Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Poetry Makers - Mary Ann Hoberman

As April nears its end, I am delighted that Mary Ann Hoberman, the current Children's Poet Laureate and 2003 winner of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children is joining us. Let's start with an interview from the March 30th edition of Barnes & Noble Tagged. You'll find a brief conversation with Mary Ann through about minute 3:40, and then an original poem called "A Confession" beginning around minute 6:45.

Before we look at some of Mary Ann's work, let's learn a bit more about her.


How did you get started writing poetry?
Mary Ann: As I say on my website, I was writing poems, and songs and stories, even before I learned to write, making them up in my head and telling and singing them to myself, to my imaginary playmate/brother, Billy, and to my real little brother, Joel. I can't remember a time when I wasn't in love with words.

Who/what made you want to write?
Mary Ann: Looking back, I think it was loving fairy tales so much that gave me the idea that I could be a writer, too. Even though fairy and folk tales are usually anonymous, in the two books of them that I possessed as a small child (and still have, by the way!), some of them were credited to specific authors. My third story book, also still on my bookshelf, was by Hans Christian Andersen, very much an author of his own tales! I loved all of these stories so much that I decided that I, too, wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Mary Ann: Getting hooked on poetry itself must be genetic. I have always loved rhyme and rhythm and music and song. Getting hooked on writing poetry for children arrived at the same time as my own children did. From the time they were tiny, I began to make up little verses and songs for them. For a long time I never wrote these bits and pieces down, just carried them around in my head and brought them out on walks and car trips and at bedtime. And then I got the idea for my first book, "All My Shoes Come in Two's," and asked my husband, Norm to draw some illustrations. I mailed the manuscript off to a publisher, it was accepted, and that's how I began writing for children.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Mary Ann: I was writing poetry long before I knew anything about the terminology and forms of poetry. When I eventually discovered iambs and dactyls and stresses and poetic forms, I discovered that I had been using these devices unknowingly all along. Even now, it is only after the fact that I discover what categories the verses I have written might fall into. Of course I deliberately turn my hand and mind to a sonnet or a limerick every once in a while, but mostly I follow where the cadence leads me and only afterward do I sometimes bother to put a label to what I have written.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Mary Ann: A rhythm pops into my head, sometimes clothed in words, sometimes not, and I take it from there. It is a delightful way to occupy one's time, turning over sounds and meanings and rhythms, tasting them in your mind's mouth, hearing them in your mind's ear. Unless I am writing on some sort of assignment, I generally wait for the poem to find me, rather than go in search of the poem. And even for an assignment, I must depend on something rising up from the depths of my mind, some cadence or combination of words, before I can proceed.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Mary Ann: There is very little I don't enjoy about this occupation! I have said many times that I consider myself very lucky to have been able to make a vocation out of something I so love to do. Word play, playing with language, getting it right, and sending it out into the world in a beautiful book, illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the field. What could be better than that?

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Mary Ann: My favorite poems are "Brother" and "Mayfly." My favorite book (although choosing one is like asking a mother who her favorite child is!) is probably HELLO AND GOOD-BY, my third book, illustrated with black and white line drawings by my husband, published in 1959 and long out of print. It contains many of my favorite poems, the ones written when my kids were tiny, and it is a tiny book itself, small enough to fit into a child's hands.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Mary Ann: This summer ALL KINDS OF FAMILIES! will come out, illustrated by Marc Boutavant, a brilliant French artist, and published by Little, Brown. In the fall, a poetry anthology edited by me and Linda Winston, THE TREE THAT TIME BUILT, will be published by Sourcebooks. This is a collection of poems and comments on science, nature, and imagination, laying particular stress on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution in this, the bicentennial year of his birth and the 150th anniversary of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. I am really excited about both of these books!

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Mary Ann: Edward Lear

Your favorite place to write?
Mary Ann: Wherever there's sunshine.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Mary Ann: “My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying anything else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter. That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy." --John Updike

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Mary Ann: You don't really expect me to tell, do you?

Mary Ann published her first book, All My Shoes Come in Twos, fifty two years ago. Since then she has authored more than fifty children's poetry books and picture books in verse. One of her books, A House Is a House for Me, won the 1983 National Book Award in the category of children's picture books paperbacks (the last year such an award was given). Her first novel, Strawberry Hill, will be released this July. While a number of her older poetry collections are out of print, many of the poems from them were collected in the book The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems. Two of Mary Ann's favorite poems can be found in this book, so I'll share them first!

I had a little brother
And I brought him to my mother
And I said I want another
Little brother for a change.

But she said don't be a bother
So I took him to my father
And I said this little bother
Of a brother's very strange.

But he said one little brother
Is exactly like another
And every little brother
Misbehaves a bit, he said.

So I took the little bother
From my mother and my father
And I put the little bother
Of a brother back to bed.


Think how fast a year flies by
A month flies by
A week flies by
Think how fast a day flies by
A Mayfly’s life lasts but a day
A single day
To live and die
A single day
How fast it goes
The day
The Mayfly
Both of those.
A Mayfly flies a single day
The daylight dies and darkness grows
A single day
How fast it flies
A mayfly’s life
How fast it goes.
There are many terrific poems in this collection. Here are two of my favorites. Whenever I read the first poem I utter a silent apology to the long gone family dog.
When I Need a Real Baby

When I need a real baby
And can't use my brother,
My dog is my baby
And I am his mother.
I give him a bottle,
I brush out his hair,
I put on his diaper
And booties (two pair);
I tie on his bonnet
And button his smock;
Then into his carriage
And off down the block.
I wave to our neighbors
And stop for a chat,
But leave in a rush
At the sight of a cat.
We have a fine time
As I wheel him about
And he makes a fine baby
Until he jumps out.


I know what I feel like'
I'd like to be you
And feel what you feel like
And do what you do.
I'd like to change places
For maybe a week
And look like your look-like
And speak as you speak
And think what you're thinking
And go where you go
And feel what you're feeling
And know what you know.
I wish we could do it;
What fun it would be
If I could try you out
And you could try me.
Two additional poems from this collection can be found at the Poetry Foundation web site--Fish and The Folk Who Live in Backward Town.

Mary Ann has written poems that cover every topic imaginable, from all kinds of animals (ants, whales, giraffes, penguins, etc. ) to common childhood experiences (sick days, playing dress up, learning to swim, eating vegetables, ice-skating, birthdays, etc.). In everything she writes the reader finds an open door to childhood in all its wonder. The fact that the poems are rhythmic and bouncy and beg to be read aloud just adds to their enjoyment. Here are two of my favorites from the book Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers: A Collection of Family Poems.
Sick Days

On days when I am sick in bed
My mother is so nice;
She brings me bowls of chicken soup
And ginger ale with ice.

She cuts the crusts off buttered toast
And serves it on a tray
And sits down while I eat it
And doesn't go away.

She reads my favorite books to me;
She lets me take my pick;
And everything is perfect--
Except that I am sick!

My Father

My father doesn't live with us.
It doesn't help to make a fuss;
But still I feel unhappy, plus
I miss him.

My father doesn't live with me.
He's got another family;
He moved away when I was three.
I miss him.

I'm always happy on the day
He visits and we talk and play;
But after he has gone away
I miss him.
In addition to her poetry collections, I am quite fond of the books in the You Read to Me, I'll Read to You series. Titles include You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Stories to Read Together, You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Fairy Tales to Read Together, You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Mother Goose Tales to Read Together, and You Read to Me, I'll Read to You: Very Short Scary Tales to Read Together. Told in two voices, these rhyming stories are meant to be read loud. Each story appears in three colors--one for the first voice/reader, another for the second voice/reader, and a third for when both voices read in unison. When I wanted to encourage my son to read aloud and wanted to introduce more poetry into his book diet, we started with the Very Short Fairy Tales. Now 8, he still loves reading this together, as well as the more recent Short Scary Tales. Here's an excerpt from Very Short Fairy Tales.

The Three Bears

I'm Goldilocks.
I'm Baby Bear.
What pretty fur!
What pretty hair!
Why are you here?
You're in my bed.
I'm in your bed?
That's what I said.
Why are you here?
I lost my way.
I found your house.
And thought I'd stay.
And then you ate
My porridge up
And drank my milk
Right from my cup.

There is nothing to fear here, as these fairy tales all have happy endings.

I've just scratched the tip of the iceberg here. To learn more about Mary Ann and her work, consider visiting these sites.
Many, many thanks to Mary Ann for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Mary Ann Hoberman. All rights reserved.


  1. Hi. I've just come across your blog. What an interesting read.

  2. Great interview--it makes me want to play with words and sounds, too! And what a great quote from Updike. I'd never seen that one before.

  3. Hah! Desperate times -- desperate remedies, indeed!

    I loved the Brother poem when I first read it, and the Mayfly poem -- I can imagine using that in a classroom as a poetry prompt. The realism in this poems is what makes them shine and shine.

  4. I love the Bother poem. I can't wait to read it to my kindergarten class. It should make for a cute journal writing starter for them. They are becoming great little writers!!