Monday, April 26, 2010

Poetry Makers - Jenny Whitehead

It was the book Lunch Box Mail and Other Poems that introduced my to Jenny Whitehead's work. I was looking for some poems about school when a friend recommended this collection. While the 38 poems are not all about school, they cover a wonderful mix of subjects and use a variety poetic forms. They are playful and fun to read aloud. Here are the first two poems from the book, which provide contrasting views of school. (I've posted them here side-by-side since they appear on pages 6 and 7 in the book.)
The 1st Day of School

Brand-new crayons and
      unchipped chalk
Brand-new haircut,
      spotless smock.
Brand-new rules—
      "No running, please."
Brand-new pair of
      nervous knees.
Brand-new faces,
      unclogged glue.
Brand-new hamster,
      shiny shoes.
Brand-new teacher,
      classroom fun.
Brand-new school year's
      just begun.
The 179th Day of School

Broken crayons and
      mop-head hair.
Scuffed-up shoes and
      squeaky chair.
Dried-up paste,
      chewed, leaky pens.
Dusty chalkboard,
      lifelong friends.
One inch taller,
      bigger brain.
Well-worn books,
      old grape-juice stain.
Paper airplanes,
      classroom cheer.
School is done and
      summer's here!
Before we read more of Jenny's work, let's learn a bit about her.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Jenny: Shel Silverstein's poem "Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout" from Where the Sidewalk Ends. My dad had all of his albums and recorded the "appropriate for children" poems and songs for us. Hearing Shel recite his poems is entirely a different experience than reading them on paper. I remember as a kid listening to the "Sarah…" poem in particular and memorizing not only the words but the nuances of phrasing—how he would speed up or slow down, get louder or softer, pause for effect etc. And to this day I can recite it the exact same way.

My dad also played a lot of folk music when I was growing up. He typed up hundreds of folk songs and so I learned a sense of rhythm through his playing and singing. I realize now I probably studied the rhymes, the structure of the songs and the story-telling content more so than your average twelve year old!

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Jenny: The freedom of expression and the challenge of good structure is what I enjoy most about writing poetry. I usually figure out the content/story of the poem before adding rhyme so I know my poem will have a solid beginning, middle and end…and then I set out to "solve" the problem of getting just the right words into a form that will flow the same, no matter who reads it.

Who/what made you want to write?
Jenny: My 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Mary Kreager, was the hardest teacher I ever had and I loved every minute of it. She taught us about creativity and how to push our minds to think beyond the obvious. It was as if she opened a dam in my right brain and it hasn't closed since. (My brother, a comedian, also credits this same teacher for inspiring him to write comedy.) She had us write plays and perform them. She taught us every form of poetry and how to construct a story. We had to do a newscast with three other students—two anchors, one weatherman, and one sportscaster—and develop all our own stories, visuals, even commercials. And if we were even a minute over our 30-minute slot, she started docking points off our grade. We quickly learned the value of practice and perfecting what we did. I remember in a college art class, a professor gave me a compliment I will never forget. He said, "While Jenny's work may not be the best executed in class (I was still learning technique!), I can always pick out her project because it's the most unique." Thank you, Ms. Kreager!

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Jenny: I have taken various writing classes throughout high school, college and as an adult, but I mostly trust my ear and gut instinct for getting the meter right.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Jenny: I figure out "the story" or "the angle" of what I'm trying to say and write it using longhand first. Next, I use my rhyming dictionary, my thesaurus (I've been using the same one since 7th grade), and lots of paper to write, rewrite and craft each line until I feel like it's finished. The real test is to have someone else read it; it has to translate from my head to someone else's voice successfully or it "isn't done yet."

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Jenny: Lunch Box Mail was a joy for me to write because my intention was to capture childhood through the eyes of a child. I used empathy, humor and point-of-view to make observations about what kids experience in the early years (i.e. the children's menu always being the same for kids, the temptation of a puddle, the first day of school jitters etc.) Holiday Stew was my biggest challenge—finding a unique take on a familiar holiday or learning about holidays I didn't celebrate required extra time in the library before sitting down to write and illustrate the eighty poems.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Jenny: I recently signed a contract with Holt for a picture book on moods I will write and illustrate called 'You're A Crab'. Although it's not written in poetic form, I approached it in the same way I do a poem, making every word count. I have several more poetry picture books making the rounds—'Don't Dawdle, Doris', 'Subway Station Conversation' and "It's Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Jenny: Shel Silverstein!

Your favorite place to write?
Jenny: Lunch Box Mail and Holiday Stew were written in a little enclosed room at the public library…no distractions, just a desk and a chair. Now, I go to my studio.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Jenny: A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. ~Robert Frost.

Published in 2001, Lunch Box Mail was Jenny's first book of poems. Did I mention that she also illustrated the volume? The gouache and acrylic cartoon style images nicely complement the poems' playful themes. You can view samples of the poems and artwork at Jenny's web site. I'm quite fond of the poem "The Bug Hotel." The poem appears on the surface of a glass jar that holds a variety of invertebrate creatures.
The Bug Hotel

Hello, front desk?
How do you do?
So sorry to be bothering you.
But on behalf of all your guests,
I need to make a few requests:
Our room is kind of stuffy,
we could use a little air—
would you be so kind and tap
a hole or two up there?
I hate to sound too picky
or make a bigger fuss,
but baloney disagrees
with vegetarians like us.
Could you serve, instead,
some fresh green grass for us to munch?
And may I have a roommate
who won't eat me up for lunch?
We do appreciate
that we can rest our tiny feet,
and have the time to chat with bugs
we often never meet.
But when the day is through
and it is time for us to roam,
could you kindly let us go
so we can find our way back home?
Jenny's second book of poetry was Holiday Stew: A Kid's Portion of Holiday and Seasonal Poems. More than 60 pages in length, this bulging collection of 80 poems is organized by season. Beginning with spring and ending in winter, the poems address major holidays, both secular and religious, as well as seasonal observances. You can view samples of the poems and artwork at Jenny's web site. Here are two of my favorites from the section on spring.
The Clock's Gone Cuckoo!
(A Daylight Savings Poem)

They say we lost an hour,
I'm not sure where it went.
Our clocks are all mixed up—
My head feels like cement.

Down the stairs I stumble—
Hey, who turned on the sun?
Dad's newspaper is sideways,
His shave is halfway done.

Look! Mom's pouring cat food
In all our breakfast bowls.
My sister's twisted sweater
Has mismatched button holes!

Luckily, this strange time change
Starts quietly on Sunday.
Imagine what could happen
If it started on a Monday!


Mother Earth

Mother Earth has brown skin—
With hair of swaying wheat,
Her snow-white teeth are mountain caps,
Her heart, the lava heat.
She sewed her dress from farmers' fields,
She topped her hat with gourds.
Her tummy rumbles quietly,
She shifts when she is bored.
She blushed when the sun rises
And hides during an eclipse.
The wind is but a sigh from her,
The rivers are her lips.
She's older than the oldest tree
And softer than the sand,
She'll be here for us always,
If we gently hold her hand.
To learn more about Jenny, check out these sites.
A hearty thanks to Jenny for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems © Jenny Whitehead. All rights reserved.


  1. Oh, I would read that Bug Hotel poem to every kid I meet -- that's a great one.

    I love Shel Silverstein, too. What a wonderful poet to inspire one's work.

  2. loved the poem "The 1st day of school" and "The 179th day pf school":)Thanks for sharing