The Missouri Reader Vol. 40, Issue 1 - Page 35

wild creature that had walked where I now stood, perhaps moments earlier. I didn’t think, “Aha! A poem!” But I carried the memory away with me, and the act itself became part of the poem that I eventually wrote.


From Wild Country

A single hoof mark

in the moist trail,


probably a deer.

We’ll never meet

yet our paths cross


In these woods

our separate ways

are clear

but standing briefly

where this deer stood

is a memory

worth taking

beyond the wood

The deer poem seemed as inevitable as the fish poem of my youth. They both sprang from sudden urges to record a moment that felt important. I’ve developed a lot of tricks over the years to help me find my way into poems, but most of my favorites take their voices from something as simple and personal and compelling as wanting to eat or crossing paths with a deer. I am my first and most important audience. If I don’t like it, I take for granted that my readers won’t either.

Serious times in our lives often generate serious writing to describe them, but not always. As I look around at the size of a lot of us these days, I want to write about the enormity of the problem. But to write a poem about being overweight that might be read aloud in a class would risk embarrassing some of the students. Poets have a responsibility to consider such possibilities before choosing how to present a subject. My solution in this case was to keep it light and silly.


From The Boy Who Counted Stars

Mrs. LaPlump weighed 300 pounds,

Her husband weighed 202.

“I’ve got to lose some weight,” she said,

I’ll give up potatoes and pizza and bread.”

Mr. LaPlump said, “I will, too.

My darling, I’ll do it for you.”

When each of them lost 100 pounds,

He only weighed 102.

“I’ve got to lose more weight,” she said.

“This next 100,” said he, “I dread,

For when we are finished I’ll only weigh 2,

But darling, I’ll do it for you.”

When they lost another 100 pounds,

Her figure was perfect and trim,

But there is a lesson here I think,

Mr. LaPlump continued to shrink

Till one day he disappeared down the sink,

And you may find this grim, my dears,

But it was the end for him.

If we expect to draw in readers and entice writers, we need to learn what kids like. School visits help authors remember the differences from one grade to another. Sometimes this can be a challenge! If I spot some boys in the back, slouching at their seats, ankles crossed, determined to be unreachable, I play my trump card: one of my nonfiction books called Cave Detectives. One passage describes the discovery of ancient claw marks high on a cavern wall.

“Those deep gouges in the clay were put there by a bear,” I tell them.

The boys, still motionless, peer out through their eyelashes.

“Fourteen feet up the wall.”

Feet uncross.

“Four feet higher than a basketball goal.”

They lean forward.

“That bad boy could weigh 2,000 pounds, run 45 miles per hour, and was always hungry for meat.”


Donita Shaw is a professor of literacy education at the University of Kansas. She is passionate about helping teachers gain the knowledge they need so they can differentiate instruction and ensure all children learn how to read.

Children who struggle to learn phonics knowledge will often be delayed in their overall reading ability.