Friday, April 06, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Douglas Florian (about bees!)

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with a second interview with Douglas Florian about a second book he has out this year. Graduate student Kristin Edstrom offers this interview (plus) with Douglas.

Douglas Florian was born and raised in New York City. He received his education first at Queens College and later attended the School of Visual Art. Inspired at a young age by his father, Harold, an artist, Florian notes, "I studied drawing with many teachers, but my first was my father. He taught me to love nature in all of its forms" (Contemporary Authors Online, 2007).

While employed as a cartoonist for The New Yorker in the early 80’s, Douglas stumbled upon a copy of Oh, How Ridiculous edited by William Cole at a flea market. This chance encounter inspired Florian to try his hand at writing humorous verse and Douglas Florian has published dozens of self-illustrated poetry books for children since.

Drawing upon the themes of nature and science, Florian’s poetry combines humor, wordplay, and neologisms to engage young readers. (The Poetry Foundation, 2011). His own dynamic illustrations accompany the text -- and could easily exist as stand alone works. These visual artworks incorporate elements of collage, watercolor, and gouache on a surface of primed paper bags. (The Poetry Foundation, 2011). His recent works include: UnBEElievables (2012); Poem Runs: Baseball Poems (2012); Poetrees (2010); and Dinothesaurus (2009).

Douglas Florian has been the recipient of a number of major literary awards and accolades including (but not limited to): the prestigious Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Poetry (1995); an American Library Association Notable Book citation for Beast Feast (1995); and the Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry (2001) for Mammalabilia. In 2004, Florian won the Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year award and Gryphon Award for Bow Wow Meow Meow. In 2006, Douglas Florian was named Children’s Book Council Young People’s Poetry Poet (Contemporary Authors Online, 2007). More recently Florian’s Dinothesaurus (2009) was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, a Horn Book Fanfare List selection and a Junior Library Guild selection (The Poetry Foundation, 2011).

Douglas Florian lives with his family in New York City where he continues to write and illustrate children’s poetry books. He also shows his artwork in galleries in the New York region (Smith, 2010).


YouTube Videos:;

Author Blog:

UnBEElievables: Honey Bee Poems and Paintings
UnBEElievables is Douglas Florian’s new poetry collection written about the lives of honeybees and the vital role they play in the ecosystem. The book beckons readers to come inside the honeycomb! Consisting of fourteen rhythmic, humorous and fact-filled poems and paintings, Florian explores the natural history of these fascinating creatures in detail. Working in gouache, colored pencils, and collage on paper bags, Florian’s accompanying illustrations are uniquely fun and engaging to young readers. Each poem is joined by a paragraph of factual information about honeybees, their environment, community and lifestyles. In addition, the book comes complete with a BEEbliography! This whimsical, offbeat book will be a hit in classrooms, especially in light of beekeeping as a popular hobby, and the growing realization of our interdependence on this tiny species. (Simon and Schuster, 2012).

"Florian (Poetrees, 2010, etc.) bestows yet another pleasing mix of punny poems and colorful collages that blend whimsy and fact.... Spreads like "Swarm" epitomize Florian's skill at combining pithy rhymes, well-chosen facts and playfully tongue-in-cheek pictures.... Design is crisp.... Florian shines again here."
-- Kirkus Reviews, March 6, 2012

“Another winning compendium…. Cheerful anthropomorphized caricatures of honeybees accompany upbeat, rhyming wordplay and factual notes in the artist’s familiar style…. “All day we bees/Just buzz and buzz./That’s what we duzz/And duzz and duzz.” The book is just what Florian duzz and will be welcomed by his fans.”
-- School Library Journal, February 2012

"Working in gouache, colored pencils, and collage on paper bags, Florian evokes the world of bees with repetitive patterning that cleverly references their honeycombs and the fields of flowers they frequent as well as the bees themselves--worker bees are sisters hatched from eggs laid two thousand at a crack. His rhythmic verse, too, echoes bee behavior, as much with sound as with sense (“I’m a nectar collector. / Make wax to the max. / A beehive protector. / I never relax”). Puns and other wordplay enliven the text (“Why are we full / Of fuzz and fuzz? / Bee-cuzz bee-cuzz / The fuzz the fuzz / Helps pollen stick / To uzz to uzz”). A paragraph of more straightforward facts elucidates each spread, but the real energy here is in the deceptively casual art. A regal queen bee looks almost human, and drones resemble feckless kids, while captions of discretely scattered capitals provide as much texture as information…an offbeat and attractive book, completed with a “BEEbliography.”
-- The Horn Book, March/April 2012

5 Question Interview with Douglas Florian

1. Q: UnBEElievables is written on a fascinating subject – honeybees. How do you select the topics for your work, and what drew you to this subject in particular?

A: I was hearing a lot about the recent problem honeybees have been having, namely Colony Collapse Disorder, and that piqued my interest. The more I read about bees the more I felt that honeybees would make a fascinating and visually interesting subject. The lives of the queens, workers, and drones are quite unique.

Q: Can you talk a little about your creative process, especially the relationship between the written word and the dynamic illustrations that accompany them? 

A: Most of the time the poem has to come first. Then I try to illustrate the poem in a way that captures the essence but may also amend and compliment the written word. Ideally the painting will have a life of its own, and not merely illustrate.

Q: The poems in UnBEElievables are rich in scientific fact and detail, yet they don’t skimp on humor and whimsy. How is poetry a uniquely effective educational tool/medium for you?

A: All the various elements of poetry help express humor in a way that prose can't. Rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and wordplay, to name a few, give an inner energy to the spare form, often emphasizing the spoken aspects and the sound of words. It's very important to me that people recite my poems the way I do. That's why I use italics, bold, and underlined words, and 



Q: In the 2002 BookPage interview with Heidi Henneman you said: "Poetry is not black and white. It is more like the gray and purple area that connects all the things we live in." Can you elaborate on these gray and purple areas and how they inform your book, UnBEElievables?

A: Is my poetry fiction or non-fiction? I like to think I combine the best elements of both through exaggeration, personification, metamorphosis, and distortion. When worker bees are rapping to each other:
it's in the gray or purple area between fact and fancy.

Q: The natural world fills many of your poems and this is no exception in your recent work. In your view is poetry itself also a natural process? If so, in what way(s)?

A: Ideally a poem should seem natural and fluid, much like watching an ice skater do a triple axle. But if I go ice-skating I'm liable to break my axle. It looks easy and natural, but it can be quite painstaking. I drive my editor crazy with revision of lines, letters, and punctuations until the very day the book is printed (and even afterwards for a second printing). How does a poem naturally occur in my mind? If I knew that I would bottle it and sell it. As soon as you find the formula you have to throw it away, otherwise your work repeats itself too much.

Poem Preview (with apologies for not capturing the spacing exactly)

“Worker Bees”


Not one brother.
Not one mister.
See us sisters work all day,
Dawn to dusk – no time to play.
We must feed the needy queen,
Drones, and babies –
And then we clean!
When it’s hot we fan the air.
Have the hive in good repair.
Always working,

Sharing Poetry
UnBEElivables is ripe for use in the classroom, especially when introducing science concepts about the nature of honeybees and pollination.

Poetry Sharing: Start off by dividing the classroom into two equal halves and prepare for a choral reading of “Worker Bees” by Douglas Florian. Alternate reading lines aloud between the two groups. Because this poem is full of rhyme and alliteration it is perfect for a call-and-response oral reading.

Following up: Select and read aloud poems from UnBEElievables that discuss the three main types of honeybees: worker bees, drones, and queens. Supplement these poems with factual information and color photographs of each type of bee. Conclude the exercise with a class discussion including the following questions:

1. What is a bee hive?

2. What is the job of a worker bee?

3. What is the job of a drone bee?

4. What is the job of the queen bee?

5. Why are each of these jobs important for the well-being of the hive?

6. How do these three kinds of honey bees cooperate to keep the hive healthy?

7. What are some of the ways you cooperate with others (in the classroom, at home)?

(The Canadian Honey Council, 2012).

"Books: UnBEElievables." Simon and Schuster Canada. Simon and Schuster, 2012. Web. 23 Mar 2012. .
"Curriculum Activities for Grades 1-3." Canadian Honey Council. Canadian Honey Council, 2012. Web. 23 Mar 2012. .
"Douglas Florian." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.
Florian, Douglas. E-mail Interview. 11, March 2012.
Long, Joanna Rudge. "UnBEElievables: Honeybee Poems and Paintings." The Horn Book Magazine 88.2 (2012): 125+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
Smith, Roberta. "Douglas Florian: 'Letting in the light'." The New York Times. 4 June 2010: .
Snyder-Camp, Megan. "Biography: Douglas Florian." The Poetry Foundation. 2011. Web. 23 Mar 2012. .

*******Please allow me a special Poetry Friday plug of my new book, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists available now. It features 155 lists of poetry books organized by topic and theme as well as research-based strategies for sharing poetry with kids.

You’ll find recommended lists of poetry books tied to calendar events throughout the year, poetry that targets the needs of students acquiring English as a new language, poetry to help children through worries, adjustments or difficult times, 20 lists of poetry to support the study of science, social studies, and language arts, lists organized by different poetic forms, question prompts to guide meaningful discussions, preparation and presentation pointers, display ideas, poetry quotes, lesson plan tips, poet birthdays, and a poetry scavenger hunt and treasure hunt for kids—all tools to help jumpstart a poetry program and keep it energized and fresh all year long. Here’s the link.

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday crew at Robyn Hood Black's blog, Read, Write, Howl. See you there!


Janet Wong said...

I love that ode to sisterhood and the environmental message of this book. I've planted lots of native plants in my garden which attract bees. (My son thinks I'm crazy, because he'd rather live in a bee-free zone...)

Readers: If you have the ebook PoetryTagTime (that Sylvia and I compiled), your students might also enjoy hearing the bee poems there by Joan Bransfield Graham and David L. Harrison.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Hi, Janet, thanks for the reminder about the terrific bee poems in PoetryTagTime. Love those so much!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thank you, Sylvia, and excellent interview, Kristin! And thanks to Douglas Florian for this great new book I must get my hands on. Such an important subject - and so fun!

Ruth said...

My kids and I loved Florian's Mammalabilia, and this one sounds wonderful, too.