NCTE Award Winning Poet: Joyce Sidman

Interview by Robyn Hood Black

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Joyce Sidman, winner of the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, celebrates the world’s wonders through innovative poetry. Part scientific observation, part whimsy, part invitation—her writing beckons readers of all ages and lends itself to some of the most exquisite illustrations in the field.

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Her Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (illustrated by Rick Allen) won a Newbery Honor, and Song of the Water Boatman (illustrated by Beckie Prange) garnered her the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Red Sings from Treetops – A Year in Colors (illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski) were Caldecott Honor winners. Prange also illustrated the incredible Ubiquitous – Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, and Zagarenski also illustrated This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, winner of the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award (and a Cybils award and a Lee Bennett Hopkins honor award).

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Caldecott Medalist Beth Krommes illustrated Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, a Cybils winner, and she and Sidman collaborated on 2011’s  Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, “one of the most beautiful books of the year,” according to The Horn Book. All of these books were published by Houghton Mifflin. Please see Sidman’s website for several other award-winning titles, and look for her work in noted anthologies.

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In the meantime, here is a taste of her poetry.

Since this is a wintertime interview, here are the first few stanzas of “WINTER” from Red Sings from Treetops:

In the WINTER dawn,
Pink blooms
powder-soft
over pastel hills.

Pink prickles:
warm fingers
against cold cheeks

Blue breathes,
deep and lustrous overhead:
a glimmering dark
that slowly
turns
light.

Below,
Blue smiles
from shadows
amongst the White.

©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.

And, from Ubiquitous, a celebration of coyotes:

Come with Us

Come, come with us!
Come into the woods at evening.
Come canter across the cornfields,
come slink in the dusk like smoke.

Come, come with us!
Come plunder the wind’s riches.
Come drink in the hot odors,
Come parry and mark and pounce.

Come, come with us!
Come kindle the blue twilight.
Come croon in the wild chorus,
come vanquish the tranquil night.

©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.

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Thank you for joining us, Joyce Sidman! According to your rich website, you began writing in grade school. What do you remember about reading and writing as a youngster?

I read a lot as a child, especially books with a sense of mystery, like the Joan Aiken books. The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton, was a favorite in fifth grade. Actually, I loved everything to do with literature and books, but was not a true bookworm—I also loved singing and art and recess and being outdoors with my friends.

Writing was always a favorite occupation. I kept journals and made illustrated books, composed poems for family events, etc. Teachers encouraged me; I learned early that words were powerful and could move people, and that hooked me.

When did poetry call to you, and how did you answer?

Looking back, I realize that although I read children’s poetry, it didn’t have a tremendous impact on me. What moved me—and what I was drawn to—was the language of folk music. I had a set of records, kind of an Encyclopedia of Music, and I played the old folk songs over and over again. They had power and emotion and I loved them.

Later, in my high school years, I was exposed to Frost and Eliot and Conrad Aiken and Emily Dickinson, and fell in love all over again. I began reading and writing poetry in earnest. One teacher in particular was extremely patient and always found ways to encourage me.

A notion I’ve always appreciated in your interviews and on your website is your sanctioning of “pondering time.” Why is time to ponder essential for writers?

There are two parts to writing, I think: inspiration and craft. Craft involves what Jane Yolen calls “butt in chair.” Working, day after day, putting your ideas down and honing your language. But inspiration is wily. It lurks, it floats around, it disappears. Pondering time helps my mind disengage from worldly pursuits and open itself to inspiration, in whatever form that might take.

What about your own work habits—do you keep a strict writing schedule or have a most productive time of day (or night) to create?

Oh, I’m not terrifically strict! I play hooky. But I do try to get up to my workspace every weekday morning, when my mind is clearest. I write for several hours, then take a walk. After lunch, I take care of the “business” side of my work—email, website updates, preparing for presentations, etc. There is a surprising amount of busy work attached to being an author, and each book adds a bit more. But it is work I love, all of it.

You write poetry in free verse and also in a variety of forms. Does either way appeal to you more, and do you have a favorite form?

The poem chooses its form: that is, the subject matter, emotion, and message all steer me toward one form or another. Sometimes a line will drop into my head and I just go with it. I love the power of rhyming poems, but I love the surprise of free verse, how it can start in one place and end up somewhere else completely. When I get bored with my own work, I read for inspiration—I have an extensive poetry library. It’s always interesting to see how other poets push the limits of language.

You spend a lot of time outdoors. Is that where most of your ideas present themselves?

I’ll often get ideas while outdoors, especially on my daily walks. But being outside is more to me than that. I need the sights, smells, and sounds of the natural world. They fill me up somehow, fill my well of joy and creativity.

You also spend a lot of time in schools and have discussed that many students today do not spend time outdoors. How can poetry help connect kids to the natural world?

I believe poetry is a shortcut to wonder. I believe that reading poetry helps kids grasp and understand beauty—something they need in their lives. Writing poetry helps them really look at the world around them, in all its sensory detail. And using metaphor and imagery helps them build connections between that world and themselves.

What else can poetry do for children?

Help them understand themselves better: what’s important to them, what they treasure. Give them a sense of power. Allow them to see the world from a different point of view. Play! Poetry helps them play with words. “This is so fun!” kids say to me in the classroom, as if they don’t quite believe it.

Many of your books have involved extensive scientific research. Can you describe how you tackle this side of your writing, and what it’s like working with experts?

I love research, mainly because no one is making me do it (!). I follow my own interests, seeking out subjects that fascinate me. (Also, it’s easier than writing.) I use lots of different sources, trying to make sure the facts on which I base my poems and nonfiction notes are rock-solid. And the scientists who have helped me are so kind. I don’t know most of them—I find their names through their research—and they’re so willing to help me, because they feel so passionate about their subjects. And they love the fact that I am sharing their expertise with children.

There has been much discussion on this blog about the future of children’s poetry—the bleak budgetary outlook for new anthologies and collections—as well as the challenges/opportunities surrounding e-publishing. Any thoughts on this topic?

Poetry is remarkably resilient. It’s short, sleek, and powerful. It’s adaptable—always seeking new forms. I think it will weather this rough patch. It will embrace technology and become stronger.

Finally, in Swirl by Swirl, you write of the spiral shape:

It stretches starry arms
through space,
spinning and sparkling,
forever expanding…

and I wonder if your poetry isn’t like that, too? Do you have any projects on the horizon that you’re at liberty to mention?

Yes, the arms of poetry are forever expanding . . . . Several books are on their way. A teen book, What The Heart Says: Chants, Charms & Blessings, will come out in Fall 2013. It’s a book of poems for times when you need a little magic—to be brave, to find your socks, to slow down time, etc. Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold will come out in Fall 2014—it’s about about how creatures deal with winter. It’s illustrated by Rick Allen, who did Dark Emperor. I can’t wait to see his art! A few other projects are in the pipeline. I have an immense sense of gratitude that I am able to be involved in this work. I feel lucky every day.

Many thanks for spending time with us today, and congratulations on the NCTE award!

My pleasure!  Thanks so much.

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**New addition on November 25, 2013: Joyce has shared the text of her NCTE Award Acceptance Speech, delivered on November 23, 2013, in Boston. You can download a PDF of her speech at JoyceSidman_NCTEAcceptanceSpeech

(Be sure to visit joycesidman.com for extensive resources for readers, writers, and teachers—plus some really fun dog pictures. All poems and NCTE acceptance speech ©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.)