Spotlight on NCTE Poets: J. Patrick Lewis, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
is always more important than
Welcome to the sixteenth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.
This installment brings us to a beloved and prolific poet and anthologist who has been delighting us with his wordplay for almost thirty years.
J. Patrick Lewis
In 2011, J. Patrick Lewis became the sixteenth recipient of the NCTE award. He has also served as the United States Children’s Poet Laureate, from 2011 to 2013. When not writing poetry, Pat writes poetry, inspired by just about everything he comes into contact with. The untiring author of close to 100 books of poetry for children, Pat’s opus highlights his immense poetic range and his trademark clever wordplay.
As Pat himself says, “The kindest thing anyone has ever said about my work is how different it is from one poem to the next. If someone tells me, ‘I read a poem the other day, and I just knew that you had written it,’ I appreciate the thought, but it doesn’t reach my ears as a compliment. Why not? Because the poem is always more important than the poet. This is why you’ll find many voices in my poems…” (from the introduction of Everything Is a Poem).
Pat has often cited his love for and debt to such wits as Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, and Ogden Nash, and it’s Pat’s own brand of witty nonsense that’s been evident since his first poetry collection, A Hippopotamusn’t and Other Animal Poems, hit the shelves in 1990. (click graphics to enlarge and read):
Indeed, Pat would eventually give more than a hat tip to his hero in Boshblobberbosh, his 2010 homage to Edward Lear, stunningly illustrated by Gary Kelley.
In between and after these works, Pat has delighted us with book after book of perfect verse packed with his original highbrow humor, wit, and linguistic acrobatics. One of Pat’s specialties is the poetic riddle, and he’s become a teacher’s best friend for his head-scratching and educational approach to many school subjects, including math…
…and the natural world…
…and sometimes even a combination of literature and other subjects, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems, in which Pat parodies classic poems, like Poe’s “The Raven,” and adds a dash of math.
In fact, Pat has created collection after collection that really speak to classroom teachers and make it easy for them to integrate poetry into the curriculum in any subject. Need a little geography, architectural history, Americana?
How about some pirates or ark-builders? Or musicians, artists, scientists, and amazing women?
Or maybe animals, earth, and insects are your game.
And don’t forget books!
With his inimitable style, Pat serves up explorers (with gorgeous illustrations from one of my favorite artists, Alison Jay)…
…the unsung movers and shakers of the world…
…those who inspire us…
…and sometimes (often), just a bit of fun to while away the hours, as with the recent Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems, an inventive collection co-authored with the fabulous Douglas Florian.
For me, though, the biggest jewels in the crown of Pat’s work are his historical young adult collections, which focus largely on themes of civil rights and war.
In these collections, Pat really shows his range and diversity, as in the poignant and powerful When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. I am particularly drawn to this poem about Emmett Till’s mother and the deep despair that Pat captures in it.
As several reviews noted, “This thoughtfully written, carefully and cleverly worded collection demonstrates Lewis’s poetic versatility and his ability to capture the essence of each subject and situation” (School Library Journal), and “Seventeen civil rights leaders from around the world leap off the page, animated in pulsing verse and vibrant imagery. Lewis gives voice to a variety of fighters …, illuminating each with poetic form, style, rhythm, and tone as individual as the subjects themselves (Booklist).
I’d say that goes double for Voices from the March on Washington, a collection of over 70 poems co-authored with George Ella Lyon in which the poets “rekindle the spirit of the fight for racial equality in the United States with imagined voices of young and old, black and white, educated and underprivileged, supporters and detractors and drive home the volume’s theme of taking personal responsibility in helping this country ‘steer toward justice together’ (Kirkus, starred review).
Besides pairing up with poets like Florian, Lyon, Jane Yolen, Kenn Nesbitt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, and Paul B. Janeczko (have I missed anyone?), Pat has also teamed up with National Geographic to create some beautiful and important anthologies of nature and animal poetry, as well as the forthcoming The Big Book of America: Travels in Verse. These anthologies showcase the work of both contemporary poets — such as Avis Harley, whose “Hamster Hide-and-Seek” is one of my favorites in the collection — as well as our children’s poetry forebears like David McCord…
…and classic poems by the likes of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I adore Dickinson’s desire to put on a trinket, and Millay’s unfettered joy in her afternoon among the wildflowers. Pat sure knows how to pick ’em!
Add to that some large collections of his own poems, such as If You Were a Chocolate Mustache, full of Pat’s signature silly wordplay and rollicking rhymes…
…and Everything Is a Poem, where I found this lovely example of Pat’s unique way of looking at everyday things, in this case a tomcat that is also “The bird-watching bandit / On needle-point claws / The chief of detectives / On marshmallow paws.” Gah!
Indeed, the scope of Pat’s body of work is a thing to behold. And although this post is about poetry, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Pat’s many prose picture books that, like his poetry, cover every subject under the sun…and the moon, from folk and fairy tales to magical stories to historical accounts…
…to the moving tale of the World War I Christmas truce, in the lyrical And the Soldiers Sang.
Lucky for us, Pat has his hands in many pies, so we can expect more and more poetic goodness to pour out of his fingertips and into our libraries and bookstores in the near future. Although I was already quite familiar with Pat’s work, it’s been an enlightening and somewhat overwhelming experience to see it all in one place!
Lee’s reflections on Pat shed light on what shaped and inspired this poet — and on just how many gifts he’s given us!
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on J. PATRICK LEWIS
In His Own Words: J. Patrick Lewis on
“Like all poets, I suppose, I want to do what Coleridge suggests, and that is to spend my life writing not simply words in the best order but the best words in the best order. The mere act of laboring over a line is as good a reason as any to get up in the morning.”(NCTE profile by Barbara A. Ward and Terrell A. Young)
“[Poems] come from the bottom of the chair I’m sitting on after several hours of relentless inner upheaval … from perspiration, not inspiration, as Thomas Edison once said about invention.” (NCTE profile by Barbara A. Ward and Terrell A. Young)
“Solitary, sedentary, seat-stuck slogging through words and lines and stanzas has always suited me best.” (Lewis on his writing process)
Advice for Budding Poets
“Dive into a dictionary and a thesaurus, close the covers, and don’t come out until you are good and ready.”
“Just write. Write with strong verbs (not adjectives!). Ignore all diamantes. Imitate the classics (for practice). Read poetry until your eyeballs turn blue.”
Teaching Poetry to Children
“Rhyme is the essence of sound, and sound is as important as sense. But telling a child to write in rhyme is like telling a budding illustrator that he or she must draw inside the lines. Nonsense. Good rhymes are not a holiday game. They require endless hours of thought.” (NCTE profile by Barbara A. Ward and Terrell A. Young)
“Poetry is meant to be enjoyed and not dissected with caliper and tong.”
Here is Pat’s charming reading of his poem “Mosquito” from my April 2012 J. Pat feature.
More about J. Patrick Lewis
Dates: b. 1942 in Gary, IN
Education: Ohio State University (PhD Economics, c. 1974); Indiana University (MA); Saint Joseph’s College (BA)
Occupation(s): Writer and poet; economics professor, Otterbein College (until 1998)
Recognition: 2011 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, US Children’s Poet Laureate 2011-2013, Claudia Lewis Award, Cybils Poetry Award, SCBWI Golden Kite Award, Coretta Scott King Award nominee, many individual book awards
First book published: The Tsar and the Amazing Cow [prose] (Dial, 1988); A Hippopotamusn’t and Other Animal Poems [poetry] (Trumpet Club, 1990)
- NCTE profile by Barbara A. Ward and Terrell A. Young
- Biography at Poetry Foundation
- Info on author visits and Skype sessions
- Reading Rockets video interview with J. Patrick Lewis
- See a complete bibliography of Pat’s books
- See J. Patrick Lewis’s website for more info about the author and his books
- Check out Laughing Fire publications for info on Pat’s books of adult poetry
- My 2012 video interview with Pat on No Water River
- Many interviews of Pat are accessible online, though children’s literature scholar Sylvia Vardell is an excellent resource for some of the best information. A few interviews and articles by Sylvia and her grad students include:
- General interview: A Circus for the Brain
- Podcast discussing Pat and his work: The New Johnny Appleseed of Children’s Poetry
- Interview discussing Pat’s book Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems
- Interview discussing Pat’s book If You Were a Chocolate Mustache
- Joint interview with Pat and Jane Yolen discussing their collaboration on the book Take Two! A Celebration of Twins
- Joint interview with Pat and Jane Yolen discussing their collaboration on the book Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts)
(Criteria for award)
2015 – Marilyn Singer
2013 – Joyce Sidman
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins | See Lee’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2006 – Nikki Grimes | See Nikki’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman | See Mary Ann’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2000 – X.J. Kennedy | See X.J.’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1997 – Eloise Greenfield | See Eloise’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen | See Barbara’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1991 – Valerie Worth | See Valerie’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1988 – Arnold Adoff | See Arnold’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1985 – Lilian Moore | See Lilian’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1982 – John Ciardi | See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam | See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin | See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher | See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord | See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
NEXT IN THE SERIES: JOYCE SIDMAN
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All poems ©J. Patrick Lewis or by respective authors in case of anthologies. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. Video and post content © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.
“Mosquito” copyright © J. Patrick Lewis. First published in Two-Legged, Four-Legged, No-Legged Rhymes, Knopf, 1991. All rights reserved.
See more poems in my poetry video library.