t cried one tear.
I see in his eyes what he tries not to show.

Katie Davis’ grades have fallen so low,
she lost her smile— and her brother last year.
What can I teach her she doesn’t already know?

His parents vowed to quit drinking, but Joe's
heard it before— (the words insincere).
I see in his eyes what he tries not to show.

And Jen doesn’t have a winter coat although
her father always finds money for beer.
What can I teach her she doesn’t already know?

I wonder what’ll happen to them as they grow.
The people they’ll become remains unclear.

I see in their eyes what they try not to show.
What can I teach them they don’t already know?

copyright2009 Linda Kulp
I used to live across the street from a large pond. All summer long, I watched as geese came to make the pond their home. I watched them care for their young, waddle through the long thick grass around the pond, mourn the death of a mate, and aggresively chase unsuspecting trespassers.

It was always sad when it came time for them head to their winter home. Lying in bed, listening to the haunting sound of their leaving meant the long, quiet winter was about to begin.

Fly South

fly south geese go— soon
the earth will be covered with
ice and snow it’s time
to head for warmer winds so—
go now before winter begins

Here is the link to read a lovely poem about these amazing creatures.

Ring/Drum/Blanket Poem

Over at Wild Rose Reader, Elaine interviewed one of my favorite poets, Janet Wong. I have several of Janet's books and use them frequently with my students. One of her books, Behind the Wheel, was the inspiration for my teacher presentation for the Maryland Writing Project. The poems were a big hit with the teachers and with teenaged boys. (I'm always looking for ways to get boys to read more poetry, but that's a blog for another day.)
Elaine and Janet issued an invitation to write a poem using the following three words: ring, drum, blanket. I usually don't feel confident enough about my poems to share them with the poets I admire like Janet and Elaine, but Laura Salas wrote a blog the other day that encouraged me to share my "poem-sketches." It takes the pressure off when I think of my poems as works-in-progess. I've always believed in the adage, "A poem is never really finished, just abandoned." I'm not sure I've totally abandoned this little poem yet, but here's what I have so far. It's another tanka. I've been writing tanka for a few years now, and have even had a few published. I like the brevity of the form and trying to paint an image/emotion with just a few words. So here goes.

ring of white-tailed deer
circle our crabapple tree
hooves drum frozen ground
pulling back blankets of snow
in search of a midnight snack

I don't belong to a writer's group so suggestions are always appreciated. Now, I'm wondering if I'm up for Elaine's next challenge, an apology poem. : )

Remembering My Grandmother

I've been thinking about my grandmother. She had the courage to listen to her heart and find happiness in the years after my grandfather passed. Some family members didn't approve of the choices she made, but I admired her for doing what she knew was right for her. I wish I would've told her.

The Lesson

The first stitch takes the most courage,
Grandma said, threading a silver needle.
Don't think too hard about the design,
just let the pieces come together,

Grandma said, threading a silver needle.
When you feel the fabric in your fingers
just let the pieces come together
naturally, it will always be right.

When you feel the fabric in your fingers
don't wait for others to admire the pattern--
naturally, it will always be right.
Even if no one else understands it.

Don't wait for others to admire the pattern.
don't think too hard about the design,
even if no one else understands it.
The first stitch takes the most courage.

copyright 1996 Linda Kulp

Remembering Grandpa

My grandfather always made me feel special. He loved to play his old banjo and have me sing along. He taught me the words to his favoritie song, "Bye-Bye Blackbird." We'd sit together in the kitchen and sing it over and over. Whenever I think of him, I think of that song. It was impossible to feel sad when he was around.
Sadly, his life was short and my sons never got to know him. I wrote this poem in memory of him for Father's Day.

Singing Lessons

Every Sunday after supper, Grandpa
takes out his banjo.
A rush of music
fills the empty air
like a flock of blackbirds—
and he asks me to sing.

Together, on the porch swing, we sing.
Sitting there with Grandpa,
our songs call out to the blackbirds
while his fingers fly across the banjo
sweetening the air
with our family music.

As sunlight turns to starlight, the music,
the laughter, and the bright way we sing
warm the chilly air.
I slide closer to Grandpa,
one with him and his banjo:
"Bye, bye blackbirds."

We serenade the blackbirds.
The fluttering sound of music
strumming the banjo,
and voices that need to sing
surround Grandpa
and me with ribbons of air.

Protecting us from the cool night air
like a nest wrapped around two blackbirds
covers me in music
teaching me to sing
even when there's no banjo.

A worn out old banjo,
the taste of words soaring through the air,
a chance to clap my hands and sing,
cherishing a gathering of blackbirds,
the freedom of music:
gifts from Grandpa.

Just a banjo and some blackbirds
replenish the air with music
as I sting, still, with Grandpa.
Linda Kulp- all rights reservered