Friday, April 29, 2011

Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong on the Writing Process

Hats off to The Opposite of Indifference for hosting today's Poetry Friday Round-Up, and offering such irresistible bookmarks (I have a soft spot for sock monkeys).

As promised, I'm posting Part 2 of my Q and A with noted poets (and fellow Children's Authors Network members) Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland, and Janet Wong.

Q: Using one of your poems as an example, could you briefly describe your writing process- from idea to finished product?

Joan: For my "Sun" poem in FLICKER FLASH I decided to speak as the sun itself--a mask poem. Sometimes the sun would shine down the hallway in my house, hitting me in the face like a big alarm clock--that was my inspiration. The sun, of course, would be loud; it would "shout," "bounce," and "solar power" to create a "dynamite, ring-a-ding day." The letters b, d, p, and t are "plosives" and their sounds add to the impact. It was fun to slip in a bit of scientific information. Then I played with the shape, experimenting with different fonts to achieve the best roundness. Ease of reading is always a consideration. There's a lot going on in two sentences. I read all my poems aloud many times and revise accordingly. I've enjoyed breaking this up and doing it in call-and-response with students. When I ask, "Who needs to be solar powered out of bed in the morning?" a lot of hands shoot up, especially the teachers!


miles away I bring
you this dynamite, ring-
a-ding day. I'll shout in
your window and bounce
near your head to solar
power you out of
your bed."

--(c) Joan Bransfield Graham

Janet: One good example is "Scute," a poem that I wrote for PoetryTagTime, the eBook anthology that I compiled with Sylvia Vardell. In this book, 30 poets "play tag," writing poems that connect to one another. I was tagged by Mary Ann Hoberman, who wrote a poem about turtles, tortoises, and terrapins--so I knew that I had to write about some aspect of those T creatures. Since I was the last poet, I also wanted to link to the first poet, Jack Prelutsky, who wrote about the moon. Joseph Bruchac's Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back popped into my mind; you can see what I did with that, below. I wrote over a dozen drafts but could not choose a favorite. Here are the three finalists that I chose to send to a few poet-friends. Take a look and see which you'd choose:

Scute #1

Every once in a while
a word sinks deep
into my mind
and I find myself
thinking about it
in the strangest places.
Today’s word: scute.
It’s a cute word--
or even if it isn’t,
I tell myself it is,
so I’ll remember
how to say it.

In school we learned
some people see
thirteen moons
in the big scutes
on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons there,
but scutes actually
remind me more of
Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.

And I see
an old tortoise scute
in Grandma’s
kitchen chopping block,
a thick slice of
meat-stained oak
that shows thirty years
of rings.

Scutes everywhere,
even where
you don’t expect
to find them.

Grandpa’s scaly tough
toenails: scutes--
and not-so-cute ones!

All these scute-thoughts
have got me thinking:
time to shed the old
and grow
a fresh new shell.

Scute #2

In school we learned
some people see thirteen moons
in the big scutes on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons there, sure--

but scutes actually remind me more
of Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.

And I see an old tortoise scute
in Grandma’s kitchen chopping block,
a thick slice of meat-stained oak
that shows thirty years of rings.

Scutes everywhere, even where
you don’t expect to find them:
Grandpa, I think it’s time to shed
a few layers of toenails, don’t you?

Scute #3

Every once in a while
a word digs itself deep
into my mind
and I find it everywhere.

In school we learned
some people see thirteen moons
in the big scutes on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons in the scutes,
but turtle scutes remind me more
of Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.
I see an old tortoise scute
in our kitchen chopping block,
which is one thick slice of oak
showing fifty years of rings.
Grandpa’s scaly tough toenails:
scutes--and not-so-cute ones!

Tonight all these scute-thoughts
have got me thinking:
time to shed the old
and grow a fresh new shell.

Their opinions were all over the map, of course! Most of the praise was for #2, but despite the praise—or maybe because I wasn't able to "accept" it easily—I kept questioning myself. One poet-friend asked if I could tinker further with the toenail section. After she said that, I knew instantly that this was what I needed to do. You can read the final draft in PoetryTagTime (our 99-cent eBook) or at (in the Poems section, connected to the turtle prop).

April:I just posted MIDNIGHT CAT on my Poetry Month blog.

I wanted to write a mask poem--a poem from the point of view of my cat. She sneaks into the house each night, tiptoes around my sleeping dog, Eli, and sleeps next to me all night long. In the morning before anyone's up, she sneaks back outside.

I love with working with the online and several online rhyming dictionaries, including With this poem, I simply slid inside the mind of our cat (whose name, if you must know, is Snot), and then played with rhymes. And played and played and played. I wanted to limit the number of sounds I used in the poem and I wanted to get the 'tude of Snot and how she feels about our dog. Sometimes writing a poem takes a very long time and sometimes it feels like I'm splashing in a mud puddle. This one felt like I was deep in that delicious mud!

A bouquet of thanks to Joan, April and Janet!

May all your months be filled with poetry.
Part One of this interview was posted last Friday.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong on Writing Poetry

Today I'm pleased to present Part One of a Q & A with acclaimed poets Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong, (my fellow members in the Children's Authors Network). All three have poems out in the brand new Poetry Tag Time ebook.

Happy Poetry Month and Poetry Friday!

What is the challenge of writing poetry for children?

Janet: The hardest part of writing is knowing when to stop, which draft to choose. Most children like bouncy, silly rhymes, so it takes discipline to choose a more subtle approach. It's sort of like choosing between serving chicken nuggets and chicken soup.

April: To get quiet inside and find the real, the true.
To get past the obvious, to not write superficially.
That's the challenge of writing anything. It's all the same.
To be clear but not corny. Be accessible but don't underestimate the audience.

Joan: The challenge of writing poetry for children is to be original, capture a moment in time, create the poem you've never read before, connect with readers and make them say--"Oh, YES!" Each poem should be an act of discovery that surprises the senses, shakes you awake, and startles your imagination.

Which poets are your influences, and what about them do you admire?

Janet: Myra Cohn Livingston nurtured and "created" so many of us; she will forever be The Grandest Teacher of Children's Poets (and the most generous). She would go to great lengths to help new poets connect with editors (once you'd demonstrated some serious effort).

April: I love so many writers. I have to say that I love Janet Wong for her originality, for the often casual, conversational tone of her work. I love Joan Bransfield Graham for her use of language and for always finding a new way to look at things. My mother used to read Ogden Nash to us. In fact, I was named for his poem, "Always Marry an April Girl," which my parents would say aloud to me often. I love the way he invents words and his humor. I love e.e.cummings for his fanciful flights of poetry. I fell in love with Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was thirteen. I loved his book, A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND.

Joan: I've always admired Valerie Worth's use of metaphor and David McCord's and Eve Merriam's wordplay. Richard Wilbur and Mary Oliver provide such stunning imagery, as does Billy Collins, whose perspective and humor are a constant surprise and delight. I was fortunate to be able to study with Myra Cohn Livingston in her Master Class at UCLA--along with Janet and April. What an amazing group--we learned so much from each other!

What is one of the most "autobiographical" poems you've written? Why does it have special meaning for you?

Janet: In GOOD LUCK GOLD (out-of-print, but I will be bringing it back to life soon in Kindle form) there is a poem called "Dad," where I say that my father is like a turtle. When he's mad, he snaps and pulls into his shell. It's becoming quite autobiographical because my own "turtle tendencies" are growing stronger each year--my son can tell you all about that!

April: EVERY one is in some way autobiographical. I've written poetry for many years and one poem a day for over a I have too many to choose from! Whine, whine, whine... : ^ )

Joan: At first I did not realize this, but my books SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH are very autobiographical! Growing up on a barrier island along the southern coast of New Jersey, I loved the ocean, boats, the salty air, the sound and rhythm of the waves. What was my first book? Water poems. For years I've studied photography, and I'm always conscious of the interplay of light and shadow. Before digital I developed my own black and white prints in the darkroom, where I saw the effects of light take shape. My next book? Poems about light. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "We see things not as they are, but as we are."

Any tips for classroom teachers on how to integrate poetry into the curriculum?

Janet: Here are three tips: 1) Build your own Poetry Suitcase; read why at;

2) Have kids write poems on endangered animals and send them to me via (where you'll find more info about what we're doing to build awareness of endangered animals and how we're donating money to help protect them; a good discussion topic for Earth Day); and

3) please visit our blog where Sylvia Vardell shares amazing poetry tips on a daily basis!

April: Go to -- six children's authors who also teach writing. On most Fridays, which is "Poetry Friday" in the Kidlitosphere, one of us has posted poetry and a writing tip.

And here's another tip: be present. That's what I've learned in writing a poem a day. I've learned that for me, the way to net today's poem is to tune in: what am I feeling? What is that kid is saying? What does the smell of her peanut butter cookie remind me of?

Ask yourself what feels interesting in class today? Can I condense this into a poetry prompt? Maybe you're teaching cursive writing and you've talked about forming the curve of a letter.

Ask the class to become aware of other curves in class, then brainstorm a list of things with curves on the board (a swimming pool, the arch of a doorway, a macaroni noodle, a cat's tail...).

Then have each student make their own list of 5-10 things that curve...if there's time, let them walk around the school campus looking for ideas or eat their lunches and think about curves, then come back and write their list.

Then have them pick one thing from their list to explore in a poem.

Because rhyming can take you away from what you want to say and force you in another direction, you might ask them to avoid rhyming this time.

Why did they pick that particular item from their list? Ask them to think about why it's interesting and how they can weave details of it into the poem so that it will be interesting to readers.

Then stand on your head when you read their poems aloud.

Just kidding.

Joan: Each poem creates its own small world with vivid imagery and vigorous verbs . . . perfect to tuck into so many areas of the curriculum. Since I do lots of school visits and am a former teacher, I know that my poems in SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH have been used to open science units on water and light, to inspire students to write their own concrete poetry, and to spotlight "word art" for art classes. You can find Teacher Idea Sheets on my Web site: I've had many teachers tell me that my shape poems--since they are so visual--work well for their ESL students . . . providing clues to help decode words. I love the "Poetry Break" idea, where someone pops into each classroom to share a poem. You should always have a Poem in Your Pocket, and every month should be Poetry Month! All the lessons poetry teaches enhance any kind of writing you choose to do.

This is Part One of the Q & A. (Joan, April and Janet will talk about their writing process in Part Two, which I'll post next Friday.)

The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted today by Book Aunt.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Erica Silverman on Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus

Welcome to this week's Nonfiction Monday Round-Up. If you'd like to join in, please leave your name, your link, and a description of your post in the comment section below. I'll add links throughout the day, beginning at 6 am on the West Coast.

Today, an interview with award-winning author Erica Silverman, whose picture book biography, Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus (illustrated by Stacey Schuett) was published this spring.

Why did you choose to write a biography of Emma Lazarus? What drew you, personally, to her story?

There is so much about her that intrigues me and that I admire.

Her passion for poetry from an early age was something I identified with. I was impressed by her strong need to learn and grow as a writer. She was a strong, independent woman, a successful writer in the late nineteenth century – a time when women had little voice in the public sphere and were decades away from winning the vote. And then, despite coming from a life of comfort and privilege, she became a strong voice for social justice. She became an active advocate for immigrants at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise. And she was courageous, confronting anti-Semitism head-on in her writing, despite the fact that she traveled in mostly non-Jewish circles and was no doubt aware of the anti-Semitic attitudes among her own friends. She described herself as not being religious and yet had a strong Jewish identity and a strong feeling for Jewish history. She was in so many ways an independent thinker.

How do you think children might relate to Emma?

I hope they see her as a role model, are inspired by the fact that she followed her dream, listened to her “voice within”, and wasn’t afraid to speak out for her beliefs. I hope her willingness to stand up for immigrants' rights empowers them to speak up for their beliefs. I also hope they will see how poetry, which we don’t take very seriously as a culture, can actually be powerful and important. Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, quite literally defined the Statue of Liberty as our most well-known and loved national symbol for immigrants.

What was the greatest challenge in writing the book, and how did you overcome it? How long did it take to write?

Years. I started the book in 2002 and it’s just come out. I had a hard time tracking down some of the source materials. My best find was the many memorial letters written at the time of Emma’s death. They were published in a newspaper called the American Hebrew. I found them on microfilm at LAPL.

The other big challenge was narrowing down the story. There was so much about Emma’s life that fascinated me. And there was so much historical background I wanted to include. It was hard to leave so much out, but a picture book has to be very focused.

What advice would you give to writers of picture book biographies?

Find a storyline and stay with it. Find the moments in your subject’s life that are emotional, that have drama – moments of happiness, sadness, anger, failure, success. Include details that evoke the time and place in which your subject lived. You can’t tell everything about that time, but hopefully, you will awaken the reader’s curiosity and arouse a desire to learn more. And of course, in any picture book, you have to write “visually”, to give the artist scenes to illustrate.

Any interesting anecdotes about Emma that didn't make it into the book?

I was fascinated by Emma’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, which began when she was just eighteen years old. In my book I show how she met him at a dinner party and sent him a book of her own poetry. They embarked on a correspondence in which he mentored her, praising her work while guiding her to improve.

But when Emerson edited an anthology of American poets, he did not include any of her poems. Emma was devastated and furious. What I found interesting is that she wasn’t afraid to let him know, and shot off an anger-fueled letter to him. In my early drafts, I included the scene in which she discovers the anthology’s omission and writes to him. My editor gently pointed out that the book wasn’t about their relationship and that this scene, while dramatic, didn’t really move the story forward. I recognized that he was right.

If Emma were alive today, and you could spend the day with her, where would you take her in your home town of Los Angeles?

We’d take a tour of some of the immigrant neighborhoods – starting with Boyle Heights. Perhaps we could join a rally for immigrant rights. And then we'd get on a plane to New York
and visit the Statue of Liberty.

Erica's next book is Hanukkah Hop, a stamping, hopping, bim-bim-bopping celebration of Hanukkah, complete with a dancing parrot, a live Klezmer band and a girl named Rachel who lives to dance. The retro 50s art is by Steve D'Amico.

Nonfiction Monday Round-up

Book, Dogs, and Frogs has a booktalk/review of Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot.

Wild About Nature is giving away a copy of Flowers Bloom! by Mary Dodson Wade.

Just in time for spring! Check out Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis at Bookmuse. Enjoy!

Jean Little Library a book about cats! Perfect!

Nonfiction Book Blast has Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith for this week.

Fourth Musketeer has a review of Patrick McDonnell's adorable picture book about Jane Goodall, Me...Jane.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast shares an interview with illustrator Zachary Pullen and lots of art from Richard Michelson's picture book biography of Lipman Pike.

True Tales and a Cherry on Top features The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, and Edward by Kathleen Krull, and an appreciative nod to The Peace Corps.

Lori Calabrese Writes
is in with a review of National Geographic's Deadliest Animals.

Bookends Blog is soaring today with two Amelia Earhart books.

At Charlotte's Library, a review of The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses.

The Cath in the Hat
has a post on Who Scoops Elephant Poo?

Books for Learning covers several books about seeds.

The selection at All About Books With Janet Squires is Piano Starts Here: the young Art Tatum written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Drop by and listen to this Jazz great at his best.

Simply Science has At the Sea Floor Cafe by Lesley Bulion as part of the Peachtree Publishers blog tour.

Pink Me is in with a review of Mark Kurlansky's World Without Fish. (Mmm, fish! Fish from certified sustainable fisheries, of course!)

Great Kid Books
shares Ask Me Everything, a new DK book. Mary Ann Scheuer says that her students love the visuals, the facts and the way it's all organized by questions they can ask themselves and each other.

Shelf-employed reviews two great new offerings from the talented duo of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page: Time to Eat and Time for a Bath.