The United States officially has a new Poet Laureate this month - Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Chicano poet in the position. Librarian of Congress James Billington says Herrera’s poems champion “voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity.”
The son of migrant farmers in California, Herrera grew up in tents and trailers, changing schools. His father whistled like a dove; his mother sang songs from Mexico. They “loved the open sky and the earth when it is tender. They taught me that inside every word there can be kindness.”
Herrera has now written more than 28 books of poetry, novels and picture books and most recently, Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, a 2015 Pura Belpré Honor Book showcasing inspirational Hispanic and Latino Americans. Much of his writing is autobiographical, like Calling the Doves, a picture book poem in English and Spanish about his early childhood.
To celebrate this prolific poet, I am suggesting several writing prompts - any one of which could stimulate weeks of classroom or family discussion.
• What is one of the favorite stories your family tells? Why is it special to you?
• If you have lived in many cities or houses, like Juan Felipe Herrera, what do you remember about one city or house that you really liked? What didn’t you like? Herrera’s character Juanito complains in Downtown Boy that “I never get to finish anything and when I go to class/I never got to start anything because everyone/is already done!”
• Juanito has a tough loco cousin who always wants him to fight and even steal things, taunting him, “You wanna be a chump or a champ?” What do you do if someone teases you and tries to make you do something you know isn’t right?
• If there are students in your class who speak and write English and Spanish - or another language - ask them to write a paragraph or a story in both languages. Herrera says he writes in English first, “then I translate into Spanish. But then I look at the Spanish and see the different flavors it adds, so I translate back into English. It keeps going back and forth until I have two related but stand-alone stories in the two languages….For kids who know both English and Spanish, the result is stereo because they can see how the story in one language comments on the story in the other language.”
Visit to find out more about this poet who “likes walking down the street with a pen in my hand,” and always seems to have a hat, a smile and a poem.