Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Myra Cohn Livingston, with Lee Bennett Hopkins

December 12, 2013 32 Comments by Renee M. LaTulippe

Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Myra Cohn Livingston

“…the untold mystery

of me.

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

Welcome to the fourth 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 (so far) seventeen amazing people, and, as Lee says in his David McCord video, appreciating the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart.”

For this installment, Lee speaks from a very personal place about a woman who was not only his dear friend for thirty years, but also an accomplished children’s poet and mentor to many of our best poets today:

Myra Cohn Livingston

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In 1980, Myra Cohn Livingston became the fourth recipient of the NCTE award. She wrote and/or edited over 80 books for children on an amazing array of subjects. Her first book, Whispers, was written in 1946 and published in 1958 under legendary editor Margaret K. McElderry — twelve years after being rejected by the same Ms. McElderry.

myra cohn livingston book-covers1

Whispers

Whispers
….tickle through your ear
….telling things you like to hear.
Whispers
….are as soft as skin
….letting little words curl in.
Whispers
….come so they can blow
….secrets others never know.

-Myra Cohn Livingston

Like Lee, Myra was a prolific anthologist, conceptualizing and bringing to fruition myriad themed collections on topics ranging from cats, music, and whales…

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…to owls, mothers, limericks, and holidays.

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Sadly, all but one of Myra’s books are out of print, and I found very few of her poems online. Those I did find, however, struck me with their combination of thoughtfulness and simplicity of language. With a few masterful yet accessible turns of phrase, Myra creates vibrant images that speak to a child’s interests, desires, hopes, fears, and experiences. As Myra said herself, ”. . . what more can one offer to the very young . . .[in poems] than a touchstone to deal with the early daily experiences of feelings, sights, and sounds…?”

I especially love this poem from the LBH anthology Good Books, Good Times:

Give Me a Book

Give me a book
and long, tall grass.
There will I look
as the hours pass.

To other places
I can see,
to other faces,
strange to me.

In black and white
they fill my head
with men and women,
vanished, dead.

Of hope and fear
and wish and need.
The world stands still.
I, breathless, read.

And in their history I see
the untold mystery of me.

–Myra Cohn Livingston

Poems like that make me really wish I could easily get my hands on all these books!

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In 2007, Holiday House issued Myra’s poem “Calendar” in picture book form, with beautiful, colorful illustrations by Will Hillebrand. This is the only book by Myra that is currently in print.

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Calendar

January shivers,
February shines,
March blows off
the winter ice,
April makes the
mornings nice,
May is hopscotch lines.

June is
deep blue swimming,
Picnics are July,
August is
my birthday,
September whistles by.

October is
for roller skates,
November is
the fireplace,
December is
the best because
of sleds
and snow
and Santa Claus.

calendar-december-verse

Besides poetry, Myra also wrote several professional books including the classic Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. Intended for use by students, this poetic how-to is also a great resource for adult poets and anyone else who needs to brush up on the mechanics of poetry.

book-covers4

Despite all her wonderful poetry and collections and anthologies, I can’t help but think that Myra’s greatest contribution was in her role as educator. In her twenty years teaching a master class in poetry at UCLA, Myra trained and mentored many of today’s most noted children’s poets.

In an interview with Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader, Janet Wong speaks about her experiences studying with Myra at UCLA, where her classmates included Alice Schertle, April Halprin Wayland, Ann Whitford Paul, Kristine O’Connell George, Tony JohnstonDeborah Chandra, and Joan Bransfield Graham, to name a few. Wow! Janet also shares some of the writing exercises Myra had her students do, so hie thee thither!

The more I discover about Myra’s class, the more I’m convinced that Myra and her students lived in the Golden Age of Children’s Poetry — a fitting name given the Los Angeles location. Oh, to be a fly on that wall…and we can be with the anthology I Am Writing a Poem About….

From Kirkus Reviews:
Inspired by a magnetic-word poetry set, Livingston explains in an introduction how she launched students in her master class in poetry on a fascinating study of how disparate words could be connected in coherent, artful ways. This delightful collection features works by Alice Schertle, Janet Wong, and Tony Johnston, among others. Each student was given one word, then three, then six that had to be included in a poem. The possibilities are endless, as shown in the diverse styles and range of the pieces: Some are brilliant and touching, others are humorous, some are silly. Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Go on! Try the exercise! And feel free to share your masterpiece in the comments! To get you started, here is Janet Wong’s ring-drum-blanket poem from the anthology (via Wild Rose Reader):

Oh, Brother!

The little squirt,
begging for boiled eggs and toast,
circles me like a wrestler in the ring,
bouncing on my bed,
bouncing,
bouncing,
bouncing,
bouncing,
and when I try to hide my head,
he dives under the blanket,
to drum my stomach
until it surrenders
a growl.

-Janet Wong

Although I think we are all thankful to Myra Cohn Livingston for the many gifts she left us, I can’t help being sad that such a rare and dedicated mentor has passed out of our grasp. If any of her students read this, we would love to hear your anecdotes in the comments.

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Lee’s stories about Myra are full of affection, admiration, and truth. We hope you enjoy our fourth episode of the series. 

LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on MYRA COHN LIVINGSTON

If there were a poetry star in the sky, that star would surely be named Myra Cohn Livingston. –Lee Bennett Hopkins

In Her Own Words: Myra Cohn Livingston on

Poetry

“Poetry is a place where we are not expected to define or analyze or answer questions. We can simply laugh or cry or wonder, or turn the page until we find a poem that sings the tune we wish to hear. It’s as easy as that.” From an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Teaching Poetry to Children

“I have become convinced over a period of years that early adulation does more harm than good . . . many years of teaching have convinced me that making this learning process (of writing poetry) an end in itself does ultimate harm to the child’s growth. At an age when children should be striving to improve by profiting from error, their work is accepted as complete, finished, perfect. As John Ciardi says, ‘Education is not possible without failure’.”

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More about Myra Cohn Livingston

QUICK FACTS

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Dates: b. 1926 in Omaha, NE; d. 1996 in Beverly Hills, CA
Education: Sarah Lawrence College
Occupation: Poet, educator, anthologist; musician (French horn); personal secretary to Dinah Shore and violinist Jascha Heifetz
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (1980); Kerlan Award (University of Minnesota); National Jewish Book Award
Known for: ”using a variety of techniques to express the realities and wonders of a child’s everyday world and experiences” (Jewish Women’s Archive)
First book published: 
Whispers (Harcourt, 1958)

Extensive biography on Jewish Women’s Archive
Profile of Cohn Livingston for NCTE, by E. Jane Porter
A Peek Inside Myra’s Master Class via an interview with Janet Wong at Wild Rose Reader (highly recommended!) 

book-covers-8

WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN

(links go to NCTE articles and interviews about each winner)
(Criteria for award)

2013 - Joyce Sidman
2011 - J. Patrick Lewis
2009 - Lee Bennett Hopkins
2006 - Nikki Grimes
2003 - Mary Ann Hoberman
2000 - X.J. Kennedy
1997 - Eloise Greenfield
1994 - Barbara Juster Esbensen
1991 - Valerie Worth
1988 - Arnold Adoff
1985 - Lilian Moore
1982 - John Ciardi
1981 - Eve Merriam
1980 - Myra Cohn Livingston
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

 

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

NCTE Medal – designed by Karla Kuskin

NEXT IN THE SERIES: EVE MERRIAM

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Tabatha Yeatts has the roundup over at The Opposite of Indifference.

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See more poems in my poetry video library.

“Whispers,” “Give Me a Book,” and “Calendar” © Myra Cohn Livingston. “Oh, Brother!” © Janet Wong. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. 

Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.

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30 Comments

  1. Joy Acey
    231 days ago

    Renee and Lee,
    Thank you so much for this incredible post. For many years now I’ve collected Myra’s books and stories from her students. Any time I meet one of her former students I immediately ask for a Myra story. It was lovely to hear Lee talk about her. I appreciate this post so much. What a treasure to have the modern history of children’s poetry presented in this way.
    Bravo!!!

    Reply

    • Renee M. LaTulippe
      230 days ago

      Thanks, Joy! I’m going to start collecting her books, too! Would love to hear the stories you’ve heard. :)

      Reply

  2. Joan Bransfield Graham
    230 days ago

    Renee and Lee, thank you so much for this remembrance . . . celebration of Myra! I feel fortunate, indeed, that I had the opportunity to be part of Myra’s UCLA Master Class–such an amazing group of poets. At the end of each semester we would have a potluck at Myra’s. In her lovely home she created, behind a door under the stairs, the most enchanting little-person-size secret reading spot, complete with books and toys. I will have to find the pictures I took of that.

    Reply

    • Renee M. LaTulippe
      230 days ago

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your memory, Joan. I would love to see that nook under the stairs – what a wonderful idea! I’m sure you have stories to tell from the potlucks, too. What a wonderful experience it must have been to be her student. :)

      Reply

  3. Sylvia Vardell
    230 days ago

    Thank you both for this wonderful series– and this new installment on Myra Cohn Livingston. I do wish more of her work was still available, but you can obtain out-of-print titles affordably through used book vendors. I have MANY!

    Reply

    • Renee M. LaTulippe
      230 days ago

      Thanks for the reminder, Sylvia. That’s how I got POEM-MAKING, so I’ll start hunting for some more Myra books!

      Reply

  4. Linda Baie
    230 days ago

    This, again, is wonderfully done. Thank you Renee for the ‘filled’ post, and Lee for your memories. I am lucky enough to own Poem Making and Climb Into The Bell Tower, and I find that others are available on used book sites. I remember Elaine’s post and will return to re-read.

    Reply

    • Renee M. LaTulippe
      230 days ago

      Elaine’s post is great! Janet is such a fun storyteller, and I love having some of Myra’s exercises to try. Isn’t POEM-MAKING great?

      Reply

  5. Teresa Robeson
    230 days ago

    Ms Livingston’s life and poetry would have been interesting in and of itself, but combined with Mr Hopkins’ reminiscences and my having read her Poem Making book makes this beautiful tribute post you wrote even more special, Renee!

    Reply

  6. Robyn Hood Black
    230 days ago

    I’ve been looking forward to this one – thank you, Lee and Renee, for such a special remembrance. I never met Myra, but I’ve met some of these amazing talents she nurtured, and they light up when they talk about her and those classes. So many sparks!

    Reply

  7. Tara
    230 days ago

    Ihavebook marked this rich and wonderful post – thank you so much. I’ve managed to find quite a few of Myra’s books at used book stores here and there. Always such a joy to come upon them, and have them to share with my students.

    Reply

    • Renee LaTulippe
      224 days ago

      Thanks, Tara! NWR is for teachers and students, so it’s always good to know that it’s being used for that purpose. Yay!

      Reply

  8. Cathy Mealey
    230 days ago

    A lovely tribute to a talented, special poet.

    Thank you Renee!

    Reply

  9. Keri Collins Lewis
    230 days ago

    What a thoughtful and inspiring post! Lee is fantastic — what wonderful memories you’re capturing. Thank you, Renee!

    Reply

  10. jama
    230 days ago

    Fabulous, fabulous post. Brilliant job of editing the video, Renee — always a treat to hear Lee’s recollections to get a true sense of who the person was behind all the wonderful poems.

    Reply

  11. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes
    230 days ago

    Thanks to this series and Lee’s personal remembrances, I think Myra Cohn Livingston’s legend, her poetry star, will be shining a bit brighter tonight. You are doing such a wonderful job with this series, Renee. Thank you so much!

    Reply

    • Renee LaTulippe
      224 days ago

      Now if we can only get everyone’s books back in print, we’ll be all set!

      Reply

  12. Mars Rojo
    229 days ago

    Whenever I open my Facebook page, I look forward to reading the poems you post in it. I have appreciated poetry because of you and your FB sharing of your own work and the work of other contemporary poets. Poems are indeed the lyrics of the songs of our hearts’ beating melodies. Thank you for your immense inspiration to humankind.

    Reply

    • Renee LaTulippe
      224 days ago

      Aw, thank you, Mars! I’m so glad you enjoy the poetry at NWR – that means a lot! :)

      Reply

  13. Penny Parker Klostermann
    229 days ago

    Thanks for another amazing addition to this series! I just love her quotes.

    Reply

  14. Julie Larios
    229 days ago

    This series has been such a delight! Thanks for doing it, Renee. We’re all indebted to you (and your energy! How do you do it?) Myra must have been a wonderful teacher – how lucky her students were!

    Reply

  15. Tabatha
    228 days ago

    Both “O Frabjous Day” and “Calling Down the Moon” caught my eye. So many interesting collections. And the stories about Myra’s classroom techniques — love those! Keep ‘em coming!

    Reply

  16. Erik - This Kid Reviews Books
    228 days ago

    Great post! :)

    Reply

  17. Charles Waters
    226 days ago

    Holy smokes! What an informative reading and viewing experience you and Lee gave us!

    Here is my writing exercise result. I used 9 of the words that were listed up top.

    MORNING HOP
    Despite his traveling companion
    Ms. Bun E. Rabbit being saddled in sickness
    Mr. Jack Rabbit, his blanket of fur shivering
    From whipping winds banking off this morning’s
    Ocean roar, goes on his daily expedition.
    He’s scampers along particles of camel
    Sand like a drum while inspecting:
    A chewed up plastic ring,
    A scuffed, ivory colored bucket,
    A wicked-out candle overflowing
    In volcano-like eruptions of wax,
    A hole being replenished thanks
    To foamy fringes of salt water.
    Jack continues his beach tour when he spots
    An apricot spotted snake flowing towards him.
    He springs away to seclusion realizing
    Maybe his under the weather pal
    Could use some company.

    (c) Charles Waters 2013 all rights reserved.

    Reply

  18. Iza Trapani
    223 days ago

    A wonderful post, Renee and Lee! I adore her poems and the books look so beautiful and will offer great inspiration. I too will be collecting them. Thanks so much!

    Reply

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] 1985 - Lilian Moore 1982 - John Ciardi 1981 - Eve Merriam 1980 - Myra Cohn Livingston  |  See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR 1979 - Karla Kuskin  |  See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR 1978 - Aileen [...]

  2. [...] 1985 - Lilian Moore 1982 - John Ciardi 1981 - Eve Merriam 1980 - Myra Cohn Livingston  |  See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR 1979 - Karla Kuskin  |  See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR 1978 - Aileen [...]

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