I am thankful poet Robert L. Forbes dropped by Watch. Connect. Read. to finish my sentences. We discussed poetry, reading, writing, and picture books. I wrote the words in red, and Robert wrote the words in black. Thank you, Mr. Forbes!
BEAST FRIENDS FOREVER! Animal Lovers in Rhyme is my third book of poetry, published by Overlook Press. This volume is filled with my romantic poems, and came out on February 14 of this year. And you know what that day is about. Anyway, BFF (as we call it) is more suitable for grades 6 and up, when the boy-girl thing starts blossoming, while my first two books, BEASTLY FEASTS! and LET’S HAVE A BITE! are for all ages. All three grownup-friendly too.
Ronald Searle’s illustrations are magical and whimsical and ever delightful. How lucky was I to be able to work for many years with this master! Having written a passel of poems I then thought, Who would I like to have illustrate them? (Publishers normally find illustrators for writers but I like to do it my way.) I’d known Searle’s work all my life, so why not go for the top? Just ask him! To my amazement he said yes, and off we went. I would send him 4-6 poems with a line or two about each, and in a few months a tidy package would arrive from his home in France. He never sent sketches, just finished art, so I was like a little boy opening up an achingly awaited Christmas present – there inside were my now gloriously real critters, sprung from my imagination and come to sparkling life via his.
Each drawing still gives me joy. He died two years ago, at 91, and I miss not only his interpretations of my words but his spritely spirit and generous array of skills. Right up to the end he was rendering my critters, and never once was there any flagging of his brilliance.
The key word in the whole process, I tell the kids at readings, is IMAGINATION, and that they have one as good as mine or anybody else. They need to look inside it, stir it up and see what happens. I love to see that little shock of recognition on their faces when they hear this!
One of my favorite poems? I am often asked which is my favorite, and I reply that they are ALL my children and I love them ALL equally. But perhaps a few, I admit, I love MORE equally than others, such as The Ginger Tub Tabby, A Busy Day for Goslings, or Babette’s Scent.
Poetry is a great venue for play, for soul digging, for making love, for reveling in the English language. Word selection defines a writer, but poetry is a distillation, a reduction, an essence of the writer’s thought and feeling.
My poems are rhymed and metered, which are tough parameters, but that is a challenge I relish; to students I explain that there are many forms of poetry and that they will find their own way in this most lovely medium.
At the same time, some great prose is so good it reads like poetry, such as Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, or the recent magnificent The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.
By the way, it took me a long time to find a publisher because I was told there were already plenty of children’s books and because kids don’t like it, even less need for children’s poetry. Hmmm. That is SO not true, I am happy to report – poetry and kids are a great mix because poetry can be just plain old fun!
Reading is your passport to the wonder of life, the world, humanity; literacy is a stepping stone to freedom, to individualism and tolerance. There is no substitute for the illuminating beacon of reading. (It also allows you to avoid grabbing the wrong pill bottle. Glasses help there too.)
Picture books are the pot of gold at a creative rainbow’s end, shimmering with imagination (there it is again), graphic cleverness and good storytelling, all enticing the beholder back, over and over.
Mr. Schu, you should have asked me, What is Number 1 of your Writing Rules of the Road? It is, Write, write, write. If this is your chosen path, there is no other way to become a writer. Fred Astaire was asked how to become a great dancer, and he said, Practice, practice, practice and more practice. So here’s an exercise: think about your word choices when you next text or email, and find ones that aren’t dull, banal, flabby, but that are more reflective of who you are, that have a bit of kick and pizzazz. Keep practicing this. Next thing you know, why, you’re on your way to being a writer!