From a reviewer’s point of view

Hi everyone,

I read an article by a reviewer on page 31 of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section. It’s by Alice Gregory, a contributing editor at Times Style Magazine. For those of us who have at one time or another felt the lash of an invisible reviewer protected by the system from ever having to face the author he or she has just savaged, I’m grateful to Ms. Gregory for her insight and unusual apology. She leads off with, “I am saying, to the authors of books I’ve reviewed even just a few years ago, that I’m sorry.” She concludes by clarifying, “I don’t think I was unfair to those books, but I do think I was unfair to the people who wrote them. There is a difference, and I am inclined to acknowledge it in a way that I once, even quite recently, was not.”

A point Ms. Gregory makes is that she began reviewing when she was 23 and for the first few years “…labored under the delusion that it didn’t matter whether or not I knew anything at all.” She goes on to say that she critiqued nonfiction books on topics she didn’t know well and fiction books by authors she hadn’t read before. The line of reasoning leads her to conclude that in the early days she tended to deal with the book in her hand and pay too little attention to the fact that she was “engaging with the product of someone else’s time and effort and intellect.”

She makes no apology for not liking certain books, nor should she. But growing on the job has taught her that it’s one thing to not like someone’s book and quite another to abuse the person who worked in good faith to create it.

Naturally Alice Gregory doesn’t speak for all reviewers, but I appreciated her perspective and learned something about the business of reviewing that I’d only suspected before.

Book Links

Hi everyone,
Sylvia Vardell
Congratulations to Sylvia Vardell for her article in the November 2015 issue of BOOK LINKS, LITERATURE-BASED RESOURCES FOR THE CURRICULUM, “Playing Tag with Science Poets.” The heading is, “Fifteen poets who write with a science focus endorse their favorite collections of science-themed poetry for young readers.” I’m happy to be in the lineup with other poets and friends. Thank you, Sylvia, for all you do to support children’s poets and their work.

Food for young thought

Hi everyone,

Some of you know of an outstanding teacher named Nancie Atwell She has written many great books for educators, including IN THE MIDDLE; TRANSFORM YOUR CLASSROOM; SCHOOL, LESSONS THAT CHANGE WRITERS; and NAMING THE WORLD: A YEAR OF POEMS AND LESSONS.
Nancie Atwell
In March of this year Nancie made national news when she won the inaugural Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, with a $1 million award attached, and gave the entire $1 million to her demonstration school, the Center for Teaching and Learning, in Edgecomb, Maine.

I just read an article by Nancie that was published in the WASHINGTON POST and titled “Innovation Old-School Style.” In it she states, “When reformers discuss how to improve U.S. education, innovation is a word they use a lot, preceded by the modifier technological: innovation gets defined as devices and apps.” She goes on to say, “But as a growing body of research has begun to question whether tablets, e-readers, and assorted digital platforms are doing children more harm than good, I’d like to reclaim the term. Methods, created by teachers in a quest to develop students’ skills and understandings, are the essential innovations.”

I love the whole article but the statement that jumped out for me is this one: “Give them intriguing introductions to compelling stories and time in school to read them. Give them a community to read in, a healthy collection of books from which to choose, and conversations with a teacher who knows the collection . . . and they will grow into fluent, passionate readers.”

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Would that it were!


Featuring Steven Withrow


 Hi everyone,

Most of you who visit my blog already know or have heard about Steven Withrow. He has a unique voice and contributes regularly to the pool of freshly minted poems that deserve to be read and celebrated. I asked Steven if I could feature him and he graciously agreed. Now I’ll stand aside and let him do the talking. I think you’ll be glad you listened.
By Steven Withrow

When I was eleven years old, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. DiDio, told me that I had an imagination like a rocket: it needed space to do its work. From a distance of thirty years, I can see now that she was exactly right.

As reader and writer, I’ve tried out many imaginative spaces—stories, plays, essays, comics—and I’ve found the most room for maneuvering in what is often the tightest of forms.

A poem is a djinni’s lamp—bigger on the inside than on the outside. Take this one, for instance, from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations:pfa_celebrations

Reading Braille

I sail my fingerships
Over a paper sea
I do not see

I sail my fingerships
Across a dotted alphabet
Shaped like wave caps

Forward and back
I do not stop
Until I touch bottom

Of the great, wide page.

© 2015 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved


Minus the title, it is just 40 words, 53 syllables. Little more than a sentence or two of prose. But a tiny world nonetheless. Spare and spacious. Compressed and capacious. I like it best when I say it aloud a couple of times.

All my poems from fifth grade or before were meant to be said (or sung) aloud. But in my teenage years, in part because of the influence of certain teachers, I pictured a poem as belonging to a silent reader. I held this image through high school and college, and I began to doubt my love of rhyme, meter, and pattern.

By the time I reached graduate school, I seldom read poems aloud. Poetry had become an enclosed space—an echo chamber—and my imagination, I’d forgotten, is claustrophobic. For several years I pretty much avoided poems.

What brought me to my senses was my rediscovery of children’s poetry through the work of David McCord, Karla Kuskin, Ted Hughes, Edward Lear, Charles Causley, and Valerie Worth. I quickly made up for lost time, and for the past decade I’ve read and studied every poem I could find for children, teenagers, and adults.

The idea I want to challenge in my lifetime is that poetry is peripheral. Poetry is central, fundamental, integral. Some evidence: Verse predates prose historically; rhyme and pattern are pillars of language development; poetry is global and communal to a greater degree than all other literatures. But it goes beyond poetry’s precedence and presence. A poem is human utterance at its utmost, its extreme distillation. Think of Bashō’s or Issa’s haiku, Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies, Emily Dickinson’s vivid verses, Charles Causley’s Cornish ballads. We say poems to ourselves and each other from birth, just as we tell stories, but are we encouraged to sweep that idea to the corners when we enter a classroom, a library, a bookshop?

Today I write verse as often as I can, but it feels much more like composing music now. I am acutely aware of my physical need to experience and perform the words, to feel the syllables in my mouth and the breath in my body. It’s a joy I’ll never abandon again.

Here’s a poem for slightly older readers that contemplates the afterlife of love and celebrates the mechanism of a poem:
TheGristMill (3)

Note: The Plimoth Grist Mill was a water-powered, corn-grinding mill built by the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony in 1636. John Jenney ran the mill until his death in 1644, leaving it to his wife Sarah and son Samuel, who ran it until 1683.

© 2015 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved


Publishing my poems in print and online is important to me, as I like to imagine my words coming to life in another person’s mind and voice. I also like to share my favorite poems by other writers whenever I read in public on my travels.barding_around

As a way to reach a wider audience, I’ve created a weekly YouTube series called Poetry at Play. The first episodes can be viewed for free at . Please share the link with anyone who might enjoy it (especially parents and teachers) and subscribe to the channel.

You can find my poems for children in The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry (edited by J. Patrick Lewis),natlgeo_nature_poetry The Poetry Friday Anthologies (edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong), and Dear Tomato: An International Crop of Food and Agriculture Poems (edited by Carol-Ann Hoyte).dear_tomato Upcoming anthology appearances include The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (edited by J. Patrick Lewis; Fall 2015) and One Minute Till Bedtime (edited by U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt; Little, Brown; Fall 2016).

My first collection of children’s poems, co-authored with British poet Roger Stevens, will be published in the UK by A&C Black (part of Bloomsbury) in 2016. I self-published my first collection of poems for adults, Crackles of Speech, in 2014.cracklesofspeech My speculative poem “The Sun Ships” appears in Eye to the Telescope (Issue 16, April 2015). Library of the Early Mind: A grown-up look at children’s literature—a documentary film I co-produced with director Edward J. Delaney—premiered in 2010.

I live with my wife, the illustrator Lesley Breen Withrow, and our daughter in Rhode Island and can be reached at stevenwithrow (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thank you for reading. Be sure to give yourself space on the launchpad!