From J. Patrick Lewis: Common Core State Standards and Children’s Poetry 

Common Core State Standards

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:

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
Occasionally rides—
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
Of cordiality—

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
Is yours.
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
Children’s Poet

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
Children’s Poet

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
Children’s Poet

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.


NCTE Award Winning Poet: Joyce Sidman

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,
Pink blooms
over pastel hills.

Pink prickles:
warm fingers
against cold cheeks

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

Blue smiles
from shadows
amongst the White.

©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.

And, from Ubiquitous, a celebration of coyotes:

Come with Us

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

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

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

©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else can poetry do for children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My pleasure!  Thanks so much.



**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 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.)

Happy New Year, PACYA Members!


Thank you to everyone who visited Poetry at Play and took part in Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults in 2012! This has been a very successful year in fulfilling our mission to remain an important resource for all those interested in poetry for kids and teens–past, present, and future–worldwide.

In the coming months, we will share interviews with top poets, essays by talented writers, and other features still in the works. Wishing you a joyful and peaceful 2013, and may it be filled with poetry!

NCTE Award Winning Poet: J. Patrick Lewis

Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine

J. Patrick Lewis was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, and was 56 years old when, in 1998, he decided to retire early from his position as professor of economics at Otterbein College in Ohio to become a full-time writer.  He already had 10 books published at the time, along with numerous individual poems in magazines such as Cricket. Since then, he has gone on to write a total of more than 80 books in verse and prose, and has been the recipient of numerous awards.

In addition to receiving the 2011 Poetry Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, Lewis’s The Shoe Tree of Chagrin (2001, illustrated by Chris Sheban) won the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Golden Kite Award, and The Last Resort (2002, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti) was named the New York Times Best Illustrated Book and has been translated into more than a dozen languages). In 2011, Lewis was named 2011-13 U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.

Lewis has also collaborated with other children’s poets including Jane Yolen, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, and Paul B. Janeczko on various poetry collections and anthologies, and his first book of adult poetry, Gulls Hold Up the Sky, was published in 2010. One of his most recent projects was The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry (2012), a giant anthology on which he worked as editor and contributor.

First, let me congratulate you on your position as 2011 U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate! As only the third person to receive this honor from the Poetry Foundation (the position was previously held by Mary Ann Hoberman and the inaugural Children’s Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky), it brings with it great responsibility. How do you feel about holding a title this prestigious, and what have you been doing to fulfill your obligation to promote children’s poetry?

Despite the Poetry Foundation’s claim that the responsibilities of the laureateship would be “light,” I’ve been extremely busy, especially with travel. Speaking at conferences, giving talks to teachers and librarians, and school visits have kept me hopping. But that’s the role of the children’s poet laureate, isn’t it? To go piping down the valleys wild as the herald for poetry at every possible venue. The thrill of being so named has generated in me an enthusiasm equal to it. It seems a bit comparable to the thrill of carrying a country’s flag at the initial Olympic ceremonies.

So how did a fellow with a PhD in economics end up writing more than 80 children’s books and winning numerous awards such as the 2011 NCTE Award in Children’s Poetry and the 2001 SCBWI Golden Kite Award? You had already had 10 children’s books published by the time you decided to become a full-time writer in 1998…what level of success (a word we all define differently) had you hoped to reach when you were first starting out?

My first book—an original and fanciful folktale I set in my beloved Russia—kept me in a dreamlike state for perhaps a semester! I remember when it first arrived in my mailbox I couldn’t believe I had made this physical thing, an honest-to-goodness book. I took the book to bed with me for three nights. I don’t sleep with my books any longer, but the arrival of each new one is a pinch-me revelation.

I had no idea what I was “hoping for” when I first began writing children’s books for I had not yet become a court jester, a traveling salesman, a Pied Piper for children’s poetry. Once discovered, poetry kindled “a frosted fire,” as I’ve always said, that I expect will burn until I myself have joined the ashes.

What would you say is the most satisfying aspect of writing for children? It’s easy to say it’s the joy that the kids receive from reading – and perhaps that’s true – but the creative process, the collaborations, and the relationships that are built all must certainly be enjoyable, too.

Without being either glib or dismissive, I must say that I really don’t write for children. My audience of one is myself. If poems please me, then I hold out a soupçon of hope that children might enjoy them too. Apart from making school visits and talking about poetry—a joy unimaginable to me 500 school visits ago—the greatest part of writing . . . is writing. Juggling words 10 hours a day. It’s not hard work, not work at all. It’s “hard love.”

As writers, we draw inspiration from all around us – our homes, our families, pretty much anything and everything. Who – or what – inspires you? Who do you trust to critique your material?

In my opinion, no doubt a minority view, inspiration is overrated. Occasionally, lightning strikes with a word/phrase/or rhyme, but for me poems come from dedication. Strapped to a chair. I do wish my Muse were a reliable fixture on my desk, but she is usually off shopping, perhaps because she feels unwanted, which isn’t true of course, but there it is.

The only person I ask to take a critical look at my work (before it goes to an editor) is my living doppelganger, my twin brother, whose opinion I value more than he knows.

Describe your approach to writing poetry: the poem’s creation, its evolution, and its completion – assuming a poem is ever truly “completed.”

A poem does not begin with an idea but with a word, a phrase. Of course, I know beforehand what subject I intend to write about, but I can sit here endlessly thinking of words before liftoff. Since I write on a computer, I keep no first drafts. I just keep rewriting the same poem for hours or days—or I put the poem away for awhile to let it settle, or throw it away altogether. There are more than a few published poems I wish I could take back and rewrite—poets are inveterate tinkerers—but once the poems make their way to the printed page, you must let them go.

Which of your poems would you say you’re the most proud of, and why? What poem or poems have given you the most grief in trying to write?

I wrote a poem for Jesse Owens (“I Could Stay Up in the Air . . . Forever”) and another for Satchel Paige (“Father Time Is Coming”) that I would stand behind. In general, as much as I love writing nonsense verse, I am quite taken with biographical poems, distilling other people’s lives into one-page wonders. Of course, that doesn’t always, or even often, happen, but when was that ever a reason not to try?

And the poem that was the most difficult or laborious to complete?

The book-length poem, The House, illustrated by the inestimable Roberto Innocenti. I did my damnedest to make that poem grace the art with an equivalent beauty. The poem’s text went through at least 20 rewrites, quite properly, before the publisher accepted it. And I must say I’m extremely proud of that book. It could stand alone as a legacy.

You write in a wide variety of styles, from touching, introspective poems like “The Seeker” (about Helen Keller) to fun, rhyming picture books like Kindergarten Cat, and even books like the hugely popular The Last Resort. How does a writer as prolific as J. Patrick Lewis continue to come up with fresh ideas? You’ve been writing for a long time; is it now easier or more difficult to find new things to say and new ways to say them?

That’s a great question because it’s so difficult to answer. More than any other children’s writer I can think of, Dr. Seuss found his own voice, which is the first lesson one learns (they tell me) in creative writing courses. And there must be something to it: Look at Seuss’s success! But from the very first, I never wanted to find my own voice. The goal for me was, and still is, to find a hundred voices, to write so that no one can guess the author.

It does become more difficult over time to uncover new subjects that grab an editor’s attention, in large part because there are so many wonderful writers creating fabulous books. This is not to say that the subjects from which to choose are limited or exhausted. Far from it. Putting them together in truly inventive ways is an endless challenge, and in these dark times for publishing—and children’s poetry in particular!—it borders sometimes on hopelessness.

The children’s publishing industry is, indeed, in a state of flux these days; between independent publishers, self-publishers, print-on-demand, e-books, and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, it seems editors and agents are more selective than ever. How have these changes affected you and other children’s writers, and what do you foresee as the future of children’s lit?

I’m afraid I was born too soon for the digital age. Figuring out an iPhone is quantum physics to me. In short, I’m probably not the person to ask about such things. What self-publishing, print-on-demand, and e-books will mean for those of us coming late to the party? I dare not prognosticate, but if wishes counted for anything, I can only hope that the physicality of the book—sitting in a parent’s lap and turning the pages of a picture book—will never lose its allure.

Finally, knowing what you know now, and having experienced all that you have…what advice would you give your 56-year-old self, as you contemplated retiring early to become a full-time writer? Would you still give yourself that same advice if you were taking that leap in 2012? And what would you tell poets who have yet to be published?

Back then, the advice that I gave myself—and took!—was that reading is always more important than writing. So many have forsaken reading the classics at their peril.

It seems to me, and I hope that I’m wrong, that too many younger poets are compelled to get into print now. No matter how successful you are at getting your first or second book of poems accepted for publication, don’t let it go to your head. Don’t quit your day job. I didn’t quit mine for a decade after my first book was published, thinking, finally, that I could become a full-time writer.

Writing children’s poetry, though, is mostly a pauper’s trade. Not the destitution of a John Clare or a William Blake, of course, but as far as I know, money has never been the primum mobile behind the poet’s pen.

Mr. Lewis asked us to include the following essay, which provides some insight on his thoughts about poetry, its words, its sounds…and its importance:

Sound, Interrupted

Moscow, 1921: Alexander Blok, then perhaps Russia’s premier poet, is sitting inconspicuously in the back row of a poetry reading with his friend, the famed master of children’s verse Kornei Chukovsky. A contemptuous young bard on stage declaims: “Blok is already dead!” At which point, Blok leans over to Chukovsky and whispers, “That’s true. He’s telling the truth, I’m dead.”

Known for composing tightrope poetry with neither net nor bar, forever teetering between hope and despair, Blok tells Chukovsky he simply can’t write anymore. “All sounds have stopped,” he says. “Can’t you hear that there are no longer any sounds?”

He died two months later.

I mention this tragedy not to recount one more Russian poet’s inevitable rendezvous with ruin, but to reinforce Blok’s point about the importance of sound.

Rude intrusion: I spent half my life as an economics professor, tone deaf to sound, except the deathless prose of wonky, unicorn fantasies for which the discipline prides itself. How could such a thing happen?  Shocking to relate, I grew up in an atonal atmosphere. I listened to rock ‘n’ roll but only on somebody else’s nickel in jukebox diners. I collected no record albums, rarely turned on the radio. Classical music, I thought, rivaled corsets and bullwhips in a race to antiquity. Music of any kind captivated me almost as much as lawn darts. The ear can be a shamefully ignored organ.

I won’t denigrate my elementary teachers, who were genuinely concerned with my welfare, but what little poetry I was exposed to didn’t resonate. Or if it did, I wouldn’t have heard it. The finger of fault points to me. Evidently, I just wasn’t listening . . . until I got to college. There, in a poetry class disguised as a chem lab, students armed with droppers and stoppers took an entire semester to reduce the acidic “My Last Duchess” of Browning to baseness. Fra Pandolf’s hands finally reached out and slapped me awake.

My ear’s rebellion needed no more reinforcements.

Fast forward two decades: . . . and then, and then . . . just as I was crossing what might well have been the equator of my life, I met a saucy English professor who peppered her speech with thigh-slappers like carpe diem, ad nauseum, favete linguis! (shut up). And she introduced me to . . . It.  (If her ship should pass in the night again, and she runs aground on these rocky words, let me just say: “Ethyl, I am finally compos mentis.”)

By “It,” I mean she sang in two-part poetry: sound and sense. Eventually, she did. First, she had me at ‘Twas brillig . . . . Hearing her recite her favorite poems, I assumed that she had enlisted Wallace Stevens to describe herself: She sang beyond the genius of the sea. Come again? in Just-/spring when the world is mud-/luscious the little/lame balloonman/whistles far and wee— Where? Wee? It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the words meant. I’d been catapulted skyward by a zaftig, nonstop sound machine. The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold,/We cannot cage a minute/ Within its nets of gold. Pass the smelling salts, Thyllie, this was a language worthy of the seraphim. She read with such infectious brio, I could almost believe Messrs. Carroll, Stevens, cummings, and MacNiece, respectively, self-exhumed to applaud.

Ethyl lent me her Norton’s doorstop with the admonition that I begin, after several decades of disuse, putting my slacker right brain through its paces. Thus began our nightly rituals of reading desultory poems to each other, poems that could charm the chill off a tin ear. I can’t say the experience moved me to embrace the viola or the flugelhorn, though I eventually quit my day job to become a wandering minstrel of sorts. But those first poems began to strum, hum, come to me as the music I had relegated to the benighted. From there it was a short step to a long and endless journey of understanding prosody, and everything else in the poet’s handbag of techniques for producing sound: assonance, alliteration, euphony, meter, and heretofore unheard of rhyme.

Imagine how reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” ruffled a misspent youth dawdling in the social sciences: Altogether elsewhere, vast/Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss,/Silently and very fast. And what was I to do with Roethke’s I wake to sleep and take my waking slow? Or the triple-tongue-tempest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding . . . .

Equally smitten with the lions of children’s poetry—Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and lesser lights now all but forgotten—I took to piping down valleys wild with Milne’s James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree on [a] capital ship for an ocean trip … the Walloping Window Blind (Charles Carryl). Even “mere verse” like Gelett Burgess’s “The Purple Cow,” Morris Bishop’s “Song of the Pop-Bottlers,” and Eliot’s wildly inventive naming of cats served as an affront to tone-deaf economists, lips firmly pursed, who most likely were innocent of ever having been young and easy under the apple boughs. But pity not economists: They don’t know any better. Save compassion for poets like Blok who crash into a wall of silence and are denied the sounds that defined their entire lives.

I learned early that Emily Dickinson’s star shone brightest in the constellation of sound singers. (The woman levitated over Amherst, Massachusetts, a century and a half ago, and the mention of her first name alone, like that of “Abe,” brings instant recognition.) As the British poet and critic Clive James wrote: “[She] could enamel the inside of a raindrop.”

Most readers, even non-poets, might recognize the first couplet in her homage to a train: I like to see it lap the Miles—/And lick the Valleys up. Lap, lick? Of course. No other verbs could do. But to stop there without reading the full four quatrains of the poem is inexplicably to don earmuffs. I’ll wager you cannot think of a single thing to do in the next minute of your life that is as soothing to the ear as reading the entire poem. One minute. And it’s even odds that the memory of the poem, two hours from now, will linger longer than the memory of sex. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

– J. Patrick Lewis

For more information about Pat, his books, awards, and school visit schedule, check out his website here!

Congratulations to Joyce Sidman — 2013 NCTE Award Winner!

The National Council of Teachers of English Poetry Committee, gathering in Las Vegas, announced yesterday that Joyce Sidman has won the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The award was established in 1977 to honor a living American poet for his or her aggregate work for children ages 3 to 13 and is now given every other year. PACYA will feature Joyce and her meticulously crafted verse in the near future on Poetry at Play. Kudos to Joyce!

NCTE Award Winning Poet: Lee Bennett Hopkins

 Lee Bennett Hopkins
Interview by Matt Forrest Esenwine

Lee Bennett Hopkins’ name is synonymous with children’s literature. He has written and edited numerous award-winning books for children and young adults as well as professional texts and curriculum materials; he has worked with many of the best-loved children’s authors, from Dr. Seuss to Madeleine L’Engle; and has taught elementary school and served as a consultant to school systems throughout the country. In 2011, Hopkins was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children, with 113 titles to his credit; that number continues to rise.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Hopkins graduated from Kean University and Bank Street College of Education, and holds a Professional Diploma in Educational Supervision and Administration from Hunter College. In 1980 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Kean University.

Over the years, he has received numerous awards and accolades, including the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “outstanding contributions to the field of children’s literature;” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2009; and the Florida Libraries’ Lifetime Achievement Award.  He also has established two major awards:  the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, presented annually by Penn State University for a single volume of poetry, and the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Reading Association Promising Poet Award.

In addition to his anthologies, his own works include:

Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills Press), an autobiographical book of poetry that received the prestigious Christopher Medal and a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Golden Kite Honor Award

Mary’s Song (Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers), illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

City I Love (Abrams), illustrated by jazz musician Marcellus Hall

Hopkins’ forthcoming anthology, All The World’s a Stage, based on William Shakespeare’s monologue from As You Like It, will appear next year with Creative Editions, illustrated by Guy Billout.

Lee, you’re not just a poet or writer; you are an acclaimed anthologist, as well, so you probably get to see a far more diverse representation of children’s poetry than most people. What is the current state of children’s poetry, and how does it compare to that which was being written 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years ago?

True. I see, have seen, a great deal of poetry. My library houses thousands of volumes by every major American poet. Entire walls are filled with single collections as well as anthologies dating back to 1915 when Emilie Kip Baker’s THE CHILDREN’S FIRST BOOK OF POETRY (American Book Company) appeared.

Like any other genre, poetry changes as society changes.

Poetry in America is still the baby of children’s literature, less than 100 years old, beginning in the 1920s with Hilda Conkling, a 10-year old prodigy, who published POEMS BY A LITTLE GIRL (Lippincott).

And, yes, we are still hearing about the place poetry has in our society. Get this:

“We hear much nowadays about the decline of poetry. No one reads poetry anymore. Poets cannot make a living…we are living in a reflective, a scientific, a prose age.”

This gem was written by Franklin T. Baker at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1915 in the Introduction to Emilie Kip Baker’s anthology! It is interesting to note that between 1950 and 1970 poetry flourished with over 30 poets making debuts, incredible voices as Gwendolyn Brooks, Myra Cohn Livingston, Arnold Adoff, Shel Silverstein, and Eve Merriam.

A lull occurred in the 1980s with only four voices rising – Nancy Willard, Jane Yolen, Marilyn Singer, and Paul Fleischman – all of whom created a wide genre of books from picture books to young adult and adult works. In the 1990s more poets were published than in any other decade.

A horrible fact of 21st century publishing is that few anthologies are appearing. In 2011, three; 2012, five. Another concept is that publishers only want theme collections. Rarely does one see a BOOK of poetry offering one gem after another about a multitude of things. There aren’t any more collections such as Myra Cohn Livingston’s THE MALIBU AND OTHER POEMS (Atheneum, 1972) where one can read about “A Book”, turn pages to read “Father,” or empathize with “Little Dead” about burying birds, where the poet writes: “…I’ll dig a bed / warm and dark to rest your heads / and keep you singing with my words.”

If only one editor would take a chance, let a voice voice about his/her feelings, thoughts, wishes, wonders.

Today, with technology, it seems anyone can post a poem anytime they want to. It is instant-poetry-time. In previous decades, one had to “wait” for poetry, and for the most part it was worth the wait. No more. A click of Google will bring you globs of verse – some of which is very good, some awful, some of the worst verse ever seen. It is now, literally, a free-for-all. But free isn’t always the best we can give children. 

When creating a poem, a self-penned book, or an anthology, are there ideas, words, or emotions that you have to wrestle with more than others, and how big a role does marketability play?

It is not the role of any true writer to write for a market. You must write for yourself, from within. Each book, each poem, each anthology poses its own set of problems and pleasures. The last concern would be marketability. It is up to the publisher to take care of this.

Once I delve into a subject, I research it to the fullest. Perhaps the most challenging series I did was based on Americana: HAND IN HAND: AN AMERICAN HISTORY THROUGH POETRY; MY AMERICA: A POETRY ATLAS OF THE UNITED STATES; and AMERICA AT WAR (all Simon & Schuster). All three volumes are rather large, definitive topics presented in poetry to complement studies and appreciation of our great United States.

Between e-books, e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, independent publishers, self-publishers, and print-on-demand services, technology has certainly thrown the children’s publishing industry for a loop. How is the industry evolving, and do you view these changes as positives or negatives?

Kindles, Nooks, and other varied forms of today’s technology are here, will stay, hopefully evolve for the better, and others will die out as quickly as boom boxes or 50 shades of any color one might think of!

Looking at something as wondrous as Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (HarperCollins) on a tiny machine’s screen is like watching GONE WITH THE WIND on an iPhone. A book is to hold, turn a page, relish words and/or pictures, keep in one’s mind and heart forever.

Is it possible to describe the perfect poem, or define the difference between a good poem and a great one? Having read so many, what is it you look for – in your work, as well as that of others?

The difference for me between a good poem and a great one is that a good poem is simply good. But a great poem such as Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” – a mere 8 lines – or his “Poem” – 21 words – show what a master of language can produce. When I read a work and utter “oooohhh,” I know in my soul it is a great poem. I’ve always gone on the “oooohhh” factor when selecting work for a collection.

You’ve been fortunate to know a number of wonderful, iconic children’s writers, like Theodor Geisel, Maurice Sendak (who would probably argue he didn’t write for kids), and current U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, among others. What are the most important things you’ve learned from these relationships?

My earliest professional book, BOOKS ARE BY PEOPLE (Citation Press/Scholastic), was published in 1969. Over the course of my career, I have interviewed and/or met hundreds of writers and illustrators…writers are indeed people. They have lives as diverse as any other group of people. They have their successes, failures, life problems and pleasures, tragedies and triumphs. Being with, for example, Madeleine L’Engle or Lloyd Alexander, Ezra Jack Keats or Maurice Sendak, was no different than talking to a family member. They were people first, they became illustrious, but at the heart of it all they were real souls. And how I miss them. They not only gave love to their readers, they gave love to and for one another.

You have won numerous awards, like the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award; however, a rather unusual honor you received, of which many readers may not be aware, is recognition by Guinness World Records as the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children. With more than 113 titles and more on the way, what have you learned about poetry, publishing, and people?

It was an astonishing moment in my life when I learned I was to be included in Guinness World Records. It was sparked by Sylvia Vardell at Texas Women’s University; Elizabeth Enochs, an elementary school librarian in Ft. Worth, Texas; and her then 13-year old son, Jeff. Thirteen seems to be a lucky number for me. At the time, the number of anthologies was 113, Jeff was 13, I lived a good part of my childhood at 113 Seth Boyden Terrace in Newark, New Jersey, and I was born on April 13th!

I have learned a great deal about poetry, too much about publishing, and I have gained a sincere appreciation of people who read and share poetry.

You’ve been receiving very positive reviews for your most recent book, Mary’s Song, which is a story about Jesus’ mother – told from her perspective  yet it’s not really about Christmas. You’ve even stated that you initially didn’t realize you were writing it in her voice! How did the concept develop for this book, and why did you choose to write it in poetic prose, rather than traditional free verse?

I always wanted to write about Mary as a tribute to Motherhood. I don’t truly recall writing the book. It seemingly just came, flowed. I knew deep inside it had to be about her being with her baby alone without all the fuss, hubbub we usually read about the birth of Jesus.  What mother doesn’t want to hold her child, hum to her son, bond with him/her without a host of people around? I wanted the one word – QUIET – emphasized. Stephen Alcorn created a work of splendor in the double-page spread with simply the one word.

Over the years, you’ve worked with countless authors, poets, and illustrators…written or anthologized more than one hundred books…given who-knows-how-many speeches, interviews, and classes…does anything surprise Lee Bennett Hopkins these days?

The things that surprise me could fill volumes. As for this moment, I’m still here and hope to offer some new surprises in the future!

And for aspiring writers and poets who may or may not yet be published – what advice would you offer?

If you want to write poetry, READ poetry. You must learn what is out there and learn from it. You might begin reading works by winners of the NCTE Poetry Award. Practice, practice, practice. Do not accept first, third, or even fifth drafts. Look at every single word, even each syllable. Writing is REWRITING. Learn your craft as you would if you wanted to be a baseball player, an artist, or chef. And don’t give up. We all started someplace, sometime. If the world needs anything more right now, it needs another Hughes or Livingston, a McCord or Sandburg. It might be you.

For more information about Lee, his books, awards, and journal, check out his website here!


Interview by Robyn Hood Black


New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2006. Her many books are trailed by awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award (and several  honor books), ALA Notable Book awards, the Notable Social Studies Trade Book, American Bookseller Pick of the List, NCTE Notable, CCBC Choices and Junior Literary Guild Selection designations, NAACP Image Award finalists, and several state lists, among others (Whew!).

She writes picture books (think Danitra Brown and Barack Obama, Son of Promise, Child of Hope), chapter books (the Dyamonde Daniel series), middle grade (The Road to Paris, Planet Middle School), young adult (Jazmin’s Notebook, Bronx Masquerade, A Girl Named Mister), and books for adults. Her poetry has been widely anthologized.

Born in Harlem and raised in and around New York City, Grimes has drawn on her early life experience for much of her work, experience which came with hefty doses of struggle and sorrow. And yet, there is a hopeful thread throughout her work, her life. Her books squarely face harsh realities and conflicts among people of different backgrounds. But she doesn’t leave it there. Little bridges are constructed throughout her works, between characters who must stretch themselves to appreciate and often learn to enjoy the differences found in others.

A Rutgers graduate, world traveler, and self-described “Jane of All Trades,” Nikki Grimes has sung, danced, and spoken to audiences in Tanzania, China, Russia, and Sweden—where she learned to knit and also hosted a radio show for immigrants! She now lives and writes in California. Her photographs have been exhibited stateside and abroad, and she makes jewelry, creates sculptural peyote beading, and turns recycled paper treasures into handmade cards. And, she writes poetry. Lots of poetry.

Let’s get to know our guest of honor, Nikki Grimes.

Nikki Grimes, age 7 or 8, in Harlem

What did poetry mean to you as a child—as a reader/listener and as a young writer?

I don’t actually remember reading poetry as a child, but I do remember my love of word-play. I was fascinated with language, with the idea that one word could mean several different things, and that fascination drew me to word puzzles, jumbles, and games. I even made up my own word games.  I’d flip through the dictionary, eyes closed, and stab a word on whatever page I settled on, then I’d look down. I’d take the word closest to my finger and do a word-study, creating a list of words using the same letters, and then using one word in several different sentences. Eventually all that word-play turned into poetry.

How did you come to choose poetry to tell the stories in your novels?

First, not all of my novels are in verse. That aside, storytelling through poetry was, for me, a happy accident. As far back as I can remember, I’ve written narrative poetry. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of painting a picture, or telling a story in as few words as possible. But I’d never intended to tell larger stories in poetry. That practice came as the result of a failed attempt to write a particular story of friendship in straight prose. The story in question of Meet Danitra Brown.

I’d sketched out my characters, and I’d outlined the stories I wanted to tell about them, and roughed out a first draft. The writing was stiff, though, and I couldn’t seem to figure out how to make it flow. I was stuck. Frustrated, I took a highlighter and went through the manuscript marking all the passages that were working. When I read just those passages, I realized they were poems. Well, I thought, if this story wants to be written in poetry, so be it. That I can do! I’ve been telling stories through poetry ever since.

A textile artist yourself, you’ve mentioned observing a friend spin and weave to research Aneesa Lee & the Weaver’s Gift (Lothrop) and how difficult and intricate that art is. Yet —threads—all contributing to a cohesive whole. Bronx Masquerade (Dial), featuring 18 student characters and poems and prose passages in each voice, is a true feat. With the 10th anniversary edition just released, it continues to touch countless young people. Its scope you must have wrestled with as you created it; how have you reacted to its reach?

I’ve been astonished by the impact of Bronx Masquerade. Yes, it was an enormously challenging book to create, but with every fan letter I receive—from teachers, librarians, parents, and young readers—I’m so glad I took the risk and went on that long journey. To know that students across the country are experiencing open mike poetry readings in their schools and classrooms, and that they are creating their own versions of Bronx Masquerade, is beyond gratifying. I could not have imagined it.

Here is a poem from the book, in the voice of Lupe Algarin (posted with permission).

By Lupe Algarin

I walk by a mirror,
catch my eye,
wonder at the universe
behind it.
Past the flashing eyes
is a file
for yesterday’s sunset
dripping mango light,
for Papi’s laughter
tinkling in my
five-year-old ears
so many years gone by,
for tears
shed below a crucifix
on my wall.
I sort it all out,
store it under
“been there, done that”
and open a clean drawer
labeled Mañana,
a place to store adventures
I’m still learning
to imagine.

©Nikki Grimes. All rights reserved.

Your work has been illustrated by some of the finest artists in the field of children’s literature (Ashley Bryan, Ed Young, E. B. Lewis, Floyd Cooper, Bryan Collier, Pat Cummings, Tom Feelings, to name a few). How does your own eye as a creative artist affect your writing of poetry?

I think of poetry in two aspects: one is to tell a story, and the other is to paint with words. The two aspects work together, and complement one another. I’m always looking to paint a picture with words, knowing that another creative person—in this case, a visual artist—will take a cue from my words, and use them to spin his or her own magic through illustration.

Your books have been widely published by mainstream houses—and also for the Christian market. Your characters struggle with faith sometimes. Does your willingness to tackle these topics open the door for readers to think about their own beliefs?

I think so. Children are spiritual creatures, too. I think of them as being closer to the source. They were in God’s presence a lot more recently than we grownups were. They have questions and doubts and opinions about faith. I would hope the natural, organic way I handle the subject opens the door for their own exploration.

How does your own strong faith inform your poetry?

My faith informs everything I do, including my writing. Christianity is the grid through which I view, and comment on, the world. It can’t help but inform my poetry.

I’ve read that you typically write for six days a week when you are not travelling, and that your favorite time to write is in the morning. How is your process different, say, for creating poetry for an anthology versus working on a verse novel or a picture book?

If it’s a single poem, I focus on the theme, sketch out my thoughts on the subject, and determine the poem’s point of view. I draft, in paragraph form, the threads of the poem, then begin to shape a poem from those threads.

A picture book requires something different. I break it down in terms of spreads. I’ll make a list of numbers from, say, 1 to 16.  Next to each number 1, I write “Introduction.” Next to number 16, I write “Closing.” I know the entire story has to fit between those two points. I think through my story, sketch it out in paragraph form, then pull points from the story to fill in numbers 2 to 15. Once the list is complete, I begin the work of developing each point into a poem.

Novels-in-verse are, as you might imagine, the most complex. With a novel, I have to think about story arc, character development, time transitions, and all the other aspects of novel writing. Even when you add poetry into the mix, you still have to remember, first and foremost, your job is to tell a story. And so, I develop what I call a scenario or simple outline, for every poem. This helps me to keep track of the threads and helps me make sure I’m incorporating all the information critical to the story. In the first draft, I focus on creating a through-line from beginning to end. In later drafts, I begin to layer in poem after poem, to build the story, and paint the setting.

I like to think of my work as a jigsaw puzzle. I concentrate on creating the pieces, then worry about how they all fit together later. I’m free, for example, to work out of sequence, tackling the poems/topics that strike me the most, at any given point. Approaching a complex work this way keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by the task.

You’ve said you write the kinds of books that weren’t available to you as a child, that reflected your experience. Do today’s books for children present enough cultural diversity?

I’m happy to see a greater degree of diversity in children’s literature, today, but there’s still an imbalance. (I have Filipina-American friends who long for books featuring children from their own group, for example.) What disturbs me more, though, is the marginalizing of those culturally diverse books that do make it into publication. Sigh. But, that’s a rant for another day!

Do you think we’re doing enough to reach young people with poetry today, and what else might you like to see on that horizon?

We’re doing a far better job of introducing children to poetry today than we did in years past. However, I would like to see poetry incorporated more throughout the curriculum. The marketplace includes collections of poetry on, it seems, every conceivable topic: sports, science, math, history, nature, art—the field is a rich one. Why not use these titles throughout the curriculum, where appropriate? A book of poetry about a historical period, or person, would definitely have caught my attention in history class!

Your body of work casts a long shadow, and yet you are always taking on new challenges. Any creative projects on tap that you’d like to give a hint about? (New books? Award-winning paintings, perhaps?)

I’m a sucker for a new challenge. It keeps me excited and, more importantly, it keeps me growing as an artist. I’m delving more and more into mixed-media art, combining pencil, watercolor, paper, and acrylic. Such fun! And I’m juggling three literary works-in-progress: Poems in the Attic, a picture book for Lee & Low; Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse for the chapter book set, for Wordsong, and a YA novel for Penguin. No rest for this poet!

That all sounds wonderful.  Many thanks for participating in this interview!

Nikki Grimes maintains a varied and lively website with great resources for students, teachers, and writers— Her new blog, Backstory, offers delicious peeks into how her much-loved books came to be. Warning: Of course you’ll want to read every featured title, if you haven’t already, and then some.

Two notes — one sad, the other happy

We say goodbye to another of the 20th century’s greatest children’s book authors, Else Holmelund Minarik–writer of (among other books) the Little Bear series, with pictures by Maurice Sendak–who died on Thursday at age 91. Her poetic prose is much imitated but rarely if ever outmatched. Lee Bennett Hopkins, who knew Else, has a nice tribute post on his journal today.


And on a lighter note, from PACYA member Carol-Ann Hoyte in Montreal, Canada, who recently returned from a visit to the UK:

So you think you can write poetry? 

Under the direction of the UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University is launching the third edition of the Manchester Poetry Prize — a major international literary competition celebrating excellence in creative writing. 

A cash prize of 10,000 British pounds will be awarded to the writer of the best poems submitted.

This international competition is open to emerging and established writers aged 16 and up.

All entrants are asked to submit a portfolio of three to five poems (total maximum length: 120 lines). The poems can be on any subject, and written in any style or form, but must be new work, not previously published, or submitted for consideration elsewhere during this competition.

The submission deadline: August 31, 2012

Visit for more details and to enter online or to download a printable entry form.

SHAPING A BONSAI: An Interview with Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books

No matter the state of the market for children’s books, it’s always exciting to find a publisher—and an editor—with a growing list of children’s poetry titles. And it’s especially exciting to find an editor who champions some of the top talent around—from masters such as J. Patrick Lewis and Marilyn Singer to gifted newcomers such as Kate Coombs. In this brief but expansive interview, I talk with Melissa Manlove, an editor for San Francisco-based Chronicle Books, about the joys and challenges of editing poetry books for young people. 

Steven Withrow

Melissa at her desk

Please sketch out for me your career thus far in publishing. How long have you been with Chronicle, and which poetry titles have you edited?

My major in college was Classics (ancient Greek and Roman civilization, Latin emphasis). Mythology and folklore fascinate me. I also took courses in Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer…Russian, Sumerian myth, Hindu religion, and poetry…it was great fun. It wasn’t the background most people think of for editing, though.

While I was in college, I got a job at a children’s bookstore—The Storyteller—and loved bookselling so much that I stayed on there for several years. But after a while I started thinking I should probably look for a job that had a health plan and would allow me to save for retirement…and it was then that I ran into an editor from Chronicle Books. She told me about the internships at Chronicle. I applied and was accepted and six months later hired as editorial assistant. That was eight years ago.

In poetry, I’ve edited Chicken Scratches, His Shoes Were Far Too Tight, Water Sings Blue, the upcoming A Strange Place to Call Home and When Thunder Comes, and a couple more exciting things that you’ll have to wait a year or two for.

Is poetry a longtime interest of yours? Did you have favorite children’s poets growing up?

I grew up on poetry. My mother still has some of the poems I made up at two years old, and the first book I took from her hands to start reading all by myself was Piping Down the Valleys Wild. My father would take my sister and me camping when we were kids, and we’d read Shakespeare around the campfire. I realize this is not a normal childhood.

Do you see poetry as an especially tough sell, or is there still a dedicated and possibly untapped market for children’s poetry?

I still work a couple hours a week at the children’s bookstore—Saturday mornings my mom and I do puppet shows there—and I’ve now been a bookseller for 14 years. From that experience I do think that poetry is a tough sell. I steer customers to the poetry section every time I think they might be persuaded, and chat with them about the cognitive benefits of sharing poetry with children. But many of them still turn away. It’s a tragedy, but in our educational system the majority of people are shoved from the playful accentual poetry of childhood—Mother Goose, limericks, etc., straight into highly formal poetic forms. You’re in junior high now! It’s time for Elizabethan sonnets! It’s like taking a kindergartner’s Legos away and giving him an encyclopedia to play with. Who wouldn’t resent that? There’s no question there’s plenty of fun to be had with an encyclopedia or a sonnet, but there are a lot of other toys in the spectrum of English poetry.

How have you discovered the poets whom you’ve edited? Do their manuscripts come over the transom or from agents?

It varies widely. I don’t think we’ve pulled a poetry collection out of the slush pile (for clarity, I mean the kinds of books that will be shelved in the poetry section, not picture books in verse, like Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site) but otherwise, we get them from agents, mostly.  Once a poet is well established, they may query an editor directly. And one was shown to me by the author’s friend, who was an established writer.

Have you been scouting for new or established talent, and what are some of the qualities you’re looking or listening for in a poetry manuscript?

No, I haven’t been scouting. One of Chronicle’s great strengths is that our list is not a large one—we focus hard on making each book shine—but the flip side of that is that there are very few slots for poetry on our list. They fill up quickly. I’m looking for an acute awareness of language and its music, but beyond that what really makes a poetry collection stand out is fresh ideas and phrasing—surprising ways of looking at things. As in the Joan Bransfield Graham poem, the best poetry really does feel like a kick in the head—it changes the way you think as well as the way you feel.
Could you walk me through the main steps of your work on Water Sings Blue? How much back-and-forth and how many stages of revision did you and Kate Coombs go through?
Kate had sent us a book of poems ahead of this one that nearly got published. When that fell through, I encouraged her to keep sending me things—and this is what she sent me, bless her! Like most poets, she sent me many more poems than would fit into a picture book, and then we discussed which ones were our favorites. Independently, we both decided we wanted the book’s movement to start and end on the shore, and move from shallower to deeper water, to shallower again. That’s why you’ll find “Blue Whale” and “Shipwreck” in the exact center. We also talked about which poem would make the best introduction, which the best goodbye, which poems could share a spread, and where to alternate between the more evocative and the lighter-hearted poems. Some poems Kate wrote new for the collection during the editing process, some were lightly edited, some had only a single word changed, and some appear in the book exactly as she submitted them originally. We emailed back and forth quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s possible to count stages of revision.

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When was the illustrator, Meilo So, brought in to the project?

I knew at acquisition which artist I wanted for Water Sings Blue. That’s uncommon; usually we come up with a short list of artists, any of which I would be thrilled to have on board. But for this evocative set of ocean poems, Meilo was my list.

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Was editing a poetry collection for children like Kate’s significantly different from editing another type of children’s book, since even the smallest changes in a poem can have huge consequences?

I agree. In some ways editing a poem is like shaping a bonsai, where editing a novel is like landscaping a park. In many cases, if a poem needs more than very slight editing, it will simply have to be rewritten. In editing any book you think about some of the same basics (structure, theme, tone, audience, etc.), but in some ways every book is unique, and the editing process bends differently to fit each one. That’s part of the delight of my job!

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Are there particular challenges for an editor of poetry?

I can’t think of any that are really specific to poetry. In all picture books, there is the challenge of having to guess what the artist will do with the art, and what effect that will have on the text. Of course, we sometimes change a text just a bit in galleys, once we see it paired with sketches, because no matter what we’ve imagined during editing, the art always surprises you—usually in the best possible ways! But author and editor have to try to envision how the text and art will work together—before the artist gets started on the book—so as not to create accidental problems for the artist.