Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poetry Makers - Deborah Ruddell

Imagine this. You're browsing a local bookstore with a six year old boy who is crazy for animal books. When it is time to check out he hands you a stack of books about dinosaurs and birds. As you wade through the titles, prepared to say no to most of them, you find a book of poetry about birds. What do you do? You BUY THEM ALL, of course, and thank the kid mightily for introducing you to a new author of children's poetry.

That boy was my son, and that book was Today at the Bluebird Cafe: A Branchful of Birds by Deborah Ruddell. He's nine now, but he still reads this book and often gets the giggles over some of the poems and illustrations. In fact, several of the pages are marked with post-it notes where he's marked his favorite poems. Here's one of them.
The Woodpecker

If you think that his life is a picnic,
a seesawing day at the park,
I ask you just once to consider
the aftertaste
of bark.
Today at the Bluebird Cafe was Deborah's first book for children. She has since followed it up with A Whiff of Pine, A Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems.

Before we read more about Deborah's poetry, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Deborah: I was one of those girls who always perked up when our English teachers announced the start of a new poetry unit. I loved reading poems, writing poems, and choosing and illustrating the poems for my own typewritten anthologies. I wrote some truly cringe-worthy poems in high school -- one of which haunts me to this day.

Fast-forward 15 years ... Reading poetry and stories to my own children sparked a secret desire to write for kids, but I didn’t start writing seriously until our last child finished college. When I did, it felt natural to return to my first love: poetry.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Deborah: I love the feeling of satisfaction/relief/joy when I’ve finished (or abandoned) a poem. I love it when I make myself laugh. I love seeing what a wonderful artist does with my words. And I love talking to kids about poetry, because they are natural poets. (Me: “How would you describe a sequin?” First grade girl: “It looks like a tiny CD.”

Who/what made you want to write?
Deborah: I grew up in a family of five children, and my dad would often recite poems at the dinner table for our entertainment: The Owl and the Pussycat, The Song of Hiawatha, Casey at the Bat, and his all-time favorite, The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie. The more we groaned and begged him to stop, the more fun he -- and we -- had. He loved words and I think it must have been contagious.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Deborah: My teacher was Karla Kuskin, among many others. As a fledgling poet, I spent hours in the library reading the work of published poets. I still remember the day I came across Karla’s poem, Sitting in the Sand. She might as well have been sitting beside me at that library table, whispering in my ear, giving me step-by-step instructions. Reading her work and that of so many other gifted poets opened my eyes to what was possible.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Deborah: In a word: s-l-o-w! If I have a process, it’s undisciplined, and involves a lot of staring out the window, daydreaming, walking in the woods, and a fair amount of research. When I sit down at my desk, I like to warm up by reading the work of other poets for a few minutes. Then, I’m a free-association scribbler. I write in fat spiral notebooks, so all the scribbles, questions, doodles, and messy drafts will be kept in one place. I’m a relentless reviser, but highly distractible and indecisive.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Deborah: My first book, TODAY AT THE BLUEBIRD CAFE, will always be dear to my heart, because I’m amazed that it ever happened. (Thank you, Sonya Sones, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Steven Malk, and Emma Dryden!) And my second book, A WHIFF OF PINE, A HINT OF SKUNK, has made me feel that (maybe) I’m not a fraud, after all. I feel like a real member of the children’s poetry community. I say it’s a tie.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Deborah: I’m working on new poetry collection and a picture book manuscript, and I have a picture book coming out with Beach Lane Books in June, 2010: WHO SAID COO?, illustrated by my twin sister, Robin Luebs. This is the third book for each of us, but it’s our first professional collaboration, and it’s a dream come true for me.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Deborah: Edward Lear and I go way back.

Your favorite place to write?
Deborah: It seems that I can only write when I’m alone in my own house, in complete silence. I need the privacy so I can read aloud, make faces, violently destroy a bad poem, and laugh at my own jokes.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Deborah: “A good poet’s made as well as born.” -- Ben Johnson

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Deborah: Oh, I have my poetry idols, all of whom would fabulous. But I’m not naming names.

Today at the Bluebird Cafe made my thematic list of bird poetry books. The poems (22 of them) are funny and sweet and set against the most pleasing and whimsical illustrations by Joan Rankin. Here's one of my favorites.
The Quail

A certain bird
is so refined,
so brainy and smart and well-read,
that every time
he thinks a thought,
a comma pops out of his head.
To get a feel for how these poems sound you should listen to a few them as read by Deborah's granddaughters.

A Whiff of Pine, A Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems followed Today at the Bluebird Cafe. It too was illustrated by Joan Rankin. Focused on the animals in a forest ecosystem through the seasons, the 22 poems in this collection are witty and deftly constructed. You'll find critters from the forest floor to the canopy and places in between. The book is bursting with wordplay and a kind of lyrical magic. Here is the poem that opens the book.
Eau De Forest: A Woodsy Cologne

It's spiderwebs
and dogwood trees,
a muddy trail,
a blue-green breeze.

A nest, a leaf,
a sycamore trunk.
A whiff of pine,
a hint of skunk.
I'm quite fond of this frog poem from the book.
A Tree Frog's Lazy Afternoon

Her tree house has an open door
and she can hear the raindrops pour
along the roof and down the eaves
on shingles made of soggy leaves.

Here, inside her cozy bunk,
tucked in tight against the trunk,
she glances at the gloomy skies
and pulls the shades across her eyes.
Both of these books are real gems and make terrific read alouds. Here's hoping that Deborah has a few more books like these up her sleeve.

To learn more about Deborah, check out these sites.
Three cheers to Deborah for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Deborah Ruddell. All rights reserved.


  1. Tricia, thanks so much for interviewing Deborah. I read her newest poetry book in late winter and loved it. I need to go back now and read her first collection. What I liked most about her poems is the humor she incorporates.

  2. And to think, I owe it all to your son! Thanks so much, Tricia, for the lovely write-up!

  3. Thanks for a lovely interview. I enjoyed the part about her dad reciting poetry at the dinner table. Reminded me of my mom reciting "Eat-it-all Elaine" from Piping Down the Valleys Wild. Great memories! I can't wait to check out Deborah's books!

  4. Deborah says she learned how to write poetry from poets like Karla Kuskin. I myself am learning a thing or two about writing poetry from Deborah Ruddell. Her books are a pleasure to read AND to study.

  5. You're welcome! I pride myself with having "discovered" you!
    You bowl me away with your brilliance!

  6. Oh, boy - we've got a winner here! Every one of these made me just laugh. I love that!

    I'm snickering about the comma on the quail's head, and that hint of skunk one often finds in the woods. This was just great.