Friday, November 13, 2009

LBH at the Kerlan

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to return to my a
lma mater, the University of Minnesota, and spend a day at the fantastic Kerlan Collection (part of the Children’s Literature Research Collections, CLRC), one of the nation’s premiere special collections in the field of children’s literature. It houses thousands of manuscripts, galleys, art, correspondence and more surrounding the creation of at least a century’s worth of children’s books. I had spent many happy hours there as a graduate student and even done some research on the German writer and illustrator Wilhelm Busch, but I hadn’t been back in many years. What a treat it was to see their new building, complete with new spaces for display, study, and storage. The staff was lovely and helpful and I caught up with a Karen Nelson Hoyle, the marvelous curator of the Kerlan, too. (Thank you, all!)

My time was very limited, but I did want to dig a bit into the poetry-related holdings of the Kerlan. I chose to study one set of materials for one book—
City Talk, an unusual poetry anthology by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I say “unusual,” because I thought I knew Hopkins’s oeuvre fairly well—the breadth and variety of his collections published since the early 1970s. I also knew that he had been a teacher, editor, and frequent speaker in schools and libraries. What I didn’t know was that this had resulted in his publishing a book of poetry written BY children, based on a huge writing project he conducted in several schools across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There were 6 folders of materials related to this book and I went through each item in each folder carefully examining what they all revealed about the creation of this book. B
ecause I find the back-stories behind the creation of children’s books fascinating (how does the magician do that trick? I always marvel), I offer here a step-by-step examination of the available materials for one book. I think kids find this process interesting, too, and I believe it helps demystify the process a bit so they see that writers WORK to write the books kids love. Please join me in my research-walk through these snippets of how one book came to be.

The first file folder for
City Talk (labeled “M.F. 459”) contains a 5 page handwritten draft on a yellow pad, possibly of a preface for City Talk and a list of colleagues for an acknowledgements page. There is also a 44 page typescript, with corrections noted on it. I learn that the book is entitled City Talk, and is made up of cinquains written by 40+ children living in and around urban areas, writing through “the city’s seasons.” Hopkins writes, “It’s neither children writing for themselves nor for their peers; it is children writing freely for us all.”

The second folder contains another typescript, also with corrections, and this one is 50 pages long.

A third folder contains yet another corrected typescript, now 43 pages long, and carbon copies (carbon!) and photocopies of 6 page of miscellaneous front matter. Here, we learn that the cinquain poems are created by fourth to sixth graders from Detroit, Hartford, New York’s Harlem and other areas in and around cities. We also learn the cinquain is a “newly popularized form, a simple five-line verse originated here in America by Adelaide Crapsie (sic).”

In his draft of “
City Talk; An Introduction,” Hopkins writes, “In Carl Sandburg’s Cornhuskers, published in 1918, he wrote a poem about Adelaide Crapsey. One of the lines states, ‘I read your heart in a book.’ Small wonder that one of America’s greatest poets recognized the majesty of this woman. Born in Brooklyn Heights, New York, her short, tragic life produced a vehicle which lives on in the words and thoughts of youngsters who have helped to perpetuate her versatile and imaginative discovery.” This note is dated November 4, 1969.

Where are these “junior poets” now, I wonder? I note some of their names:
Rodney Starr, Lewis Jackson, Dougal Douglas, Renee Smalls, Deborah Dore, Miriam Gent, Leon Bowman, Hattie Lile from E
vanston, Illinois, Sandra Johnson, Willie Robinson, Maria Levant, Nancy Burns, Janet Binnie, Teresa Jastrzebski, Joe Donahue, Gretchen Winters, Peachie Moore, Marilyn Kruth and the whole crew from Wildwood, Pennsylvania.

If they were about 10 years old in about 1970, they’d be about 50 now, right? Do they remember having a poem published in a collection compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins way back when?

In the next folder, I find a 67p. version of the typed pages including photocopies of the interleaved illustrations which are black and white photographs of kids playing in the city. They have a surprisingly contemporary feel. Kids are kids when it comes to sliding down slides and swinging a bat.

Woo hoo! The next folder includes 9 pages of a galley and a 47-page “page proof.” Here it really starts to look like a finished book. We have a print out of the pages as if they were ready to be bound. It’s crisp white paper and bold black print. We also have a table of contents, a revised introduction, and a list of the children by name who are depicted in the photographs (although the art is not included among these pages). The introduction is far more elaborated and goes on to describe the cinquain form (along with the previous tribute to creator Adelaide Crapsey), “The cinquain is a delicately-compressed, five-line, unrhyming stanza containing twenty-two syllables broken into a 2-4-6-8-2 pattern. The sophisticated reader may note that some of the poems in this volume do not entirely conform to this formula. I have intentionally permitted children to over-step the structured boundaries and some formal grammatical rules in order to encourage them to write. They have!”

Here we also see the page of acknowledgements of the teachers who helped gather the poems. My favorite nugget appears at the end of this acknowledgement page:

“We regret that a cinquain by each child who wrote one for the project could not appear on the pages of this collection. Special thanks to these silent poets.”

Silent poets.


In the last folder, we have a 10 p. page proof photocopy, corrected, and 16 pages of a corrected dummy. There is also some correspondence (10 pages) with the publisher. There are careful notes (5 pages) and lists and correspondence regarding tracking down and accounting for the permissions for each of these young poets. Even in 1969 this was important.

A letter from the Juvenile department reads, “Dear Mr. Hopkins: Please find enclosed the dead matter for
City Talk—manuscript, galleys, repros and blues—for your files.”

“Dead matter.”
Ouch. What a phrase. And yet here I am studying it some 40 years later!

There’s also the first
copy of what really looks like a book, complete with illustrations and a cover, all in blue. It’s labeled “2nd blueprint” and now we would call that a blueline. It’s not yet bound and pages are out of order, but it feels like a book! Of course, after all this, I just had to find the finished book, which I bought (“used” on Amazon). It was published by Knopf in 1970 and has a smallish trim size (about 7 x 9) and the black and white photographs I noted appear throughout. It may seem dated at first glance, but the poems hold up, as do the photographs of kids at play or pensive—all reflecting timeless moments and thoughts that ring true now as they did then. As a teacher, I always liked to have a few books featuring children’s writing in my classroom library. I think it’s very empowering for kids to see that possibility. It’s also a great example of what you can produce yourself with kids, paper and a camera.

And here’s the finished book and a sampling of two of the kids’ cinquain poems from it:

Rain clouds
Think of the rain.

Rain looks blue and dark grey.

It splashes hard on sidewalks,
On me!

Robert Harding, Julesburg, Colorado

It’s fall.
Leaves falling
Breezes showing signs of
Winter. Things settle down for a

Long nap.

Myrna Campbell, New York, New York

Use the search function to see other postings about poetry by children. In previous entries, I’ve mentioned other collections by Naomi Nye, Betsy Franco, Sanford Lyne, and others.

* * * * *
And if you’re attending the upcoming convention of the National Council of Teachers of English in Philadelphia, please join us on Friday (Nov. 20) at session
A.18, for a “Poetry Party,” celebrating Lee Bennett Hopkins receiving the 2009 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. It will be Friday morning, 9:30-10:45am in Convention Center Room 201A on Level 2. Lee will be speaking, of course, and we’ll also have a crew of poets toasting and roasting him, including Jane Yolen, Janet Wong, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, J. Patrick Lewis, Georgia Heard, and Walter Dean Myers, among others. It is not-to-be-missed. In addition, Lee will officially receive his poetry award at the Books for Children luncheon on Saturday. If you can’t make the conference, look for the “Profile” article about Lee in the September 2009 (v. 87, n.1) issue of Language Arts by Janet Wong and Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

Look for more on the Poetry Friday front at Gottabook hosted by Gregory K.

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.

Image credit: SV at the CLRC


Steven Withrow said...

Fascinating! I'll definitely have to visit that collection at some point.

Charles Ghigna said...

Thanks, Sylvia, for "taking us with you" on your visit to the Kerlan! What an amazing behind-the-scenes look at "The City I Love."

Greg Pincus said...

That's was fascinating, Sylvia. Thanks for digging... and then sharing.

Mary Lee said...

Well, if no one comes to our A Session on Friday at NCTE, at least I know where (I hope) they all are!!! (ME, TOO!!!)

This was an amazing virtual tour you shared with us--thank you! One thing in particular jumped out at me. I am home with my mom in Burlington, CO right now (she had surgery last week) and Julesburg, home of Robert Harding who wrote the cinquain about fall, is just north of here. I went to swim meets in Julesburg when I was a kid and our high schools played each other in sports!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I'll be attending the Poetry Party for Lee and the Books for Children Luncheon. I am so looking forward to meeting you!

Joyce said...

Sylvia, sorry I missed you when you were in Minneapolis. I'm on the Friends Board of the Kerln. We're all excited, because tomorrow we are having our 60th Kerlan Anniversary party, and Leonard Marcus is coming to speak. Should be great!

Loved your explication of Lee's book.

laurasalas said...

Sylvia, you tease! When I saw your post title, I thought Lee was coming to speak at the Kerlan!

Ah well, your detailed walk through this project is fun, too:>) I'm not familiar with this book--I'll have to hunt it down. I love Sanford Lyne's 10-Second Rainshowers (or something like that).

I've heard the phrase "dead matter" a lot. At first it made me cringe. Now I just think of it as the byproduct of a beautiful book. All the stuff produced along the way...

I'm so sad not to be going to NCTE this w/e. We're going to a family wedding in Atlanta. I can't wait to hear all about it, though! Have a blast!

Marja said...

Oh what a great treasures. My daughter was at the school for young writers and I was always stunned at the quality of poems of the young children said...

Fascinating stuff. Sylvia. Fun to spend a bit of time with you last night at dinner.


Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you all for your comments and responses.

Great to meet you, Elaine!

I'm calling next time I'm in Minneapolis, Joyce! I'd love to meet up there!