Amazing Faces, one of our new spring books, is a collection of poems celebrating the amazing people and faces that surround us every day. We asked the poets to share the stories behind their poems. Here are some of their responses:
Jane Yolen, “Karate Kid”
A number of years ago, Lee Bennett Hopkins asked me to write a poem for a sports anthology. “How about karate?” I said. There is a dojo near my house. I had some friends who had kids in karate and a granddaughter who was just starting into the martial arts. Also, I find some of the Chinese martial arts movies fascinating in a balletic sort of way.
And so I wrote “Karate Kid.” It has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes (if a writer is very lucky) that happens.
Rebecca Kai Dotlich, “Amazing Face”
I am, and will always be, fascinated by children. Especially very young children. I look at them and a million dreams and possibilities run through my mind: the person they will become, the journeys they’ll take, the hobbies they’ll choose, the crafts they’ll learn, the billowed joys they will experience, the heartache and heartbreak they will ultimately and unfortunately experience too. I want each child on this Earth to know they are loved by someone, that they are valued, and that they are truly and downright amazing. I hope my poem sends this message, whoever is listening.
Mary Cronin, “Firefighter Face”
I enjoy shining a light on the work of firefighters in my writing; my father was a New York City firefighter for more than thirty years. While he never talked about “the job” at home, we knew he loved his work and took great pride in it. “Firefighter Face” was inspired by a picture in a photography book about New York firefighting. In the photo, a firefighter pauses, grimy and exhausted. Yet there’s no mistaking the expression on his face, the look of satisfaction in a job well done. I wanted to capture that amazing expression in poetic form, and I dedicate the poem to firefighters and their loved ones.
Pat Mora, “High in the Sky”
I was grateful, in January 2008, when Lee Bennett Hopkins invited me to write a joyful poem about a Latino child for the book now titled Amazing Faces. I did what I always do when I’m working on a writing project—I mulled. I’ve spent much of my life in the Chihuahua Desert, first in El Paso and now in Santa Fe. I thoroughly enjoy summer evenings in the desert, probably because I so shiver in cold weather. I also love the immensity of the sky at night and the comfort of the stars. I enjoyed writing about a child savoring a desert evening and hope the reader enjoys the experience too.
Janet Wong, “Living Above Good Fortune”
When I was four years old, I worked after school in my mother’s beauty shop in Los Angeles, sweeping up hair. At dinnertime, I walked down the block and worked at my grandparents’ Chinese restaurant as a waitress (mainly just collecting tips). It was a fun and busy day, but I wanted desperately to work at a hamburger place instead—French fries for free! My parents told me how lucky I was to work at our restaurant. Luck is important in Chinese culture. If you stroll down the street in Chinatown, every other sign or storefront seems to involve Fortune or Luck and their symbols—the colors red and gold, the numbers 8 and 9, firecrackers, oranges, fish, and crabs. Many times as a child I was told to appreciate my good luck, and many times I remember wondering, “Lucky me?!”
Carole Boston Weatherford, “Which Way to Dreamland?”
The poem, “Which Way to Dreamland?” was inspired by a question that my very creative and curious son asked my mother: “Nana, how do dreams get in your head?
Jude Mandell, “I’m the One”
It’s a sad reality that being excluded or ostracized by peers is a daily experience for so many youngsters. When Lee contacted me to write a poem on this subject for Amazing Faces, I not only found inspiration in my many years as a psycho-educational diagnostician, teaching regular and special-needs students who were often shunned or bullied, I tapped into my own feelings of confusion and hurt when friends or classmates picked other kids to share their fun instead of me.
Parents and teachers try to provide excluded kids survival—skills to help them cope with the upset of feeling left out. Self-talk mantras, like: Pretend not to care when friends don’t ask you to join their games at recess—find someone else to play with, or, Hide your feelings—don’t let them see you cry, or, Don’t react if classmates groan when you’re assigned to their team, you’ll only make things worse, or, Ignore those whispers, snickers, and ugly insults that make you believe you’ll never, ever, fit-in. Why would you want to be friends with kids that are so mean anyway? With enough practice and support, sometimes these strategies even work. Unfortunately for most kids, the social and emotional costs to kids trying to survive in the face of non-acceptance can be too high.
If children’s longing to belong is strong enough, and their feelings of self-worth weak enough, they may end up re-defining themselves by the opinions of others, devaluing all the unique and creative insights and abilities that make them interesting and unique, abdicating their sense of personal power to the very kids that make them feel deficient.
On the flip side, if kids are ‘lucky-enough’ to become members of a popular clique, but fear being kicked-out if they don’t toe the line, they may tie themselves so tightly to the group-mentality that they’re willing to abandon the values of fairness and compassion they grew up with, and secretly believe in.
The seeds for victim mentality and bullying lie in both scenarios. Just look at the headlines.
In writing “I’m the One”, I wanted the little boy in the poem to be vulnerable—too young to hide his bitter disappointment at being left out, yet strong enough to hold to an inner certainty that he’s still someone worth knowing. My hope for all youngsters facing the challenges of today’s social climate is that they find the strength to hold firm to that same certainty for themselves.