Saturday, January 29, 2011

The future of poetry publishing for kids

I was corresponding with master poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins about a project I am working on about trends in the last 20 years of children’s poetry (for an upcoming Book Links article). He said some things I found really intriguing—like the anthology is dead—and it led to a barrage of questions! He was kind enough to answer them all and allow me to share his responses here. See what you think…

SV: Shall we start with the bombshell? Your observations about the death of the children’s poetry anthology? Is it due strictly to the pro
fit margin, given permission costs?

Lee: Anthologies of poetry for children have seen a dramatic decrease. In 2009, about twenty collections appeared; in 2010 a mere seven. I believe there are several reasons why collections are not appearing:

Permission costs are one problem. We cannot expect poets to write without compensation. Reprint fees, which were normally low, have sky-rocketed mainly due to publishers asking for all rights. Dealing with certain agents is another problem. Many are fair, yet one agent who handles a huge grouping of America’s top poets charges a high fee for one-time use in hardcover, another fee for paperback, another for book club rights, another for world rights. One single poem might add up to $l,000. It is totally impossible to use certain poet’s work with such fees. One cannot put the blame on publishers who have to pay the compiler an advance, an illustrator an advance, a permission budget – all before a manuscript moves from an editor’s desk to production.

A recent collection I did, SHARING THE SEASONS (McElderry Books, 2010), a book of 48 selections ran close to $10,000 in permission fees. Few readers realize the time and expense involved in merely clearing permissions.

Another problem is that certain major publishers who once published collections simply will not take on additional anthologies. It is frustrating that several have turned their back on the genre after having a history of publishing mega-hit volumes.

For a collection to work it has to have a strong backing from the house. Now we are seeing ‘celebrity’ collections, for example, Julie Andrews with Little, Brown, Caroline Kennedy with Hyperion. Few can compete with such names in the marketplace yet there should be room for more voices.

Another problem exists with many young editors who know little about poetry per se and are unwilling to chance an anthology on their list.

SV: How will new poets find an audience if not in anthologies?

Lee: New poets will always seek ways to get their voices heard. With new technology on the horizon, things might open up more. Again, little or no compensation might be forthcoming.

I hope the tide will turn among publishing houses. I don’t see it happening soon. There is always a house that will take a chance on a new poet.

SV: If publishers are less interested in anthologies, what formats for poetry books DO have a chance in the marketplace?

Lee: Picture book anthologies consisting of 14-20 poems will have a better chance than large collections. Again, the theme has to be strong.

SV: How are picture book poetry collections faring as picture books, in general, seem to be on the decline?

Lee: Publishing is a forever guessing game. If the poetry and artwork gel, books fare well. Examples are Joyce Sidman’s DARK EMPEROR AND OTHER POEMS OF THE NIGHT; published last year by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, the book received hosts of honors including a 2010 Newbery Honor Book. Another major hit was Marilyn Singer’s MIRROR MIRROR (Dutton, 2010).

So many factors enter into a book doing well in the marketplace. A strong collection with a fine artist will do as well as any picture book might.

SV: Which publishers still seem to seek out and publish poetry for young people, particularly new poets?

Lee: The only publisher in America who solely publishes a line of poetry is Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong.

Wordsong, started as a separate arm of Boyds Mills Press to emphasize poetry, has been quite successful with multi-award winning titles as CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, a Newbery Honor Book by Marilyn Nelson, HOW GOD FIXED JONAH by Lorenz Graham, illustrated by Ashley Bryan, an ALA Notable Book, and my own BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE, recipient of the Christopher Award and an ALA Notable. The house not only publishes new voices, but keeps classic works in print as in the best selling ANOTHER JAR OF TINY STARS, featuring selected poems by all fifteen recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children Award. The award, first given in l977, is for an aggregate body of a poet’s work.

SV: Poetry publishing has dipped now and again in the past—what circumstances intervened then to boost poetry? What might make such a difference now?

Lee: Poetry has always been a ‘stepchild’ of the language arts. It is teachers and librarians who must promote the genre, make it part of everyday experiences for children. More inservice workshops are needed. We also need far more presentations at annual meetings/conventions. We must get contemporary poets out there reading, discussing their work. We also need to get publishers to take more chances.

Recent technology has also been a boon to promoting poetry. Popular blogs and web sites as:

Miss Rumphius Effect
Wild Rose Reader
Giggle Poetry
Potato Hill Poetry

have done wonders for the genre. I am certain the future will bring even more.

SV: What changes do you see in how teachers and librarians respond to poetry for young people (if any)?

Lee: I find, have found, during decades of work in the field of poetry, once teachers and librarians are hooked they become hooked forever. Poetry must come into our children’s lives as naturally as breathing. They should hear poetry, be presented with the genre every day of their lives.

Three must reads that belong on every professional bookshelf are USING POETRY ACROSS THE CURRICULUM: SECOND EDITION by Barbara Chatton (Libraries Unlimited, 2010), and two books by Sylvia M. Vardell: POETRY ALOUD HERE! SHARING POETRY WITH CHILDREN IN THE LIBRARY (ALA, 2006); POETRY PEOPLE: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S POETS (Libraries Unlimited, 2007). These three titles are among the best to bring children and poetry together.

SV: [Thanks for the plug, Lee!] Other thoughts?

Lee: Only one: A thought I’ve been thinking, something I’ve been begging for -- for over half-a-century now, since I began teaching elementary school in l960 -- Pass the poetry, please!

Thanks again to Lee for these fascinating and thoughtful responses. It really is food for thought, isn’t it?!

Image credit: 


Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2011. All rights reserved.


Michele Krueger said...

Loved the interview! Thank you both for your insights.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Yowza--I learned so much! Thanks, both of you!

Joe Sottile said...

Yes, poets should get into as many schools as they can. This was some kids wrote after my last visit...“I like your books. I love your poems. I think they are very good and funny. I also like your vest that your wife made. Also I like your hat. I would love it if you made more poems.—Brandon
“You gave us the funnest day of our lives. You taught me a lot of things about poetry.”—Austin
“I loved your poems. They were so good that I remember them. You coming to our class made everything better that day. You are a person I will always remember. When I grow up, my second option is being a poet just like you!”—Bryhanna...
Joe Silly Sottile at

tess said...

Poets are in schools. I'm a school librarian, a writer and book reviewer (I reviewed The City I Love for School Library Journal and got a thank you note from Lee --XOXOXO). When I have any free time I write:
and more recently
I've lost interest in publishing -- and I don't think I'm alone. So I'm getting the work out there, letting it go. My living doesn't require that my poetry be valued on an economic level. There are incredible poets writing online these days. A great community.

Leslie Bulion said...

Thank you, Sylvia and Lee, for this thoughtful conversation. Our publishing world is in such flux; I'm just grateful to be along for the ride. We know how children embrace and revel in poetry at "hello," and are lucky that the two of you are tireless and joyful masters at making the introduction.

Greg Pincus said...

I think it's a great time for poets, in terms of being able to get their work seen and heard. As Lee notes, new technology will make (and already does make!) that easier. I share Lee's concern about compensation, but I think that we'll find new ways for that, as well, both within and outside of traditional publishing. It's gonna take out of the box thinking... but then again, I don't think people who are compelled to write poetry and share it with children are particularly "in the box" thinkers anyway!

Thanks for sharing the interview, Sylvia and Lee. It's the curse of living in interesting times, indeed.

Amy L V said...

Sylvia and Lee, Thank you for this interview. I learned a lot, and I'm thinking we should form a band of poetry pirates to ensure that poetic voices are represented at all children's literature,kidlit blogger, and teacher conferences. Too, what can we do in our own locales to promote and celebrate children's poetry? Again, many thanks. A.

Joan said...

Lee & Sylvia, I am very grateful to you both for all you have done, and continue to do, to promote the pleasures of poetry! Also, please add Lee's own wonderful book, PASS THE POETRY, PLEASE!, to that list of must-haves. When I do school visits, I see firsthand how much children enjoy poetry, how it helps them see the world in a new way and inspires their creativity.

Julie said...

I talk with my writing students at Vermont College of Fine Arts all the time about reading Peter and Iona Opie's wonderful books about playground poems and rhymes, and I encourage people who want to write for children to go out and listen to how much kids love poetry. I also wonder, along with my students, what happens along the way to make that initial love diminish and die out...and I think it has to do with being made to feel there are "wrong" answers and "right" answers about what a poem "means." My hope is that kids will be allowed to love poetry for the pure joy of how it sounds! Many nursery rhymes make no sense, and kids love no(n)sense. Once sense is more important, the love will deepen - meanwhile, I just hope the music of poetry will continue to wash across kids as they grow.

Thanks for the thought-provoking interview, Sylvia.

Eric Ode said...

Thank you both for the insights. The fate of the anthology surprises me. With the ever-growing expectation from publishers that their authors be deeply involved in the promotion of their works, I would think publishers would jump at the opportunity to release anthologies. If a collection has 40 contributors, they have 40 writers actively supporting that title.

Toby Speed said...

This thoughtful conversation and the comments about children loving poetry should give us all hope, because poetry will prevail. It is just so nourishing and so good. I see opportunities for poets, both online and in strong collections, as Lee points out. The grounds may be shifting, but the form will find a new way.

As this was posted, I was at the SCBWI conference in NYC, where poetry was never mentioned. Not in the main talks, not in the breakouts. (And there were poets on the panels!) But there was a lot of talk about making our work strong, not worrying about trends, drawing from within, polishing and loving what we write, and all this holds true for poetry, too. Maybe this is naive, but I have faith that if poets work hard and write well, publishers will come back.

Thank you, Lee and Sylvia, for this interview.

laurasalas said...

Thanks, Lee and Sylvia, for this conversation (and everyone who's commented so far). I swing wildly between dejection over the struggle of publishing poetry and joy over the thrill of writing it. I'm thankful poetry has the two of you as ambassadors, and I know how much my life has been enriched by poetry, poetry lovers, and poets. I hold on to that even while trying to figure out how to spread the poetry love:>)

Sara Furlong said...

Right on, Toby Speed and Amy LV.

These publishing hardships for poets make me optimistic. I believe these obstacles will make poets work harder to write dazzling verse and come up with strong themes that will take children's poetry in fresh directions. Beyond excellent writing, though, today's poets will be forced to learn the art of marketing themselves and promoting children's poetry in general. I expect we will see an internet movement occur, promoting the merits of poetry to educators, librarians, parents, policy makers and children themselves.

If such a movement exists now in its early stages, Vardell might be considered its leader. Thanks, Sylvia, for a great interview and for your constant outstanding work.

Sylvia Vardell said...

WOW WOW WOW! Thank you all for your comments, kind words, insights, and suggestions! I knew Lee had hit a nerve when he shared some of these thoughts with me earlier, so I'm glad we took the time to explore them further here.

And this also makes me think we need a regular installment of Q&A with LBH! So watch for more like this in the future. I have a ton of questions I'd like to ask him! Maybe you do, too.

Thanks again for reading and responding--

Lynda said...

I have used "verse" quite extensively in my manuscript of Tiny Others on Jump Up To Chapter Books.

I feel that the lack of appreciation of poetry for children's literature may be related to less frequent oral reading. Some words/phrases just BEG to be heard, if only by the reader.

I find major satisfaction in the audience on my blog and now have readers from nineteen countries! (I had to put up a wall map and invest in push pins.)

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thank you both for your tireless commitment to connecting children with great poetry, and for this thought-provoking interview. And hear, hear! for the idea of regular installments with LBH!

Will Terry said...

Amen, Thanks for being a light for children's poetry!

Jeannine Atkins said...

I loved the interview and am glad I came back to read all the comments which brought even more depth to the topic. Thank you, Lee, Sylvia, everyone! And a regular feature with Lee sounds fantastic!

Jennifer Cummins said...

Excellent interview. To my fellow poets, continue to publish rhyming poetry. I have a book on rhyming recess poems, as I have a developmentally delayed son, and he HATES rhyming words. However, acquiring semantics and linguistic a linguistic base in all children is vital to their academic potential and goes far beyond just learning to read poetry! Educators and parents need to know these things and I am passionate, if not published, on this subject! Well, if you can call published, then, I suppose I am. If anyone has any ideas on who to approach with a rhyming book, please let me know. You can see some of my articles on, and click on some of the article links.

Josie Whitehead said...

An educational publisher published 344 of the 400 children's poems I'd written in 2010, and he published them in 5 anthologies. I don't know whether these five were counted in your figures. However, he has retired and the books are no longer printed and yet I've now written 1,350 poems (Google JOSIE'S POEMS). These are poems that are written with excellent rhyme and rhythms/metres, and many have stories or words that paint pictures. I was encouraged to write when I visited children in my local primary school, and they asked me to write them a poem. They liked it so much that week by week and year by year they and other children asked for more. The teachers chose these poems in their hundreds, as I said, for publication, and I'd love to have them published in book form, but at the moment all I can do is to put them on my five massive websites which, last year, carried them out to children in 188 countries of the world. They are wonderful performance poems and exactly what teachers are seeking. I have had some put to music for song, one went into an operatic work staged last year. One has been made into an animated film and many have been illustrated by excellent children's illustrators - but where do I go from here? Help!!!