Monday, April 13, 2009

Poetry Makers - Lee Bennett Hopkins

Today the inimitable Lee Bennett Hopkins is celebrating a birthday. This then, is the perfect day to celebrate all he has done and continues to do to commend, nurture and expand the world of children's poetry. First published in 1969, Lee has more than 130 titles to his credit. Some of these are books he has written, while others are anthologies for which he has selected the pieces.

But Lee does much more than write poetry. He works hard to support it. Lee founded the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, an award presented annually to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding new book of children's poetry published in the previous calendar year. Since its inception in 1993, the winning poet or anthologist has received a plaque and honorarium made possible through Lee's generosity. You'll also find his name attached to the IRA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, which is given every three years to a promising new poet of children’s poetry (for children and young adults up to grade 12).

Before we look at some of Lee's work, let's learn a bit more about him.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Lee: Having used poetry as an elementary school teacher for many years and seeing what it can do to minds and hearts, it became a favorite genre of mine. I suppose I started by accident. The first poem I penned, “Hydrants” written in the late l960’s was a result of my city-living. The first person who heard it was May Swenson, the great American Poet, who further encouraged me. At her home in Long Island I read it to her (cautiously) before dinner. After dinner she asked me if I would read it again! After her comments all I did was want to write.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Lee: The more I read the more I wanted to write. I absorbed the best at the time: David McCord, Myra Cohn Livingston, Lilian Moore, Eve Merriam, Karla Kuskin, Aileen Fisher etc., all of whom later became personal friends of mine.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
No. I always maintain that you learn to write by READING.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
This is hard to do. Sometimes a poem will come, magically, full-blown. At other times I draft and draft and draft, seeking the right word or phrase. I turn to a thesaurus often, one of the best reference tools for any writer.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Having finished something!

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Lee: I still marvel at my creating BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE (Boyds Mills Press) published over fourteen years ago…so long I almost forget writing it. The book received great national attention including being an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor Book and winning the Christopher Medal which was presented to me by James Earl Jones! But – I couldn’t attend the affair in NYC due to a prior commitment to a friend who had asked me a long time prior to speak at a dinner meeting in South Carolina! As I was eating spaghetti all I could think of was Mr. Jones. My agent, the great-late Marilyn E. Marlow accepted the award for me…and never let me forget the moment!

YESTERDAYS continues to be read and read and used in all kinds of programs from youth groups to Al-Anon groups. The small book has touched so many; I never knew the power of the words could have gone on so long.

And of course, my latest, CITY I LOVE (Abrams), starred in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL compiles many poems I wrote about city life and living. To capture sights and sounds of urban life and put them into poems was a great challenge. Ah: “In the city/I live in--/city I love—‘ Ironically I now live in a suburb of Florida but often yearn for my city digs.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Lee: Come Spring, 2010, I have a most unique collection, a simple idea executed beyond belief. The title is SHARING THE SEASONS (McElderry Books) illustrated by David Diaz. David and I wanted to work together even before he won the Caldecott Medal for SMOKY NIGHT, by Eve Bunting (Harcourt). His work on SHARING THE SEASONS is truly spectacular. And each poem resonates with new looks at each season of the year…many written exclusively for this collection by some of our top children’s poets – Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Joan Bransfield Graham, Marilyn Singer.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Lee: LANGSTON HUGHES and CARL SANDBURG come neck-to-neck. I want to have dinner with them!

Your favorite place to write?

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Lee: When I interviewed the master, David McCord, he told me: “…poetry, like rain, should fall with elemental music, and poetry for children should catch the eye as well as the ear and the mind. It should delight; it really has to delight.”

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?

A copy of Lee's newest book has been on my nightstand for a while. As much as I enjoy the anthologies that Lee so beautifully assembles, they don't contain enough of Lee's writing (just a poem or two), so I was thrilled to find this new book contains poems that are ALL Lee's. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read these gems describing life in the big city. Even though the illustrations depict cities around the world, the sights, sounds, and sentiments are the same. Here is my favorite piece.


Silence sirens.

Hush all horns.

Quiet rumbling

                    traffic roars.



Promise me


My newborn

You'll find poems here about subways, taxis, zoos, weather, bridges, lights and more. I can't say enough about how much these poems made me want to run right off to to the big city for a fix. You'll feel the same when you read them.

The title poem from City I Love appears in Home to Me: Poems Across America, a book of poems selected by Lee and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Here is an excerpt from the Editor's Note (written by Lee).
Where we live—the place we call home—strongly influences our way of life.

Whether on lives on a prairie where a child ". . . pedals through grasses/bone dry, needle thin", a reservation where "Mother Earth is always beneath our feet", or a city where one wakes up to hear "sputters/of sweepers/swooshing litter/from gutters", home is an integral part of growing up, being, becoming.
Home to Me reveals home and heart, the pulse that makes our country so unique—the beat that makes us all individuals—yet one.
Like other anthologies Lee has assembled, this one weaves together a set of poems that provide a range of perspectives and voices on the topic.

Another anthology of "place" that Lee has edited is My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States. Also illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, this book contains 50 poems grouped by geographic region. Here's one that Lee wrote for a Great Lakes State.
Wisconsin in

B-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr,
b-rr, b-rr, b-rr, b-rr:


Last year as part of my April celebration of poetry I reviewed several of Lee's anthologies. You can read more about a number of his books at Poetry in the Classroom - America at War, Poetry in the Classroom - Anthologies in Math and Science, Poetry in the Classroom - Books and Reading, Poetry in the Classroom - Reaching for the Moon, and Poetry in the Classroom - School Daze. As you can see from this list, his anthologies span a range of topics.

I could go on and on about Lee's contributions, but I'd probably be breaking all kinds of copyright laws if I did. I can't thank Lee enough for his tireless efforts to get poetry into the hands of kids, but more importantly, I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for introducing me to so many new-to-me poets.

I'll close with a poem of Lee's from Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonder of Museums, a book with poems selected by Lee and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen. In it you'll find poems by Jane Yolen, Myra Cohn Livingston, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Kristine O'Connell George, Alice Schertle, J. Patrick Lewis, and more. The title of the book comes from this poem.
Behind the Museum Door

What's behind the museum door?

      Ancient necklaces,
      African art,
      Armor of knights,
      A peasant cart;

      Pioneer wagons,
      Vintage cars,
      A planetarium


            with stars;

      Priceless old coins,
      A king's golden throne,
      Mummies in linen


      A dinosaur bone.
If you want to learn more about Lee and his work, check out these sites.
A rousing chorus of Happy Birthday and several hearty cheers for Lee. Thanks so much for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Lee Bennett Hopkins. All rights reserved.


  1. You didn't mention my three favorite things about Lee:



    Wicked SensaHumor.


  2. Oh, YAY, another person who believes we learn to write by reading! The museum poem makes me think of the Theodosia books immediately; I love the connections good poetry makes in our minds.

  3. Happy Birthday Lee!
    Jane is right. Lee's sense of
    humor is WICKED and wonderful.
    No one has done more for children's poetry or poets.
    We all thank you, Lee.

    And thank you, Tricia, for
    Poetry Makers. What a delicious
    month-long treat. I have so enjoyed reading the interview (and more to come!) of these poets that
    I admire.


  4. I am overwhelmed by your generosity
    regarding my work.

    I commend you for doing so much for
    the genre.

    A million thank-you's aren't enough...yet here is ONE from the


    Lee Bennett Hopkins

  5. I think Lee would make an excellent Children’s Poet Laureate.

  6. Wow, great interview. Happy Birthday, Lee, and thanks for everything you do!

  7. Great interview of a great man. He's done so much for children's poetry and poets, we can never thank him enough.

    I posted a sampling of poems from Lee's Been to Yesterdays at

    I can't wait to read tomorrow's poet interview! Thanks, Tricia!

  8. Excellent interview!
    I live near the Wisconsin border, brrrrrr is right. Love his poetry and his contributions to poetry!

  9. Lee Bennett Hopkins helped me bring poetry into the classroom through his feature in a teacher's magazine (many years ago). I instantly saw the power in it, and continue to discover it day by day (that's what poetry does to us).

  10. Tricia,

    Thanks for giving us this interview with an individual who has done more to bring poetry into the lives of young children than anyone in this country. I own dozens of the anthologies he edited and books of his original poems--of which they're aren't enough.

    The late David McCord was a good friend of mine. He used to visit my elementary classroom every year. He was my mentor and introduced me to John Ciardi, Karla Kuskin, and Myra Cohn Livingstion. He helped expand my appreciation for and knowledge of children's poetry.

    Like Lee, I have found that reading all kinds of poetry written by many different poets has made for an excellent education in poetry.

    As I sit here writing these comments, I have beside me on my work table three new books of poetry: CITY I LOVE, SKY MAGIC, and INCREDIBLE INVENTIONS.

    Thank you, Lee, for giving us so many wonderful books of children's poetry. And Happy Birthday...belatedly!

  11. Toot! Toot! I'm proud of my SLJ review of City I Love. The poems are so intricately bound with the illustrations that it's very rich. Rarely does a picture book journey so completely and delightfully into an illustrated book. Deserving of a galaxy of stars.

  12. Hey, when do I get to go to dinner with May Swenson?!?! Great piece on a great poet!

  13. Been to Yesterdays and Alphathoughts are such terrific poetry collections, and all his anthologies are a treat!

    Happy belated birthday, Lee! I can't wait to read City!