Continuing our mission to help tell the ongoing story of children’s poetry, a new addition to Robyn Hood Black’s excellent interview with Joyce Sidman from January: Joyce has generously shared the text of her acceptance speech for the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, delivered on November 23, 2013, in Boston. You can download a PDF of her speech at JoyceSidman_NCTEAcceptanceSpeech
Paul Harding, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, Tinkers, shared six writing tips with Publishers Weekly today. One tip (#3) piqued my interest, and though Harding writes for adults, I believe his quote also applies to fiction and poetry for children:
“Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the worst of both worlds…. Similarly, don’t write your books for bad readers. Your books will suffer from bad readers no matter what, so write them for brilliant, big-brained and big-hearted people who will love you for feeding their minds with feasts of beauty.”
I have little to say about the first part of the quote except to note that many children’s books owe their existences to being “assigned reading” in schools where curriculum requirements outweigh a child’s (and even a teacher’s) desires and individual abilities. And many publishing decisions are based on classroom sales. That said, fiction and poetry seldom succeed in an artistic sense when they are written to order.
(Few books, if any, are meant for everyone at each moment, and many people simply don’t enjoy reading imaginative literature, no matter the kind or quality. Unless we’re among those brandishing a spiked club instead of a pen, we’re aiming for readers who take the same sort of pleasure we do in language come alive.)
Regarding the last part of the quote, I have more to say. In the case of the child reader, I’d substitute “struggling” for “bad”—but the meaning holds true. A work of art can certainly be a stepping stone, but it is never solely a teaching tool. Verse in particular can be a draw for reluctant readers because it is often short and rhythmical with a punchy ending. However, poetry’s freedom of thought balanced by patterned precision can also be a formidable challenge and a gift to an enthusiastic, gifted reader who thrills to poetry’s high-wire acrobatics in the way a violinist falls in love with classical music.
(We writers sometimes underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of children, forgetting that all readers tend to grasp more than we comprehend. We feel the emotions even if we misunderstand the details. And fiction writers and poets are artists of emotions.)
Good writing takes risks. If we’re writing for someone other than our ideal reader then perhaps we ought to hold off trying to publish. No one needs another tepid, safe, mediocre story or poem when there are plenty of good (and great) ones out there left unread. We continue writing, but we count it as practice. If we push our own limits and listen carefully, we’ll come, in time, to know when our work is beautiful and ripe for sharing.
What do you think?
– Steven Withrow
Although David Elliott was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, that didn’t prevent him from traveling the world and collecting myriad experiences. Over the years, he worked as a singer in Mexico, an English teacher in Libya, a cucumber-washer in Greece, and a popsicle-stick maker in Israel. Elliott also studied classical voice at a conservatory, with dreams of becoming an opera singer. The problem, he says, is that he wasn’t very good.
Fortunately for the world of children’s literature, Elliott became a New York Times bestselling children’s author. His many picture books and chapter books include: And Here’s to You! (Candlewick, 2009), The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle (Walker Books Ltd., 2001), The Evangeline Mudd books (Candlewick), Finn Throws a Fit! (Candlewick, reprint, 2011), Jeremy Cabbage and the Living Museum (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008), and the picture book, In the Wild (Candlewick, 2010).
As of this writing, Elliott has six new picture books under contract, due to be published within the next couple of years, and is working on a YA novel and a new middle-grade book. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife, their cat, and a three-footed dog. He shares three of his poems with us in this interview, so please enjoy…
First of all, thank you, David, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us! Did you ever imagine yourself being this busy, back when you were washing cucumbers in Greece, or making popsicle sticks in Israel? And wouldn’t it have been easier to just wash cukes or make popsicle sticks here in the States??
Maybe. But think of all the fantastic food I would have missed out on.
Touché! Seriously, though, how did you come to finally discover your true calling and end up back home in the U.S.?
Oh, dear. Do I have a true calling? But to answer your question, after many years of traveling and working abroad, making popsicle sticks, washing cucumbers (the most Freudian job ever!), teaching in Libya, singing in Mexico, I came back because — as transformative as those years were — the truth is, they were also very lonely; better suited to a comic novel, maybe, than to a real life. I have a big stack of journals from those years. One day, maybe, I’ll write that novel.
Anyone who uses the word “transmogrification” in the title of a children’s book must have fun while he’s writing! Does it “feel” like work, and do you ever wonder if you’ll ever end up having a “real job” (i.e., a typical 9-to-5) again?
When the paperback of The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle came out, the sales staff wanted to get rid of that word. “transmogrification,” and call the book Roscoe Wizzle. I try to be as collaborative as I can when it comes to these things — and they come much more frequently than one might think — but in this case, I put my foot down. I didn’t want to dumb down the title because adults were scared that it was “too hard.”
I felt vindicated a couple of months later during a school visit when an eight-year-old boy came running up to me after my presentation. “Transmogrification!” he said. “Transmogrification! When I hear that word, it just makes me want to read the book.” You know, I’ve heard adults mangle that word over and over again, but never, not once, has a child mispronounced it. Sometimes, I think it might be part of the writer’s job to protect children from what the adults in charge of their lives think about them.
For me, writing is a real job and, perhaps more accurately, hard work — especially the funny stuff and the picture books.
You write in a variety of styles, including poetry, picture books, and chapter books…do you prefer one style over another?
Not really. Each has its challenges just as each as its pleasures. There are so many books out there. That’s great, of course, but it can also be a bit discouraging. And do we really need another vampire book? Another adventure series? Another this or that? In fact, we probably do. My problem is that I’m not interested in writing them. At the moment, I’m interested in experimenting with new structures, new ways of telling a story.
Books like In the Wild (Candlewick, 2010) and In the Sea (Candlewick, 2012) contain some great examples of children’s poetry that are written in simple language but are quite thoughtful and full of emotion. Is it difficult to find that balance? And what is your process for determining how you want to present a poetry subject or idea?
First, thanks for the kind words. Each of the three books in the series (two more on the way) presented a different challenge. On the Farm was perhaps the most straightforward. We all know what a farm is, and without ever opening the book one could guess what animals we might find between the end pages. (I did try to include some of the undomesticated animals that are present on a farm, too: the turtle, bees, a garter snake). In the end, a farm is a kind of container. Additionally, if we hear the word “cow,” we share a set of emotional responses because, in one way or another, we have all grown up with cows, or at the very least, the idea of cows.
But when it came to In the Wild, I was stumped. First, there is no container. These animals are found all over the world, and there are tens of thousands of them. How to choose just 14 or so? (My editor and I settled on the iconic.) Then, I discovered that I knew very little beyond the obvious when it came to the animals. Since it’s the writer’s job to say something new, I spent weeks, reading, looking at pictures, watching YouTube videos of the animals in the book, trying to get not just information about them but a feeling for them, too. Then there was the complicating factor that many of the animals in the book are endangered. On one hand, it felt disrespectful to both the animals represented and to the children reading the poems to ignore this sad truth; on the other, I didn’t want to write a book that said, “Too bad, kids, by the time you are adults, some of these animals won’t exist…” I tried to solve the problem with the last poem, “The Polar Bear,” and its page turn. By the way, we don’t talk or think enough about page turns in picture books. In the best ones, they carry as much meaning as the text.
After starting In the Sea, I completely understood the expression, “a cold fish.” They’re rather hard to feel warm and fuzzy about. In the end, I decided to think about the various forms in the ocean. Since many fish have the same basic shape, I wanted to give the late Holly Meade, the illustrator, something to work with. I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with Holly. She brought so much to these books. Some of you may not know that she left us in April of this year. A sad and terrible loss.
If I can, I’d like to give a plug for On the Wing, coming out fall 2014 with art by a wonderful new illustrator, Becca Stadtlander. As a whole, the poems in the book might be my favorite of the four volumes thus far. But they were very, very difficult. All birds have feathers, beaks and they fly – at least the ones we chose for the book do. What more was there to say? It was very challenging because most of us know very little about individual species of birds, so there was not a lot of common knowledge I could rely on. The bower bird, for example, a very plain species native to Australia, builds a complicated structure on the ground. He then adorns it with flowers and shells — anything colorful he can find — to lure a paramour into what is literally his love nest. Who knew?
Here’s the poem.
The Bower Bird
No fancy feathers,
to attract a mate,
first he builds
And how anxiously
the bright tokens
O pity then
the bower bird.
- © 2013, David Elliott, all rights reserved
It’s always an open-ended question to ask someone where they get their inspiration; for most of us, it comes from everywhere, anywhere, and often nowhere. So let me ask, how do you deal with the inspiration you get? That is, how do you know if an idea is worth your attention, and what do you do with it?
This is something that plagues me. I’m never at a loss for ideas. But what I’m always afraid of is that I’m not up to executing them in the way they deserve. I’m rather slow on the uptake. I kept the first draft of Roscoe in my drawer for eight years before I really understood what the book wanted to be.
Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and along with them, some modern retellings. (David Malouf’s Ransom is one of the best things I’ve read in years. Now, I’m reading his An Imaginary Life. Equally as wonderful.) All this has me thinking about the relationship between the Greek and Roman gods and the mortals who worshipped them. Those gods required a lot: supplication, sacrifice, interpretation, belief. This seems to me a wonderful metaphor for the relationship between artists and their inspiration. How much are we willing to humble ourselves before it? How much are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to listen to the oracular voice? How much are we willing to believe? This last is perhaps the most frightening question.
I so wish I had understood this earlier in my career. These questions will be very much at the forefront of my mind (and heart) as I continue to work on new and longer projects.
Your chapter book, Jeremy Cabbage, is about a young orphan boy – a sort of cross between Oliver Twist and Lemony Snicket’s Beaudelaire siblings – who goes into the world on an adventure. Did you see your globe-trotting self in Jeremy, and how have you used your life experiences in other books?
In a way, all books are autobiographical, since it is the life experience, sensibilities, instincts, and education of the particular author that make the book. In my case, it is perhaps not the external circumstances in which Jeremy finds himself, but the emotional content of the book that is closest to how I felt as a child and still sometimes feel as an adult.
Some folks, like J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, say inspiration is overrated – that success more often comes via the “BIC” rule (Butt In Chair). In other words, sit down and get to work! What are your thoughts on this approach?
Isn’t it the only approach? One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from the writer Octavia Butler. (Kindred remains one of the most under-appreciated books in print. Everyone should read it.) Anyway, she put it very succinctly: “Habit is more important than inspiration.” As others have said, we write to find out what we don’t know.
Speaking of things we don’t know…how difficult is it to know what children will like or not like? Who do you trust for feedback on your writing?
This question is more complicated than first it appears. Not all children like the same things. Then, we have to ask, what do you mean by children? A five-year-old is very different from a 10-year-old who is very, very different from a 13-year old. Children are the same in only one way: they are developing. This, to me, is one of the principal differences between writing for an adult audience and writing for children. This, too, is one of the things that I find so difficult about writing for kids. I’m afraid that sometimes we don’t do the best job of honoring the sacred fact that children are still becoming. It’s a scientific fact. Research now tells us that the brain isn’t fully developed until our early twenties. This makes, or it should make, a difference in how we approach our work, or at least in understanding and respecting our audience.
But I sometimes worry that we too often fall prey to a kind of inferiority complex in which we feel we have to compete with adult publishing to be real writers. I wonder if this is why there are so many books for kids where a loved one dies, or is alcoholic or, well, you know what I mean. Why do we have this idea that tragedy is more serious, more valuable than comedy? To me this seems very puritanical and old-fashioned. Also wrong. Of course, I know that many young people do experience terrible things in their lives. But many children also experience happiness – even those in the most wretched circumstances – and that happiness can bolster a young heart. I know this, by the way, from personal experience. There is so much to say on this topic.
Well, considering you enjoy comedy and escapism, who are your favourite children’s authors or poets? What have you learned from them?
I love Roald Dahl. I love Robert Louis Stevenson. I love Louise Rennison. I love M.T. Anderson. (He’s a good friend, and though I don’t want to admit it to him, he is completely lovable!) I love Jack Prelutsky (because it’s clear he loves kids.) I love, love, love Natalie Babbitt. Too many to mention. And what I’ve learned from them is that I have a lot more to learn to be the writer I would like to be.
Is there a poem or book you’ve had published that you are particularly proud of? Is there one secretly wish you could revise?
Good heavens! The answer to the first question is, “all of them.” The answer to the second question is, “all of them.”
Ha, spoken like a true poet! What, then, was the worst idea you ever had – for a poem, a book, a career, or anything – and what did you do with it?
Believe me, you don’t have enough time for me to talk about my bad ideas. I still get them. Every day.
As do we all! So what advice would you give to aspiring children’s poets and authors? And from your experience, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned in trying to get published?
Currently, I teach in the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. One thing I find myself repeating to my students is, “Get out of the way.” By which I mean, the writer must be secondary to the work. Understandably, less experienced writers are anxious, eager to prove to the world and to themselves they have what it takes. (If I’m honest, most of us feel this way. In fact, I have to fight that feeling every day.) This can create a bit of a tendency to show off on the page, to make a wrong decision about a particular word, or sentence structure, or well, almost anything, really — from punctuation to plot. But almost always, this either bores us (deadly!) or distracts us from what John Gardner calls “the fictional dream.” In other words, we stop thinking about what we’re reading and start thinking about the person who wrote it (and usually not in the kindest of terms). We end up feeling disappointed or cheated; tricked, somehow. The harsh truth is that no one really cares about you, the writer. And rightly so. The reader only cares about what is on the page. And rightly so. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but also liberating once you’ve got the hang of it.
Of course, that isn’t to say that we can’t be dazzled by what a writer has accomplished. That’s happening to me right now with David Malouf, but it’s because 1) the writer has complete control of her craft and 2) whatever the writer has done has been in service to the story or the poem, and not to herself.
About publishing, I don’t know what to say, really. One thing we almost never hear is that you need a little luck. So my advice in this area is 1) learn your craft 2) one you’ve learned it, stay open so that when luck comes knocking, you recognize it and let it in. (This isn’t helpful, I know. Sorry!)
Considering all of your life experiences so far, do you think you’ll remain content with writing children’s lit, or do you see yourself branching out into other genres, or even doing something entirely different?
As my wonderful editor at Candlewick once said, “When I find adults as interesting as children, I’ll start working for them.” But I do have adult projects in mind. I’ve published one, The Tiger’s Back, either a very short novella or a very long story, depending on how you look at it. I also have written some for the theater and plan to do more of that. But I’ll always write for kids.
By the way, there’s a children’s illustrator from New Zealand named David Elliot. As far as anyone can tell, you’re not him…right?
I don’t think I am, but one never knows.
Well, thanks again for spending some time with us here at PACYA, David…and all the best for future success!
Thanks so much!
To learn more about David and his books, visit http://www.davidelliottbooks.com!
Congratulations to Kenn Nesbitt on being named United States Children’s Poet Laureate for 2013-2015 by The Poetry Foundation. For the past two decades, Kenn has crisscrossed the country sharing with kids and grown-ups his undeniable gift for composing (and performing) vividly vivacious verse. Check out Kenn’s long-running site Poetry4Kids.com, and look for an upcoming interview with Kenn on this blog in the near future.
And a thundering applause for J. Patrick Lewis, Laureate Emeritus, for his splendid service to children’s poetry for the past two years (and well beyond). Kenn and Pat join Mary Ann Hoberman and Jack Prelutsky as the inaugural quartet of laureates. A fine honor, and a tradition we hope will continue for ages.
Happy National Poetry Month! Please forgive the scarcity of posts here at Poetry at Play of late. I’ve been immersed in two poetry-related writing projects and one wide-ranging reading project. The more I learn about poetry for young people, the more thrilling my universe becomes. More to come very soon!
In the meantime… The Horn Book is by far my favorite publication focusing on children’s literature, and I highly recommend checking out their suggestions for great poetry books. Please do. You won’t regret it. — Steven Withrow
Interview by Steven Withrow
I was thrilled to read the recent announcement from Penn State University Libraries and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book that Kate Coombs was selected as the winner of the 2013 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for her brilliant book Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems (illustrated by Meilo So and published by Chronicle Books).
Established in 1993, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award is presented annually to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding new book of poetry for children published in the previous calendar year.
The award and a $1,000 prize, courtesy of Lee Bennett Hopkins, will be presented on September 28 at Penn State.
Kate grew up near the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, and she started collecting shells and writing poems as a child. Now she likes going to the ocean aquarium to watch the moon jellyfish. Water Sings Blue is Kate’s first poetry collection. She is also the author of a picture book called The Secret-Keeper and two middle grade books, The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon. Her other new book is Hans My Hedgehog: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm.
When was the earliest poem in the collection written? And did you have the idea for a collection in mind all along?
The first poem was “Jellyfish Kitchen,” which I wrote at least 15 years ago. At the time my poetry tended to be a real hodgepodge. Then I went to an SCBWI conference where I heard a workshop presenter say that a poetry collection should have a theme. Who knew? I thought about possible themes and remembered my jellyfish poem, not to mention how much I love the ocean. I made a list of ocean animals and topics like waves, giving each one a page in a long Word document.
After doing some research, I added more ocean animals to the list. Along the way I learned some amazing stuff: did you know a starfish pops out its stomach and inserts it into a clam, where it engulfs its prey before pulling the stomach back into its body? Thus armed with topics and knowledge, I started writing poems about whatever called out to me on a particular day. Eventually I had 80-plus poems.
Have you been writing poems throughout your life? How did you get started and what keeps you writing?
I was a complete bookworm by the age of three, when my appetite for “just one more story” was endless. I know I was writing plays and stories when I was eight. I’m not sure about the poetry, but I do remember a poem I wrote at nine or ten. I was into magic, unicorns, and fairy tales. The poem began, “The fairies are dancing in the fairy ring, / And if you listen carefully you’ll hear the songs they sing.”
I wrote my first sonnet when I was twelve and was very proud of myself. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, dumping my first boyfriend because he didn’t get my poems. In college I took three independent studies in poetry, one of them with Welsh poet Leslie Norris. Whatever else I’ve written, I’ve kept the poetry going. At one point an agent was interested in working with me, but she said, “Don’t bother writing poetry. It’s a bad market.” I did not sign with her.
Along the way I’ve feasted on poetry by wonderful poets. I was very into Rainer Maria Rilke in college and even more into Sylvia Plath. In fact, my mentor professor and my best friend staged an intervention! They thought I must be suicidal to be so into Plath’s work. Later I fell for Mary Oliver’s poems and Annie Dillard’s prose, which I consider poetry. I was introduced to Billy Collins’ work much later, at an SCBWI workshop given by Arthur Levine. Now I have all of Collins’ books.
That’s not counting children’s poetry by so many talented poets: Deborah Chandra, Barbara Juster Esbensen, Tony Johnston, Karla Kuskin, Marilyn Singer, Alice Schertle, Kristine O’Connell George, Shel Silverstein, and many more. My favorite book of children’s poems is All the Small Things and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth.
Poems are an art form, miniature and precise, visceral and visual. Reading a good poem transforms me with wonder. I’ll never fall out of love with poetry.
I’m really not one for murky, obscure poetry, whether I’m writing for young or old. However, when I’m writing for grown-ups I’m more inclined to let the symbolism rip. Also, as a poet I prefer writing free verse, so my poems for adults are all free verse. Then again, my favorite poems for children are imagistic and a little haunting, not entirely without deeper meaning—and some of them are free verse. But I think you have to write better free verse to catch the attention of a child than you do an adult.
I generally write rhymed poems for children because they like rhyme so much. Of course, rhyme has its pitfalls. When I write funny poems, I’m especially worried about falling prey to what I call “rhymey rhymey thump thump.” You know, “Da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA,” where every accent feels like a punch in the nose. I try to flow my rhymes softly, deemphasizing them so that they don’t take over the poem like a herd of Tribbles.
A children’s poem tends to be less pompous than a poem for grown-ups. It also needs to be on a topic children care about. Kids don’t suffer fools gladly, and neither do they suffer poems about goldenrods in fall fields (sorry, Mary Oliver). This is not to say that children can’t appreciate beauty. It’s just that they’re easily bored and need a door into a poem. I can tell you which poems in Water Sings Blue they’re most likely to like, for example. They really do embrace humor, especially funny twists. But even though kids adore Shel Silverstein’s work, you’ll notice that he is more than funny; he’s a good poet. Kids are more discerning than we think.
I do not write with a specific child in mind—I write with many children in mind. I have a great regard and respect for children. I used to teach, and I loved my students dearly. I still do. They’re wonderful, wonderful people.
Tell me a little about the process of working with Melissa Manlove, your editor at Chronicle Books. What does a good editor bring to the revision and selection process? Were there particular challenges or surprises?
Melissa is a superb editor. Thinking about the nuances of poetry takes a unique kind of focus and insight. Melissa pushes me to make every word, line, and poem the strongest it can be. For example, line 6 in my shark poem is now “like a rumor, like a sneer,” but it was originally “like an oil spill, like a curse.” Melissa didn’t like oil spill as a metaphor and thought my line 8, which rhymed “worse” with “curse,” was weak. I’d had a hard time finding a good rhyme for “curse,” so I couldn’t argue with that, but I was pretty attached to the oil spill. After tinkering a lot more, I came up with “sneer” and a new line 8 that definitely worked better; however, the word I had chosen to replace “oil spill” didn’t grab Melissa. I spent three or four days and some 30 possibilities coming up with just the right word: “rumor.” And it all clicked.
Melissa also balanced out my love of subtle, imagistic poems by asking me to include more funny ones. The collection ended up with a better mix and more kid appeal. But arguably, the most wonderful thing Melissa did for the book was to choose Meilo So as an illustrator. I knew the artwork would be good, but it turned out to be shockingly good and to mesh with the poems in a way I could not have imagined.
Are you taking your poems on the road for school visits, and do you write with reading aloud or performing in mind?
I’ve done a few author visits to schools and libraries, and they’re a lot of fun. But because I work full time, it’s hard to get away. I did have a book launch for Hans My Hedgehog and Water Sings Blue last spring at a terrific indie bookstore in Salt Lake City called The King’s English. Of course I read some ocean poems!
When I write, I start by listening to the words of a poem in my mind. After a draft or two, I read the poem out loud to hear if it’s working. I do that for long fiction, too—I read the entire manuscript out loud to myself. You catch things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. But ultimately, fiction is content to be read in silence. Poetry longs to become sound.
Could you talk a little about your path to publication for Water Sings Blue? How does it feel it to have won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award?
I actually sold a different collection to Chronicle at first—Street of Songs, bilingual poems about a 9-year-old Latina girl living in Los Angeles. Chronicle had lined up a translator and everything. Then they had a budget meeting and decided to cancel the project. The editor who had acquired it was gone, and the new editor was Melissa Manlove. She asked me, “What else have you got?” By that time I had seven poetry collections on file. I sent her three, and she liked the ocean poems best.
Winning the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award makes me take a deep breath and let it out: “Aaah. I really am a poet, and somebody noticed!”
How does the grouping of three jellyfish poems connect in terms of craft, tone, and focus, and how does each one differ from the others?
I think what I call the jellyfish trio works because each one says something different and in quite a different way. “Jellyfish Kitchen” is kind of a showy poem in terms of presenting an extended metaphor using well-loved tools of poetry such as end rhyme and internal rhyme, alliteration, and that little twist we like to find in a poem’s last line. But perhaps I want to say the poem is showy because it reminds me of a grandmother’s front parlor, a bit formal and meant to be looked at, not touched—kind of like a jellyfish. Or, to come full circle, like the cake you weren’t allowed to have till after the grown-ups finished talking, when they measured out a too-thin slice.
“Not Really Jelly” is a pure kids’ poem, the kind that makes them giggle. Of the three, it’s the most fun to read out loud, nearly a tongue-twister. I think the noodle image is a good one, but the verbs-turned-nouns in the last two lines make the metaphor stronger. You could act those out with 6-year-olds and have a very good time.
As I said, my true love is haunting and imagistic free verse, so the haiku is probably my favorite of the three. Even without Meilo’s painting, I feel like the wind and kimono metaphors capture the jellyfish in a new way. Of course, the painting makes the poem that much better—it’s just breathtaking! I should add that I cheated on the haiku because they aren’t usually metaphoric. They’re supposed to use compact description to capture small, intriguing moments or tiny ironies in nature. But I figure you can reinvent a form if you can make it work!
Additionally, in writing poetry, I’m not committed to regular feet. In fact, I find that a slightly ragged rhythm can sound more conversational. To me it’s like writing music—the measures are predictable, but the notes within them aren’t. I won’t write far too many syllables in a given line of a rhymed poem, but I do tend to count off accented syllables rather than specific feet.
For “Sea Turtle” and “Octopus Ink,” could you share any insights about how these two poems came to be written and revised?
My octopus poem was originally about a magician, but it never took off. So I tried another metaphor, this time focusing on connecting the idea of ink to writing and writers. I revised “Octopus Ink” over and over. For one thing, I tinkered quite a bit with the line breaks. “Shy” seems as if it should be an end rhyme, and it isn’t. You’ll notice “hesitates” rhymes with “wait,” though. So instead of having two cooperative sets of end rhymes, I wrote one set of end rhymes (or near rhymes) and another set where I paired an internal rhyme with an end rhyme. To top it off, the rhymes come in lines 1 and 3, then 3 and 6, which makes no sense. But the poem reads right, and that’s what matters. It’s okay to break the rules in all kinds of ways as long as the poem sings.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t include a sea turtle poem in the very large batch I sent Melissa. Months later, we were in the mulling-over process of narrowing the collection when I had lunch with an old friend. I told Devon I was working on a book of ocean poems, and she said, “Oh, good! Benjamin loves sea turtles!” I felt a real pang, picturing this little kid’s woeful face as I confessed I hadn’t written a sea turtle poem. “Maybe I’ll add one,” I told my friend. So I went home and began working on it. I had the idea of the green map in my head, but whatever else I was doing just didn’t jell. I wrote the poem over and over, trying to force my concept to work. After getting increasingly frustrated, I finally said to myself, “I need to try something else.” I took another tack and the poem sprang to life very quickly, green map and all.
For “What the Waves Say,” what did Meilo So bring to this poem through her beautiful illustration? Did you have any chance to interact with the artist during or after the production of the book?
I remember Melissa asked me about two of the poems, thinking they might be hard to illustrate. Or maybe there had been some talk between Meilo and the art director—I’m not sure. Anyway, one was “Water Artist” and the other was “What the Waves Say.” Of “Water Artist,” I said, “It’s about an artist! I’m sure she’ll get it.” I figured Meilo would come up with something for the other poem, too—and the illustration turned out to be just perfect, both in terms of how it represents the poem and as a piece of art.
One job of an editor is to protect illustrators from voracious writers. You know, “Can you put a pink puppy on page 6?” This means that normally I don’t have any interaction with the illustrator except sometimes to comment on the sketches or galleys, and even then, who knows how much is actually necessary and is therefore passed along? I did send little gifts to Meilo and Melissa after the book was finished to thank them. Then Meilo sent me a pretty rock which I added to the rocks and shells on my desk, pleased yet completely clueless. Since I didn’t catch on, she gently let me know that it is the very rock pictured on the endpapers of our book. What a keepsake! Meilo and I later exchanged e-mails because Lara Starr arranged for us to interview each other for Chronicle’s blog. Meilo lives in the Shetland Islands and has some great stories to tell.
Finally, do the poems feel different to you now that they are in print as a collection and paired with So’s immaculate artwork?
Oh, I like “immaculate artwork”! I’ve been swooning over the illustrations since I first saw them, just amazed by their beauty and by how they wrap around the poems and hold them the way the ocean holds a sea otter. As for the poems, I hadn’t read them in a while, but earlier this week I was doing an author visit to one of my mom’s book clubs and thought I’d reread Water Sings Blue. I went straight through it, and when I finished I said, “What good poems!” I laughed at myself, but it is nice to look at something you’ve made and feel it turned out well. I suspect starting off with 80 poems made it a lot easier to find enough cream to skim off the top.
I should probably tell you what I’m working on now. I recently finished writing a collection I was calling Halloween School, but now it’s Monster School. I have to wait to see if my publisher acquires the poems, and that’s always an unpredictable process. But I’m happy with the poems, which are strange and funny and a little scary. They’re intended for a slightly older reader—I’m thinking 4th through 6th graders would be about right.
One more thing: The book was originally named Octopus Ink, but Melissa thought that was a little young and cute considering that several of the poems attempt to capture the grandeur of the ocean and its denizens. She had this vision of vastness. I came up with a bunch of titles, but none of them was quite right. Eventually I hit on Water Sings Blue. I don’t think it was Melissa’s platonic ideal initially, but as you can see, it grew on her.
Other links about Kate’s work:
All poems © Kate Coombs and illustrations © Meilo So. All rights reserved.
No one asked me to deliver inviolable commandments on the writing of children’s poetry. It so happened that between sharpening a gross of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and awaiting an editor’s email—promised before the first moon landing—I was struck with the idea like the wolf descending on the fold. So get into your pj’s, pour yourself a cup of cocoa, and comfy down by the hearth. Here they come…with a disclaimer. If you find any of these admonitions offensive, actionable, or dead wrong, no harm was intended in their creation. I encourage you to devise your own list.
RULE ONE: Resist every temptation to ask your friends and family members what they think of your verse. The inevitable chorus of responses—“Miranda, this is brilliant,” “Bound to be a bestseller, Morty,” or “Sacheverell, you could be the next Dr. Seuss”—are words every writer might long to hear. Believe them only if they are delivered from several states away by a disinterested editor! Quite apart from the dicey issue of an intimate’s taste, a moment’s reflection will convince you that we call people “friends and family” for a reason: They dissemble (read: lie). Otherwise, they would not be our friends and family. The newly minted poet should resort to any tactic to silence them, short of a permanent restraining order or the gift of a muzzle. Hide your work from said “experts.”
If you feel compelled to ignore RULE ONE, make an ironclad promise to yourself that the print run of your self-published masterpiece will not exceed six copies, dispensed lovingly but exclusively to those earnest confidantes.
RULE TWO: If you think your work is brilliant because it is “just like Shel Silverstein,” think again, and then start over. We had one Silverstein. He was terrific, but one was quite enough. Check your driver’s license. The name that appears there is the one the world may well be waiting for, not some Silverstein or Seuss manqué.
RULE THREE: Never a writer be, only a rewriter. Robert Frost said that he once worked on a poem (“New Hampshire”) all through the night. Stunned by the sun, he got up from his chair, stretched, went out on the porch to welcome the dawn, and returned to his desk to write “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” “My hand,” he said, “barely left the page.”
Frost’s experience with this one poem is so rare as to countervail the notion harbored by classrooms full of schoolchildren and many adults that writing without the prefix “re-” is the way it’s done. It’s not. Frost—and the rest of us now blessed with his immortal poem—got lucky. Writing without rewriting usually results in a poem with the half-life of lettuce, or what Donald Hall memorably called a “McPoem.” Whatever comes easy is cheesy. (Like that sentence.)
RULE FOUR: Making your verses sound like the Aurora borealis looks—creamy, dreamy, lambent, heartfelt—is akin to composing with ink manufactured by Mrs. Butterworth. Some adult suckers for smarm may reach for a hankie; some children, also overwhelmed, might flee for the toilet. Most of us are properly transfixed by this spectacular natural wonder for perhaps fifteen minutes before tweezering our chin hairs or a running to the dry cleaners. Try to imagine your poem having a slightly longer existence.
Corollary: Ugsome lines, calculated with the odious aim of putting emotions on sale, are best left to greeting cards. If your writing role model is a Hallmark employee, an operation may be required to uncongeal your aorta. Barring that, consider becoming an accountant or a bookie.
And another thing: Write a poem about a teddy bear or the marvel that is Aunt Sally’s peanut brittle only if your pen (or keyboard) is satiric, acidic, and possibly toxic.
RULE FIVE: Unless Yeats were to be reincarnated as a social networker, do not imagine that only blogs can make a poem. Like newspaper trifles, such poesy is usually composed in less time than it takes to wash your socks.
The first of the 21st century suns revealed a curious phenomenon: Nearly every American adult and child had become a poet. Poetry critics disappeared. Hence, the now nearly universal “critical” internet refrain—and acclaim—to blogger verse consists of two words: “Love it!” Or one, “Awesome.” If this is also your kneejerk response to most blog poems, count yourself among “friends and family”—the dissemblers.
Corollary: For those who are serious about poetry, spending large chunks of a day on Facebook and Twitter is time spent away from your avowed enthusiasm: poetry.
RULE SIX: For every day you write poetry, reserve the next one for reading it. Yes, you will have to slog through a slough of witless, mindless verse. I am not the first to remark that in any age most poets are bad. Reading poetry is much like digging for oil: Nineteen out of twenty wells are dry. But sooner or later, you will reach the Mother Lode Coasts of McCord, Causley, and Kennedy, where also dwell Merriam, Kuskin, and Worth.
RULE SEVEN: Practice something other than common measures and ballad stanzas. True, the four-beat rhythm runs deep and insistent in us all, but give alternating tetrameter lines a rest. After a time, they become monotonous. Surprise yourself and your readers with, say, a foreign verse form you may have never heard of. (An exception: in the history of poetry, no one has ever written a readable diamante.)
RULE EIGHT: Describing the “purrfect cat,” a “moooving cow,” a “hissing snake,” or saying “bone voyage” to a runaway dog is cruel and unusual punnishment. Repeating pet puns—repeating any pun—provides readers with all the proof they need that you and your Muse are estranged. The cat, cow, snake, and dog examples were mildly amusing the first time they appeared, but Monty-Python-dead-parrot dead the second. And yet that has not discouraged some pet shop owners from memorializing stale onomatopoeia in neon or kept readers in grocery store aisles from emitting “awww” (not awe) sounds whenever they spot them on greeting cards.
(I speak with some authority on the subject, having shamefully committed to print these ignoble misdemeanors myself. Once.)
Corollary: Children may guffaw at booger/fart giggle verse. They are children after all. But this is not the stuff that will lead them to carry poetry with them beyond elementary school.
RULE NINE: If you are passionate about poetry, you will hardly need to be reminded of a truism: Unlike most of the world’s citizens, Americans stand almost alone in viewing poetry as slightly more interesting than curling and its practitioners enormously less interesting than curlers. Consider yourself a rebel. Let no one and nothing come between you and your passion for the high art.
Corollary: Disabuse yourself of the notion that poetry—for children or adults—will remunerate you with anything more glamorous than an occasional Happy Meal. But then, what poet was ever in it for the pelf?
RULE TEN: I have saved the most important rule for last simply because it is the most important: Learn the rules of prosody. Before committing a line—a word—to the page, immerse yourself in the details of metrics and form. The best free verse poets know this from the start: You are allowed to break the rules only after you have learned them.
Why people always stop at ten of anything befuddles me, but these ten rules may be sufficient (a) to pique your interest, or (b) to get your dander up. If either applies, I will be a happy sand boy.
J. Patrick Lewis is the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate and the winner of the 2011 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry.
Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine
Award-winning children’s poet and artist Douglas Florian has written and/or illustrated more than 40 books of children’s poetry, including Dinothesaurus, which received starred reviews in four major publications; Comet, Stars, The Moon and Mars, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year and Horn Book Fanfare List selection; Bow Wow Meow Meow, winner of the Gryphon Award and a Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year; and Lizards, Frogs and Polliwogs, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book.
Born and raised in New York City, Florian attended Queens College and the School of Visual Art. In the past, Florian worked as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and also created more than 300 drawings for The New York Times, many on the Op-Ed page. He says the only “9-5″ job he ever had was working one summer as a messenger for Artone Associates, 342 Madison Avenue, a retouching and design firm when he was 15 years old. Florian’s paintings are represented by Bravin Lee Gallery in New York City and have been shown in more than 30 solo and group exhibitions.
After reading William Cole’s anthology, Oh, That’s Ridiculous (1977), Florian decided to begin writing and illustrating children’s poetry. His latest collection, Shiver Me Timbers!: Pirate Poems & Paintings (2012, Beach Lane Books), in which he teams up with illustrator Robert Neubecker, indicates he is still enjoying it!
You credit William Cole’s anthology of nonsense verse, Oh, That’s Ridiculous, as spurring you to enter the world of children’s literature. Was that the original version, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, or the 1977 edition illustrated by Shel Silverstein, in which “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” first appeared? What was it about that book in particular that got your creative juices flowing?
Many years ago, I purchased the original Tomi Ungerer version in a flea market for a pittance, and have always felt that his drawings greatly contributed to the irreverent quality of the book. I’ve yet to get rid of those fleas, though. And I don’t often carry a pittance around with me anymore.
Your abstract paintings are created for an adult audience, yet your writing is geared toward a much younger demographic. What is it about writing for children that is so satisfying, and do you have plans to write in any other genres?
When writing for children I can exercise my basic juvenile mentality and draw in an uninhibited childish fashion. I do have to be careful to not paint too abstractly, as I find young people don’t often appreciate it, and will often get an abstract look on their curious little faces. There is, however, a cross-fertilization between my so-called fine art and my illustrations.
So are you an artist who writes poetry for children, or a children’s poet who is also an artist? Or is it preposterous to even make a distinction?
I consider myself an authorstrator. That is: I think of pictures while I write and occasionally words while I paint.
But if you could only do one – write or illustrate – which would it be, and why?
If I could only do one, I would illustwrite. Then again, maybe authorstrate.
An interview with Harcourt Trade Publishers said that your children’s illustrations use “watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, inks, tin foil, candy wrappers, shredded papers, stencils, rubber stamps, and much collage on primed brown paper bags.” If so many mediums are up for grabs, how do you decide what an illustration should look like and how to create it?
I usually grab whatever is on my desk, my child’s desk, or my neighbor’s desk. I let the subject dictate what medium I use or abuse. In mammalabilia I wanted a crude simple look, so I created very simple naïve gouache paintings much like folk art. In insectlopedia I used a barrage of delicate detailed collage to match the catch. And in Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars I used die-cut holes to show that space is a continuum.
Which of your books or poems are you most proud of? What books by other authors or illustrators have you been especially impressed with?
I rather like the detailed illustrations and witty poems for Zoo’s Who, although it didn’t get much attention from the journals and such. Perhaps my favorite thus far is Dinothesaurus, which is quite lively and playful. My editor, Andrea Welch, helped me a great deal on that one, especially on the Glossarysaurus in the back.
I’m currently working on two chapter books that I’m fond of, a new chapter in my life. I enjoy a wide range of authors and artists, many from Europe such as Sara Fanelli and Emily Gravett. I also favor the work of Rokuro Taniuchi of Japan and Etienne Delessert, now in America. I grew up loving Susan Perl’s wonderful illustrations and Saul Steinberg’s witty line drawings.
How difficult is it to know what children will like or not like – in your poetry or your illustrations? Do you lean on your kids for their feedback, or your own child within?
Yes, I do lean on my own kids for feedback, but they often lean back on me. I don’t think it’s very difficult to know what children will like, but it’s awfully tricky to know what adults will enjoy. Having a great editor is vital.
Some people look to their muse for inspiration, others look everywhere they can…and some, like Jane Yolen and J. Patrick Lewis, are firm believers in the BIC rule (Butt In Chair!). Which of these works best for you, and why?
I’m always jotting down ideas and drawings on tiny scraps of paper whilst sitting on a train, plane, or Lunar Excursion Module. But for writing a chapter book I do like the BIC Trick, although I try not to sit on a BIC pen, if possible.
Scenario: You’ve been struggling with a book or poem for an excruciatingly long time. Do you (a) keep at it until something pops; (b) put it away and come back to it later; or (c) shelve it in a heat of disgust and go get some ice cream?
Answer: (d) Shred it into tiny bits and feed it to my pet piranha. Actually, I’ll try anything that works, but the solution usually just comes to me, like the flu or measles.
Looking back over the years, what was the worst idea you ever had for a children’s poem or illustration? Did you toss it, or rework it?
I’ve never had a worst idea, although The City, a wordless book I created sold very poorly. Perhaps the worst is yet to come. Sometimes the best poems come after bad starts.
Finally, what advice would you offer children’s writers and illustrators who have yet to be published? Is there anything that really surprised you when you began writing children’s literature – or anything that still surprises you about the industry?
I would offer this advice: Work hard but work smart. Keep your eyes open, your ears open, and your mind open. But close your mouth. Talking too much about a book before you finish it is a mistake. What surprises me is how I’m still able to do this without getting bored or relying on formulas. The industry itself has become too industrious and not nearly illustrious enough.
Well, thanks for taking the time for this interview, Douglas – and best wishes for a successful and creative 2013!
My pleasure, and best wishes to you!
Lee Bennett Hopkins encouraged me to query educators and poets about the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have been adopted by 46 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. I sent the following statement to a number of them, and asked them to reply. Fourteen of their responses follow.
In short, the CCSS call on public school teachers to strengthen nonfiction so that, according to the Washington Post, “by 12th grade students will be reading mostly ‘informational text’” in place of a sizable chunk of fiction and poetry.
This effort is being spearheaded by educational publisher Pearson, which stands to make millions through staff development, assessment materials, and the adoption of new CCSS textbooks.
One teacher “is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Arkansas.”
As someone who appreciates the impact this issue could have, would you kindly comment on what you think the CCSS are likely to mean, in your view, for the future of poetry and poetry teaching in American public schools, as well as children’s poetry publishing in general?
Here are only two of the hundreds of relevant articles and blog pieces on the
From Sylvia M. Vardell, Ph.D.
School of Library & Information Studies
Texas Woman’s University
I always have such mixed feelings whenever the topic of “standards” comes up. As a former classroom teacher, I understood the practical need to coordinate some set of expectations for teaching and learning across the grade levels, but I also know that teachers are feeling squeezed when it comes to bringing creativity and innovation into the classroom—in favor of “teaching to the test.” It’s a constant struggle for balance (between a coordinated curriculum and creative teaching). It may surprise you that I was actually pleased to see poetry incorporated into the new Common Core standards, since poetry is rarely mentioned in mandated standards and therefore rarely included in lesson plans and teaching. So, in a roundabout way, poetry might get MORE attention now that it’s “itemized” in the Common Core. The danger, of course, is that poetry may also be butchered in the name of test preparation. That’s why I’ve been working hard to help novice poetry teachers get comfortable with sharing poetry (through The Poetry Friday Anthology with Janet Wong) so that they see how gently the Common Core standards can be introduced and reinforced through weekly poem sharing. The standards include at least one poetry element in the Reading area of every grade level (K-5: RL. 1.4; 2.4; 3.5; 4.5; 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7) and mention alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, sensory images, metaphors, similes, structure, and point of view, to name a few. For those who already love poetry, this provides documentation for spending classroom time on poetry and for those who are new to poetry, I hope it will present a teachable moment for delving into what poetry has to offer. That is my hope!
From Georgia Heard
Children’s Poet and Teacher
Now, with the Common Core State Standards adopted by nearly every state, and its emphasis on poetry’s more pragmatic cousin—informative and explanatory reading and writing—I feared that poetry might not survive in schools. The truth is that poetry is included in every standard in the CCSS except for the writing standard. For K-5, poetry appears in Reading: Literature; Reading: Foundational Skills; Speaking and Listening; and Language, and for grades 6-12 reading poetry also has an essential place.
The CCSS attempts to set out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century, and part of that vision is for students to partake in close, attentive, critical reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying works of literature including poetry. I believe that poetry will now have an even greater role in American classrooms, and, as a result, children’s poetry publishing will thrive.
For more on poetry in the CCSS, read Georgia Heard’s newest book, Poetry Lessons to Meet the Common Core State Standards (Scholastic, 2013), and check out an interview with Georgia Heard on Scholastic’s blog: http://oomscholasticblog.com/2012/12/teaching-poetry-with-a-common-core-edge.html
From Paul B. Janeczko
Children’s Poet and Anthologist
After working for 20 years as a high school English teacher and another 20 years as a visiting poet, I have been in hundreds of classrooms and worked with thousands of students and their teachers. I have become increasingly alarmed at the time schools are taking away from learning and enrichment to spend on testing, as measuring and comparing schools and students has become an end in itself.
With “No Child Left Behind,” and more recently with the frenzy for implementing Common Core School Standards, more and more teachers were forced to “teach for the test,” rather than teaching for the students. Teachers are forced to remove poetry from their curriculum in a frightfully unbalanced approach to educating children, with an unreasonable and unwise emphasis on “informational” texts.
I am alarmed that poetry reading and writing are becoming more marginalized in the classroom. We, as a society, do not read enough poetry. Writing in The New York Times Book Review some years ago, literary critic Anatole Broyard asked, “Where will our flair come from, our hyperbole, our mots justes? Unless we read poetry we’ll never have our hearts broken by language, which is an indispensable preliminary to a civilized life.” What better reason to demand that poetry takes its rightful place in the lives of school children?
From Douglas Florian
Children’s Poet and Illustrator
Can you name five works of fiction or poetry you read in high school? I can name at least 20, starting with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
Now, can you name five works of nonfiction you read in high school? Not so easy this time. Why is that? Because fiction, poetry, and theater stick to our synapses. But they can also relate to real world issues. Think of how relevant The Ugly American, Failsafe, and Catch 22 were to the Vietnam War, disarmament, and the growing military industrial complex.
Lately there’s been a push towards facts, facts, and facts. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” But can the raven be reduced to feathers and bones? Can leaves of grass be reduced to stalks and blades? Can an Apple iPod be reduced to circuits and plastic? Go ask Poe. Go ask Whitman. Go ask Jobs.
From Barbara Kiefer, Ph.D.
Charlotte Huck Professor
Department of Early Childhood
The Ohio State University
I’m trying to organize my thoughts to say something intelligent in the face of such nonsense. I am a successful, fairly smart person. I read poetry, nonfiction, and lots of fiction. I read newspapers and magazines. I learn about history from Hilary Mantel and Barbara Tuchman. I learn about science in Barbara Kingsolver’s books and Joyce Sidman’s poems. I learn about dying from Mary Oliver and Dylan Thomas. William Shakespeare’s plays give me a framework for thinking about life. I hoard books in case I ever run out of something to read. I have books for airplanes, books for going to sleep, books for when I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and can’t go back to sleep. Thank heavens there is no common core board looking over my shoulder and telling me that my percentages are off. When will these “experts” who establish quotas look at real lifelong readers for their models of what children ought to be doing?
From Jane Yolen
Children’s Poet and Author
There is often as much or more “common core” in poetry as there is in any nonfiction, and it does not go out of fashion or date as quickly.
Think of a poem like Emily Dickinson’s
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him—
did you not
His notice sudden is—
The Grass divides as with a Comb–
A spotted shaft is seen—
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on—
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn—
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone—
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me—
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone—
as the perfect opening for any in-depth study of snakes. It talks of their particular and peculiar locomotion, mentions several places where snakes may live, and comes around to fear of snakes, which therapists call Ophidiophobia but Dickinson nails with: “Zero at the bone.”
Think of Tennyson’s “The Eagle” whenever you begin a study of birds:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Or if studying famous artists and their art, this about a Chagall painting which I wrote.
The Flying Horse
There is no arguing with soldiers,
no pleading while wearing the yellow star.
There is only escape: on the rails, in the air,
on foot across mountains, one by one by one,
leaving behind the camps where men in stripes
and women with shaved heads, and children—
never forget the children—
rock to and fro with G-d’s name on their lips.
So you leave behind the bistros of Paris,
soldiers lurking in every corner;
leave behind a lifetime of work,
paintings of Vitebsk on every wall.
But Death, that old leveler,
can find you wherever you go,
even on a sledge pulled by a rooster,
even as you rise into the darkling skies.
Think of Leo Marks’s love poem to his dead fiancée, which when he was a codemaster in World War II he gave to the beautiful French agent Violette Szabo to use as her cipher before she was dropped into occupied France in 1944. What an opening for a study of codes and even World War II spying.
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
No need to stop teaching poetry. Poets are the true codemasters of the world. Let the poetry teach you—and your students—and help you get to the real Common Core.
From Steven Withrow
A byproduct of imposing one-size-fits-all educational or artistic standards is the bypassing of genuine philosophical debate. The imposers assume they know more than the imposed-upon—that something is broken and must be fixed instantly—and the swiftness and extensiveness of the changes are often intended to avoid the very thing that poets prize most (or do they?): emotional ambiguity. As W.H. Auden pointed out, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”
To say that poetry is valuable for children in schools seems reasonable on its face, but underneath the statement flows a centuries-long river of conflicting opinions about the uses of imaginative literature, and verse especially.
My own blade in the battle is my belief that a good poem tells us something we don’t quite want to hear. Even the blithest of rhymes for the youngest of ears, odes to unabashed joy, remind us: This will not last. You will not keep this. And you can wail and go numb, or you can dance and rejoice—it’s your choice. Children sense this conclusion already; they carry the evidence in their cells. Poets give hope and hopelessness a durable form.
If poetry is valuable for children in schools then a poem is valuable as proof that we each deserve to choose for ourselves, at every moment, how we respond to life…and to death. Although the effects of such difficult and continual choices are seldom what we expect, the freedom to choose is the true common core we all sing about and some of us versify.
From Ralph Fletcher
Children’s Poet and Teacher
I approach the Common Core from the perspective of a writing teacher. I’m not a big fan of these new standards, though admittedly not of all of it is bad. Should kids be writing more nonfiction? Should we help students learn how to make an argument in their writing? Probably yes and yes. What irks me is the extreme way the standards are interpreted, and the tendency in education to swing from one pole to another.
With the Common Core I worry that young writers will now spend less time writing stories. And I think that’s a mistake because telling stories is where kids find their stride as writers. I fear that poetry, too, will get less emphasis, both in reading and in writing. When young writers write poetry they learn the power of metaphor, compression, and image. They learn the sly, supple power of language.
From Joyce Sidman
Please don’t lose literature in this effort to standardize! Any interest most of us have ever had in history has been sparked by literature—the stories of people, told well. Stories that echo in the heart. Poems that reveal a different way of looking at the world. Surely literature can be paired with high-quality informational text—to provide context, emotion, and understanding. Without the stories, history (and social studies, and even science) is dead.
From Peggy Oxley
Grade 2 Teacher
St. Paul School, Westerville, Ohio
If the Common Core standard on nonfiction is strictly enforced, it will certainly impact the study and enjoyment of poetry and fiction adversely, which will deprive students of two of the richest and most important parts of language arts education. People have been reading, writing, and studying poetry and fiction of all kinds down through the ages. They have always been essential vehicles of communication between people of all cultures as well as strong links between people and cultures of all historical ages. I would certainly advise Common Core advocates to include strong components of poetry and all genres of fiction as well as nonfiction in our educational requirements to maintain and strengthen our understanding of and relationships with all those with whom we share the planet.
From Janet Wong
Children’s Poet and Anthologist
Most of the arguments about the Common Core seem to come from the poor application of the standards, not the standards themselves. The standards clearly provide for poetry to be taught; this is actually something to celebrate. Teachers who have been neglecting poetry are now required to teach it.
If you are a teacher who is being pressured to teach in a certain way “because of the Common Core”: copy, read, highlight, and make sure that you understand the standards so that you can defend your practices with section citations. Fight for the right to teach poetry—and recognize that poetry should not be limited to the language arts curriculum. If you teach at the elementary level, use poetry to teach history, math, and science. If you teach middle or high school, make it easy for your history, math, and science colleagues to use poems; provide them with poems that have clear curriculum connections. While you’re at it, give a book of sports poems or yoga poems to the P.E. teacher. I will repeat myself here because I want it to become our mantra: The standards clearly provide for poetry. And this is something to celebrate!
From Marilyn Singer
To be honest, I have not read much yet about the Common Core Standards. However, it’s my understanding that poetry is very much a part of them and that the suggestion is to spend more time and depth on each individual poem. To me, this can have pluses and minuses. The pluses include greater comprehension, respect for craft, and what I call “cross-pollination”—pairing poetry with other literature and subjects, such as science and math. The minuses? Over-analysis leading to antipathy—the same problems that less effective teachers and their suffering students have always had with poetry. When I was a high school English teacher, I spent a great deal of time with each poem. But that time always started with 1) choosing poems I loved; 2) reading the poems out loud. It seems to me that Common Core or no Common Core, teachers themselves must learn to love poetry, and that starts with hearing poetry read aloud and, understanding, as that wonderful teacher and poet Georgia Heard put it, “Don’t forget that literature is heart work.”
From Bev. Gallagher
Grade 3 Teacher
Princeton Day School
Princeton, New Jersey
As a teacher of third graders, one of my profound delights is opening up the world of books to my children. How they ooh and aah when they discover new books. Whether they are learning about Roberto Clemente or dipping into the tale of Half a Moon Inn or hearing a delicious poem in Black Swan White Crow they are fully immersed in the world of literature. What a treat it is to use such fine works to teach accompanying reading strategies so students can navigate their way—whether they need to understand characters’ intentions, unpack salient information, or pay attention to language. To do that well and become strategic readers, my students need to have all genres available to them—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc. How can they create an authentic toolbox of skills if we limit their choices? How can we not let them marinate in the finest literature? These 21st century learners need to have all options available so that they can use their skill set strategically and masterfully. That certainly would not be a possibility if we limit the richness available in their lives.
From Mary Lee Hahn
A Year of Reading Blog
Grade 5 Language Arts Teacher
Daniel Wright Elementary, Dublin, Ohio
I’m approaching the switch to the Common Core Standards on a “need to know” basis. They aren’t exactly giving me hives, but I’m on the apprehensive side of curious to find out how they’ll impact the way I do business in my 4th grade classroom.
Georgia Heard’s session at All Write, “Understanding the Core Standards: Reading Standards for Literature—Poetry,” seemed like a good place to dip my toes in. And the main message I got from this session? Good teaching is good teaching, no matter what labels they give us to name the pieces and parts.
Georgia started with the big lessons that poetry teaches—lessons of language. Poetry is filled with figurative language, and with the language of heart and soul: rhythm and sound, compression and precision, images, and figures of speech. (And she showed us where all of these pieces and parts and labels can be found in the Common Core standards.)
She named the questions we need to ask of poems we read and write:
- What makes this a poem?
- What is this poem about?
- What is the poet’s message?
- What tools did the poet use to help show his/her meaning?
(The standards these questions address already exist in our state standards…nothing new here…)
And she showed us how, by living with and climbing inside one poem a week, students would build knowledge about poems for their “music” and for their “meaning” toolboxes for reading and writing poetry.
Monday: read the poem aloud. Make sure students can see the poem. Read it again. Turn and talk. What do you notice? What’s it about?
Tuesday—Thursday: illustrate it, act it out, read it chorally, do quick-writes about the poem/off of the poem.
Friday: Now that you love and understand the poem, dig into the craft tools the poet used. Talk about how the poem’s built, how the poet uses compressed language (not ALL of the words another writer might use on the same topic).
Georgia’s final message:
Don’t forget that literature is heart work.
Interview by Robyn Hood Black
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.
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).
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.
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,
over pastel hills.
against cold cheeks
deep and lustrous overhead:
a glimmering dark
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.
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
spinning and sparkling,
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.
**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.)