Poetry Friday: Spotlight on NCTE Poets – Karla Kuskin, with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Karla Kuskin - featured NCTE poet

“…my friend happens to be

a poem.

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

Welcome to the third episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this new series that I’ve cooked up with the help of 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 gives us a wholly human look at the woman and the poet who, in 1979, became the third winner of the NCTE award,

Karla Kuskin

Karla Kuskin - bio

Karla Kuskin wrote and/or illustrated over 50 books for children which included both serious and humorous poetry and prose. Her first book, Roar and More, was published in 1956.


As Lee mentions in the video, Karla was a versatile writer, taking on all sorts of topics in her signature style. One of my favorites is The Animals and the Ark, a humorous telling of Noah’s adventures backed up by vibrant art by Michael Grejniec. I couldn’t resist giving an extra big peek at this one (click to enlarge).

TheArk by Karla Kuskin

I’ve had Kuskin’s collection Moon, Have You Met My Mother? on my nightstand for several months now, and can always count on it for a dose of what I’ve come to love most about this poet: her authentic, childlike voice, sense of play, natural whimsy, and true ability to look at the world through very different eyes. Here’s a classic that demonstrates all those gifts.

kuskin - Moon, Have You Met My Mother?

Write about a Radish

Write about a radish
too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
the stars are small and high
the clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
hills gleam dimly
distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

–Karla Kuskin


A real love of language and wordplay also shines in every Kuskin verse. As a cat lover, my eye was especially caught by these two books. First, The Upstairs Cat has a beef with the downstairs cat…


And then Toots the Cat comes to stay.


In her NCTE profile, Kuskin mentions that she wanted to break the regular beat of rhymed verse and to “write with greater flexibility, to play with rhythms and word sounds.” Kuskin’s poems do indeed have a rhythm and flow all their own, as in this verse from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? 

Within a wood
I simply stood,
my thoughts as deep as wells.
I did not hear the sweet bird song.
I did not hear the bells
spring ringing through
the valleyed hills
from tree to tree to tree.
I did not hear the
windy, haunted rushing of the sea.
I did not hear the light leaves fall
and whisper to the ground.
I did not hear a thing
because there wasn’t any sound.

–Karla Kuskin


Lee’s stories about Karla paint a portrait of a woman and poet full of charm and just a touch of the devil – much like her poems. We hope you enjoy our third episode of the series! (Note that the video is only seven minutes long, not eighteen as YouTube indicates.)


In Her Own Words: Karla Kuskin on

Explaining Poetry to Kids

“If there were a recipe for writing a poem, there would be ingredients: words, sounds, rhythm, description, feeling, memory, rhyme, and imagination. They can be put together a thousand different ways, a thousand thousand more. If you and I were to go to at the same time to the same party for the same person, our descriptions would be different, as different as we are from each other. It is those differences that make our poems interesting.” From Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams (Harpercollins, 1980)


“My verse stories are, to me, very light and swingy. The verse is the shortest, most streamlined way to tell a story. My poems center around feelings and language. When I began writing poetry, I started out using much more rhyme and a very regular beat. I’ve tried in later work to break that and to write with greater flexibility, to play with rhythms and word sounds. Many of my poems will tell a little story, but it is incidental. The language of the poem gives it its shape, as does its mood. The story shapes the verse. In my mind, verse has a lightness, even a frivolous quality. The poem is often, too, to entertain, and often to make you feel a certain way or to make you think about something. Or it’s just an expression of my own thought and feeling. But it’s closer to my heart than a story I’ve told in verse. On the other hand I love to laugh, and that’s what much verse is about.” From an NCTE profile by Alvina Treut Burrows (1979)


Teaching Poetry

“If I were to introduce you to someone I care for, I might say, ‘This is my friend Sue. I like her very much and I hope you like her too.’ However, after your meeting with Sue, I would not ask you to explain her psychological and chemical makeup, or the genetic reason why her eyes are on-third gray and two-thirds blue, nor would I demand an interminable essay on Sue’s ethnicity, education, blood pressure, taste in furniture, or home. And that’s the way I feel about poetry. If I want to introduce a poem to you, I will simply open up a book and say, ‘I would like you to meet a friend of mine. My friend happens to be a poem.‘ And you leave your dissecting tools at home.”


“When I used to take a lot of photographs, I found that if I walked around with a black and white camera, I would see black and white pictures: if I walked around with color film, I would see color pictures. When I write poetry, wherever I look I find I’m thinking in terms of words and rhythms and sound. Lines that might go through my head I try to hang on to. I’m afraid I let a lot of good lines go at times when I’m not receptive. It’s being receptive that has a great deal to do with what you write.” From an NCTE profile by Alvina Treut Burrows (1979)


More about Karla Kuskin



Dates: b. 1932 in New York City; d. 2009 in Seattle, WA
Education: Little Red School House; Elizabeth Irwin High School; Antioch College; Yale: BFA in graphic design (1955)
Occupation: Poet, writer; advertising
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (1979)
Known for: Alliterative style, wit, humor, sound and wordplay, whimsical artwork; poems about “animals, the seasons, food, day and night” (Poetry Foundation)
First book published: 
Roar and More (Harper, 1956)

Excellent poet interview with Scholastic.com
Profile of Kuskin for NCTE, by Alvina Treut Burrows
Kuskin’s bio on KarlaKuskin.com


Karla Kuskin signature


(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
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



Irene Latham has the roundup over at Live Your Poem.

You’d like to receive my weekly posts in your inbox, you say? Well, just sign up in the sidebar then!

See more poems in my poetry video library.

All poems © Karla Kuskin. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. 

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