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.