Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poetry Makers - Betsy Franco

I've been a fan of Betsy Franco's for quite a while now, as I have used her poems, picture books, and professional books for teachers regularly in my classroom. However, it was her book Mathematickles! that made me stand up and take notice. A girl and her cat take readers through the seasons, from fall through summer's end. Each page is filled with math problems in which the numbers are replaced with words. Whether it's addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, the connection between the math and language makes for an irresistible combination. Here are a few examples of what you'll find in this inventive book.
crisp air
shadows tall
+ cat's thick coat
signs of fall

holes + nuts - nuts = squirrel hide & seek

+ sphere

kitten + leaves + branches - meow = pussy willow
You'll also find poems here that use graphs, fractions, and division, but I can't easily reproduce them in Blogger. From the selections above you should have some sense of what you'll find in this book.

Before I talk further about Betsy's work, let's learn a bit more about her.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Betsy: I was a freelance writer, and the math textbook author I was working with asked me to write some math poems for the chapter openers. I never stopped.

Who/what made you want to write?
Betsy: I was a painting major at Stanford and continued painting while working at educational publishing houses. When my first two sons were born, they were so mischievous, I couldn't set up my oil paints, but I desperately needed to do something creative. Creativity keeps me sane and makes me feel alive. I switched my creative energy from painting to writing, as an experiment, and it worked.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Betsy: I respect children and their world and always have. They're fresh, growing, honest, curious, and full of potential.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Betsy: My mentor, Maria Damon, an English professor at the University of Minnesota, taught me most of what I know, mainly about avant garde poetry. I also took a course at Stanford Continuing Education and audited poetry classes at Stanford.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Betsy: It's different every time. If I'm writing a collection, I collect snippets of ideas in a folder, all on the same theme, and start writing one poem at a time. The actual writing consists of a horrid first draft that I know I'll revise about twenty times. While revising, I get a tingling feeling, as if something magical is happening. I play with the words, and through a sort of improv process, I figure out what the heck I'm trying to say and how. On the other hand, some of my picture books that are poetry, such as Pond Circle or Bees, Snails, and Peacock Tails, came out on paper without a horrid first draft. Nature inspires me. But, of course, I revised them, too.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Betsy: It keeps me looking closely at the world around me, it keeps me in the present. I notice all the details and nuances of their world. Children and young adults are unpredictable and I love that. I visit an elementary school around the corner every morning and a high school on occasion.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Betsy: I suppose Mathematickles is my favorite because it is the most unusual. But my favorite is always my most recent, so my 2008 and 2009 books, A Curious Collection of Cats, Messing Around on the Monkey Bars, and Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers are my favorites of the moment. My forthcoming novel, Metamorphosis: Junior Year (October 2009) is both prose and poetry, and I had a wonderful time writing that.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Betsy: bp nichols, a Canadian poet, is my favorite dead poet and Bob Grumman, who does math poetry, is my favorite living poet.

Your favorite place to write?
Betsy: I love to write in my office, looking out at the backyard, the hummingbird feeder, and the squirrels trying to eat the grain from the other birdfeeder. My cats, Frida and Jayda, sit on my desk. They're my muses.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Betsy: "It has a tune, but not rhyming." Young-Ju Lee, third grade (from my book Conversations with a Poet, Inviting Poetry into K-12 Classrooms)

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Betsy: Lee Bennett Hopkins

In her book Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way, Betsy wrote:
Before it was common practice, my seventh-grade algebra teacher made a link between literature and math. After he introduced us to the math in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass, I never looked back.
Never looked back indeed. In Counting Our Way to the 100th Day! Betsy offers up 100 poems that include the number 100 in some form. The poems come in a range of sizes, shapes, forms, and topics. Here are a few examples.

100 Cats' Eyes

Two eyes,
four eyes,
six eyes bright—
glowing cats' eyes in the night.
Counting's easy in the dark
when each eye's a flashing spark.

As you're counting, use these clues:
Find the pairs and count by twos.
Count beneath the moonlit skies
till you've reached one hundred eyes.


Blow gently on a dandelion
when it's changed its clothes to white,
and then your very special wish
will actually take flight.

One hundred little parachutes
will float around the town
and plant themselves in people's yards
to spread the wishes around.
In Lee Bennett Hopkins' anthology Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems, you'll find this piece by Betsy.
Math Makes Me Feel Safe

Math isn't just adding
and subtracting.
Now for me.

Math makes me feel safe
knowing that my brother will always be
three years younger than I am,
and every day of the year will have
twenty-four hours.
That a snowflake landing on my mitten
will have exactly six points,
and that I can make new shapes
from my Tangram pieces
whenever I feel lonely.

Math isn't just adding
and subtracting,
Now for me.

Math makes me feel safe.
In January I reviewed one of Betsy's newer books, Bees, Snails, & Peacock Tails (2008). Illustrated by Steve Jenkins, Betsy's poetic text explores surprising and hidden shapes and patterns in nature. Here are the excerpts on moths and snakes.
Moths show their symmetry
every spring,
flitting at night
on fragile wings.

Notice the colors
and stunning "eyes,"
perfectly matched
on either side.

Attracted to windows
or candlelight,
moths are kaleidoscope shapes
in flight.

On diamondback snakes
and on copperhead snakes
you'll recognize diamond and triangle shapes.

The snake rubs its nose on a branch or a rock,
then takes off its skin like a knee-high sock.

Off comes the old skin and waiting below,
repeating designs appear in a row.
Betsy has been very busy and already mentioned she has a number of poetry books coming out this year. A Curious Collection of Cats received a glowing review over at A Fuse #8 Production. Messing Around on the Monkey Bars: and Other School Poems for Two Voices will be released in July. Here's a poem from that collection.
Anatomy Class

The chair has
The clock,
a face.
The kites have
long and twirly tails.
The tacks have
The books have
The toolbox has
a set of nails.
Our shoes have
the marbles,

The wooden desk has
legs and seat.
The cups have
My watch has
The classroom rulers all have

Heads, arms, hands, nails,
spines, legs, feet, tails,
face, lips, tongues, eyes.

What a surprise!

Is our classroom alive?
In the Simon & Schuster poetry brochure entitled Celebrate Poetry, Betsy had this to say about her secret poetry desire.
What’s my secret hope? I hope that mathematicians become poets and poets become mathematicians after reading my books. I’ve seen it happen over and over. It could happen to you.
Now that's one dream I'd love to see come true.

If you'd like to learn more about Betsy and her work, check out the sites below.
Hats off to Betsy for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Betsy Franco. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Because scholastically I had a conflicted relationship with math, poets and writers like Betsy Franco and Wendy Lichtman make me very, very happy indeed. I'm wondering now about that algebra teacher, and dying to know what s/he said that linked Through the Looking Glass with algebra!!