Five Things I’ve Learned About Children’s Poetry

Five Things I’ve Learned About Children’s Poetry

By Steven Withrow

I realized recently that I’ve been studying poetry for children, in one form or another, more than half my life—and I’ve been surrounded by the stuff since birth. I’ve read every book or piece I could find on the subject, and I’ve explored thousands of poems from at least five continents. Apart from what I’ve gleaned from my own reading and writing, I’ve also spoken at length with hundreds of others—grown-ups and kids—who have a stake in children’s poetry. From that concatenation of experiences, I’ve learned a great many lessons—sometimes clarifying, often contradictory—and in the interest of generating reflection and discussion, I thought I’d share with you a mere five.

  1. Children’s Poetry is ancient and global and ever-evolving. It has its own distinct tradition at the confluence of the histories of Children’s Literature and Poetry-as-a-Whole. It’s a damned big subject, and an essential one.
  2. Far from being peripheral to Children’s Literature and Poetry-as-a-Whole, Children’s Poetry is, in fact, central and fundamental to both fields. In the beginning were the mother-song and the cradle rhyme.
  3. While “child” means different things to different people, kids are just one audience for Children’s Poetry. Much of it is created not only by but also for adults. True lifelong appeal.
  4. Children are the originators and modifiers (mostly anonymous) of some of the most vital poems in any language. Read Morag Styles and the Opies.
  5. A Children’s Poem—any poem—is shaped speech, a measurable and a memorable pattern. If we do not recognize a pattern of recurrence in sound or in sense then we are reading the most inert prose. That’s pretty much all I know about poetic form.


On Sunday, April 27, at 1 p.m., come celebrate National Poetry Month with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, as acclaimed children’s poets and authors from the Pioneer Valley—Jeannine Atkins, Richard Michelson, Heidi Stemple, and Jane Yolen—read aloud their own poems as well as poems by their favorite writers. This all-ages event, hosted by poet Steven Withrow, will be followed by a book signing with all the featured authors. Don’t miss this enjoyable, verse-filled afternoon.

Joyce Sidman’s NCTE Award Acceptance Speech — 11/23/13

Joyce with her  wonderful NCTE Poetry for Children Award Committee: (l-r) Nancy Hadaway, Katie Button Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Mary Lee Hahn, Terrell Young, and Darcy Bradley.

Joyce with her wonderful NCTE Poetry for Children Award Committee: (l-r) Nancy Hadaway, Katie Button, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Mary Lee Hahn, Terrell Young, and Darcy Bradley.

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 JanuaryJoyce 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

Open for Discussion: Writing for “Bad” Readers

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

Interview with Poet/Author David Elliott

by Matt Forrest Esenwine


Photo by Michael Seamens

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…

5th grade

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
then decorates
his bower.

How carefully
he constructs
the walls.
(The halls
he fills
with flowers.)

And how anxiously
he arranges
the bright tokens
he collects.

O pity then
the bower bird.
Nature’s fussy,
lovesick architect.

– © 2013, David Elliott, all rights reserved

In the Wild

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!

Kenn Nesbitt is named U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate

KennNesbittCongratulations 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, 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.

Read The Poetry Foundation’s press release here, and a conversation between Nesbitt and Lewis here.

The Horn Book Recommends Poetry for National Poetry Month


The Horn Book Recommends Poetry for National Poetry MonthHappy 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: Kate Coombs, Winner of the 2013 Lee Bennett Hopkins Award

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.

KatePicKate 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?

ke bao1 mmThe 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.

kate1stgradeAlong 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.

9780374403454Do you work differently when writing a poem for children than when writing a poem for adults? Do you write with a child audience in mind? And what makes a children’s poem a children’s poem?

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 at her desk

Melissa at her desk

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?

Water Sings Blue_Int_Jellyfish 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?

Water Sings Blue_Int_Octopus InkMy 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?

Water Sings Blue_Int_What The Waves SayI 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.

ESSAY: “My Own Ten Rules for Writing Children’s Poetry” by J. Patrick Lewis


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.

Chatting with Douglas Florian — Children’s Poet and Artist

Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine

D Florian_photo self cropped 2

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.

UnBEElievables Jacket

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!

To learn more about Douglas’s paintings, visit his website…and to read more of his children’s poetry, check out his blog!