April is National Poetry month so to spice up my interviews I decided to talk to internationally renowned poet and anthologist, Lee Bennett Hopkins.
In 1989 he received the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “outstanding contributions to the field of children’s literature” in recognition of his work; 2009 brought him the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Poetry for Children, recognizing his aggregate body of work. In 2010 he received the Florida Libraries’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your writing/creativity?
Born in Scranton, PA, lived in New York City, Westchester County, NY, had an apartment in the heart of NY’s Greenwich Village for several years, and currently in Florida. I suppose anywhere one lives influences one’s work. Any place I hang my words is home?
[JM] Please tell us a little bit of your journey to becoming a world famous children’s poet and anthologist?
The journey is far too much to tell. Suffice it to say my first anthologies were done in 1969I THINK I SAW A SNAIL: YOUNG POEMS FOR CITY SEASONS, illustrated by Harold James appeared with Crown Books. …SNAIL was among the first collections to highlight urban environments.
A breakthrough book also appeared that year, DON’T YOU TURN BACK: POEMS BY LANGSTON HUGHES (Knopf). Illustrated by Ann Grifalconi, a Caldecott Honor Book recipient, the book won high honors including an ALA Notable Book. I did the collection soon after Hughes died while I was working in Harlem with Bank Street College. It was the first time a book of his poems appeared since his THE DREAM KEEPER & OTHER POEMS was published in 1932. In 1994, THE DREAM KEEPER appeared as a 75th Anniversary Edition, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. I was asked to do the Introduction to the book – a great honor – a circle of my life. I have now done close to 120 anthologies. As we talk I am finishing several more.
[JM] I am fortunate to have recently started a new job as a middle/high school librarian. Can you recommend 2 or 3 poetry books to add to my collection?
WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES: POEMS FOR ALL SEASONS by Julie Fogliano (Roaring Brook Press)
AMAZING PLACES and anthology of poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins (Lee & Low)
THE DREAM KEEPER & OTHER POEMS by Langston Hughes (Knopf)
[JM] What was the first poem you ever learned by heart?
“Dreams” by Langston Hughes.
[JM] Did you have a mentor?
Through the years I’ve had several people who I looked up to – a rather long list but I would include a lifelong friend, Charlotte S. Huck, a pioneer in bringing children and books together and my late-beloved agent, Marilyn E. Marlow of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
[JM] And have you been a mentor? If the latter, do mentees find you or how do you find them?Have you been a mentor?
Oh, yes! Most of the time we find one another. I have started careers of some very famous people writing today…another reason I began the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Association’s Promising Poet Award given every three years.
[JM] Say I am a budding children’s poet. Tell me three must-do things to set me on the right path.
View the series “Spotlight on NCTE Poets” at www.nowaterriver.com
Read more poetry by the masters in the “Spotlight…” series.
[JM] What do you write apart from poetry?
I have written professional books for teachers and librarians, scores of magazine/journal articles, numerous interviews with authors/illustrators (over 200), three middle-YA novels and recently completed two adult novels on their way in the marketplace.
[JM] What hinders your creativity most and what sustains it?
Little hinders creativity. I am awash in ideas and ideology.
[JM] Do you have any tips for teachers, caregivers, authors etc. wanting to promote an appreciation of poetry amongst their young entourage, especially kids that are simply trying to survive?
Find poems that meet children’s needs – physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. Read them the fun stuff, the good light verse of masters such as Shel Silverstein, X. J. Kennedy, John Ciardi – but also give them the gut of poetry – works that tell them they are not alone. There are poems about everything – from dinosaurs to divorce, porcupines to poverty, silliness to sadness. The poet, Yuan Mei writes: “Only be willing to search for poetry ,and there will be poetry…”. Search. Give children only the best of the best.
[JM] What are you currently working on?
A new YA collection for Lee & Low on heritage. It is a very exciting book to compile. I am in correspondence with l4 of America’s best known writers who are creating new work for this collection among them Kwame Alexander, Naomi Shihab Nye, Margarita Engle, Marilyn Nelson, Carole Boston Weatherford and Jane Yolen.
[JM] How does one get invited onto the panel of teachers, librarians and scholars, for the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, which was established in 1993?
Information on the Award appears on my site www.leebennetthopkins.com under Awards. Personally, I have nothing to do with the Award other than fund it.
Five Fun Ones to Finish [JM] Favorite park in the world (state, national, urban, whichever)?
My own gardens at my home in Florida containing a mass array of trees and flowers. We have cultivated over 27,000 square feet of land to create a sanctuary for birds of all variety – mourning doves, crows, blue jays, et. al.
and they are all well fed every day at 5:00 p.m.
[JM] Dogs or Cats?
[JM] Hardest poetic form you have written or attempted?
Each form is the hardest while working on a poem.
[JM] Go to snack?
I snack daily on berries and nuts. After dinner I have at least one or two pieces of chocolate. Well – maybe three! (I have very good discipline or I would eat a whole box of chocolates at one sitting).
[JM] When you were a little boy what did you want to be when you grew up?
A teacher like the one I had in 8th grade. See my poem about her in BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong).
Find out more about Lee at his website: leebennetthopkins.com