In Memory of Paul B. Janeczko

How to Write Poetry: Scholastic Guides – Paul B. Janeczko, Scholastic, 1999

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I was saddened to hear of the death of poet and author Paul Janeczko, one of the most thoughtful and innovative practitioners of the art of poetry and of teaching poetry writing to children.  Both his own poems and his anthologies, some illustrated by Chris Raschka and Melissa Sweet, among others, are joyful and serious introductions to verse, for example A Poke in the I, Dirty Laundry Pile, and The Death of the Hat.  Reading these beautifully organized and presented collections is a lesson in itself; they convince children and teens, as well as adults, of the excitement and the relevance of the genre.

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One modest book which stands out when I think of Janeczko’s work is the practical guide published by Scholastic, How to Write Poetry. While there are other books which give aspiring poets formulas and tips, this one stands out for its unassuming but assuring format.  Each chapter approaches a different task essential to writing, exploring different types of poems, and analyzing how each one responds to that task.  The book is physical simple, but appealing, with text boxes of grey or green embedded to highlight “poetcraft” and “writing tips.” “Try this” sections are accompanied by a small icon of a book and pen.

Rather than structuring the book around rules and recipes for specific verse forms, Janeczko develops each chapter as a work-in-progress, a map of the poet’s work.  For example, the chapter on “Writing Free Verse Poems” includes list poems and poems of address, quotes from poets, advice on word choice and figurative language, and even checklists for the writing process.  The tone is focused, respectful of the difficulties as well as the rewards of writing poetry.

Recently, there have many children’s and young adult authors who have had success with verse novels or memoirs in poetic form: Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Debbie Levy, Karen Hesse, Sharon Creech, Marilyn Nelson, and others.  Paul Janeczko’s guide offers a complement to reading those authors, an inside look at the nuts and bolts which poets use to build their inimitable structures and to suggest that kids can learn how to write poetry, too.  Janeczko will we remembered for his unique contribution and his inspiring vision.

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