The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

by Laura Shovan

2016 Winner · Poetry

Nominated by: Adrienne Gillespie
Finalist blurb: Shovan, Laura. 2016. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. New York: Random House Books. A teacher and her students work together to try to save their school from demolition in this novel in verse snapshot of one fifth grade class across a whole school year. Ms. Hill’s class of 18 students includes a mix of boys and girls, twins, Spanish speakers, children from a variety of cultural backgrounds, shy kids, leaders, friends, “frenemies,” all trying to express themselves through poetry. Each poem reflects an individual point of view that changes and grows over the year contributing to a complete narrative detailing their classroom dynamics as well as their struggle to take an active stand for their school. Shovan effectively employs 17 different forms of poems throughout this novel in verse including acrostic, concrete, diamante, epistolary, fib, found, free verse, haiku, limerick, list, narrative, ode, rap, rhyming, senryu, sonnet and tanka poems. This is an engaging school-based story in poems that can inspire young readers to become activists in their communities and to consider writing poetry as a vehicle for achieving some of their goals.
— Sylvia Vardell, Poetry for Children
Winner blurb:

When this school year ends,
I will have spent
one thousand days
in this building.
I want a thousand more
so I’ll never have to say
goodbye to friends.

From “First Day” by Rachel Chieko Stein

Eighteen narrators, from diverse backgrounds and experiences, tell the story of their final year at elementary school before moving up to middle school. Their final year also corresponds to the last year of Emerson Elementary itself. The school is scheduled to be demolished to build a supermarket in their food insecure neighborhood.

The fifth grade has been asked by their teacher, Ms. Hill, to write poems for a time capsule to be incorporated into the new building project. The poems in various forms reveal the distinctly personal stories of each student and the classroom dynamics. As the year unfolds, students find their voices by organizing and protesting the demolition of their beloved school.

Of all the candidates for this year’s award for poetry, the committee found The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary to be the most appealing in its diversity, its capturing of the emotional lives of children on the brink of adolescence, and its poetic acrobatics. Laura Shovan’s writing is masterful. Readers will find themselves reflected in the experiences of the fifth graders. A thumbnail illustration of each character accompanies the poem helping the reader further identify the character. An introduction to poetry and poetic forms at the end completes the package.