Top of page

Pairing Poems with Fiction and Biography

Share this post:

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

As a former English teacher and current librarian, I am invested in my students accessing a variety of reading materials. I have found that students, when allowed to choose their own reading materials, will most often select fiction and biography, with narrative non-fiction following closely behind. I have rarely seen students choose to check out poetry. Would that begin to change if we offer students opportunities to read poems paired with books they may read on their own or as a class?

Since we are pairing poems with books students may have read on their own rather than as a class assignment, the activities I propose serve as a way to prompt thinking about the poem and its connections to the book.

John Green at the 2012 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
John Green at the 2012 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

A popular novel in my library, even six years after its publication, is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. While a tear-jerker for many readers, the book also celebrates embracing every moment of life even in the face of a cancer diagnosis. I found three poems in the list of poems on the Library’s Poetry 180 website that would pair well with this novel:

  • The Summer I Was Sixteen,” by Geraldine Connolly
    -Compare and contrast the experiences of the speaker in the poem to that of Hazel and Augustus and the other teens they encounter. What would you include in a poem about your most recent summer?
  • When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver
    -In the novel, Hazel and Gus are aware they may not live to adulthood. Jot down what you can remember about their attitude toward the possibility of dying young. Compare their feelings and thoughts to that of the speaker in the poem.
  • Before She Died,” by Karen Chase
    -After reading the poem, think about Hazel’s thoughts and fears related to the possible loss of Gus. Also think about the things Gus says to Hazel that show his attitude toward her possible death. What might each of them do to prepare mentally for the other’s death, in the way the narrator in Chase’s poem goes for a walk and lies out in a field? Consider writing a poem from each character’s point of view either just before or just after the other has died.

Another book my students love, that is also accessible to middle school and middle grade readers, is Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. This verse biography tells the story of Woodson’s youth in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s and her early development as a writer. These connections led me to three poems:

  • History Lesson,”by Natasha Tretheway (United States Poet Laureate, 2012-2014)
    -Investigate the similarities and differences between the youthful experiences of Woodson and Tretheway. Why might each have chosen poetry as a way to express these experiences?
  • Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou
    -How does Angelou’s commitment to rising rather than being brought down by challenges mirror Woodson’s experiences? Make a list of the challenges faced by Woodson in her story, which you could turn into a poem about “rising.” Write the poem, think about sharing it with others.
  • The Writer,” by Richard Wilbur (United States Poet Laureate, 1987-1988)
    -Read Wilbur’s poem. Next, reread the poems “first book” (in Part IV), “the stories i tell” (in Part V), and “a writer” (also in Part V) in Brown Girl Dreaming. What characteristics of a writer are shown in each of the poems? What additional characteristics do you think are necessary to be a writer? Write a poem about a profession you are thinking of pursuing.

Additional Resources

Students are sometimes intrigued by being able to hear from authors themselves.  If you are not able to organize an author visit, the Library of Congress has a repository of webcasts from the National Book Festival and other occasions that can help you bring writers into the classroom or school library. Among the hundreds of webcasts you’ll find are: