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How Johnson County Librarians Grow Young Poets

Courtesy Johnson County Library
Johnson County librarians Angel Tucker (left) and Kate McNair listen to students read poetry at the Elementia launch party.

Johnson County might not have a reputation as a hot spot for cultivating young poets. But that’s exactly what’s been happening for more than a decade now, thanks to some librarians.

Earlier this month, the Johnson County Library published the latest edition of Elementia, a gorgeous glossy magazine with original artwork and poetry by nearly 60 middle and high school students.

A couple hundred people packed an auditorium at Johnson County Community College's Regnier Center for a festive launch party, with hors d’oeuvres and performance art in the hallway before the main event, where teenagers read their published poems (see below for some examples).

Elementia is the brainchild of a Johnson County librarian named Angel Tucker. About ten years ago, she started a monthly creative writing workshop for middle-school kids.

"It would be in the evenings," Tucker remembers. "I would change a study room into a café — dim the lights, bring in comfy chairs, put up Christmas lights and make it comfortable. Because of that, the kids would tell their friends and that was how it grew."

Credit Johnson County Library
Johnson County Library
Julia Huff of Leawood Middle School designed the cover of Elementia this year.

Tucker realized the young writers needed a platform to share their work, so she scraped together the funds to publish Elementia. The first issue had poems by 25 kids. And it took off. In the years that followed, Tucker involved more librarians, and they reached out to teachers at middle schools and high schools throughout Johnson County and on the Missouri side, in Kansas City and Grandview. This year, they had 430 submissions. A committee of librarians and teens made the final selections.

Credit Courtesy Johnson County Library
Courtesy Johnson County Library
Ayah Abdul Rauf leads a journaling workshop at the Johnson County Library. She was first published in Elementia at age 12, and was published in each following issue until she graduated from high school.

Contributing the most were writers at Blue Valley Northwest, where Ted Fabiano teaches Advanced Placement literature and junior English.

"We’ve got a lot of creative kids," Fabiano says. "It comes from a strong creative environment at this school —it extends beyond the English department, into music and arts. The kids cross over and it overlaps and brings a lot of rich experiences."

Still, Fabiano says he’s surprised sometimes by his students' enthusiasm for poetry.

"Whenever I’m introducing a new class I’m always a little tentative. But the way the kids just latch on to the language and run with it – I look at the poems in this magazine and I’m blown away."

Zac Stower described his poem, “Beyond the Final Umbra,” as being "about the shadow that we leave on the earth after we die."

That sounds heavy, but Stower says he wrote the poem based on a prompt from Fabiano: a picture of a field of white crosses.

"I really like thinking about legacy and what your effect can have on other people," Stower explains. "People meet others and talk to them, but they don’t necessarily understand how much of an effect they can have on other people — even in simple gestures, the smallest nuance of personality that somebody meets."

That level of sophistication impressed the internationally known, award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The librarians dedicate each issue of Elementia to a famous poet, and this year it was Shihab Nye, who visited for two days of readings and workshops at schools and gave a reading at the launch party.

Credit C.J. Janovy
Internationally recognized poet Naomi Shihab Nye praised Elementia at a reading at Blue Valley Northwest High School.

"I have been around a while," Shihab Nye told the audience, "and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more ambitious project, where a library reaches out to so many schools, so many students, so many artists and poets and says share with us, share with all of us, share with all the people who aren’t even here tonight and will read your work in Elementia."

Shihab Nye says the library’s program should be a model for the rest of the country. Maybe she’ll spread the word.

For Johnson County Librarian Angel Tucker, nurturing young writers has its own rewards.

"Many, many of them have gone on to art school. Many of them have come and worked for Johnson County Library. And there’s a handful that you will know someday. There’s a handful that are just profound."

Back issues of Elementia are online at the Johnson County Library’s website. And submissions are now open for the next edition.

"Glasses" Ashley Decker from the Barstow School:

Ashley Decker reads "Glasses."

"Home" Saadia Siddiqua from Aubry Bend Middle School:

Saadia Siddiqua reads "Home."

"Home" Tori Gardener of Shawnee Mission Horizons High School:

Tori Gardner reads "Home."

"Work Station" Steven McPherson from Blue Valley Northwest High School:

Steven McPherson reads "The Workstation."

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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