Saturday, April 04, 2009

Poetry Makers - Joyce Carol Thomas

If you think Joyce Carol Thomas' name sounds familiar, it may be because her book The Blacker the Berry earned a Coretta Scott King Author Honor for 2009. The illustrations by Floyd Cooper also earned it the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner. But Joyce Carol Thomas has been writing for many years. Her first published novel, Marked by Fire, won the National Book Award in 1983 for Children's Books. Talk about starting your career with a bang! Since then, Joyce has written for children and adults in a range of genres. Regardless of the form, at the heart of her work is a focus identity, culture and family.

Before I talk about some of Joyce's work, let's learn a bit more about her.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Joyce: My sister recalls that before I could read I would go under the house where it was quiet and scribble what was in my head. I had yet to learn to write. So the paper was filled with scribbles.

Who/what made you want to write?
Joyce: I loved to listen to language. My older brothers use to read to me and I’d get very quiet. I would become totally engaged with the words. When the minister preached, I heard poetry. In Sunday School and Bible Study, I heard poetry. Even the town drunk spoke in poetry that only I could decipher. (smile)

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
I have taught poetry in schools and in universities. My students used to be amazed that the poetry Goddess lived within their minds.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I sometimes wake up in the morning with a poem on my mind. I go straight to my desk and begin writing the poem while it is fresh and brand new.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I like the delight in children’s voices when they tell me about how one of my poems was so important to them. Poetry influenced the way they looked at the world and it touched the way they looked at themselves. In general, children catch the rhythm of a poem very easily. Other young adults say reading poetry helps them read other library books and text books for class and for homework. Children can look for the sound of poetry in homework.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Joyce: I like many for various reasons.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Joyce: I’m always working on new poetry. Some I’ve had published, some not. When a new book of poetry comes out, I’ll let you know.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
They are not dead. Their work lives.

Your favorite place to write and illustrate?
In my study looking out at a view of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay Bridges.

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Joyce: I’ll think deeply about it.

The Blacker the Berry wasn't the first poetry book of Joyce's to receive a CSK honor award. Her first picture book, Brown Honey In Broomwheat Tea, also illustrated by Floyd Cooper, received this same honor in 1994. The 12 free verse poems in this volume introduce readers to the richness of family life and love while celebrating the heritage of African Americans. My favorite poem from the book honors the strength that resides in the people she writes about.
I Am a Root

I am hewn from
      the solid ledge of rock
      the soaring songs of birds
      the rocking motions of the ocean
      the uplifted branches of the tree

I am a root
      that will be free
Equally as lovely is the companion volume to this selection of poetry, Gingerbread Days, another collection of 12 poems which are linked to the months and celebrates the passage of a year within an extended African American family.

Another collection of poems appears in the book Crowning Glory. The 14 poems honor the beauty and variety of African American hairstyles, including braids, dreadlocks, cornrows, adorned and more. One of my favorite poems from this volume is about hats. Here are the first two stanzas.
Glad Hats

Pink hats for the fashion parade
Hats ribboned and hats homemade
Hats bought from downtown stops
Hats picked from boutique shops

Green hats with flower rims
Hats made with skinny brims
Hats made of straw and linen
Hats made for girls and women
Joyce's latest award-winning volume of poems is perhaps one of my favorites. The book opens with a simple phrase—Colors without black, couldn't sparkle quite so bright. What follows are 12 poems that describe different shades of skin color and connect those colors to fruits and berries. The final poem includes all the children and colors previously described. It begins this way.
Color Struck

Our hair is curly black, braided brown
      and wavy red
Our lips are as luscious as ripe berries
As slim as a painter's thin line
And as generous as
Plump plums

We are color struck
The way an artist strikes
His canvas with his brush of many hues
No matter which volume of Joyce Carol Thomas' you select, inside you will find lovingly crafted works celebrating the African American experience. I hope you will consider reading one or more of these titles and immersing yourself in the beautiful worlds so amazingly brought to life by Joyce's vivid and enduring poems.

Please consider visiting Joyce's web site to learn a bit more about her and her many, many works. My deepest gratitude to Joyce for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Joyce Carol Thomas. All rights reserved.


  1. I really love the Brown Honey book. I'll have to look for the others now! Thanks for this post.

  2. Hooray for Saturday morning -- I just got caught up on a week of Poetry Makers.


    What a fabulous amount of work has gone into this project, and like so much of what you do, what a great resource for teachers and poetry lovers!

    Thankyouthankyouthankyou!!! Can't wait for the rest of April!

  3. It was a treat for me to review The Blacker the Berry for SLJ. The illustrations are simply glorious and the poems explore a range of issues that could challenge college students yet through her poetry they simply deep, rich and beautiful. Reviewing for SLJ has its rewards! This one was one of the sweeter pleasures.

  4. I've had the Brown Honey book for several years. I agree with Mary Lee, this is a great resource for teachers. I'm using them daily!

  5. I love the great themes of Joyce's poems!