Powerful, Passionate, Important: Black Poetry Matters

“Every little bit is not a little bit.” Children’s author Jason Reynolds made this simple but profound statement during the #Kidlit4BlackLives virtual rally in June 2020, challenging the audience to do its part to battle racism and work toward equity.  As I children’s poet and teacher, I feel accountable to do my “little bit” to amplify the voices of Black children’s poets. I am taking action to make sure the poetry books I purchase for my shelves and share with students are more diverse and inclusive. Here are some recently published books by Black authors, filled with powerful, passionate, and important poems. I’m thrilled to add them to my poetry mentor text repertoire. (Click on each cover for more information about the books from Bookshop.)

Just Like Me

by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

An ode to girls of all kinds: happy girls, sad girls, shy girls, girls filled with self-esteem. This book invites readers to find themselves and each other within its pages. 

Ways to use it as mentor text:  In elementary classrooms, this collection can spark discussions about identity, friendship, diversity, and self-esteem. Use the poem “I Am” as a mentor text for students to write their own I AM poem. In this poem, Brantley-Newton uses a list of metaphors to express her identity: “I am a song/longing to be sung/I am the shine/belonging to the sun…” Reinforce the concept of metaphor by having students create their own list of tangible objects and sensations that show their identity, then include these metaphors in a poem that mimics Brantley-Newton's format.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy
by Tony Medina


This collection was sparked by Wallace Steven’s classic poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” In it, Tony Medina shares thirteen tanka poems, a Japanese poetry form consisting of 5 lines in a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable pattern. Each poem is only 31 syllables long, but together they provide a vibrant view of everyday life for Black boys.


Ways to use it as mentor text:  The collection shows that situations, and people, need to be looked at from many sides to see their complex dimensions. Use it in elementary and middle school classrooms as a springboard to talk about the importance of standing in another person’s shoes to aid understanding. Tanka poetry is an accessible form for young poets, and the poems in this book are particularly good tanka models. Medina does a super job choosing verbs and sensory details that show instead of tell. Have students write their own tanka poem (or set of thirteen tanka poems) showing what makes them unique.


Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice 

This energetic collection shines a light on the struggles and joys in the fight for social justice. Individual poems highlight prejudice, resistance, self-acceptance, friendship, and what it means to be “woke” or an aware member of a community, alert to injustice.


Ways to use it as mentor text:  Woke will show elementary and middle school readers and writers that their voices are their greatest power. The poem “What’s in My Toolbox” is a particularly strong mentor text. The poem explains that different people are born with different toolkits. Use it as a springboard for a discussion about how kids can use their tools to stand up for others. Using “What’s in My Toolbox” as a model, write a collective poem as a class. Have each student add a line that shows how they can use their tools to stand up to injustice and help others in their community.


One Last Word

 by Nikki Grimes


In this innovative collection, Nikki Grimes uses the Golden Shovel format to celebrate the writers of the Harlem Renaissance who used poetry to express racial pride. Grimes’ poems “find fuel for the future in the past,” echoing a message of hope, perseverance, and resilience of the human spirit.


Ways to use it as mentor text:  For upper elementary and middle school students, this collection provides a super introduction to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. It also shows readers the exciting possibilities of the golden shovel poetry format, which uses a line from an existing text as fodder for an original poem. After studying the poets and poems of the Harlem Renaissance, have students choose a line from their favorite poem and write their own golden shovel poem. 

Say Her Name

 by Zetta Elliot 


The forty-nine poems in this book celebrate “the vulnerability, strength, and magic of Black women and girls.”


Ways to use it as mentor text:  In middle and high school classes, the poems in this book can launch discussions about why and how to be an activist for marginalized members of society. The collection includes a rich variety of poetry forms, including “Sonnet for Ida” a poem honoring Ida B. Wells in the classic Shakespearean sonnet form. Compelling haiku are interspersed throughout the book. Use them as models for students to write their own haiku describing specific actions they can take against injustice.

About Michelle Schaub

Michelle Schaub is a language arts teacher and award-winning children's poet. She is the author of the picture book poetry collections Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market, (which won the 2018 Growing Good Kids Award and 2019 Northern Lights Book Award,) and Finding Treasure: A Collection of Collections. She also wrote the bedtime STEM book in verse, Dream Big, Little Scientists. Her poems appear in several anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology for Celebrations and Great Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud.  Michelle speaks at conferences on the power of poetry to boost literacy. Find out more at:  https://www.michelleschaub.com/