Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Lee Bennett Hopkins, with Sylvia Vardell
“…it is the stuff of all existence.”
Welcome to the fifteenth 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 prolific and celebrated educator, poet, author, and anthologist who has dedicated his life to the advocacy of children’s poetry, to the benefit of us all.
Lee Bennett Hopkins
Obviously, Lee could not speak about himself, so I called in another important and well known children’s poetry advocate and scholar, Dr. Sylvia Vardell, to do the honors for this episode. Sylvia is a professor of children’s literature at Texas Woman’s University, the author of numerous books for teachers, and one half of the team (with Janet Wong) for the Poetry Friday Anthology series. She blogs on children’s poetry at Poetry for Children.
I am indebted to Sylvia for the time she took to research and prepare her excellent comments on Lee and to put up with an interview with me! Thank you, Sylvia!
A Personal Note
I do not usually include my personal thoughts on the poets themselves, since that is Lee’s territory, but this is a special case. When I first interviewed Lee in 2013, I had no idea it would be the beginning of such a beautiful friendship. In the intervening years, I’ve come to look upon Lee as my own personal Willy Wonka of children’s poetry, a delightful, eccentric, wacky man who has led me into a world of pure imagination — and encouraged me to become a part of it.
We have been working on this NCTE series for over two years, and in that time we have spent countless hours on Skype — most of them going off on tangents about poets and poetry that have enriched my own knowledge more than any master class ever could. By sharing his vast experience, Lee has given me a great gift — and indeed, has given that gift to us all through this series and through his continued, fervent advocacy of poetry and, more importantly, of poets both established and emerging.
I struggled with figuring out how to thank Lee for this gift and for his dear friendship. In the end, I realized there are a lot of people out there who would also like to thank him. And so, with the generous contributions of 56 children’s poets, I have put together a special tribute video as our collective small way of saying a BIG thank you! That video appears at the end of the post.
On with the show!
In 2009, Lee Bennett Hopkins became the fifteenth recipient of the NCTE award.
As Lee himself has often noted, he was not a big reader as a child, but once he became a teacher, he realized how important poetry could be for kids. He was one of the first to bring the poetry of beloved adult poets — particularly Langston Hughes in Don’t You Turn Back (1969) — to a younger audience, thus getting an early start on what would become an incredible career as an anthologist. (Click on graphics to enlarge and read.)
Indeed, I knew Lee first as an anthologist, and it was only later that I realized he had written plenty of work on his own, and in many genres. From the poetic ABC’s of Alphathoughts (2003)…
…to the sweet observations in Kim’s Place (1974)…
…to the joyous adventure of City I Love (2010), which takes us on a trip around the urban world, accompanied by dog and bird…
…to the absolute poetic charm of the theatrical Full Moon and Star (2011), where Lee brought his love of theater to children…
…to the myriad other collections that show not only Lee’s vast reach into all subjects, but also his ability to speak to children in their own language.
And in 1995, WordSong published Lee’s touching autobiographical novel in poems, Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life, which won the Christopher Award and was a Golden Kite Award honor book. And it’s still in print!
In my 2013 interview with Lee, he said about Been to Yesterdays: “My teenage years were in turmoil. I had a single-parent mother. It wasn’t easy growing up. But it was a wonderful childhood in many ways. We learned. We were streetwise.”
Lee did not restrict himself to poetry, however, penning also two autobiographical novels for young people — the popular Mama and Mama & Her Boys — as well as other novels and an autobiography.
Lee’s role as a teacher clearly gave him the nudge to write many professional books for teachers, librarians, and parents. In fact, Pass the Poetry, Please!: Bringing Poetry into the Minds and Hearts of Children, first published in 1972, stayed in print for over twenty-five years — and no doubt inspired countless teachers to bring poetry into their students’ lives.
Of course, Lee has always been a very busy bee, so in between all his own books, he was still crafting gorgeous anthologies featuring other people’s work. Over the years, his opus grew…
…and bust out all over…
…one of Sylvia Vardell’s students decided Lee belonged in the Guiness Book of World Records, and she made it happen!
Lee on the Guinness distinction: “Guinness was a total shock. It was all due to Sylvia Vardell and one of her doctoral students, who initiated this and saw it through. I had nothing to do with it. It was a thrill and an honor.”
The I CAN READ Books
Amid the flurry of anthologies, Lee also had another idea that eventually turned into the ever-popular I Can Read poetry series for beginning readers.
This is what Lee had to say about the series in my 2013 interview: “One of my true favorites is a book called Surprises (I Can Read Book 3), which was the first I Can Read poetry book. I have wonderful memories of it because it was done with Charlotte Zolotow, who was my brilliant editor at Harper Collins. One day we were having lunch in New York, and I said, ‘Charlotte, the I Can Read series has been out since the 1950s when Maurice Sendak and Else Minarik did Little Bear, and there has never been an I Can Read book of poetry.’ Charlotte dropped a fork on the floor of the restaurant and said, ‘Oh. My. God. Do it.’ And I thought, this is going to be a knockout.
“The book took over two years. Each poem in an I Can Read book can have only 36 characters per line, including punctuation and spaces. The I Can Read books are very difficult to do, but I love them. Surprises was done in 1984 and it’s still in print and still a big seller.”
Phew! Are you tired yet? But wait, there’s more!
Not one to rest on his laurels, Lee forged ahead to create anthology after anthology that really spoke to classroom teachers and made it easy for them to integrate poetry into the curriculum, in any subject.
Like BUGS. In fact, my first encounter with Lee’s work was with the delightful Nasty Bugs, gorgeously illustrated by Will Terry.
Then when you look past the bugs and you find a vast galaxy of poems about everything in the…well, the galaxy! Imagine how excited teachers must be when they discover there are poems about math, like these jewels in Marvelous Math, so richly illustrated by Karen Barbour.
And there are poems about science!
And about reading and books and words!
And nature! I love Lee’s simple yet evocative language and imagery in both of these poems. Such gentle poems.
And let’s not forget history and American themes, which Lee seems to have a particular gifted for.
Indeed, the breadth of Lee’s body of work is a thing to behold. In one fell swoop, he can take us from the dignified and historical, as in Lives: Poems about Famous Americans…
…to the silly-sounding Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, which, on closer inspection, isn’t that silly at all. The poignant poems in this book speak to kids’ reality and touch gently on subjects like insecurity, loss, embarrassment, longing, and every other emotion kids feel.
In fact, I have to share a couple more. Aren’t these gorgeous? That rabbit poem…gah!
And the list of goodness goes on and on. And yes, although Lee’s books are a perfect fit for teachers of any subject, for writers they are also a virtual master class in craft from all the best children’s writers.
But most of all, they are simply lovely books to enjoy. Take away the teaching aspect and the learning aspect and the craft aspect, and what you’re left with are beautiful poems to inspire and delight you. And Lee himself says that’s what poetry is really all about.
So I will end this overview of Lee’s work with two more snippets of amazing books to simply enjoy.
It’s been an enlightening journey getting to know Lee and his enduring work. His passion and dedication to children’s literature — and to mentoring and championing new voices — is a true inspiration to teachers, writers, and kids. What gifts he’s given us!
SYLVIA VARDELL on LEE BENNETT HOPKINS
In His Own Words: Lee Bennett Hopkins on
“Poetry and I fit together. I can’t imagine being without it. It is food and drink; it is all seasons; it is the stuff of all existence.”
“Give children poetry. It is one of the best gifts you can give them. A gift to last a lifetime.”
Teaching Poetry to Children
“Don’t dissect poetry. Enjoy it, every day. There shouldn’t be a day without poetry. It fits into every area of the curriculum, every area of life.”
“Avoid the DAM (dissect and memorize) approach!”
What Makes a Good Children’s Poem
“I simply call it the ‘ooh’ factor. If I read a poem and I go ‘ooh,’ then I love it. It has to knock me out. It’s craft, and more so honesty and truth. Genuine. The writer gets it. It’s an emotion, something that hits you like a ton of bricks. Like Langston Hughes with ‘Dreams’: it’s only eight lines but it gives you enough to think about for the rest of your life. ‘When dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly’ – I mean, that’s craft, it’s honesty, it’s tough, and it’s poetry.
“Doing anthologies is fascinating because you can take the best of the best of the best. In any poet’s single collection, there’s wonderful stuff and there’s okay stuff. I found mining for the best pieces and putting them together, particularly in an anthology with different voices, gives it such a rich look. In most of my anthologies, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, so that hopefully when a child or adult picks up the collection, they’ll read it as a book and not just a series of isolated poems.
“And I think that’s the trick, meshing the poetry. Often in my anthologies, the last line of a poem will reflect the title of the next poem. It’s a thing that I’ve developed that I just find fascinating.” (from my April 2013 interview with LBH)
“Publishing is a business, and all writers should know that. It’s not a game for sissies. No one is immune to rejection. If you believe in a manuscript, I maintain that it’s better in the mail than in your desk. Keep sending it out.” (from my April 2013 interview with LBH)
And now for a
SPECIAL TRIBUTE TO LEE BENNETT HOPKINS
Note: In celebration of Lee’s NCTE win in 2009, Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong invited poets to contribute to Dear One, a tribute book of poems in honor of Lee. Some of the poets in the tribute video recited or sent those poems as their tribute, and I have noted those cases where possible. I am grateful to Sylvia and Janet for sharing this and other resources with me.
More about Lee Bennett Hopkins
Dates: b. 1938 in Scranton, PA
Occupation(s): Elementary teacher; senior consultant to Bank Street College’s Learning Resource Center in Harlem, New York; curriculum specialist for Scholastic; writer, poet, speaker, anthologist.
Education: Newark State Teachers College (now Kean University); Bank Street College of Education (master’s degree); Hunter College (administration degree)
Recognition: In 2016, Hopkins received the prestigious Regina Medal award sponsored by the Catholic Library Association; 2011 Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership/New Jersey Education Association; 2010 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award/Southwest Florida Reading Festival; 2009 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children; 1995 Christopher Award; 1995 Golden Kite honor; 1989 University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “lasting contributions to children’s literature”; 1980 honorary Doctor of Laws degree/Kean University.
- Lee’s website: LeeBennettHopkins.com
- Lee’s full bio
- See a list of Lee’s favorite selected titles on his website
- Complete bibliography of all Lee’s books on Wikipedia.
- Learn more about the awards Lee has established as well as some of those he’s won.
- Many interviews of Lee are accessible online. Here are a few I liked:
- Check out these teaching resources at Sylvia Vardell’s Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Teaching Toolbox, including readers’ guides and activities for both award-winning and honor books.
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
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: J. PATRICK LEWIS
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Lee Bennett Hopkins or, in the case of anthologies, the respective poets as shown. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. Video and post content © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved. Photos of Lee Bennett Hopkins used by permission of the author.