WASHINGTON — Eight-year-old Nael is dealing with his first taste of fame.
Two years ago, the then 6-year-old penned a poem at 826DC’s after school writing program. Now, that 12-word composition, called “The Tiger,” is one of the hottest topics on social media. It’s been shared, retweeted and discussed a thousand times over.
The gist? It’s about a tiger who destroys and escapes his cage.
“As it became more and more viral, people started to project all sorts of meaning onto it,” said 826DC Executive Director Zachary Clark.
Some read it as a poem about liberation; others appreciate its ambiguity.
“There were people, literally across the world, who were tweeting us and saying, ‘Can I have more context about this?’” Clark added.
Probably without realizing it, Nael has created a text that celebrates the transition from captivity to freedom with brilliant simplicity. The tiger can be read as a metaphor for the oppressed, the cage society, the freedom justice.
Plus Nael probably likes tigers a bunch.
— Adam Barker (@AdamRomanus) February 4, 2018
John Green, author of the best-selling young adult novel, “The Fault In Our Stars,” attempted to dissect Nael’s poem on a recent podcast. Two fans even reached out to Clark for permission to tattoo the words onto their bodies.
“We thought, ‘Yeah, but how do we convey that to a 6-year-old?’”
Nael, whose last name is being withheld upon request, is taking his newfound notoriety in stride. The D.C.-based third grader said he wrote about tigers at the time because they made him happy. “Super happy” is the feeling he describes knowing that his poem has reached so many readers around the world.
My favorite poem? Possibly.
The Tiger by Nael age 6
He destroyed his cage
The tiger is out
— Mark Morris (@Mark_Morris75) February 13, 2018
Amplifying the voices of D.C.’s youth is a core mission of 826DC. The nonprofit operates both in school classrooms and out of its Columbia Heights center, which to the average passer-by looks like a random magic shop attached to the historic Tivoli Theatre.
Inside Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, wands, capes and candles are available for purchase. But behind a trap door — guarded by a ventriloquist doll — is where the real magic takes place.
There, students have access to shelves of books, comfy couches and a trove of tutors and mentors. There’s even an on-site publication center where young authors can print and bind their zines, short stories and essays. (The wizarding decoy helps to jump-start the imagination — a critical element in the writing process.)
“We recognize that young people have important, worthy and complex stories to tell, and we want to send the message to them that their voices are as important as the authors you might see on a bookshelf at Politics and Prose,” Clark said.
Nael’s poem was published in 826DC’s 2016 anthology, “You Will Be Able to Say a Thousand Words.” From there, someone posted a photo of “The Tiger” to Twitter.
“People started to read it and we saw more and more activity around it,” said Clark, who attributes the success of the short poem to its hopeful, whimsical, irreverent and earnest nature.
We’re thrilled to see Nael’s poem getting the recognition it deserves! Thanks @johngreen #DearHankandJohn for amplifying student voices. Here’s where you can purchase the anthology to support our programs >> https://t.co/lCND4MSMZR pic.twitter.com/xAWx3a91Iv
— 826DC (@826dc) February 20, 2018
“It’s whatever you need it to be, but at the fundamental level, it’s well-written and it’s Nael’s voice, and that’s what we care about.”
As for Nael’s next move, the promising author has confirmed he is working on a story about a magic tree house. No word yet on when it’s expected to hit shelves — or social media.
William Blake: [arduously creates tiger metaphors with bonus rune art plate]
Nael age 6: [recounts actual cool tiger and nails it first try] https://t.co/ZfkKpEcj5Q
— Johannes V. Variety (@johnvvariety) April 21, 2017
Interested in learning more? Clark said one of the best ways to discover new work from fresh voices is to attend an 826DC book release party. The next one, planned with the SEED School of DC, is scheduled for Wednesday, May 30 from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Politics and Prose at The Wharf.
“Just by showing up, sitting in the seat and listening to a young person speak his or her story, you are sending them a message that they and their stories are important and worth hearing, and that is the fulfillment of our mission,” he said.