Some of my favorite poems were written during times of great turmoil, devastation, and injustice. In 1923, Langston Hughes published “My People.” In three two-line stanzas, Hughes writes about the dignity and beauty of black people by comparing them to the night sky, the stars, the sun. In Nikki Giovanni’s 1968 poem, “Knoxville, Tennessee,” the poet takes us to a barbeque, telling us that she loves summer best. I think about what was happening in our country during the ’20s and ’60s and wonder how it was that these poets could pen odes and psalms and not just dirges and protest poems. Of course, both poets have work that read like calls to action and rebukes but they have these verses, too. These poems that bring comfort, nostalgia, pride. These poems that tell me that even though there is much sadness, there is still joy and it’s okay to celebrate. As a reader, I need both.
As a writer, I write with that in mind. I believe young readers need books that help them process what is happening in the world, books that show characters facing devastating circumstances and how they handle those hardships in healthy ways. I do not write books for children to escape reality, I write to help them cope with it. In Ways to Make Sunshine, the first book in my new series, Ryan Hart is experiencing a lot of changes. Her father finally has a new job but it doesn’t pay as much and this means the family has to move to a new (old) house and sell the second family car. Besides what’s happening at home, Ryan is also facing changes in her friendships and isn’t always so good at living up to the high expectations her parents have of her. Still, she manages to make sunshine—to do something good for someone else, to infuse humor and laughter into a frustrating moment. This is not about her being in denial or about pushing down real feelings of stress and discontentment, but rather an acknowledgement that even with all the disappointment and sadness she’s feeling, she can still express the deep love she has for her family, she can still play with her friends, and she can try again when she messes up. Ryan is learning that life has both good and not-so-good moments, often happening at the same time. She is building her capacity to hold both.
With every book I write, my characters teach me something. Sometimes they convince me to forgive, to be more patient, to stop complaining. Other times they challenge me to speak out against injustice, stand up for what I believe in. Ryan reminded me that even the small things matter, that great leadership happens when no one is looking or applauding, and that I don’t need to have a lot to give a little.
As we are social distancing, I am thinking of young readers who most likely have lots of questions and fears. I am thinking of how disappointed—and perhaps powerless—they must feel knowing all the things they can’t do. And so, I think it’s important to remind young people of what they can do. Even now, in this darkness, they can be a light in someone’s day, they can celebrate the small things, they can take action in small, practical ways.
I’ve been asking families to take the #MakeSunshine challenge and share with me something they are doing to brighten someone’s day. Responses have included baking or cooking a meal for a loved one, calling a friend, making art and sending it in the mail, making masks and sending them to those who need one, and donating to food banks.
And always, I am asking young people to turn to the written word to find comfort. So often, as a child, my journal was a container for me that held my fears, my questions. Our young people are holding a lot in; encouraging them to read and write during this time provides a space for them to put their emotions. List Poems are an accessible style of writing for young people who are experiencing trauma, change, or who may be feeling lost. List Poems can be written in full sentences or single words that are carefully chosen to highlight special people, places, or things. The title can be what the list is about. I’ve used these prompts with young writers and have been deeply moved by their simple poignancy and have laughed at their clever word choices: What I Miss Most, Inside My Favorite Room/Place, I’m Grateful For, Outside My Window, What Makes Me Smile. And of course, we can take a cue from Langston and Nikki and write about what is beautiful, what we love most.
Joy Harjo says, “Without poetry, we lose our way.” I hope we are taking time to read for inspiration, for remembering. I hope we are taking time to write down our truths, to put them on record, to hold onto them, so that we don’t lose our way. In these times, it is important to acknowledge the pain and the joy, to hold both, to keep holding on, and on.
Renée Watson is a bestselling author, educator, and activist. Her novel Piecing Me Together received a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award.
Readers can tune into Watson’s virtual event on April 25 at 4 p.m. ET, hosted by Blue Willow on Facebook Live, using the hashtag #virtualbookstoreparty.