04/12/02
Child Poets
    by John Cech

It's National Poetry Month, and because of the events of September 11th, we have turned to poetry as a way to give form and shape and language to those experiences that have stunned and overwhelmed our normal ways of processing events. Perhaps that is why a book of poems would make it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. But what's truly remarkable is that it would be a collection of poems by a child -- 11-year-old Mattie Stepanek -- who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair.

Mattie's Journey Through Heartsongs and his earlier book, Heartsongs, have reached such a large audience, in part, because of his appearances on Oprah, where he has read his poems and talked about what he sees as his mission in life. Mattie longs to be a peacemaker, and with his poems and voice, to spread unconditionally throughout the world his vision of love and kindness. He hopes that by singing his heart songs -- those prayers, meditations, and transcendent fantasies that are his poems -- that he will open the hearts of others. That he will, in spirit, help change the world's mind and feelings about itself. These aren't sentiments that we've been hearing much about in the past six months, and perhaps that is why Mattie has touched such a resonant chord in so many people. And given today's climate of alarm and caution and anger, perhaps only a child could present this message, could simply urge people to try to understand and to try to feel compassion for one another.

Reviews of Mattie's books have not been unanimously kind, despite the many respected public figures who have endorsed his efforts. Some of his critics see him as being utterly sincere but purely sentimental; others think he is being exploited by a media machine that's hungry for quick solutions to profound, intractable problems. But that, of course, is what the child's voice in every culture, in every time, always offers to weary, complicated, frustrated, often adulterated adults -- that is, songs (and solutions) that are innocent, simple, heart-felt -- and that imagine a way to peace.

Copyright 2002 by John Cech

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:19:35 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."