‘Out of Wonder’ co-authors seek to change the way we teach poetry

Poetry doesn’t have to be intimidating.

In Out of Wonder, the CLSC Young Readers selection for Week Two, co-authors Kwame Alexander, Marjory Wentworth and Chris Colderley are breaking down the walls that keep children from exploring poetry.

“When kids are little they love poetry. They love to write and are excited to rhyme,” said Wentworth, who will lead a discussion of the book for young Chautauquans along with Colderley at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Literary Arts Center in Alumni Hall Ballroom. “Little by little they don’t like it. Textbooks are filled with poems written hundreds of years ago, and it gets pushed out of their lives. That’s really not the way the three of us think about poetry.”

The unique poetry collection is what Colderley called a “vehicle to share our passion and love of poetry with young people.” The collaborative effort among the three authors pays homage to their favorite poets while introducing a new generation to a varied selection of poetic styles in a fun and exciting way.

Wentworth said Out of Wonder seeks to “cut away at the intimidation,” encouraging children to play with words, punctuation and style. The three authors understand the important role poetry plays in helping children make sense of their feelings.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I was 12,” Alexander said. “A great deal of it was bad poetry, but I always used poetry and writing as a way to be in touch with how I was feeling or to deal with anger or to share my feelings. … It was a powerful way to understand myself better.”

As a parent and teacher, Wentworth said she’s seen how poetry can help children deal with emotional conflict as they age into adolescence. She said reading and writing poetry is a way for them to process their thoughts and work through issues about themselves, relationships and faith — or the lack thereof.

Their goal, Wentworth said, was to introduce children in a fun way to poets they would otherwise encounter later in life and think, “Who the heck is Emily Dickinson?”

Karen Schiavone, Special Studies and youth programs associate, said she and her colleagues chose Out of Wonder for the CLSC Young Readers list for that very reason.

“Kids need to be exposed to poetry at an early age,” Schiavone said. “I don’t think we are exposed to good poetry early enough.”

Schiavone said that she’s always found poetry difficult, and it isn’t a genre she generally reaches for. But after reading Out of Wonder she’s found herself wanting to “dive deeper into the poets” whom Alexander, Wentworth and Colderley pay tribute to in the book.

This is exactly what the authors hoped for. Alexander said he wanted the book to inspire children to go on and read more works by these poets, and, in doing so, become not only a better reader, but also a better person.

“Poetry allows us to become more human,” Alexander said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”

It’s not only the poetry that can inspire young readers, but also the the poets themselves. Colderley said that aside from their poetry, these artists had “rich, inspirational lives.” Despite facing difficulties, such as war, racial discrimination, and assault, they “found joy and reasons to be hopeful.”

A major factor for the authors when deciding which poets to celebrate was choosing a diverse range of voices. The authors were conscious of including works by poets of different genders, nationalities and ethnicities, in addition to choosing poets with varying styles. Rumi, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes are just a few of the iconic poets celebrated in Out of Wonder.

The authors all said that the selection process, a collaborative effort among the three as well as with their publishers, led to difficult decisions. The collaboration that was crucial to creating Out of Wonder is the topic Wentworth and Colderley will address in Wednesday’s discussion.

“Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services. “I think one of the reasons to pay such focus to the way in which artforms intersect is because it’s exactly what takes place on these grounds each day of the season.”

From the opera pulling from literary classics, to theater discussing current cultural and political issues, Ewalt said the Institution is a unique setting where “many of these classical and contemporary art forms exist side by side within such a concentrated community.” Wednesday’s program is a way to not only invite children into that artistic collaboration, but also “insist that we listen to what they have to say,” he said.

Following Wednesday’s book discussion, Wentworth and Colderley will lead children in an activity that mirrors the process they went through when creating Out of Wonder. The authors will show children Ekua Holmes’ illustrations and ask them to create poems inspired by the images.

Hopefully, the exercise will inspire children to continue to explore the power of words.

“Kids love to play with language,” Wentworth said. “Poetry is the place to do that.”

Tags : Chris ColderleyCLSC Young ReadersKwame AlexanderMarjory WentworthOut of Wonderweek two

The author Rebecca Klar

Rebecca Klar is a recent graduate of Binghamton University with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in rhetoric. She is excited to be spending her first summer at Chautauqua as a School of Music reporter for The Chautauquan Daily. You can contact her at