Poetry Month 2012: Lee Wardlaw

Lee Wardlaw

[heading style=”1″]Poetry Month 2012: EPISODE 9[/heading]

Last Chance!

To get your name in for the giveaway of The House by J. Patrick Lewis and Roberto Innocenti. Sign up here!

Done? Purr…fect. Now, curl your paws and lick your whiskers, because today’s poet brings us some furry verses guaranteed to make you blink slowly but knowingly!

Furry purrs to

Lee Wardlaw

The author of over two dozen books for children and teens in every genre there is, Lee has won a litter box full of awards and honors, including the 2012 Lee Bennet Hopkins Poetry Award for her most recent picture book, Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku.

Since Lee is sharing verses from this book, I’m making this post pull double duty as a Poetry Month feature and a selection for Perfect Picture Book Friday, hosted by Susanna Hill. As such, I need to include some stats:

[heading style=”1″]The Goods[/heading]

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, Eugene YelchinWritten by: Lee Wardlaw
Illustrated by: Eugene Yelchin
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (2011)
Genre: Picture Book
Ages: 4+
Themes/Topics: Cats, cat behavior, animal shelters, friendship, new home, emotions

Synopsis: from Amy Shojai, cat behavior expert: “This lovely book…painlessly educates children to basic cat behaviors and emotions, teaches empathy, and celebrates the gift of saving a life. Each short verse details one aspect of a shelter cat’s journey from a cage to finally embracing his new life and family with trust and love.”

Why I Like Love This Book: A “tough” Siamese cat with a huge personality + funny verse + witty and wonderful illustrations + an endearing story = perfect picture book! Okay, here’s a sneak peek at one scene…just look at that poor kitty behind bars!

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, Eugene Yelchin

…and now, all the way from Cat-ifornia, here’s Lee with…

selections from

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku

selections from Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku

Nice place they got here
Bed. Bowl. Blankie. Just like home!
Or so I’ve been told.

Gypsy on my left.
Pumpkin, my right. Together,
we are all alone.

Latch squeaks. Door swings wide.
Free! Free at last! Yet, one claw
snags, clings to what’s known.

Help! I’ve been catnapped,
dressed in frillies, forced to lap
tea with your sister!

Wait! Let me back in!

Your tummy, soft as
warm dough. I knead and knead, then
bake it with a nap.

 [heading style=”1″]Guest Poet Snickerview™ ~ Lee Wardlaw[/heading]

Lee Wardlaw and Koloa

What’s Up with Lee

Lee: who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a rhyming fool?
I wrote my first poem – a haiku – in third grade. (I suspect that every public elementary school in the 1960s was required by law to teach haiku as a way for children to learn syllabification.) I penned my first rhyming poem soon after; it was called “The Midnight Ride of Mouse Revere” (The cats are coming! The cats are coming!), and I’ve been hooked on poetry ever since!

As to who I am: I’m a girl (a woman, actually), even though my first name is Lee. (I get a lot of fan mail addressed to MISTER Lee Wardlaw!) I live in Santa Barbara, CA, with my husband (a surfer and winemaker); our teenage son, Patterson (a voracious reader who is annoyed that I write picture books and humorous contemporary novels instead of stuff like Harry Potter, The Maze Runner, or The Hunger Games); and our two former shelter cats. The latter are fond of leaving lizard and gopher parts on our back door mat for me to step on in my bare feet. My main job in life, other than writing books and embarrassing my son, is serving as the official door opener/closer for our cats, who when they are in, want out; and when they are out, want in.

One time a little black cat followed me home, and I only had to call it 1,256,721 times. Was it a similar experience that inspired you to write Won Ton? And why did you choose to write this kitty’s story in haiku/senryu? Are your other PBs in verse?
HA! That’s how my brother convinced a Siamese cat to come home with him when I was in fifth grade. The cat came complete with a powder blue, bejeweled collar. We named him Kiki. He was weird. He ate wool. When he polished off the pockets on my winter coat AND a portion of my mother’s new drapes, Mom took him to the Humane Society.

I don’t think my brother ever forgave her…

(That’s pawful!)

Three of my picture books are in rhyme (Peek-A-Book, Saturday Night Jamboree, and First Steps), but Won Ton is my first book told in a series of linked poems.

Won Ton is based on a true story. Eight years ago, Patterson’s best buddy, our cat Beau, died of cancer. We were all devasted – especially Patterson, because he and Beau had literally grown up together. After a few months of mourning, Patterson suggested we adopt a new cat, so we visited our local animal shelter to “interview” kittens. The selection process resembled something out of “The Story of the Three Bears”:

“That one is too shy, Mom. This one bites. Ewww! – that one is napping in his litter box! But this one…ohhh, this one is just right.”

We adopted “the one” – a cute striped Tabby with an orange tummy – and brought him home, where he skittered under a bed and hid for two days. Patterson lured him out at last by dangling a shell lei, so we ended up naming him (the cat, not my son) Papaya.

It was a slow process, but as the days and weeks passed, Papaya gradually adjusted to his new surroundings. Soon, he and Patterson became comrades-in-paws – snuggling together under blankets, reading together, playing “Chase the Ping-Pong Ball,” even lapping out of the same cereal bowl! – and I had a great idea for a new picture book.

But how best to tell the story of a boy, his cat, and their growing friendship?

At first, I tried traditional prose – too humdrum. Then I tried rhyme. Too cutesy and too young: I wanted this book to appeal to all ages.

Then, one day, I thought of haiku. Cats are haiku: they are both deceptively simple; they both live in the moment; and they both speak volumes in a few meows. (Haiku aren’t furry, but hey, you can’t have everything.)

If Papaya could talk human, I KNEW he would tell his tale in this elegant, unembellished form of poetry. And the rest is history…

Among the more than two dozen children’s books you’ve written are nine picture books. I can’t imagine they’re all about spunky kitties (though that would be fine by me!). Can you tell us a bit about the subjects that make you purr with inspiration, and how you first scratched your way to publication?
The first picture book I ever sold was Tales of Grandpa Cat, illustrated by the late New York cartoonist Ronald Searle. Grandpa Cat was not (surprise!) inspired by a cat, but by my maternal grandfather, who was the Best. Storyteller. Ever. I’ve done one dog story, too (much to the chagrin of our dog-disdaining felines): Bow-Wow Birthday, which was inspired by a party I attended for a canine who was turning 100 (in dog years!). The catalyst (no pun intended) for the majority of my picture books, though, is my son. Watching him learn to walk inspired First Steps; his habit of making mealtime a full-body experience (complete with oatmeal on his head) became The Chair Where Bear Sits; and our bedtime routine turned into Peek-a-Book.

I taught elementary school for three years and preschool for two, so I started out writing what I call VBPB’s: Very Bad Picture Books. (They mostly featured walking, talking inanimate objects.) I mean, everything you could do wrong when writing a picture book, I did with gusto! So I decided to try my hand at writing for older readers. My family’s home and our neighborhood had been completely destroyed in a wildfire, so I wrote a young adult novel called Corey’s Fire, about a 14-year-old girl who experiences a similar tragedy. It took me three years to sell that book, but it was eventually plucked from the slush pile! My first sale. Wow. Heady stuff! That was 25+ years ago…

Lee's work shoes
Lee's work shoes

What is your favorite part about being a children’s writer, other than receiving a warm bowl of milk and a scritch behind the ears (as if those weren’t reward enough!)? 

1. Going to work in my kitty slippers.
2. Getting fan mail.
3. Meeting my fans at school visits.
4. Creating characters who I think would be fun to meet in real life.
5. Working at home so that I can take a nap every day with my cats!


Do you have formal training in writing poetry/PBs?
No formal training, although I’ve taken a couple of small writing workshops and classes from children’s poets, such as Ann Whitford Paul and Ellen Kelley. And I read, read, read a lot of poetry.

What’s your best advice for kids who want to write poetry?
Read, write, repeat. Read, write, repeat.

What’s your best advice for poets/writers who want to get their poetry (or rhyming/verse PB) published (other than “don’t bother”)?
See my answer, above! (Also, please don’t try to be another Dr. Seuss. Find your own voice and style!)

Can you recommend a particular book of children’s poetry, or a particular poet, that you think children should read? Why that book or poet?
Well, just about anything by Lee Bennett Hopkins, of course! I also love the work of Kristine O’Connell George…and Valerie Worth…and Thalia Chaltas (her YA novel Because I Am Furniture is powerful and poignant) and Joan Bransfield Graham (her shape poems are fun!) and…I could go on and on. A great resource that I highly recommend is Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston.

Can we come visit you and peruse your wares? (Online, of course, not at your house! Then again, if we slink around and purr softly, you might not even notice us. Hmm…party at Lee’s! BYOC – Bring Your Own Catnip.)
Yes, please stop by! I guarantee cat fur on your sweater!

I have stuff on my site for teachers and librarians and children…oh, my! The site will be revamped this summer, with info for parents, too. I have teacher’s guides available for almost all of my books; I even have a recipe for my famous Kitty Litter Cake! Kids should click on the Just for Kids icon on my home page; there, they’ll find ongoing contests, recommended books, and other resources for young writers; info about me, my life, and my books (suitable for book reports!); and 101 Ways to Bug an Author (a.k.a. ME!).

Here’s the info:

Author website: LeeWardlaw.com
Facebook author page: Lee Wardlaw

Thanks for stopping by, Lee, and for adding furry tufts of Won Ton to No Water River’s growing video poetry library!
Thank you for inviting me!

[heading style=”1″]More Stuff About Lee[/heading]

[heading style=”1″]Extension Activities: Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku[/heading]

Books by Lee Wardlaw
Some of Lee's many books!

[heading style=”1″]Coming Up Next![/heading]

Children’s Poet Laureate
stops in on Monday to send us off in style!

Here’s the whole schedule:

April 2 ~ Kenn Nesbitt 
April 6 ~ Amy Ludwig VanDerwater 
April 9 ~ Laura Purdie Salas
April 13 ~ Deborah Diesen
April 16 ~ Greg Pincus
April 18 ~ Charles Waters
April 20 ~ Irene Latham
April 23 ~ Julie Larios
April 27 ~ Lee Wardlaw
April 30 ~ J. Patrick Lewis


Video Location: Kitty-Cat Central, first stop on the Tabby Town Line, Santa Barbara, Catifornia!

See more poems in my poetry video library. 

Selections from Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku copyright © 2011 Lee Wardlaw. Published by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.  

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  1. I loved hearing Won Ton come to life via Lee. I only wish we could see her in those cat slippers reading the poems! Thanks, Renee and Lee, for the vid and interview….

  2. I haven’t read this yet, Renee, but it sounds great! How fun that you got Lee to read 🙂 Always glad to have an animal rescue story on our list too – everyone should adopt from shelters 🙂 So glad to have you back with us today 🙂

    1. I’m so happy to add this book to the PPBF list, because it really is special. Oh, and Lee originally did the reading for Poetry Month … but my little gears clicked on and I realized this would be good for PPBF too!

  3. Well I think this has to to be THE definitive Lee Wardlaw & Won Ton post. You covered everything, and that book is so good!

    if only I was a cat person… kidding. I love Won Ton even though it’s not about a chocolate lab.

  4. Swooning with the perfection of hearing Lee read:


    When Grace and I read this book together we did not read this aloud properly, so we will try it again!

    Penultimate post Renee and Lee – really terrific.

    How was the name “Won Ton” selected I wonder?

    1. I know!! I just commented on FB that I can’t stop saying “letmeOWtletmeOWtletmeOWt”! Shame on me, I didn’t even think of reading it that way, and I just love it.

      The cat’s not thrilled with Won Ton at first either (or so he says) – he doesn’t want to be named for soup!

  5. Cathy and Renee, that was my favorite part of the video, too – I will now not even be able to read my copy silently the same way. ;0)

    Thank you, Lee, for this wonderful post and the backstory. I’ve been owned by many formerly homeless cats over the years. My office kitty May would like to pass on that she very much enjoys your work. Mrrowww.

  6. “Won Ton” is absolutely brilliant. I first heard about the book on Katie Davis and knew I had to have it for my cat-loving niece. Congrats to Lee on all her successes. And Renee, thanks for sharing her story.

  7. Paw, shucks! fangs a lot, everyone! This was very fun – – despite the fact that I hate seeing myself on camera.

    A few comments:

    *I read letmeoutletmeout the exact same way my cats say it when they’re especially desperate to go owt. 🙂

    *Children often don’t know the difference between Japanese or Chinese words, so when I put myself into the mindset of a young boy who is trying to choose an appropriate name for his new pet – – whom I envisioned as being a type of Siamese – – Won Ton was one of the first things that popped into my head. (My own son loved won ton soup starting at about age 2 or 3.) That’s one of the reasons Won Ton is so affronted by this name; HE knows that his real name (which you don’t learn until the end of the book) is Japanese, whereas ‘won ton’ is actually Chinese.

    *My dad had a chocolate lab years ago. Her name was Hershey Bar! She was deliciously fun and full of energy. She is the inspiration behind the dog in the companion title to Won Ton that I’m revising at the moment, which is called Chopstick. In this book, Won Ton gives his honest opinions when his family adopts – – horrors! – – a canine.

    *I’d meant to show my kitty slippers on the video, but I couldn’t find them! I expect I’ll find them under a bed, covered in dust bunnies and cat hair. Our cats tend to chew on the slippers’ whiskers. I’ll make a point of posting a picture of me on my facebook page wearing my cat pj’s and slippers on my facebook page. (BTW, Renee advised me to wear a solid color, if possible, when filming my video; the kitty pajamas are quite ‘busy’!

    *I have a pair of cat ears, too, but they give me a terminal case of Bad Hair Day. Maybe next time!

    Best fishes,
    Lee Wardlaw

  8. I too heard about Won Ton on Katie Davis. I have it on hold at the library and can’t wait to have it in my hands. As usual, Renee, you did a fabulous job on the interview. It was so fun.
    I am with everyone else…seeing and hearing Lee Wardlaw read-
    was just the best. I will be saying it over and over all day. How genius!

  9. My granddaughter loves cats, so I must get this one for her upcoming birthday. What a fabulous book! Loved the shelter idea. Letmeout,letmeout was absolutely brilliant. It sounded like a meow! Lee are entertaining on camera! Renee, your interview with Lee was very enlightening and helpful. I enjoyed hearing talk about her process. Well done, Renee and Lee.

  10. What a fantastic post! As a person with 5 cats (we live in the country, and people just drop them off), I could not agree more with Lee – CATS ARE HAIKU! I truly enjoyed this reading and interview. Many thanks to both of you!

  11. Very fun-lots of cats are waiting at shelters! Perhaps the success of this wonderful book will encourage people to find their own Won Ton, Lee. It’s a great story, & now I know how (as everyone has said already) to read it properly. Thank you, & thanks again Renee for a wonderful Poetry Friday post.

  12. Oh Renee, I so enjoy your brilliant interviews and the fascinating repartee you have with your interviewees! Love the sparkling witticisms and quick verbal exchanges! You know you’re in for a treat when the website is called “no water river” indeed. I’ve heard a lot about this picture book – and thanks to Lee’s introduction and sharing, I am even more intrigued now. I should definitely find this book and enjoy it for myself. I should drop by more often, I always enjoy myself here. 🙂

    1. Hello, Myra! Yes, you should come by every Monday, indeed! Thank you so much for your kind words – you really made my day. Now go get Lee’s book — I guarantee it’s a purr-fect read!

  13. I was in such a hurry to check and make sure my name was down for the giveaway way back when, I clean forgot to leave a comment here… dah! I love cats and this was just wonderful. Loved the video as always. Lee is an awesome writer and speaker.

  14. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.
    I’ve read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting things or advice. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!

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