Monday, April 30, 2012

New world poetry for Día 2012

In honor of El día de los niños/El día de los libros/ Children's day/Book Day today, I'd like to highlight three books from outside the U.S.

Argueta, Jorge. 2012. Guacamole; Un poema para cocinar/ A Cooking Poem. Ill. by Margarita Sada. Toronto: Groundwood.

From the publisher, Groundwood Books: "Jorge Argueta’s third book in our bilingual cooking poem series is — Guacamole — with very cute, imaginative illustrations by Margarita Sada.

Guacamole originated in Mexico with the Aztecs and has long been popular in North America, especially in recent years due to the many health benefits of avocados. This version of the recipe is easy to make, calling for just avocados, limes, cilantro and salt. A little girl dons her apron, singing and dancing around the kitchen as she shows us what to do. Poet Jorge Argueta sees beauty, magic and fun in everything around him — avocados are like green precious stones, salt falls like rain, cilantro looks like a little tree and the spoon that scoops the avocado from its skin is like a tractor.

As in the previous cooking poems, Guacamole conveys the pleasure of making something delicious and healthy to eat for people you really love. A great book for families to enjoy together."

Here is the cutest book trailer for Guacamole complete with a foot-tapping song to enjoy!

Be sure to check out his other bilingual "food" poetry collections:
Argueta, Jorge. 2009. Sopa de frijoles/ Bean Soup. Ill. by Rafael Yockteng. Toronto, ON: Groundwood.
Argueta, Jorge. 2010. Arroz con leche; Rice Pudding. Ill. by Fernando Vilela. Toronto, ON: Groundwood.

Luján, Jorge. 2012. Con el sol en los ojos/ With the Sun in My Eyes. Ill. by Morteza Zahedi. Toronto: Groundwood.

From Groundwood: "In this book of short poems in Spanish and English, a young boy and girl describe their world and their day-to-day experiences -- the boy's street is like the trunk of an almond tree and the newborn chicks are like tiny walking suns. The girl loves her dog Oliver, the wind hitting her in the face and laughter "that explodes for no reason." But the children also ponder mysteries, such as the loud silence the boy hears inside himself when he goes for a walk alone and the vast beauty of the sky, with its clouds and constellations.

Once again Jorge Luján brings young readers a lyrical and joyful collection of poems. Morteza Zahedi's powerful illustrations in densely saturated colors perfectly complement the poems' subtle explorations."

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail. Ill. by Ramsingh Urveti. 2012. London: Tara Books.

From Tara Books: "A well-known folk poem from 17th century England, 'I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail' is a form of trick verse. The poem at first seems nonsensical, but given a break in the middle of each line begins to make perfect sense.

In this pioneering visual exploration of I Saw a Peacock, Gond tribal artist Ramsingh Urveti and book designer Jonathan Yamakami use art and design in the service of language. Working together, revealing and concealing, they brilliantly mirror the shifting ways in which poetry creates meaning."

This book is truly exquisite in art, design, and construction-- but it's also elegant and simple and kid-friendly. The lines of the poem curl this way and that through multiple pages across the blue-black-white palette of the die cut pages.

It begins:

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circled around
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground

Get it? The playful nature of the lines and how they are tucked into the art beg for repeated examination. The thick pages cut with holes and curves and stars offers a tactile experience that takes the simple poem to another level. It's hard to describe adequately, so I urge you to get your own copy, share it with a 10 year old you love, and see what happens. It's the best paper "app" you'll find this year-- read it multiple times, backwards and forwards, talking about the lines, the art, the pages, and making up your own imitation poems!

Happy El día de los niños/El día de los libros/ Children's day/Book Day one and all!

And I've already highlighted the following collection in the 5Q interview series-- it also includes a global selection of poets:

Hoyte, Carol-Ann and Roemer, Heidi Bee. Eds. 2012. And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems. Ill. by Kevin Sylvester. Neche, ND: Friesens Press.

Image credit: 

Groundwood, Tara Books

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Forget-Me-Not by Mary Ann Hoberman

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month has ended and I hope you enjoyed our conversations with the 22 poets we featured along with their new poetry books for young people due out this year. A big cyber thank you to each of the poets who participated and also to my lovely graduate students who worked so hard and were so thrilled to have these connections with the poets they admire!

For the last two days of National Poetry Month, please allow me to discuss a few more new poetry books published in 2012. Today, I'd like to give a shout out to former Children's Poet Laureate, Mary Ann Hoberman, who has compiled a wonderful anthology with an ear to selecting the most musical memorizable works for children. It's:

Hoberman, Mary Ann. Ed. 2012. Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart. Ill. by Michael Emberley. New York: Little, Brown.

From the bookflap: "From the creators of the bestselling You Read to Me, I'll Read to You series comes this new collection of poems especially suitable for learning by heart and saying aloud.... [It includes] her own time-tested tips and tools for memorization and recitation -- and vivid illustrations by Michael Emberley featuring his trademark wit and lively characters, Forget-Me-Nots includes more than 120 works from both classic and contemporary poets, from childhood favorites to lesser-known treasures."

The book is organized into thematic categories including "The Short of It," "One and All," "Beautiful Beasts," "Delicious Dishes," "It's About Time," Happiness Is," "Weather and Seasons," "Sad and Sorrowful," "Strange and Mysterious," "Poems from Storybooks," and "The Long of It." The range of poets is truly impressive with many classic works by the "greats" such as Stevenson, Frost, Sandburg, Rossetti, Milne, and many more-- including poets known primarily as writers for adults. There are also many, many contemporary names represented including Gary Soto, Eloise Greenfield, Bobbi Katz, Judith Viorst, Valerie Worth, Marilyn Singer, Douglas Florian, JonArno Lawson, and Walter Dean Myers, among others.

An ending section entitled, "Some Suggestions for Learning Poetry By Heart" takes the "game" of memorization and breaks it down into manageable and meaningful "chunks." A handy index of first lines completes the whole package. A definite "must-have" resource of poetry gems in a very child-friendly and inviting format.

And the critics call it:
* "A multidimensional and thoughtful cross section of verse with keepers on nearly every page." (Publishers Weekly, starred review )

*"[A] joyous collection." (The New York Times Book Review )

*"Emberley's appealing illustrations brighten every page of this large-format book. A handsome anthology of poems that children can learn by heart." (Booklist )

The opening poem by Hoberman herself is a gem that sets the stage and is worthy of learning by heart itself:

"A Poem for the Reader"
by Mary Ann Hoberman

You're on an adventure
About to start,
You're going to learn
Some poems by heart!
Short ones and long ones,
Old ones and new,
Happy ones, sad ones,
Some silly ones, too.
You'll pick out your favorites
From those that you've read
And invite them to live in
The house in your head.
This house is called Memory,
Everyone knows,
And the more you put in it,
The larger it grows.
The more that you give it,
The more it will give,
And your poems will live with you
As long as you live.

Quite honestly, I am not a big fan of required or "forced" memorization of poetry-- having agonizing memories of reciting "The Village Blacksmith" for Mrs. Brooks in sixth grade. I'm a good memorizer, but shy (which no one believes nowadays!), so the recitation was worse than the memorization for me. That said, I am a HUGE fan of repeatedly sharing favorite poems over and over-- and kids love repetition too. When you share favorite poems over and over what happens? You memorize them naturally!

Plus, I raised a daughter who LOVED drama and theater and memorization and performance, so I became familiar with UIL competitions and other similar events through her. For some young people, these are times to shine and poetry is the perfect fit. The Poetry Out Loud competition for high school students is built upon this notion and I have been WOWED by each winner I have heard and seen perform. Hearing a poem recited/performed aloud from memory is a wonderful experience-- almost like attending a theatrical performance or musical concert. And why not make this opportunity available for children. Hoberman's book shows us-- ever so gently-- just how to go about doing that. Check it out!

Previously, I had also planned to discuss Caroline Kennedy's new collection with a similar emphasis, Poems to Learn by Heart to feature illustrations by John Muth. But I have since found out that this title has been pushed back a bit and will be published next year instead. Something to look forward to!

Image credit: 

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Jane Yolen

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month concludes with this interview with Jane Yolen about her new book, Bug Off Creepy, Crawly Poems. Graduate student Lisa Cockrell offers this interview (plus) with Jane.

Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen is a poet and author of many great books. She has been writing poetry since she was in preschool, although she recites her first poem stating that it was not good. But she could rhyme! Her experience in writing includes newspaper work, music lyrics, novels, and of course, poetry. Currently the number of books she has authored is more than 300. She has obviously influenced her children as well - two of the three are also authors. Her third child, her son Jason, has illustrated many books with his magnificent photography, including some of Jane’s books. This incredibly talented author is a positive model of how writing can be learned and honed by anyone who is willing to practice and put in the time. Ms. Yolen has authored books, such as Owl Moon, that are in children’s collections nation-wide. Most of us are probably familiar with her work, but may not be aware that this author has written so many good works in a variety of formats and for so many audiences.

There are many online sources for reading or watching interviews and biographies about Jane Yolen including:

Video interviews

Jane Yolen has a new poetry book that will be published this spring. Bug Off Creepy, Crawly Poems is a delightful book with fantastic photographs as illustrations. Poem subjects include flies, the praying mantis, butterflies, ants, honey bees, love bugs, spiders, and even tics! Many more insects and bugs are included in this great collection of poems that are geared toward children. Two professional reviews praise this new collection to Yolen’s work.

Kirkus Reviews
(March 15, 2012) said, “Mother and son collaborate once more (Birds of a Feather, 2011, etc.), creating a group of poems and photographs that celebrate some well-known creepy crawlies. Fly, praying mantis, butterfly, ants, honey bee, love bug, daddy longlegs, spider, dragonfly, tick, ladybug and grasshopper each take a spread, the photo opposite a page of text that includes the poem and a paragraph of facts. Most of Yolen's poems rhyme, and an author's note encourages readers to create their own poems, with a caution that they choose their words wisely, using the lightning-versus--lightning bug quote from Mark Twain to support this. Stemple's photographs are the true stars of this book. His macro views show such details as the rainbow colorations on a fly's wings, the serrations on a grasshopper's rear legs and the many units that make up the love bug's compound eyes. A bug-themed companion to their previous collaborations.”

Publishers Weekly (Feb 27, 2012) states, “The team behind A Mirror to Nature and Wild Wings offers another striking pairing of poems and photographs about the natural world, in this case the mysterious lives of insects. Each poem (and photograph) is a careful observation of its subject, whether a graceful butterfly ("A tutu-clad dancer,/ I move with lightness") or a tick ("The tick is mostly mouth,/ and if he lands on you/ he'll try to suck your blood,/ 'cause that's what all ticks do"). Each spread also includes a short prose passage with additional information and observations. Regarding a swarm of insects, Yolen writes, "Jason and I don't actually know which bugs are swarming or why.... Sometimes nature is like that."

I conducted a brief, five question interview via email with Ms. Yolen. The questions and answers are below.

1. Why/how did you choose the subject matter of this new book - insects? Are all of the poems related to bugs or nature in general?

I was looking through Jason's photographs (he's my youngest child and a professional photographer) and saw he had a number of photos of insects. So it was a natural to think there could be a book there.

2. What do you think kids will like most about this collection?

The eeeeeeeuu factor of the insects’ photos and the humor in the poems. Kids tend to like humor in their poetry more than the quieter, more introspective poems, but by mixing the kinds of poems up, I hope to introduce them to some more serious poems as well.

3. Are the poems in this book best read by children, to children, or with children?
Short answer: YES. All of the above.

4. I know you have written many books that children, do you anticipate children will embrace this one as well as some of your previous works?

It is a hope devoutly to be wished!

5. Which to you find more interesting (or fulfilling), writing poetry or other forms of fiction (picture books, novels, etc.)? 

I prefer writing short form things--picture books, poetry short stories. But these days, in order to sell books, it is mostly novels that are being bought. So that's what I am currently writing.

Sample Poem
Although I enjoyed each poem in the collection, I really enjoyed the first one, “Oh, Fly.” Perhaps it spoke to me because I can relate - at least about being relieved that it did not land on my food! Jane Yolen purposefully uses words that clearly and succinctly share her ideas and in doing so, she uses words that will stretch children’s vocabularies. This poem uses the phrase, “a vector of disease” which gives teachers a great opportunity to help learners find meanings for unfamiliar words. Children everywhere have seen flies and can relate to the theme of this poem.

Oh, Fly
by Jane Yolen

Oh, fly,
You flew
My leaf
And not
My food.
What a relief!
For on my food
You’d bring me grief
As you’re
A vector of
But you on leaf?
My mind’s at ease.
And there is much
To please
My eye.
For oh, you are
A lovely fly.
Do not go
And multiply.

Sharing the poem
There are many great ways to share and extend this poem with children. The teacher could write the word “multiply” on a paper or the board and lead a discussion about the possible uses and meanings for the word. This could be the lead-in to a discussion about a picnic or a barbeque and how flies are often attracted to our food. Allow students to share about their experiences with such situations. Talk about how they feel when they see a fly, maybe hoping it will not land on them or their food. When a discussion has taken place, share the poem with the students. After sharing the poem, children could draw a picture of a fly or a scene where people are eating and flies are around and how they seem to multiply, seemingly bringing their “friends” with them to share the feast.

Further literature connections could be made by sharing familiar stories such as There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly or other poems about flies. Of course, the lesson could be extended and expanded to include other insects included in this new collection, Bug Off Creepy, Crawly Poems.

Cover image: located through google images
Biographical information:

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 27, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Janet Wong

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Janet Wong about her new book, Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year. Graduate student Jessica Pollock offers this interview (plus) with Janet.

Janet Wong, the daughter of a Chinese father and Korean mother, was born in Los Angeles California in 1962. As a child Wong hated poetry and even saw reading in general as “too quiet and lonely." Wong attended UCLA and earned a B.A. in History; as part of that program she was able to study history abroad for a year in France at the Université de Bordeaux. She went on to attend Yale and obtained a law degree from that institution.

Upon graduation, Wong practiced corporate and labor law for the next four years. While browsing in a children’s bookstore she realized that she was not happy in her current line of work, and what she truly wanted to do was write for children in, ironically, her least favorite genre when she was young, poetry. Initially she received many rejection letters, but eighteen months after quitting her job as a lawyer she sold her first book of children’s poetry Good Luck Gold. Wong’s story about successfully switching careers became the subject of various articles and television programs, most chiefly an article featured in Oprah’s O magazine. To date Wong has written over twenty books and collections of poetry for which she has received numerous awards including the International Reading Association's "Celebrate Literacy Award" for exemplary service in the promotion of literacy.

This is the URL for Janet Wong’s website:

Poetry Suitcase is a website created by Janet Wong, which discusses creating a suitcase filled with poetry books, along with coordinating props, to assist in sharing poems with students. The website also provides Resources which include links to The American Academy of Poets, Poetry Foundation, Elaine Magliaro’s Wild Rose Reader blog, Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry for Children blog and an interview with Janet Wong on the website Reading Rockets. Finally, there is a section called The Store, in which you can purchase all of Janet Wong’s books and e-books through This is the URL for Poetry Suitcase:

This is a YouTube video created by entitled Meet the Author: Janet Wong. In this video she discusses her family and reads from her book The Trip Back Home. The video can be found at this URL: also has a series of video interviews with Janet Wong. The interviews cover such topics as her childhood, why she now makes a living writing poetry when she used to dislike it and discussions of her books Twist: Yoga Poems and The Dumpster Diver. The videos can be found at this URL:

Janet Wong’s latest book Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year was published in 2012. The inspiration for the book's poems which examine various aspects of the American political system was art by Julie Paschkis (Wong 1999). When Paschkis saw the damage that was being inflicted on people’s Civil Liberties, she was inspired to create postcards that illustrated the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Proceeds from the sale of Paschkis's cards, dubbed Liberty Notes, benefit the ACLU. Wong herself admits to being “apolitical,” however after seeing Paschkis's art, she wanted to do something to further the effort. This book was her contribution. Like Paschkis, proceeds from the sale of her book are donated to causes that help instruct the public on political issues. Wong states that she hopes these poems inspire young people to “take the initiative to contribute."

This review excerpt comes from Julie Larios’ blog The Drift Record. Larios is a poet who teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts as part of their MFA-Writing for Children program. This excerpt, part of a larger post entitled “Poetry Friday: For a New Generation of Voters” was posted March 2, 2012:

“The book, perfect for classroom use (Teachers: Heads up!), contains twenty poems about "liberty, kids’ rights, free speech, political debates, unusual presidential candidates, the two-party system, voting, a declaration of interdependence, and a dozen writing prompts." To encourage classroom conversations about our electoral process (and we could use a new generation of pro-active voters who understand the need for civility and interdependence in that area, couldn't we?) Janet includes "A Voter's Journal" at the end of the book where kids from the youngest right up through young adults can jot down their thoughts about issues and candidates” (Larios 2012).

Jessica Pollock (JP)- from "We the People": Do you think a lot of teenagers see injustice and inequality in the voting system? If so why?

Janet Wong (JW)- When I was a teen, I remember resenting the way some adults treated me without respect, "like a baby" despite the fact that I was helping with dinner, paying bills and calling Medicare for my grandparents, and working for my parents' business on Saturdays and during vacations. I think I would've voted carefully and responsibly-- more carefully than so many of those people who make a lot of negative noise but don't seem particularly informed. I would love it if teens all across the country signed their relatives up for absentee ballots and sat down as families to hold informal mini-caucuses and vote together!

JP- from "Seed Speech": There appears to be a diminished desire among young people in our country to make a difference in life, and fight for issues they believe in. Why do you think this has happened?

JW- I think we have to look pre-Obama, mid-Obama (campaign), and post-election to talk about that question. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner wrote an excellent pre-Obama book called THE F-WORD: FEMINISM IN JEOPARDY that examined reasons why young women seemed not to care about politics. But then, happily, things changed: tons of young voters suddenly became excited about civic involvement during the peak of the Obama campaign. Now I think we're back to pre-Obama apathy among young voters. I remember opinion-makers saying in 2008 that they pitied whoever would be elected because that person was going to face a lot of disillusionment in the general population. Hopefully young voters will rise to the occasion this year and rediscover the need for passionate discussion of our many important issues. 

JP- from "Occupy the TV": Because some parents are not involved in the political process, and do not give credence to their children's ideas when they express political opinions, will this make their children more determined to become involved in politics or make them less caring adults?

JW- Kids' political views are shaped by their parents, especially when they are under 15. But I think that older teens become politically active because of their school environment and friends rather than their parents' opinions (true of everything, from clothes to extracurricular activities). This is why it's so important to get these young voters thinking and talking about the election--when they're sitting, as a captive audience, in the classroom!

JP- Your poems address serious issues in a humorous fashion. Why do you feel that humor is a good approach when you are trying discuss serious issues with a younger audience?

JW- Not just with a younger audience, but with all of us--I think that humor and politics just go together. (Some things are so sad or preposterous that all you can do is laugh.) My favorite political commentators are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert! 

JP- What is one topic you would like to write about in the future?

JW- Right now I'm finishing up an e-book called FOUR POUNDS OF TRASH: FOUND POEMS. Writing about pressing issues-- whether the election or endangered animals or putting our trash on a diet-- makes me feel like I'm doing my small part to make this a better world.


"Seed Speech"
By Janet Wong

If you think
of words
as tiny seeds
that take root
and hold
this earth together

then you see
why it matters for us
to scatter even our smallest
thoughts out there,
to make our voices

There are no stupid questions.
And, yes:
there might be simple answers.

The birds are chirping:
more seeds,
more seeds!

• In a library setting a display table would be created showcasing both Julie Paschkis art and Janet Wong’s book. The poem "Seed Speech" would be enlarged and exhibited, perhaps on the wall in poster form behind the display. Along with the poem and Paschkis art would be other items complete with captions describing what they are and their history with regards to American politics. Such items could be a copy of the Bill of Rights, a facsimile of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and models of the Stature of Liberty or Liberty Bell.

• A project, perhaps for a Civics or History class, evolving over several weeks would commence around John F. Kennedy’s January 20th 1961 Inaugural address. This speech includes the famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Each student would be asked what they could do to help improve the country. The students would bring in newspaper clippings, Internet photos or videos or other media that coincided with their chosen topic. The goal of the project would be to encourage the students to “make our voices heard” as Wong states in "Seed Speech."

• An assignment for older students in a History or Social Studies class would be to examine a newspaper for any stories relating to politics or rights and freedoms. They would then scan those articles for words they found significant, as the poem says, words “that take root and hold this earth together.” Afterwards the class would discuss the findings and what they mean in the context of Wong’s poem and the world today.

• A semester, or perhaps yearlong project for older students with relation to History or Political Science courses, would involve students actually planting seeds in a garden. As the seeds grow, the teacher will discuss instances in which the United States expanded its rights and freedoms. Course topics would include, the emancipation of the slaves, the 1st and 19th Amendments, Freedom of Speech and women’s right to vote, the desegregation of buses and schools during the Civil Rights Movement concluding with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The students would be asked what changes they feel would be beneficial to the country today, and what rights or freedoms should be added or changed and why. At the end of the year the plants would grow into food, which served a useful purpose, just as all the rights and freedoms discussed had.

Works Cited 2012. “Bio.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
AdLit.Org. 2012. “Meet the Author: Janet Wong.” Accessed January 25, 2012. 2012. “A video interview with Janet Wong.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Larios, Julie. 2006. “Poetry Friday: For a New Generation of Voters.” The Drift Record (blog),
March 2, 2012.
Magliaro, Elaine. 2007. “Sneak Peak: Janet Wong & Julie Paschkis.” Blue Rose Girls:
Children’s book professionals talk books (and other things) (blog). March 4, 2007.
Wong, Janet. 2012. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year.
Wong, Janet. 1999. “Janet’s Biography.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. 2012 “Janet S. Wong: Web site.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. 1999. “Poems and Stories- Declaration of Interdependence: Poems on Liberty.” Accessed January 25, 2012.
Wong, Janet. n.d. “Poetry Suitcase.” Accessed March 2, 2012.

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Amy Sklansky

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Amy Sklansky about her new book, Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space. Graduate student Garra Ballinger offers this interview (plus) with Amy.

All About the Author Amy E. Sklansky
Greetings Earthlings! My latest mission took me high into the sky, straight into Outer Space, where I met up with a wonderful children’s book author, Amy E. Sklansky. Amy has always enjoyed reading and books and began her career working as an editor at HarperCollins. She spent many years editing other people’s books and one day decided to take a try at writing some of her own. Her first book in the genre of poetry explored those four legged creatures some call man’s best friend. Written from a dog’s perspective, From the Doghouse: Poems to Chew On was a huge success, so Amy continued writing and has since published a poetry book about Halloween, several fiction books, and a nonfiction book about the life cycle of a chick. Her success has continued with her latest publication, Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space, which I will be spotlighting for you. For more information about Amy and to check out her books visit her website. Here you can get a sneak peek inside all of her books and also find some great information on ways to use the books in the classroom with her “Teacher Features.”
Amy Sklansky’s website:

Summary of Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space
If you are ready to blast off with some incredible space themed poetry you need to check out what Amy Sklansky has created for readers in her newest collection, Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space. This book seems to bring out the astronaut in us all, as readers embark on their own space mission of both poetry and facts all about space. There is so much to explore in this grand book about space; planets, stars, rockets, the moon, satellites, and there is even a poem about a space suit…you can’t get to space without one of these! Sklansky really brings science to life with this collection of poems and coupled with the facts children are sure to be engaged and learning the whole time they are reading. Readers everywhere agree, this book is truly out of this world!

Check out these reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly says, “Sklansky contrasts light verse about the universe with facts about outer space in this gentle collection. An evocative mix of the whimsical and the scientific.”

St. Louis Examiner says, “Color-soaked pages carry twenty simple poems with sidebars of interesting tidbits about the mysteries and science of space.”

School Library Journal says, ”The picture-book blend of poetry, nonfiction, and vivid extraterrestrial views is an inviting browsing item and an attractive introduction to space travel."

Jo Ann Hakola, The Book Faerie says, “It's done with poems that are cute and make absorbing facts much more palatable. This is the kind of science I would have preferred during school!”

Interview with Amy Sklansky
Recently I got an opportunity to ask Amy about her new book Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space. She shared some interesting insight on the making of the book as well as what she likes most about the book herself. Check out what she had to say:

1. From the preview on your website I noticed that the poems are arranged in a specific order; blastoff, takeoff, entering space, etc. It seems to me that you wanted readers to experience space as a journey from the beginning to the end. Did you put the poems in this order for a specific reason?

“I do give careful consideration to how my poems are ordered. I do this after they are all written, rather than mapping it out beforehand so I know exactly what poems I have to work with. (My editor and I both work on this and come to an agreement.) And yes, I think of the ordering at the beginning part of the book as a sort of journey into space. Elsewhere in the book, I tried to group related topics, the "Sun" poem next to "Twinkle," for instance.”

2. I was ecstatic to see the out of this world space facts that you included with each poem in this book. Which came first, the poem or the fact? Did you have facts in mind that you wanted to share or did you find facts to match your poems?

“Sometimes the poem comes first and sometimes the fact. Doing the research for the facts in my book definitely inspired me to write poems or incorporate different details. Most times, I wrote the poem first and the fact second. However, I was researching and writing simultaneously.”

3. Space is such a fun subject for kids, and no matter what, they can relate to the subject matter. Have you always been a fan of space, and if so, how and when did you become fascinated with this subject?

“I have always been interested in space. As a child, I had a real fascination with martians (as they used to be called). Martians showed up in my school artwork and stories. They captured my imagination. As an adult I think I (and most kids) am compelled by an interest in understanding and exploring that which is just out of our reach. Space is the last great frontier!”

4. Unfortunately, I have not read the entire book yet, but I was wondering if you have a favorite poem. Would you share with me your favorite poem in this collection and why it is so special to you?

“My favorite poem is "Space Suit." I enjoyed writing a poem with this form or pattern. I like the rhythm of it. The form was inspired by Douglas Florian's poem, "The Age of Dinosaurs" in this book DINOTHESAURUS. Also, I learned quite a few interesting facts in the writing of it. How amazing is it that humans have figured out a way to journey to and experience space?!”

5. You have written poems from a dog’s perspective, poems about Halloween, and now this amazing space themed poetry collection. Any ideas for a new book? What other themes would you like to write about in the future?

“I am always thinking of (and working on) future books. Currently, I am trying my hand at writing a chapter book. I've not written in this genre before. I am also starting to work on what I hope will be a follow-up to OUT OF THIS WORLD (though I'm not sure if the publisher will want to buy it or not). Anyhow, I thought I would bring my next poetry collection back down to Earth and write about EVERYTHING ON EARTH. Topics might include earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, Earth atmosphere, different types of rocks, earth scienc-y stuff -- you get the idea.”

Poem Sneak Peak
This book truly evokes imagination and readers young and old will enjoy their own unique “space” experience as they read from this collection. One of my favorites however has to be the poem that Sklansky enjoys most herself, "Spacesuit." In this creative poem readers experience firsthand how the mission an astronaut takes on is an adventure from the beginning, even as they put on their space suit! Sklansky’s rhyme and rhythm inform readers of the realistic reasons behind such a “special suit”, but the fact found on the opposite page is truly eye opening as it shares information that is down right out of this world. Whether it be the extreme temperatures ranging from thousands of degrees above freezing or thousands below, or the mere fact that one suit costs more than 10 million dollars, readers will be mystified by this dynamic duo.

Space Suit

No astronaut
is ever caught
without a suit in space.

The temperatures,
extreme for sure,
make it a hostile place.

Lack of air
to breathe out there
means oxygen is key.

The suit deflects
as it protects
from any injury.

Good work is done
in shade or sun,
though movement does lack grace.

No astronaut
is ever caught
without a suit in space.

Fun Activities
What kid will not enjoy learning all about a “space suit ? This poem serves as a great resource to help teachers bring space into every subject area, not just science. Space is such a fun unit, and this poem could be used to help students learn about space all day long! The powerful message of this poem is a perfect tool to ignite lessons in reading with immense vocabulary it presents in words such as deflects, lack, hostile, and extreme. Students could work together to define and present these words to the class in dramatic representations. A class discussion on synonyms for these words would be a great addition to the students own writing practice, as well as discussing why they think the author chose these words instead of other synonyms. This would be a great way for the teacher to begin a lesson on worn out words, and have the students take one of their own writings and look for words that they could have used a better word in place of.

I think students in elementary school, especially grades 3-5, will enjoy the creative use of number related facts that this poem teaches them about space. The teacher could help students grasp and understand just how extreme and hostile the temperature can be in space. Whether it is freezing or boiling, the students could research other places that have temperatures similar to the harsh ones presented in space. Money is always a topic students can relate to, and the author wants students to understand that a suit that serves such important purposes doesn’t come cheap! The teacher and students could take everyday purchases such as a tank of gas, a meal at a fast food restaurant, or the cost of a new video and relate them to the cost of the 10 million dollar suit. By comparing the cost, the class could work together with the teacher to calculate how many fast food meals are equivalent to the cost of one space suit. These comparisons could be displayed pictorially for other students in the building in bulletin board format. What a surprise this would be for the school community!

Biographical Information and Book cover image retrieved from

Sklansky, Amy E. Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012.

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Marilyn Singer, Part 2

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this second interview with Marilyn Singer -- this time about her new book, The Superheroes Employment Agency. Graduate student Carrie Martin offers this interview (plus) with Marilyn.

About Marilyn Singer
Marilyn Singer was born in New York and lived most of her young adult life there. She attended Queens College in New York and later Reading University in England. She graduated with a B.A. in English from Queens College and a M.A. in Communications from New York University. For several years Singer taught high school English, but in 1974 her writing career began. She started small by doing teaching guides on film and filmstrips, and writing poetry, some of which was published. However, her writing career truly began when she was inspired to write a story that featured talking insect characters that she had made up when she was a young girl. With the positive responses she got and with her husband’s encouragement she continued to write and had her first book The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t published in 1976. Today she is known as an award-winning author that has published over ninety books for children and young adults in a variety of genres that include poetry, picture books, non-fiction, fiction for young adults, and novels for children. In interviews she states that her favorite genre to write is poetry.

For more information about Marilyn Singer, visit her website:

Other Interviews and Videos featuring Marilyn Singer:

The Superheroes Employment Agency
Book Summary
The Superheroes Employment Agency features a collection of twenty-two humorous poems told in Marilyn Singer’s witty verse that describe not-average storybook superheroes. Through poetry readers learn what the Superheroes Employment Agency does and on each page are introduced to B-list superheroes such as Blunder Woman, The Cajoler, Stuporman, and The Bulk, who come to the rescue in the most unique ways. Each poem is illustrated to look like a cartoon or comic strip as we learn about the newly employed superheroes and discover their unique talents or powers.

An Interview With Marilyn Singer
1) Q: After reading The Superheroes Employment Agency, it is funny, silly, and really made not-your-ordinary-everyday superheroes shine. What inspired you to write this book?

A: When I was a kid, I was a big fan of old school heroes such as Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, and Zorro. I used to write little plays about them, and I got to be the lead. One play was about Robin Hood as a kid, getting spanked by his parents for doing something wrong. So action/adventure and comedy were both in my consciousness at an early age. Also, although I wasn't a big superhero comic book reader, I've enjoyed many TV shows and movies based on superheroes, such as Superman, The X-Men, and, currently, Alphas, and particularly the ones that are parodies, including The Mask and The Incredibles. I really love good parodies because I like to laugh even more than to be thrilled and certainly a lot more than to cry (in fact, I dislike tearjerkers immensely). So, it's natural for me to want to write funny stuff. That's not to say that I write ONLY funny stuff. I also like to be thoughtful, particularly when it comes to writing about the natural world. But when it comes to superheroes, my inclination is toward the comedic.

The genesis of this particular book came from a discussion over what themes would work for a poetry collection. To be published, most books of children's poetry these days have to have a strong theme. I don't remember if it was the editor or me or someone else who came up with the suggestion of superheroes. I do know that I ran with it and decided that these particular superheroes should be B-Listers, who were badly in need of jobs. My brilliant editor, Lynne Polvino, helped shape the collection further by focusing on the idea of arcs for the characters, and, of course, by telling me when poems worked--or didn't.

2) Q: Some of the characters are parodies based on real superheroes. But how did you come up with some of the other unique characters presented in the book such as the Cajoler, The Pretzel, and The Caterpillar, to name a few?

A: I did some research on superhero abilities (there are lists of them!) to know which I wanted to include. I picked the ones I liked. Then I thought about other possible abilities or twists on those abilities. Finally, I thought about parodies of those abilities. For example, The Pretzel is flexible and can tie up bad guys, but his downside is that he sheds salt. The Caterpillar can wrap up a villain in a silk cocoon, but what he really wants to do is create a clothing design for superheroes. For him, I may of been thinking of Tim Gunn from Project Runway. And then after I created him, I found out that Tim Gunn had been made a superhero called Tim Gunn in a Marvel comic! He gets to wear Iron Man's armor, I believe. Ha!

As I mentioned above, the characters have arcs, so for some of them, I had to think about where they might be dissatisfied with their abilities and want to do something more, or how some of them might be in love with each other or what jobs could they finally land. That was both challenging and fun, and it also helped sharpen their traits.

3) Q: In interviews you have said that poetry is your favorite genre to write. Are there any challenges of telling this particular story of superheroes using poetry?

A: Well, there was the challenge of diversity both in characters and in form. I didn't go for sonnets, triolets, cinquains, haikus, etc. for this particular book (I have done so in other poetry books) because I thought that might be distracting and also too rigid. But I did want to vary the poems in rhyme scheme, length, style.

These poems are witty, so I could go for a more sophisticated vocabulary and rhyme. But that always means I have to watch for things becoming too self-conscious or arch. I mean that just because I was able to make something rhyme didn't mean it was the appropriate rhyme, if you get my drift.

4) Q: What do you feel will draw children into reading this book? How will children identify with these new superheroes you have created? Who do you think it will appeal to the most (boys, reluctant readers, or a specific age group)?

A: I think that many kids are drawn to superheroes and also to comedy, so there's that built-in appeal. I'd love to see classes put on plays based on this book and on the heroes. Or maybe kids can do that on their own, as I used to with my friends. I'd also encourage children to create and portray their own superheroes.

I don't know to whom the poems will appeal most. I don't really think about that when I'm writing. I guess I'm more concerned with whether they appeal to me! My guess is that some people will stick these in boys' hands, but I truly believe that girls will also enjoy the book--and I made sure to include quite a few female superheroes.

5) Q: What super hero ability or abilities would you most like to have and why?

A: Ah! I would love to be able to fly. I would also love to zip from place to place by gliding a foot or two off the ground. I've had several dreams where I could do that, and it felt great!

I also wouldn't mind being like The Cajoler--able to convince people to do things just by using my mind. Of course, I'd only use that power for good (like getting publishers to publish ALL my manuscripts; that's for good, isn't it?).

Poetry Preview: "Stuporman"

You know that dude built like an ape?
Can leap and fly in tights and cape?
Nickname is the Man of Steel?
Trust me, kid, he’s no big deal.
Bad guys? I don’t need a punch
to incapacitate the bunch.
I just recite my epic poem
or chapters from my latest tome

or several acts from my new plays,
and-presto!-their eyes start to glaze.
I’ve essays and reports galore
I guarantee will make them snore.
Yes, indeed, my power’s super:
You don’t believe me? Then listen, please:
“Chapter Ninety-One: How to Eat
Cottage Cheese.”

Stuporman from THE SUPERHEROES EMPLOYMENT AGENCY by Marilyn Singer. Text copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Singer. Used by permission of Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Sharing the Poem
A fun way to share the poem "Stuporman" with students would be to dress up as the superhero and make a humorous and grand entrance pretending to be the hero. After sharing the poem aloud several times, students can then join in and read the poem along with you. After sharing, take time to read other poems from the book as well so that children can get a sense of the variety of fun and different superheroes the book portrays.

Follow up Activities
After sharing a variety of poems, have students participate in creating their very own brand new superhero. Have them first brainstorm what superhero powers they would like to have and why and create their superhero based off of these powers. From this, children can then create a superhero profile all about Who they are, What they look like and What their super power(s) are, How they can help people, When might someone need them, and Why they are important to the Superheroes Employment Agency. After creating their superheroes students will then participate in a Wax Museum but in which the statues can come to life. Students will be given the opportunity to dress as their superhero and when touched they will come to life to tell visitors and spectators all about what makes them a superhero.

Biography, information on books written by Marilyn Singer, interviews, and photograph of Singer. Retrieved from 24 March 2012

David L. Harrison Blog interview. Retrieved from 19 February 2012

Singer, Marilyn, 2012. The Superheroes Employment Agency. Ill by Noah Z. Jones. New York. Clarion Books.

Stuporman from THE SUPERHEROES EMPLOYMENT AGENCY by Marilyn Singer. Text copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Singer. Used by permission of Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Marilyn Singer, Part I

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Marilyn Singer about her new book, Every Day's a Dog's Day: A Year in Poems. Graduate student Liseth Martin offers this interview (plus) with Marilyn.

About Marilyn Singer
Marilyn Singer was born in 1948 and grew up in Long Island, NY. She was an English high school teacher for four years and then decided to pursue writing. After writing film notes and teacher’s guides, she wrote the book The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, which was published in 1976. Excited with its success, she was propelled into writing many more books.

Inspired by her Romanian grandmother who told her folk and fairy tales, her mother who read books to her and her father who sang songs to her, author Marilyn Singer has written over ninety books. Singer writes various genres: nonfiction, fiction for young adults, novels for children and poetry. She likes to challenge herself as well as reflect the different parts of her personality, which have a many ways of expressing themselves.

Her favorite form of writing is poetry. She feels that poetry’s rhythm and rhyme are very appealing. Poetry has the ability to surprise in ways that prose can’t. She believes that with poetry you are able to capture a moment or emotion and say a lot in a very small amount of words. Also, poems can relate to many different subjects. Singer created a poetry form called reverso, which she featured in the Bluebonnet Award nominee Mirror Mirror.

Singer is a versatile and talented author who has won many awards. Her book Every Day’s a Dog’s Day: A Year in Poems is a great addition to her repertoire.

• Marilyn Singer’s webpage:

• This link on her website features many interviews, including one on David Harrison’s blog:

• Something About the Author Volumes 80 and 125 “Sidelights Sketch” by J. Sidney Jones can also be found on her website:

• Reading Rockets interview and transcript:

The same interview is available on YouTube:

Book Summary
Singer, Marilyn, 2012. Every Day's a Dog's Day: A Year in Poems.
Dial Books for Young Readers. Illustrator: Sakamoto, Miki.
ISBN 978-0-8037-3715-0
Every Day’s a Dog’s Day is a collection of 30 poems told from a dog’s point of view. The dogs describe how they feel on holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas as well as other events that occur in their lives throughout the year. The four main characters are: Buddy, Rosalie, Barkley and Fizz; each dog has a wonderfully different personality. The poems tell about different events the dogs experience individually or together such as snow day, grooming day, first flea day, and cat-chasing day. Singer cleverly writes from a dog’s perspective and truly captures how dog’s probably view certain activities. Singer’s varied rhyming patterns and different poem forms were grouped perfectly to create this very amusing book. Sakamoto’s vibrant and adorable illustrations are a perfect addition to Singer’s poems.

Review Excerpts
Publishers Weekly (February 27, 2012)
Lively and often humorous poems that range from rhymed couplets to haiku… Sakamoto creates blissful scenes of cartoon dogs engaged in familiar behaviors like digging, snoozing, and relating to the kids that love them.

School Library Journal (February 1, 2012)
Simple verses about the seasons and the holidays, written from a dog's point of view. In "Valentine's Day," Rosalie waxes sentimental about her owner…Wordplay abounds… For older children, the poems and pictures present a structured overview of what a year may entail; younger children will just appreciate the poems in and of themselves… Sakamoto's bright, cartoonlike depictions of Buddy, Rosalie, Barkley, and Fizz are adorable and funny, and will surely elicit long and loud aws and giggles.

1. Which of the four dogs in your book would personify you best? Do the other characters resemble someone in your life?

Well, I think my sentiments resemble Fizz's in the opening poem which says that there are good days and bad days for dogs (and by extension for people). All of the dogs in the book have thoughts and experiences I associate with dogs in general, but not always dogs I've known in particular, so in that way they resemble all of the dogs I've had or met.

Although I'm not elegant-looking-- and although none of the main characters in the book are this breed-- my personality is probably most like a standard poodle (I've owned two). I like to think of poodles and myself as smart, funny, and game for a walk in a park, a good party, or a lovely lie-down on the couch. In addition, poodles fit in well in both the city and the country-- and so do I.

2. If you were able to talk to animals, dogs in particular, what would you want to know? What would you discuss?

That is a cool question. I would love to know why my dog likes some dogs immediately and not others. Because I've done both obedience and agility (obstacle course) training with my dogs, I would also love to explain these exercises verbally and have my dog ask questions when he/she doesn't understand what I want.

My current standard poodle, Oggi, talks a lot--to me, to my husband, Steve, to people on the street, to other dogs. I sometimes want to know what exactly he's saying, but I suspect it would be stuff such as, "Come on, let's go! Come on, let's play! Come on, pay attention to ME, ME, ME!"

3. What is your favorite dog memory/moment?

Oh, I have so many of them. I've had dogs since I was a kid-- I wouldn't want to be without one. Here are some recollections that stand out: winning first place (out of three dogs, but what the heck) at an obedience show with my previous standard poodle, Easy, and also finally (after many failures) getting a CDX title-- Companion Dog Excellent, the second level in obedience-- with him. I tried for the third level, Utility, but by then Easy had had it. He literally left the ring during one of the exercises, which is most definitely a no-no.

Here's my funniest obedience show memory: When we were going for our first title, CD (Companion Dog), we were at a practice show, which is called a match show. One of the exercises required that a dog sit for a full minute with the handler standing across the room. The husky next to Easy got up and began to hump the dog on the other side. Throughout the entire fiasco, which involved removing the offending pooch, Easy, bless him, didn't budge. I was a proud mama that day!

Another funny memory is about our present poodle, Oggi when he was a pup and we took him to the vet. My husband has curly dark hair, as does Oggi. The woman sitting across from us looked at Steve and this puppy in his lap and said, "I've heard of people looking like their pets, but this is ridiculous!" Oggi excels at party tricks. His best is doing a serpentine through my legs at the command, "Under!" and then dropping to a sit right in front of me. Kids LOVE this one!

4. Was there a particular reason you chose those specific dog breeds for the characters of your book? Why did you not include a standard poodle? (She currently has a standard poodle named Oggi)

No. I did mention a pug in one poem, but that was it. The breeds were the illustrator's choice. If she'd wanted to include a standard poodle, that would've been fine with me, but I didn't push for it.

5. What is your favorite poem in this book? What is your favorite poem that you have ever written? Please explain why.

That's a tough one. I'm fond of "Cat-Chasing Day," which was originally going to be the title poem, but my favorite may well be "Thanksgiving."

It's impossible for me to pick my favorite poem that I've written because, frankly, I've written hundreds. I will say that one poem that I read at many conferences is "In the Hood" from MIRROR MIRROR (Dutton). The book consists of reversos based on fairy tales (a reverso is two poems; read the first down and it says one thing; read it back up with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something different). That particular poem, based on "Little Red Riding Hood," features Red speaking in the first poem and the wolf in the second, and when I read it aloud, I usually hear gasps as people suddenly understand what a reverso is. It's very gratifying!

Sample Poem from Every Day’s a Dog’s Day: A Year in Poems

Valentine’s Day

Today she calls me “Valentine.”
I know that’s not my name.

It doesn’t really matter –
I understand this game.

She hugs me, gives me kisses,
and something good to gnaw.

She has my heart already,
so I offer her my paw.

Poetry performance ideas for "Valentine’s Day":
• Select four students to read each one of the four stanzas
• As you read the poem aloud, have two students act out the poem; one will be the dog and the other will be the owner.

Fun activity for Valentine’s Day:
• Talk about why we celebrate Valentine’s Day and what we do on that day to show our love and friendship to others. Discuss how dogs don’t know why we celebrate Valentine’s Day or what it means.
• Ask the students why they love their pets and how they show their pets that they love them. Give students a red paper heart. Students will write a poem to their dog or other pet letting them know how much they love them. Pass out Valentine’s Day candy hearts to eat a few and glue a few on the card. Students can share their poems then take them home to read to their pets.

Fun activity for the entire book:
Students will work in groups of 3 or 4. They will write their version of the book based on another animal. Students are free to choose any animal they would like to write about. For example: "Every Day’s a Pig’s Day" or "Every Day’s a Lion’s Day." The book will include 12 illustrated poems to represent the 12 months of the year. The poems will depict how that animal views one event that occurs each month, not all holidays need to be included.

Biography, information on books written by Marilyn Singer, interviews, and photograph of Singer and Oggi. Retrieved from 19 February 2012
David L. Harrison Blog interview. Retrieved from
24 February 2012
Follett Titlewave. Book reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. Retrieved from
26 February 2012

Image credit:;

Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 23, 2012

5Q Poet Interview Series: Michael J. Rosen

Our 5Q Poet Interview series for National Poetry Month continues with this interview with Michael J. Rosen about his new book, Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices. Graduate student Chrissy Adkins offers this interview (plus) with Michael.

A Bit About Michael J. Rosen
Michael J. Rosen, author, editor, illustrator, literary director, and humanitarian, writes for a multitude of audiences. Rosen’s creations include cookbooks, young adult novels, picture books, books of haiku for older children, articles about pet care, and individual poems published in various journals and magazines. His works have been featured in publications such as The Bark magazine, The New Yorker, and even Arby’s kid’s meals!

As a humanitarian, many of Rosen’s works benefit causes such as Share Our Strength—an organization fighting to end child hunger. Rosen also founded a program called The Company of Animals Fund that grants money to animal welfare agencies.

Rosen’s books for children have earned several awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance Once Upon a World Book Award, and the Southside Settlement House’s Arts Freedom Award.

Rosen studied Pre-Med at Ohio State University where he could combine his love of children with his interest in natural history. He majored in animal behavior and attended medical school for a while before earning a Master’s degree in Poetry from Columbia University. Rosen still resides in his home state of Ohio.

For more information about Michael J. Rosen, visit his website:

Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices
Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices is a verse novel that tells of a chance encounter with two boys—Perry and Steve—from different lifestyles in the 1970s.

Is the grass really greener on the other side? Perry seems to think so. He wishes for a life of stability rather than the back-and-forth life he is currently living as he travels by train from his grandmother’s house to his mom’s house. Steve, however, wishes for some adventure away from his life of farm chores and responsibilities. When Steve’s cows hold up the train, Perry understands how trapped Steve is within his structured life. Perry begins to embrace the freedom found in his unconventional family life and in his ability to move forward.

An Interview with Michael J. Rosen
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Rosen about his new book and the challenges of writing a verse novel for two voices. Check out his responses.

1. In your interview with Wordswimmer, you described how you overcome obstacles when writing. What obstacles did you face when writing Running with Trains, A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices, and what strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles for this particular text?

This novel started as a thousand-word poem. A picture book that the publisher had acquired. Paired, alternating stanzas: one spoken by a boy aboard; one, by a boy watching the train. Each set centered around a common aspect: whether vibration or windows or the blurring of passing objects, each boy spoke from his perspective.

But then we made the decision to change the book into a novel. A book of poetry for older readers where the boys’ identities would be central to their observations of the train—would, somehow, change them.

The first obstacle was simply the void in which I now found these two voices. They had no history, family, era, location—they only had the original poem’s premise: two people, engaged by a train, long for the other’s (ad)vantage.

It was a slow process of situating each boy. Deciding the era in which to set the book provided a much needed momentum. Researching a 1969-70 “school year,” prompted new directions and complications. Yes, I was a middle-grade student then… but it was also the moment when train travel in this country came to a crisis, when the Concorde, the space program—when the world seemed to be accelerating faster than we could keep up.

As I wrote to fill in history, establish context, and advance plot, each addition had to work as a poem but also as a means of steadily contributing to the development of the boys and the overall narrative. My editor challenged me relentlessly (thank you, Rebecca!) to ensure that the deliberately slow and somewhat difficult dual narrative of this book wasn’t bogged down or confused by passages that might be intrinsically interesting, but didn’t directly serve the steady pacing of the story. A poet always has a somewhat deaf ear to the self-indulgent pleasure of making the music of meaning.

Short prose headers before each poem helped suggest where the speaker might be, what the speaker might be doing—these were a later additions that identified the progress from fall to summer; they were like identifiable stations on the long ride from the first page to the final page.

The last hurdle I’ll mention was verifying facts about this particular line of this particular train during this particular year. This was just before the government’s introduction of Amtrak, which ended much of the already diminished rail service in this country. So the services offer, the configuration of the cars, the train schedules—only some of those details could be authenticated. I tried to be only as specific as I could feel confident.

2. Who or what inspired the creation of Perry and Steve?

Most characters I create possess some aspect of myself. (I can’t be unique in this, can I?) So… a youthful avatar I try to reimagine. An elder self, I try to imagine. I suppose that even the antagonists or characters that I can’t fathom being a part of any life I’d ever want to live, have to issue from more than just observations or awareness of others—they have to come from empathy, from that sense of how I, too, might struggle or prevail under other circumstances.

I received a too kind letter from William Maxwell in response to nothing more than a fan letter that I’d sent in my mid-twenties about The Folded Leaf, a novel whose lyrical prose was as emboldening to me as the story itself. I often think of why he said that he remained so fond of this early book: “…though it is only partly autobiographical, it contains the whole of my youth.”

I neither grew up on a farm nor rode trains as a boy. But I remember the years though which Running with Trains rides as volatile, formative, uneasy. They were the years I began writing and drawing and reading voraciously. I couldn’t have said so at the time, but those arts helped me to slow down “the speed of life,” a velocity that I can’t make sense of—even today—without the painstaking methods of composition, revision, patient work.

Even without hallucinating drugs, in 1969 it was dizzying to conceive of the war in Vietnam, overpopulation, civil rights, pollution, assassinations, famine…. Some of that uneasiness and disbelief and naïveté infused the two characters of this book.

3. Describe the differences and challenges in writing one cohesive story for two voices compared to writing from one perspective.

Well, it’s more than just twice the work. There’s a third aspect, at least in Running with Trains, where I wanted the speech patterns, vocabularies, and energies of each boy’s voice to be distinct. (Ideally, a reader would know who’s speaking… even without the book’s two fonts that distinguish the boys.) I also wanted their words and image choices, their circumstances and instances and references, to play against one another. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they diverge. Sometimes it’s intentional and obvious; other times, more nuanced.

I suppose this is how a composer creates a musical phrase for the winds, say, or a choreographer creates a movement for, say, a trio, and then discovers ways to modify, enlarge, repeat those elements for the brass or soprano…for a pas de deux or the full company.

4. After researching you as an author, I notice that you have written both novels and poems, but this appears to be the first verse novel you have done. Why have you chosen this form of poetry to tell Perry and Steve’s stories?

My passion, my subject…is really writing: the problem-solving and puzzling of going from mining to molding, from not-knowing to some sort of discovery. The genre—in this case a novel in verse—is meant to be a “regulation” court in which this game is best played. To belabor the sport’s metaphor: would the compression and speed of a handball court make the material more exciting and challenging, or would the slower, more spacious baseball stadium provide me—and, ultimately, the reader—the best arena in which to engage the complexity of the subject?

For this book, a variety of poetic forms, anchored by blank verse, the traditional conveyance of longer narratives in English, gave me the flexibility to accommodate the boys’ two cultures: a precocious, verbal, confused thirteen-year-old trying to regain a sense of home and family in an era of enormous progress and pervasive turmoil; and a younger farm boy whose sensibilities have been both limited and liberated by his independence, by the distances and chores and animals that order his life.

Poetry’s rhythms offered me the sound of the train for the twice-weekly shuttling back and forth between Perry’s two cities. It offered me the twice-daily movement of the cows between pastures and barn on Steve’s farm.

5. Is there a message or lesson you want readers to digest from reading this novel in verse?

Forgive me for seeming to shrug off the question of “message.” I want the reader to enjoy the journey—the train ride, the walks across the pastures—not to “arrive” at a destination. It’s my experience that finding elements of my own story while reading another’s story—however offset by time, ethnicity, circumstances, age—is one of literature’s great gifts. It’s our uniquely human, empathic nature that allows us to see our own inchoate or fumbled feelings in works of art, to see them in a broader perspective that affords us the chance to calibrate or better appreciate their nature.

So I want the poems/novel to crisscross a reader’s own life, calling up whatever associations and memories they might. I want a reader to feel included in the story.

I don’t want to elicit an summary statement or overall answer…which would imply that the book posed a simple question…and I don’t sense that Perry, Steve, you, I, readers—none of us experiences the world as anything resembling a short-answer essay question that’s either right or wrong. (Of course, spelling counts! lol)

No, it’s that ride—on wheels, on feet…on metrical feet—that has to be the deepest pleasure.

Sneak Peak: “Everyone Has a Point of View”
Each poem is set up with a bit of prose giving the reader some indication of where the speaker might be and what he may be experiencing.

Everyone Has a Point of View

A mother and daughter are arguing in whispers in the seat behind Perry. He tries not to listen, but he can’t help it, just as he can’t help thinking about the return trip even before he’s arrived. They both go back and forth over the same ground. It all reminds Perry of something Gran says: “A dog will scratch his fleas in the kennel, but not on the hunt.”

Across the cabin, my view is newspapers
stretched between other passengers’ hands.
They don’t see anything through the windows
behind me. They don’t see me. I don’t see them.

I don’t see anything through the windows
behind them. On their side of the papers,
the headlines and photos and comics and ads
compose their view. My side stays the same.

When someone walks past, the pages flutter,
just a little, like a bedsheet the breeze
rustles on a laundry line—like a flag
the train’s gusts ruffle in our draft.

When someone turns a page, their hands clap,
but softly, almost like when you pray,
and the paper shuts like a butterfly’s wings,
becoming, for just that moment, a single line,

as if all the news turned into just one headline
announcing…that love had finally made peace
in the world or that war or air pollution
or overpopulation had finally made…

the final edition—nothing left to report.
But in that same instant, the view reappears
in the train windows behind that thin headline:
the rushing smear of orchards, pastures, barns,

school yards, traffic…strangers sweeping or shopping
whether the latest news was better or worse
than feared. And then the pages spread open—
another beat of the wings—and what’s changed?

From Running with Trains, by Michael J. Rosen, published by Wordsong, a division of Boyds Mills Press, 2012. Used by permission.

Sharing the Poem
A fun way to share this poem with a group of students is to act it out. Rosen creates vivid images with his words, which gives clear details for setting the stage.

Align chairs as if they are seats on a train: two rows, two seats per row facing each other, and an aisle. Students acting as passengers will sit in the seats. One student will serve as a narrator for the prose header, and another student will walk through the aisle at the indicated time. One dramatic student (or the teacher) on the train will read the poem. Give all other students newspapers to hold up as if they are reading them.

As the poem is being read aloud, non-readers can act out portions such as “When someone walks past, the pages flutter / just a little, like a bedsheet the breeze / rustles on a laundry line—like a flag” and “When someone turns a page, their hands clap, / but softly, almost like when you pray, / and the paper shuts like a butterfly’s wings.”

Allow students to record their performance with 3-5 students filming from different positions. View the videos and discuss how what is seen from each videographer’s point of view differs. Compare these points of view to the perspectives of the passengers, including Perry.

Book cover image retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. (n.d.) More about Michael and the resident pack. Retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. (n.d.) More than you need to know about me and my work. Retrieved from
Rosen, Michael J. 2012. Running With Trains: A Novel in Poetry and Two Voices. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

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Posting by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2012. All rights reserved.