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How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love

Literature can be daunting for some young people, so how can we create a culture of avid readers? Poetry can be a non-threatening alternative introduction for fledgling bibliophiles, giving them more “white space” on a page without losing narrative elements. Author Jason Reynolds shares his humble opinion on how poetry can entice young readers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we’ve just been hearing, a good movie can really grab your attention. This weekend, throngs of kids and adults will see the new “Star Wars” take. While Hollywood has figured out how to get boys to watch movies, the formula is trickier for getting boys to read, especially among those who have already expressed frustration and boredom with books.

    Tonight, author Jason Reynolds, whose newest young adult novel is called “Long Way Down,” shares his opinion on how poetry can dazzle reluctant readers.

  • Jasom Reynolds:

    If you were to tell me that you were afraid of dogs, I wouldn’t then return to you with a pack of pit bulls. I wouldn’t invite you out to a quiet evening over dinner and Kujo.

    However, what I might do is casually walk with you by one of those doggy daycares. The ones with the pups small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Yippy little furballs that get so excited, their tails wag the entire back halves of their bodies. The dogs that grin and want nothing more than to lap your skin with fervent affection.

    That’s how I would help break down the distrust of dogs. It just makes sense.

    So then, why, when it comes to young people who don’t like reading, who feel intimidated by literature, do we answer that cry with an onslaught of the very thing they fear? Why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages, and expect them to stop running away?

    Perhaps they haven’t found the right style of book because, sometimes it isn’t about subject matter, or voice, or point of view. Sometimes it’s about the most obvious thing- the words on the page.

    For some kids, those words — the amount of words — is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the window? In this case, poetry.

    Poetry has the ability to create entire moments with just a few choice words. The spacing and line breaks create rhythm, a helpful musicality, a natural flow. The separate stanzas aid in perpetuating a kind of incremental reading, one small chunk at a time.

    And the white space, for an intimidated reader, adds breathability to a seemingly suffocating task.

    I wrote this to explore the in-depth, though momentary, inner monologue of a young person dealing with a complex emotion — one we all can relate to — in just 50 words.

    “I felt like crying, which felt like another person trapped behind my face, tiny fists punching the backs of my eyes, feet kicking my throat at the spot where the swallow starts.

    Stay put, I whispered to him. Stay strong, I whispered to me because crying is against the rules.”

    With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present, this is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia. Less words on the page, more white space, without necessarily sacrificing the narrative elements.

    And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.

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