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Gary Soto, by Lee Bennett Hopkins

According to this fascinating poet, "Poetry is wit, sincerity and individually strong lines that surprise the reader"

What a month to celebrate poetry! Young People's Poetry Week sponsored by the Children's Book Council (www.cbcbooks.org) is celebrated from April 12-l8. In addition, you and your class can join thousands of individuals across the U.S. by carrying a poem in your pocket on April 29, 2010.

This month, we also celebrate the birthday of Gary Soto on April l2. He is one of America's most prominent Latino poets who writes for both children and adults. Gary was born in l952 in Fresno, CA. Although he now lives in Berkeley, CA, he frequently visits Fresno, the setting for much of his writing. "I can't get Fresno out of my system," he says. "Que viva Fresno!"

Diverse topics
His first book of poetry for children, Neighborhood Odes, appeared in l992 (Harcourt). This collection features 21 odes paying tribute to diverse topics such as the library, la piñata, family photographs and weight lifting. Three years later, Canto Familiar was published (Harcourt). This collection of 25 verses relates childhood experiences such as losing a new pair of eyeglasses, making tortillas with a friend and unexpectedly finding a teacher shopping at a market, seeing her, "Drop a grape/Into her mouth./Same mouth that says/4 times 6 is 36!/ I mean 24..."

Defining poetry
A Fire in My Hands, reissued in an expanded edition (Harcourt, 2006), contains 32 poems each preceded by a short autobiographical anecdote. For example, Gary tells readers the story behind the poignant verse, "Door-to-Door."

"My mother sold Avon products for a few months," he writes. "This is a scene of my mother and me working the neighborhood and our encounter with a woman whose furniture is covered in plastic. At the end of the poem you'll see me chewing on this distasteful experience."

I asked Gary to define poetry for me. He said, "Poetry is wit, sincerity and individually strong lines that surprise the reader."

Gary's work is filled with surprise, wonder and awe. For more information on his life and work see his website, www.garysoto.com.

Lee Bennett Hopkins is a distinguished poet and anthologist. Recent collections include Got Geography! (Greenwillow, 2006).