Friday, August 31, 2007
Anne Compton is a Canadian poet who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, New Brunswick. I bought a signed copy of this book, and of her second book, Processional, when I was in Saint John on my cruise vacation, and I recently got in touch with her to seek her permission to include some of her poems here, and to see if she’d agree to an interview – which, I am pleased to say, will be coming soon!
About Opening the Island
The "Island" in the title is Prince Edward Island, an island province in eastern Canada, where Anne Compton grew up. The book is organized in five sections, entitled At the Bridge the Body Rises: poems about PEI, including some that seem to be about her childhood there; Women Writing Men: an imagining of correspondence from women throughout history (real and fictional) to men, including titles such as "Hester Prynne’s Letter to Surveyor Pue" and "Rheumatic Fever: any nineteeth-century poet to her mentor"; Inherit the Light, a grouping of poems that have to do with light, including a number of ekphrastic poems apparently based on or inspired by famous paintings; Body my house/my horse my hound/what will I do/when you are fallen: the title of this section is a quote from May Swenson, and the poems within it are sometimes about the body, and sometimes about something else as metaphor for the body (or vice-versa); and finally is the last part, Closing the Island: these poems are autumnal, they talk of closing houses, leaving the island, moving on from the past.
The first selection today is from Women Writing Men, and is called "Do Not Write Any More." I feel the need to add that after I read this one, I feel the need to sit and think for a few minutes, so by all means, feel free to do the same before moving on.
Do Not Write Any More
by Anne Compton
love forgone lives on
a lit lamp in a cupboard, bolted
yet in that room where the cupboard is
light leaks out
&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp though no one says
&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp they see
over there years away by water or whatever
the everyday things you’re doing
have my notice, my part
passed into flame
The next selection I have for you is from Body my house . . . , and is entitled "The Womb Lies Beneath the Heart." This one makes me think of my college boyfriend, and all those unanswerable "what ifs". I think it’s the solo line in the middle that’s particularly devastating, in the best possible sense of the word.
The Womb Lies Beneath the Heart
by Anne Compton
There was a child &emsp too beautiful to bear
I could not call her down &emsp be her way into the world.
Dear friend, do you ever think of that child
and the tall likeness of your ways she’d be to-day?
Can we give names to the unconceived?
I do not ask now about you and me, and the way
it went. But with the lilacs blooming by the porch
a stone turned and I heard a heart beat.
I thought of us in her, and her in me.
Usually, I do not hear a sound.
Speech is slow and small after such silence.
Anne Compton’s book, Opening the Island is available online from U.S. and Canadian booksellers. And do stop back in the next few weeks – I will be interviewing Anne and discussing more of her work soon.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Today, I want to talk about a book that came out last fall. It’s a novel by Susan Taylor Brown called Hugging the Rock. This book is on the ALA and ALSC Notable Books of 2007 list, but it really didn't make the "splash" that it should have in the kidlit world.
But Kelly, you ask, weren’t all your other Under the Radar picks books of poetry? Yes. And so is this one. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is a novel in verse. Free verse, that is. Each poem is a scene. Sometimes it describes the actions of the characters, but always it conveys the emotional truth of the MC/narrator, Rachel, even when what Rachel says isn't true.
The first scene/poem in the book sets up the major issue for our character – and for the novel as a whole -- when Rachel's mother leaves. We learn a lot more about Rachel's mother and her particular issues as the book goes on. We learn more about Rachel's father, too, and of course we learn about Rachel. There are magnificent mega-issues here, too, like what is family? and how can we forgive those who hurt us? and we can live through awful grief and not only survive, but thrive. Small wonder that Lee Bennett Hopkins gave the book such a lovely blurb for the back cover.
And Susan does it all with magnificent poems. Here is the first stanza in the book, which I share with you. Not the first poem, the first stanza:
When my mom decides to run away from home
she packs up her car
with all the things that matter most
The genius of this line is the surprising force and punch of those last two words. And as a reader, you already know that the MC is not getting invited into that car. You know what the problem facing the main character is, as your mind races ahead. How old is this child? Will she recover? How will she recover? And you automatically wonder, "what kind of mother can willingly leave her child?" Also, in just four lines, without knowing anything more, you’ve already chosen to side with the MC, because there is no way you can’t feel sorry for a child whose mother leaves. And you certainly can’t feel sympathy for this sort of mother. Not yet. Not until later, and even then, anger usually outweighs the modicum of sympathy there.
A second stanza much, much later in the book (p. 132, to be exact, but please don't skip to this poem/chapter if you haven't read the book yet) does the same thing. It begins:
settles in my heart
like one of those giant rocks you tie to something
when you want it to sink
The use of the rock imagery here not as a source of stability but as a tool of destruction brings new levels of meaning to the book, in part based on its title, and in part based on other connotations to the word "rock" used within the story. For example, Rachel’s mother calls her dad a rock, presumably meaning a steady, stable, stand-up sort of guy. But this poem makes everything warp. Maybe the Rock in the title isn’t Dad. Maybe it’s something else: maybe its an embracing of the truth; maybe it’s acceptance.
Much later, in the midst of a chapter/poem entitled The Worst Thing, Rachel and her dad are in a car, discussing some very serious matters, like the whys and wherefores of her mother's behavior. Rachel is nonverbal here, and shrugs. Dad presses on, and Rachel writes "I shrug louder." Talk about your imagery. It's genius.
Finally, the shortest poem in the book is the chapter/poem entitled Mother's Day, and I can tell you this for true: it very nearly killed me, in a readerly sort of way. Because of its brevity, the page spoke volumes. In saying little, it says so much, and it says it loudly. And what it relates is eloquent and poignant and true. But you may not skip to that page to see what I’m talking about. You must begin at the start and read all the way to there, or you will not understand what it is that I am telling you.
Because it is a novel in verse, it can be read quickly; in fact, that’s one of the touted benefits of books in free verse. But I must warn you that in its speed, it will hit you like a fist you didn’t see coming. And even though you may reach the end of the book more quickly than you might reach the end of a book in prose with the same number of pages, you will still feel the blow long after you put it down.
Hugging the Rock will not take you long to read, but it may take you forever to forget.
If you’re interested in learning more about how this book came to be, check out Susan’s interviews with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Little Willow.
And in related news, Hugging the Rock will be available in paperback in the Spring of 2008. No release date available yet.
Here's a list of the other book selections today:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy continues to talk about Ellen Emerson White. Today’s books? Friends for Life and Life Without Friends.
Over at Shaken & Stirred, Ms. Bond talks about The Changeover and Catalogue of the Universe, both by Margaret Mahy
Kelly Herrold at Big A, little a has an interview with Helen Dunmore, author of the Ingo series.
Jen Robinson's Book Page discusses another Zilpha Keatley Snyder title, The Treasures of Weatherby.
Little Willow at Bildungsroman talks about Swollen by Melissa Lion.
Finding Wonderland talks about Lucy the Giant by Sherry L. Smith.
Miss Erin discusses Erec Rex: The Dragon's Eye and interviews the author Kaza Kingsley.
7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast features Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker.
Betsy at Fuse #8 talks about The Noisy Counting Book by Susan Schade.
Colleen at Chasing Ray Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary by Pamela Dean.
lectitans wonders Who Pppplugged Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Gregory Christie, is a rare sort of poetry picture book, because it is essentially a picture book novel in verse, if such a thing existed. That is, each two-page spread contains a "chapter" in the story told by Ovella, a poor third grader in a poor community who dreamed of having a new school. Each chapter is a poem in free verse, accompanied by an illustration.
The book is a work of fiction, but the story it tells is true. The illustrations and some of the text convey the truth of the life and experience of African Americans living in the south at the turn of the twentieth century, not long after the Civil War (a period sometimes known as the Jim Crow era). Instead of being given forty acres and a mule (as promised), they were kept impoverished – and in some cases, practically still enslaved – through the practice of share-cropping. The poems also depict the truth about the early schools being in shacks and sheds and churches, without rudimentary supplies such as books and paper for the children who attended.
The first poem in the book is entitled 1921: One-Room School. Following are excerpts from the longer poem:
My teacher, Miss Mays, said,
You can’t judge a school
by the building. When the roof leaks,
she calls us vessels of learning.
When the floor creaks, she says
knowledge is a solid foundation.
Wind whistles through walls,
blowing the sheet that splits the church
into two classrooms. . . .
My school is not much to speak of,
but Mama says I’m lucky
even if class don’t meet during harvest.
Down here, she said, some black children
go to school in shacks, corncribs,
or not at all. Don’t know what I’d do,
if I couldn’t go to school.
The poems also depict the hope that education brings to the poor, and the pride that working people feel in building something that is their own. Also in the poems is a piece of the story of Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave who believed that literacy and education for African Americans was their ticket out of poverty. The title figure in the book – a man never actually seen by Ovella, but central to her story – is the remarkable Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., and a trustee on the board of Tuskegee Institute, a black college founded by Mr. Washington. Mr. Rosenwald, who heard what Mr. Washington had to say, put his own money up to help others find their way to a better life. He donated millions of dollars to the schools named after him, and was partially responsible for the building of more than 5,000 schools for blacks. I say "partially" because he insisted that the community fund half of the project, including money from both blacks and whites. At the end of Dear Mr. Rosenwald, Ovella writes a heartfelt letter of thanks to the man who helped make her new school possible. In real life, Mr. Rosenfeld received many letters similar to the one Ms. Weatherford crafted.
Here is an excerpt from the final poem, entitled Dear Mr. Rosenwald, which makes me cry every single time I read it. And I’ve read it more than a handful of times. This image comes from the back of the book:
Carole Boston Weatherford wrote this book in part based on her personal connection to the sort of story Ovella tells. According to her website, her father attended a one-room school in Maryland, and her mother went to a Rosenwald school in North Carolina. Both grew up to become teachers, helping other black children find their way to literacy and, in many cases, higher education.
This book garnered a number of starred reviews, including School Library Journal, Kirkus and Book Sense. It also won a Golden Kite honor from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for picture book text. It nevertheless qualifies as an Under the Radar book for the simple reason that too many people haven’t heard about it. In many stores, it was shelved with the poetry books, and that small segment doesn’t get heavily shopped. In others, it was stuffed into a large wall of picture books. It wasn’t featured during African American History Month. And though it contains truth in large measure, it is historical fiction, and is therefore not kept with the books on African American history, Jim Crow, reconstruction, segregation in education or anywhere else where people interested in those subjects might find it.
Dear Mr. Rosenwald is historical fiction, written in poems that are beautiful and moving and true (in the best possible way). I hope you'll all get to read it. And for those of you working in the public schools, see if you can get your hands on this one for Black History Month. Because although Julius Rosenwald wasn't black, the story in this book isn't about him – it's about how poor sharecroppers came together to make a better life for their kids.
If you are interested in reading more about the Rosenwald Schools, you can learn more at The Rosenwald Schools Initiative, an organization interested in the preservation of the Rosenwald Schools that are still standing in some places, and at this North Carolina site, which includes plans for Rosenwald schools and information on their locations.
To learn more about Julius Rosenwald, you might try the Sears archives, or you can seek out the biography by Peter Max Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South.
For an introduction to sharecropping, you might want to look at the text of a sharecropping agreement, posted at PBS.org, and/or check out the program, American Experience: Reconstruction – The Second Civil War.
Here are the other book selections on the Under the Radar tour today:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy talks about The President's Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White
Kelly Herrold at Big A, little a discusses The Tide Knot by Helen Dunmore
Jen Robinson talks about the Zilpha Keatley Snyder Green Sky trilogy.
Little Willow over at Bildungsroman speaks of Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn, in part one of a three-blog discussion.
The indefatigable Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray has the second part of the discussion about Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn
And all this talk of Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn concludes at lectitans
Finding Wonderland dishes about The House on Hound Hill by Maggie Prince.
Miss Erin is all about Constance Savery’s books, The Reb & Redcoats and Enemy Brothers.
Leila at Bookshelves of Doom chats about Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher.
Jackie at Interactive Reader Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
Susan from Chicken Spaghetti has a guest blogger for the day: Pooja Makhijani guest blogs with Romina's Rangoli by Malathi Michelle Iyengar
Finally, Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred talks about the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Things to love about JAZZ A•B•Z• by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers, with biographical sketches by Phil Schaap:
1. The overall book design. Candlewick Press excels at this sort of thing, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but let me give special kudos to book designer Jill von Hartmann on this one. You’ve seen the cover, of course (that’s Wynton on the cover, by the way – I can’t find something that says so definitively, but it sure looks like him, and it’s definitely not someone from inside the book).
When you flip it open, you’ll find end papers made of brown craft paper. Cut to look like the liner sleeve inside the record jacket of an actual vinyl 78 rpm record album. Followed by the title page, which puts all the information about in the center of a jet-black disk that’s nearly 10" in diameter (hence my decision to call it a 78, rather than a 33).
But wait – there’s more. The back cover of the book lists all 26 of the jazz artists who are the subject of the book, in alphabetical order by the letter of their name that they are associated with (more on that in a minute), followed by a single word that starts with the same letter. (E.g., "Louis Armstrong • almighty"). Inside the book, the artists are in the same order, but the table of contents is a teacher’s delight. Because the table of contents runs A through Z, followed by biographical sketches and notes on the poetic forms.
But wait – there’s still more: next to each letter of the alphabet is the name of the jazz musician associated with it, and next to that, the form of poem. Here’s a quick approximation for you:
A &emsp &emsp Louis Armstrong – Accumulative Poem
B &emsp &emsp Count Basie – Blues Poem
C &emsp &emsp John Coltrane – List Poem
D &emsp &emsp Miles Davis – Word Play
See what I mean about usefulness to teachers (or, for that matter, to students of poetry)?
2. The notes from Paul Rogers and Wynton Marsalis. Right after the table of contents is a two-page spread, each page containing a note from the illustrator and author. The illustrator comes first in this one, perhaps because the illustrations themselves came first in this particular project. Rogers explains how he got the idea for the paintings, and Marsalis explains how he got the ideas for the poems. And he makes clear that he’s a huge Yeats fan, something that’s not truly evident as an influence in his own work, but which shows that he’s a thinking man with an ear for language, nevertheless.
3. The spreads. Each poem is at least a two-page spread. The first one is A for Louis Armstrong. Wanna see it? Of course you do – et voilà!
What you’re seeing: Rogers’s artwork on the right, using bold, poster-like construction. Marsalis’s poem on the less, using alliteration like a mad fiend while constructing an accumulative poem that totally nails the idea of Louis Armstrong. I love the last line in particular: "Anybody asks, tell them Armstrong almighty is aglow amidst the angels above."
There are two four-page spreads inside the book. In each case, a fold-out is employed. The first is for the letter I, for "Abdullah Ibn Buhaina" (a.k.a. Art Blakey). On the right, the wonderful poster-like illustration by Rogers. On the left, a three-page fold out. This poem is listed as a Performance Poem, and man, is that correct. In order to perform it, one must establish a four-four beat, snapping on every even beat. And then, one vocalizes percussion noises – the "ting tinky ting" of cymbals. The "ch" of the snare. The "boom!" of the bass drum. A whole page composed of 14 measures of verbalized percussion noises. Okay – there are thirteen measures spelled out, but theres a blank space for one full measure of rest. And then, on the page turn, the poet speaks in the voice of Buhaina, interspersed with percussive iterations and snaps. It is freakin’ genius, and SO much fun to do aloud (as long as you’re willing to commit – I am, of course, willing to go the distance with this poem, but this is not a poem for the shy).
The second four-page spread is for Sidney Bechet. Again, the right hand page is the portrait of Sidney Bechet playing his soprano saxophone. And if you think that last sentence sounded sybillant, well – you should read the poem. It’s a long, screechy hiss of a poem, again on a three-page fold-out. Folks with a lisp should avoid this one. Theriously.
4. The poems. The poems are jazz, rendered into words. Walter Dean Myers wrote about jazz music in his wonderful book, JAZZ, illustrated by Christopher Dean Myers. (At the LA SCBWI conference, Walter Dean Myers said he felt he had to use that particular illustrator because he’d "slept with the kid’s mother." But I digress.) His poems had a jazz vibe to them, but were primarily poems. Marsalis has written jazz itself. Not poems about jazz – jazz, in words, on the page. These poems cry out to be read aloud, and with swagger.
Here’s an excerpt from the end of "X – Bix Beiderbecke" (a ballad):
He exalts in lyric sweetness,
Excites on zesty jumps,
Exhibits exclusive features,
Exudes that umpty-umph!
He travels on extensively,
Exports the jazz solo.
His records are exemplary,
But whiskey lays him low.
Exhausted, he goes home to fix
What tattered soul he has.
His folks reject his life’s love. Bix,
He exits blowing jazz.
That one gives me goosebumps.
5. The artwork. I wish I could show you all the artwork, right here. I can’t, of course, but I know someone who can: Paul Rogers. On one page of his site you can see bits of all the portraits in the book. And on the last page in his sketchbook, you can see three cityscapes that are used to run along the bottom of the pages containing the biographical sketches.
6. The biographical sketches of the musicians. Once you reach the end of the alphabet "the zenith, the alpha, Dizzy", you come to the prose portion of the book, written by noted jazz disc jockey, Phil Schaap, the "Dean of Jazz," who educates listeners and students on WKCR in New York (Columbia University’s station). Schaap has won eight Grammy awards for historical writing, producing, and audio engineering. Schaap is the Curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His biographies are brief, and primarily focus on the musical lives of the subjects (rather than on issues of their upbringing, civil rights work (where appropriate) or drug addiction (if applicable)).
7. Notes on the Poetic Forms. The twenty-seven forms are set out alphabetically, rather than in the order they’re employed in the book. So. Helpful. But wait, you say – weren’t there only 26 musicians in the book? The answer is yes, but some of the poems fit more than one category – an acrostic along with a calligram, for instance.
8. Other. First off, this book was a critical success. It got starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal. It won 10 awards, listed proudly at the Candlewick website, all of the "notable book" variety. Some might say it is therefore not truly "under the radar." And in a sense, that's right. But in reality, it's all wrong, and here's why: Not all that many people buy all that many poetry collections. And this one is a shining gem for the totality of its package. And although it's a poetry book designed for kids, jazz fans of all age would like it for its images, both graphic and verbal. And I'm guessing that there are many, many teachers and librarians out there who don't know about this book as a resource for music, biography, history, and poetry (including the teaching of poetic forms). And they should.
You can see poems A through C and L at the NPR website, where the artwork and text for Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and "Lady Day", Billie Holiday, are given. And you can click on links to hear Wynton Marsalis read "Louis Armstrong". Other readings include "Count Basie," "Lady Day," and "Sara Vaughn."
Here's a list of the other book selections today:
Here's the list of all the Radar Recommendations for today:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: A discussion of author Ellen Emerson White and why she is "under the radar".
Big A, little a: Ingo by Helen Dunmore.
Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Changeling and The Velvet Room both by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
At Bildungsroman: Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen.
Finding Wonderland: A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles.
Miss Erin: Girl With a Pen and Princess of Orange, both by Elisabeth Kyle.
Fuse Number 8: The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry.
Leila at Bookshelves of Doom talks about The Olivia Kidney series by Ellen Potter.
Chicken Spaghetti: The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe by Betsey Osborne.
The YA YA YAs feature Massive by Julia Bell.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Today’s Under the Radar Book suggestion is the sumptuously lovely Plum by the extraordinary Tony Mitton, illustrated by Mary Grand Pré.
Why do I love this book? Is it the feel of the book in my hand? The glorious illustrations by Mary Grand Pré? The wonderful use of language in the poems and the stories they tell, stories that draw you into another place, so that when you reach the end and look up, you’re startled to find that you’re still in your own home, and not actually in the place you’ve been inhabiting in your mind? Of course it’s all three, but that last bit in particular.
I stand by what I said when I first mentioned this book on my blog back in November of 2005 as part of a post about poetry picture book collections:
Plum is a rich, luscious book of poems by British author Tony Mitton. It's a collection of 20 poems, which is not constrained by any single theme. Some of the poems, such as "Mrs. Bhattacharya's Chapati Zap Machine" and "Elegant Elephant Delicatessan", are quite long story poems spread over a number of pages with many illustrations. Others, like "Shore Music" or "Freak Cat-Flea" are short.
This is one of my very favorite poetry picture books ever. The poems are varied, rich, and complex, but readily grasped by children. Mitton uses a variety of poetic forms and vivid imagery to convey his ideas, whether the whimsical single-sentence poem "Flightpath", the sly temptation of "The Snake and the Apple," or the brooding hidden menace of "Green Man Lane." The wonderful illustrations by Mary Grand Pré, known widely for her cover art and illustrations in the United States' editions of the Harry Potter series, make this book a feast for the eyes.
When I mentioned this book back in April, I quoted a bit from the title poem, "Plum." It begins "Don’t be so glum/plum./Don’t feel beaten./You were made/to be eaten." And it ends with a discussion of the plum’s skin, flesh, and life-bearing pit. The illustration that accompanies it is exquisite, rendered in shades of plum (naturally), gold and green, showing a noble bird (an eagle, perhaps) holding a plum aloft with the tips of its wing-feathers, a nest full of plums beneath its talons, whilst off in the distance, seemingly afloat in a lake, is a plum tree in a circle of light that echoes that around the feather-borne plum. Spectacular. (And, as I thought, a complete hit with children, who also enjoyed the William Carlos Williams plum poem, "This is Just to Say".)
This book has won an award – in 2003, it won a Cuffies Award from Publisher’s Weekly for
Best Book of Poetry. But I truly think more folks out there who are interested in poetry collections need to give this one a look-see.
Here’s the last poem in the American version of Plum, one that I used in many of the classrooms I visited back in April as part of National Poetry Week for Children.
Instructions for Growing Poetry
Shut your eyes.
&emsp Open your mind.
&emsp &emsp Look inside.
&emsp &emsp &emsp What do you find?
&emsp Something sad?
&emsp &emsp Something beautiful,
&emsp &emsp &emsp mysterious, mad?
Open your ears.
&emsp Listen well.
&emsp &emsp A word or phrase
&emsp &emsp &emsp begins to swell?
Catch its rhythm.
&emsp Hold its sound.
&emsp &emsp Gently, slowly
&emsp &emsp &emsp roll it round.
Does it please you?
&emsp Does it tease you?
&emsp &emsp Does it ask
&emsp &emsp &emsp to grow and spread?
Now those little
&emsp words are sprouting
&emsp &emsp poetry
&emsp &emsp &emsp inside your head.
But this review isn’t all, duckies. Not by a long shot. Today, I have a particularly special treat, which will make you lust after this book even more, because you are virtually guaranteed to fall in love with its author, the remarkable – and remarkably talented – Tony Mitton.
Tony Mitton has been writing poetry since he was a teen, but only began focusing on writing for children within the past 20 years, give or take. In a profile written for Jubilee Books UK, Tony said "What I probably most like doing is writing poems and verse. I love tinkering with the words until I've got them just right. I've always loved reading poems and stories, and I usually have several books on the go. I have a great interest in folk and fairy tales and legends."
1. I read that PLUM was your first published collection of poems. Can you talk a bit about whether creating a collection of poems is different from writing a picture book or a story in verse? If so, how?
I need to point out that the original UK Plum was different to the US Plum. The US Plum is a picture book illustrated by Mary Grand-Pré and published by Arthur A. Levine Books NY. The UK Plum was published by Scholastic UK and illustrated by Peter Bailey. The UK version was a solo poetry collection with some monochrome illustrations. It contained 49 poems. For his picture book US version, Arthur Levine chose 20 poems from the UK edition and designed his picture book version for an American audience. So when I answer your questions I’ll refer to the original UK version unless I specify otherwise.
For me, creating a collection of poems is very different from writing a picture book or a story in verse. My original collection Plum was selected from a body of perhaps 150 poems written across a period of about 7 years. My editor David Fickling helped me to choose 50 of those poems to form the collection. At his suggestion, I tweaked one or two pieces and dropped one piece altogether. This gave us a collection of 49 poems which created a fairly generous volume. The collection was also varied in that it contained longer, shorter, lyric, narrative, humorous, serious, traditional, contemporary, free verse, and formal verse poems. It was meant to be a miscellany, a collection of heterogeneous poems. That’s my idea of a true poetry collection. Each poem being a thing in itself, as arrived at by the author simply having evolved each individual poem in its own right, as seemed fitting. Allowing form, content, tone, mood etc to find their own relations with each other.
I have at times played different games with poetry books. Fluff was a book in which every poem was about something one might find in a child’s pocket. So that was a book composed thematically. I even made lists of things to write poems about. So the whole creation was more contrived from the outset. Whereas my UK Plum was chosen out of poems I’d simply felt I wanted to write, as a poet, across a number of years.
Writing a picture book text or a verse story is for me a much more singular exercise. If it’s an original plot line, then I allow form and content to evolve together, and accommodate along the way a fair amount of editorial suggestion (a bit like a scriptwriter collecting and responding to input from a team). If I’m retelling in verse a pre-existing tale or legend, then again it’s really a matter of trying to find a form which does justice to the story, finding a way to get the story effectively told in a verse form. But the work is immediately much more focused and directed than with an individual, gratuitous poem, where a phrase or line may just hover around for a while, suggesting ways forward . . . to where?
For me, the work which seems to have the most integrity (in the sense of being free from outside intervention) is the poem which is written simply because it evolves in the mind of the poet. The poem which asks to be written initially for its own sake. The poem free of any outside interest.
(Huzzah!! Poets everywhere are at this moment standing and applauding, I’m sure – I know I found this particularly inspiring and moving. But I digress . . . back to the interview)
2. Were all of the poems in PLUM intended for the collection, or were some of them pre-existing works? (Note: Asked and answered, but I’m letting the question stand because it got this extra tidbit of information)
In a sense I’ve just answered that question. The UK Plum poems were simply written along the way, along with many others. Then 49 poems got chosen for the book, which didn’t even have a title until we’d chosen the poems. It was a very junior designer who came up with the idea of using the poem "Plum" as the title piece. It was much later that Arthur chose his 20 poems for the US picture book. In some sense I was quite removed from the conception and development of that book, which owes its form and shape to Arthur, to Mary (Grandpré) and maybe to a design and art team at Scholastic NY whom I may never have met.
3. Two of the longer poems in PLUM, "Mrs. Bhattacharya's Chapati-Zap Machine" and "The Elegant Elephant Delicatessen", feel almost as if they could have had their own books. Why did you choose to include them as part of the poetry collection instead of sending them out into the world on their own?
I wrote "Mrs Bhattacharya" initially as an intended picture book text, in my early days of trying to break into this medium of work (a hard nut to crack! and just as hard to go on cracking, I find . . .) "Elephant Delicatessen" probably looks that way because of the sumptuous treatment given it by Mary and the design team. But sometimes I’ve found that poems conceived as potential picture book texts have discovered a niche for themselves as narrative poems in poetry collections. As a writer, one only has limited say in what gets published, where and how. One writes, hopes and deals. Some work makes it through, even then, not always in the form originally intended. One’s integrity as a writer is continually compromised by the publishing world, in the hard-nosed business of making a living.
4. According to your bio, you were born in Tripoli, North Africa, and grew up in Africa, Germany, Hong Kong, and England. How have the various locations of your childhood influenced your poetic or storytelling choices?
I’m not sure they have much. I could be wrong about that. But I think my sources are mainly literary, in that they come through reading rather than through travelling. I like the idea of world story, the idea of stories from a range of cultures and locations. For me stories sometimes prompt poetry or verse writing, suggesting either a lyric poem or a verse retelling. I like the kind of cross-cultural fertilisation that then takes place. It’s stimulating and imaginatively encouraging.
5. Several of the poems in PLUM include bits of English and Irish history and/or mythology, including "Green Man Lane," "The Histon Boulder," and "St. Brigid and the Baker."
In The Tale of Tales, out in 2004, animals tell a variety of stories, including an Anansi tale and a retelling of Rip Van Winkle.
It is everywhere compared to "The Canterbury Tales." (Including the favorable review in the NY Times.) Was there any particular reason you were drawn to these particular topics? Did you do much research to write these poems?
Some of such poems have been prompted by places themselves, actual locations visited. Some are the result of encountering them in books (folktale collections, books of local folklore etc). The work has been gathered more by incidental cultural habit and personal literary tastes than by concerted research. Though in setting out on The Tale of Tales I did write down a lot of possible stories to use and characters to tell them. And I wrote a lot of verse retellings that never made it into the final book. Funny, though: The reviewer, Liz Rosenberg, said she found my verse writing clumsy, though she praised my prose (I think . . .). Maybe my verse doesn’t work in American. But verse is what I do. I’m a poet. What DOES she mean? I have an impeccable metric ear. But I work through the stress beats of mainstream British emphasis, not through syllable counting. Maybe she can’t hear that? It’s slightly disconcerting to be told at 56, after a lifetime of reading and writing verse and poetry, that my verse work is creaky . . .. Ah, well. Takes all sorts, I guess . . .. Does she realise my verse deliberately uses standard colloquial stress most of the time? Maybe I'll never know. (Note from KRF: I am certain that writers and poets everywhere have wondered the same thing about reviewers from time immemorial. And that Americans don’t always hear other American accents correctly, let alone proper British English).
6. In 2006, you put out a collection of selected poems called My Hat and All That with Corgi in the U.K. It includes a number of pieces that you've enjoyed performing for and with children. Are there plans for that to be released in the U.S. as well?
I’d like it to be. But though dfb (David Fickling Books) helped me to select the pieces, it’s outletted by Corgi or Random House (their umbrella company). DFB can publish direct into the US, I believe. But I don’t know if Corgi can. And there might be clashes in US with Arthur Levine as some of the pieces in My Hat come from Plum, whose rights in UK have reverted to me (as it’s out of print now) while the US edition is still alive and kicking so I don’t know the protocols on that kind of thing. Publishing and Rights can be so complicated sometimes. And I just want to write things and see them come out looking and sounding good!
7. In an article by Roger Stevens, you indicated that you have quite a number of poems amassed which could be put together to form a collection similar to PLUM. Is any such collection in the works?
Well, yes. (From KRF: YAY!) David Fickling of dfb has asked me to put together another Plum (i.e., another solo collection of a heterogeneous kind) but there is also a follow-up coming to The Tale of Tales first. Again, it’s a set of narrative verse retellings woven together in a prose setting with pics by the same illustrator. That’s pretty much written now. But I’m keen to get back to working on a real solo collection. I feel my credibility as a poet rather depends on doing that. Solo collections are a bit of an issue in bookworld at present as they tend to attract such modest sales, even if their reputation is strong and/or they manage to scoop a prize or honour.
8. In February of this year, your book Perky Little Penguins became available in the U.K. The book is going to be available in the U.S. this November with the title Playful Little Penguins. Is it typical for U.S. publishers to ask you to change words? Not to psychoanalyze you, but how do you feel about that?
I never like it. But I acknowledge that US publishers may have strong marketing issues around certain things. I always battle to be told what the problem is so I can rewrite myself and offer alternatives of my own devising. That’s my way round it. My verse texts are very tightly written in the original so I want to be closely involved with any changes deemed necessary for the US market or audience. That way I keep the texts as close as possible to my own style as I can. I do realise that there are certain realities like the fact that some rhymes I use don’t rhyme in certain parts of America, due to accent. Or that certain turns of phrase are commonplace in UK but not used in US . Or that certain words have different values in the two places. And so on. But in the end I don’t believe in changing text to accommodate a specific market. I like the idea of texts carrying their idiosyncracies with them where they go, and maybe influencing the language communities they land in. I’m an English writer, with an English voice. I’d like individual books to keep their own cultural identities and be what they are. I love the Americanness of American texts, prose or verse. There are many American writings with distinctive American texture and tone. Ditto English. Leave them alone, let them travel, and let the readers read them and learn the interesting differences and varieties of the language. English is so rich and varied and has travelled and adapted so fascinatingly. From Boston to Bombay and back to Bradford or Brighton.
9. What's next?
The follow-up to The Tale of Tales. A yet unnamed new Plum (I hope).
Giant’s Boots -- a book of action rhymes for the very young.
Party Animals -- maybe not released in the states (a picture book)
Farmer Joe and the Music Show -- from the home of Down by the Cool of the Pool (not out till 2008, I think)
I’m working on a new series for Ant Parker/Kingfisher to follow the series called Amazing Machines (Dazzling Diggers, Flashing Fire Engines, etc.) The new series will focus on animals rather than machines. I hope.
Also out from Tony Mitton in the U.S. as of May this year, All Afloat on Noah’s Boat, a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story in verse.
10. Speed round:
Cheese or chocolate? Both (but not together)
Coffee or tea? Tea, the British way. Strong, with milk, no sugar.
Cats or dogs? Both, so long as they’re not mine.
Favorite color? Rainbow (as it’s so hard to choose) but maybe green?
Favorite snack food? Bananas, cake, chocolate.
Favorite ice cream? Chocolate fudge brownie.
Water or soda? Water (still) (Note for US. readers unfamiliar with the term – he means still water, as opposed to carbonated water)
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Michael McGoldrick / Fused (Celtic pipe music / Irish)
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? The latest Harry Potter movie.... (seriously underrated, those books . . .)
If, like me, you’ve now developed a massive crush on Mr. Mitton, here are some other places you can read him (or read about him) on the web:
Check out Tony’s Author Profile at Scholastic’s Literary Times.
And Poetry International has an article about Tony by Roger Stevens, with links to five of Tony’s poems. "My Hat" is one of the poems in Plum, and is also the title poem for My Hat and All That.
Starting Up a Poem, at Jubilee Books UK.
Tony also participated in a Roundtable of Children’s Poets in 2004.
Here's the list of all the Radar Recommendations for today:
At Finding Wonderland: The Curved Saber: The Adventure of Khlit the Cossack by Harold Lamb.
Little Willow at Bildungsroman talks about Christopher Golden's Body of Evidence series in a three part series.
Interactive Reader has Christopher Golden's Body of Evidence series as well.
Not Your Mother's Bookclub shares an interview with Robert Sharenow, author of My Mother the Cheerleader.
Kimberly at lectitans will have The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Meets the Phantom of the Opera by Sam Siciliano, but her post won't be up until afternoon.
Leila at Bookshelves of Doom touts The God Beneath the Sea, Black Jack & Jack Holburn all by Leon Garfield.
Here at Writing and Ruminating: An interview with the extraordinary Tony Mitton and a review of his book, Plum .
Over at The YA YA YAs: I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson.
Susan at Chicken Spaghetti: The Illustrator's Notebook by Mohieddin Ellabad.
Genius organizer Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray is all about Dorothy of Oz.
And from SemiColon, Sherry is talking about six picture books that should not be missed -- including some out of print titles.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Today, I finally "read" The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. The use of quotes around the word "read" is purposeful, because as anyone who's opened the book knows, at least half of the book is composed of pencil drawings (and the occasional photograph). The pictures in this book do not illustrate the text, however -- they continue it. It's not a graphic novel, it's not a picture book, it's not even a novel with illustrations. Publishers Weekly called it "an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching." I'd have to say they got it just right.
I bought this book the week it came out, only it went into the mountainous TBR pile. Two months ago, M "rescued" it and devoured it. She was so pleased that she could finish such a thick book (over 500 pages) in less than a day, but truly, text takes up significantly fewer pages than that, and where it does exist, it's in a good-sized font with a lot of white space. End result? It took me a little over an hour and twenty minutes to read the whole thing. And no, I don't speed-read. Let me just hint that the magical, cinematical quality of the book is a visual echo of the story it holds.
The story follows Hugo Cabret, son of a watchmaker, who is living inside a train station in Paris, and taking care of all the clocks. He's hoping nobody notices that his drunken uncle (the actual clock-keeper) seems to have disappeared. Hugo has lots of secrets -- not just that his uncle is missing, or that he's living alone, stealing food. He also has a secret project, one that has him resorting to stealing toys from an old man with a booth in the station.
Just as the story involves an actual key that makes things work, the identity of the old man is the true key to the book: suffice it to say that there is more to the old toymaker than initially meets the eye, and that much of the story of the old man is based in fact. Still, this is no biography, nor is it a history lesson, although it will doubtless inspire more than one child to read in both of those categories.
You can read PW's interview with Brian Selznick online.
Friday, August 24, 2007
I have been remiss in talking about one of the foremost poets of the 19th century, and one of the best American poets of all time: Miss Emily Dickinson. Thank heavens,
As I confessed in a prior post, I sometimes have a hard time parsing Emily. Or in not "singing" her poems to the tune of either Amazing Grace or the Theme Song from Gilligan's Island. But lately, I've been taking another look at the lovely Miss Dickinson's poems. And truly, I find her lovely -- not just because Slatts has made me look at her in such a way, but also because there is something marvelous about her use of language. Also, my realization that the ONLY way to read Dickinson is aloud has made her poetry so much more accessible to me. All those dashes that visually clutter her poems make perfect sense if you read them as a brief pause in the spoken line. I suspect that she was such a control freak that she didn't want to use commas, which might only be proper punctuation, when what she was seeking to control was pausing and line stops.
In today's poems, she actually uses the comma in the penultimate line, but I don't believe she means for the reader to pause there. I think she put it in to set off the word "never", so that the reader would land on it a wee bit harder (or in mild isolation), without actually stopping mid-line. And, again, if one reads Miss Dickinson aloud and only pauses where she has her em-dashes, then the hymn-tune construction doesn't quite hold, and the last two lines of the second and the third stanzas merge to be one, long, sentence (save for the last dash in the last line of the poem).
"Hope" Is the Thing with Feathers
by Emily Dickinson
"Hope" is the thing with feathers——
That perches in my soul——
And sings the tune without the words——
And never stops——at all——
And sweetest—in the Gale——is heard——
And sore must be the storm——
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm——
I've heard it in the chillest land——
And on the strangest Sea——
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb——of Me.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
My short poem, "A Hanukkah Game," is going to be in the December 2007 issue of Highlights magazine. And the lovely folks at Highlights (and I'm being serious here, they are truly kindly, nice people there) have sent me a request for information so they can release my information to the local press. That is seriously cool.
Friday, August 17, 2007
In translating Issa (or any other foreign poet), the syllable count for the best translation may differ from the 5-7-5 of the traditional haiku. Here's a particularly funny one from 1795 (although I think there's a Zen-like truth in there, as well):
into a summer robe...
my journey's lice
In 1802, Issa moved to the Shogun capital, Edo (now Tokyo), where he spent a decade as a teacher of the haiku form. In 1813, Issa returned to his home village in order to start a family. I should note that Issa was, at this point, in his 50s. (Late bloomer?) Issa continued to teach and write poetry until his death in 1827. He reached his peak as a teacher and poet in the years between 1813-1824.
Here's one from 1822, during his "peak":
Insects on a bough
Monday, August 13, 2007
I got home after 11 p.m. last night, and then did the only logical thing. I stayed up far too late to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban (
I LOVE IT!! (And for anyone who's read the book -- those exclamation points are entirely trustworthy. Really.)
Faithful readers will remember that this book is one that I most looked forward to in 2007. And those of you who wonder if I'm sincere in saying this book is good, even though it's by a friend, should take a gander at this post predicting it to be a Newbery contender next year. Yeah, I said it. And so have a number of other folks, by the way, including highly ranked agents and editors. Good thing they left an open space on the top of the cover. But I digress.
A Crooked Kind of Perfect tells the story of Zoe Elias, an almost-eleven-year old girl who desperately wants to play the piano. At Carnegie Hall. But really, she'd settle for actually playing the piano at first. Zoe spends most of her after-school time at home with her dad, a guy with anxiety issues that pretty much keep him from being around other people, except for Hugh, the UPS guy. Mr. Elias spends his time furthering his education with at-home study courses. Mrs. Elias is the controller for the state of Michigan, and spends most of her time (including weekends) at work.
When Zoe's dad brings home a boompa-chucka Perfectone D60 electric organ! with "two (2!) keyboards, ergonomically stacked to put high and low octaves in easy reach!" and "luxuriously realistic walnut veneer!", Zoe isn't exactly thrilled. And when Wheeler Diggs follows Zoe home one day and befriends her father, Zoe really doesn't know what to think. But she kinda likes playing music -- and she kinda likes having Wheeler around, too. And when she's invited to play at the annual Perform-O-Rama, Zoe has to make a choice: prodigy or practice?
Why I love this book:
1. It rings true. Not just because I was a young girl who desperately wanted to play the piano, and then did, although I'm sure that didn't hurt. Zoe's need for acceptance and friendship is really what drives the book, and that rings true.
2. It's funny. And it has heart. And for you writer-types out there, who hear editors rave about wanting to see books with heart (without naming titles, usually), this is the exact book they mean. This and
3. I have an inner 10-year old girl's crush on Wheeler Diggs, who never takes off his denim jacket even if it's really hot out, or really cold. In fact, my inner 10-year old girl's crush on Wheeler is pretty much as strong as my inner 16-year old girl's crush on Tom Tanner from Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend, which is saying something. Because Tom Tanner hits levels on the crush-o-meter that approach "Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy levels." I'm just saying.
4. The quality of the writing is superior. Really, truly excellent (or as Wheeler might say "top drawer"). So excellent that it has forced me to have positive feelings about the song "Forever in Blue Jeans," and to get misty eyed when Neil comes on the radio. Now that's some powerful writing.
So -- even though I read this in a prior incarnation as a manuscript (and before final revisions, I should add, so there was stuff here (and stuff not here) that was new to me), and even though Linda is a friend, I'd have to say that I'd be recommending this book even if those things were not true. Because this book is that good. A Crooked Kind of Perfect is a perfect kind of book.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Whenas in silks my Julia goes
by Robert Herrick
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!
If you think the phrase "liquefaction of her clothes" has sent me into raptures, you are correct. *Happy sigh*
Herrick was born in London (in Cheapside, a word which I hear hissed by Anna Chancellor every time I watch Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth), the son of a goldsmith. He was apprenticed to his uncle (also a goldsmith), and matriculated from St. John's College in Cambridge. He later became a clergyman. Herrick was one of the Sons of Ben, a group of Cavalier poets who idolized the Elizabethan poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson. (In that particular time, "Cavalier" indicated a Loyalist, or someone who supported the King; Herrick lived through the English Civil War, during which he lost his living as a clergyman because he would not renounce his loyalty to the monarchy, but had it restored again during the Restoration.)
If you've not seen "Whenas in silks my Julia goes" before, you are probably wondering why I'm so sure you know something by Herrick. It's because he wrote To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, one of the foremost examples of carpe diem ("seize the day") poetry. Herrick was also known for his work in iambic monometer (poems composed of lines containing single iambic feet).
Here's an example:
Upon His Departure Hence
by Robert Herrick
Carpe diem, folks. Carpe diem.