Saturday, April 07, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Helen Frost

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with an interview with Helen Frost about her new book, Step Gently Out. Graduate student Emily Felker offers this interview (plus) with Helen.

A Closer Look at Helen Frost and her New Book Step Gently Out

About Helen Frost
Before becoming a published poet, Helen Frost was a teacher of children as well as adults. She has lived in South Dakota, Massachusetts, Scotland, Vermont, Alaska, Oregon, and California, but she now calls Indiana home. Her verse novels have received many honors including the 2009 Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Diamond Willow, the 2004 Printz Honor Award for Keesha’s House, and the 2007 and 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor for The Braid and Hidden respectively. In her verse novels, Frost often uses challenging poetic forms. In an interview with Dr. Sylvia Vardell (2010) Frost says, “Just as children love to learn the rules of baseball or basketball and stretch their physical abilities within those rules, so they enjoy stretching to meet intellectual challenges with poetry forms. Let poetry be tough and joyful!” (20).

Frost enjoys outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, and canoeing, and she also raises monarch butterflies each year to release. You can learn more about Frost by visiting her website

Other online resources:
• Watch Frost accept the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award ( She reads from the winning book Diamond Willow (
• Watch an interview with Frost (
• Watch trailers for her books:

About Step Gently Out
Step Gently Out is a poem picture book where the carefully crafted language is accompanied by close-up photographs of tiny creatures. The book encourages readers to step gently and take care to preserve and appreciate the smallest insects in their natural habitats. The detailed photographs and gentle words show the beauty of creatures that are often overlooked or considered pests. In addition to the poem and photographs, there is a guide in the back with information about the insects pictured throughout the book.

Frost's spare text is nicely rhythmic and falls into long rhyming couplets. Appearing in small chunks set in inviting double-page pictures, the poem reads rather as blank verse, the imagery and phrasing pleasing when shared aloud. The felicitous pairing of poetry and pictures is enjoyable and useful. (School Library Journal, March 2012)

Captivating photography gives readers a close-up view of the world of insects, as described by a gently contemplative poem…Working in concert, the words and images achieve a Zenlike calm that also hints at the complicated web of life unfolding all around. (Publishers Weekly, January 2012)

While Frost's lightly rhymed declarative verse encourages children to experience the natural world with care and openness to the tiny wonders of insect life around them, Lieder's richly colored intimate close ups offer every reason why. (Kirkus Reviews, January 2012)

Q and A with Helen Frost
Step Gently Out encourages readers to appreciate the natural world around them. What kind of activities do you enjoy doing to reconnect with the natural world?

I love hiking and just being outdoors, watching everything that happens. I try to keep my birdfeeders full, and in my backyard, I have lots of birds, both large (even the occasional hawk) and small (hummingbirds, wrens, finches, chickadees), as well as insects and small animals (rabbits, possums, raccoons, mice, chipmunks, squirrels).

I know from reading Monarch and Milkweed as well as your information on your website that you raise and release monarch butterflies. While creating this book, did you develop a new appreciation for any other creatures that may have surprised you?

I wouldn't say "new" appreciation, because I've always loved insects, and most spiders, but working on the book did deepen my appreciation, and let me see that there are more creatures than I'd known. I think the katydid in the book is so beautiful, and I have found a few of them in my backyard.

Step Gently Out is sure to be popular among young children, especially boys, who are fascinated by the insect world. As children read Step Gently Out what is something you hope they notice or learn that may be new to them?

I'd question the idea that the book will be more popular among boys, or that boys are more fascinated by the insect world, because my fascination with insects was such an important part of my girlhood. It may be a stereotype we could dispense with, which might encourage more girls to become scientists.

When I was a child, I caught insects and displayed them as a collection. I must have viewed them as less important than other creatures, to have treated them that way. I hope the photographs, as well as the poem, in this book, will encourage children to photograph and draw insects, treating them gently and respectfully, and letting them live.

You have written several popular verse novels for young adults including Printz Award Honor, Keesha’s House. Can you explain how your preparation for Step Gently Out differed from creating a fictional verse novel?

It's a matter of paying attention to different things in different ways, at different times. In my novels, I'm thinking deeply about children and teens and all the human interactions. In Step Gently Out, my attention is to insects, though the interaction between people and insects is also at the heart of the book.

You have taught writing to children as well as adults. What have you noticed about poetry that intimidates students of all ages? What do you suggest for reducing this anxiety and celebrating poetry with students?

I usually don't notice this anxiety when I'm teaching. In fact, I often see the opposite--a great enthusiasm for poetry from children, teens and adults. Probably the reason for this is in the exact language you use in your question--I treat poetry as a great cause for celebration, and and I don't feel anxious about it, so perhaps that comes across to the people I teach.

However, I have thought about how to create a safe environment for writing, and I've written about it in my book When I Whisper, Nobody Listens. Here's a link to the chapter that gives a careful response to this very good question:

Poem Preview (an excerpt)

A spider
spins a silken thread
and steps
A praying mantis
looks at you—
do you
she’s there?

Activities for sharing Step Gently Out
• Take students outside with construction paper and pastels and let them draw insects that they observe. Encourage them to watch the insects quietly as they move and work.
• Put kids in groups of 2-3. Allow them to photograph things outdoors. Print the photographs and make a collage to display in the classroom.
• Ask students to keep an insect journal. Each day they should record their observations of the insect world using words and sketches. At the end of the week, have students share some of their observations with the class.

Bush, M. (2012). Step Gently Out. School Library Journal, 58(2), 102.
Helen Frost Retrieved 3/12/2012, 2012, from
Step Gently Out. (2012). Kirkus Reviews, 80(1), 2435-2436.
Step Gently Out. (2012). Publishers Weekly, 259(1), 84.
Vardell, S. M. (2010). Talking with Helen Frost. Book Links, 19(3), 20-21.
Book cover retrieved from


Joyce Sidman said...

Great interview! Helen, I'm going to look up your "When I whisper . . ." book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Emily, for this good interview, and Sylvia for this whole series.

Readers of STEP GENTLY OUT might also be interested in learning more about the photographer, Rick Lieder.

Helen Frost