Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Barbara Juster Esbensen, with Lee Bennett Hopkins


“A poem is merely a dance of breath that has

learned to fly.

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

Welcome to the tenth 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 woman who infused her poems with wit and wisdom.

Barbara Juster Esbensen


In 1994, Barbara Juster Esbensen became the tenth recipient of the NCTE award. Her twenty-one books, which included poetry collections, lyrical legends, and nonfiction, received critical acclaim right from the start.


Barbara often credited her tenth-grade teacher — who once told her “You’re a writer!” — for leading her into the world of poetry. I found this wonderful post written by Barbara’s husband Tory, himself an educator, in which he tells a bit more about this time in Barbara’s youth:

“The biggest influence in Barbara’s life of writing was her high school English teacher, Miss Eulalie Beffel, herself a published poet and journalist. In 1941, under the tutelage of Miss Beffel, Barbara read the poetry of Amy Lowell, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Sara Teasdale. The way these writers used words astonished her. Thomas Wolfe had her in a state of shock! From that point on, she was off and running with language.”
–Tory Esbensen

Barbara’s first book, Swing Around the Sun, was published in 1965 and introduced readers to her marvelous facility with imagery and lyrical language.


Unfortunately, I was able to find only a few bits of Barbara’s writing to share, but what I did find just knocked my socks off with its effortlessness


…its lyricism


…and its insightful imagery.

Unpublished poem as submitted to Lee Bennett Hopkins for consideration for an anthology. (c) Barbara Juster Esbensen. All rights reserved.

In 1996, Barbara’s collection Dance with Me — which Lee tells us was also her favorite book — won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. I love the exuberance of “Invitation to the Wind.”


As Lee mentions in the video, Barbara was also a wonderful teacher, and her 1975 book A Celebration of Bees has helped countless teachers and parents help their students and children write creatively. The book was reissued in 1995, and I was thrilled to discover that the powers that be have made the book available for Kindle. I bought it immediately. Although written to help children, there is plenty in here to inspire poets of all ages.


Lee’s reflections on Barbara Juster Esbensen reveal a joyous soul who was passionate about words and language, and about sharing that passion with others.  


During our interview, Lee shared several handwritten letters he’d received from Barbara over the years. They are just as full of humor and charm as her poetry. I will share part of one here — the one she wrote upon hearing she’d won the NCTE award.

Letter to LBH

I also found two audio recordings of Barbara speaking at various events, which I highly recommend. She is so funny and joyful. You just know she was an amazing teacher.


In Her Own Words: Barbara Juster Esbensen on


“The way words looked when placed next to each other was deeply important to me. When put together in fresh, unexpected ways, they could generate quiet explosions of delight for the reader. Whether it was poetry or prose, placing images in the minds of my readers became a central focus of everything I wrote. I wanted to find those word combinations that make sentences catch fire and shower down sparks!” –from the post by Tory Esbensen


Advice to Poets Young and Old

You can’t just think. It doesn’t do any good just to think. You must see your words. I tell students the poem is in the pencil. The words are all in there, and as soon as you start letting a few of them out on the paper, you’re surprised; they are all holding hands, and they are all yanking each other along. –NCTE interview

“My favorite thing to tell children when I visit schools is that poets love to lie. But of course I quickly tell them how we lie. In the poem ‘Performance’ (Dance with Me), I use lines such as ‘the trees lock crooked arms’ and ‘a breeze remembers how to rhyme.’ Of course trees do not have arms to lock and a breeze cannot remember. But poets have to be poetic and we have to lie. Sometimes lying is just wonderful.” –via Lee Bennett Hopkins


Teaching Poetry

“Too many school children are worried about being right, about not being wrong, and about not saying something stupid. They don’t want to be laughed at. If you have an accepting, adventurous atmosphere in a classroom, you may find some poets.” –NCTE interview

“I never take [Swing Around the Sun] with me when I’m talking to children, because I don’t want them to horse around with rhyme; it is too confining, and they get too tinky tanky.” –NCTE interview


More about Barbara Juster Esbensen

bio-pic-baby-adultDates: b. 1925 in Madison, WI; d. 1996
Education: University of Wisconsin, degree in art education
Occupation: K-12 art teacher, creative writing teacher elementary through college, poet, author
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 1994; Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, 1996
First book published: Swing Around the Sun (Lerner, 1965)




NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin


(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
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman
2000 – X.J. Kennedy
1997 – Eloise Greenfield
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen
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


NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin
NCTE Medal – designed by Karla Kuskin



Amy has the roundup a The Poem Farm!

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See more poems in my poetry video library.

All poems © Barbara Juster Esbensen. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. 

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

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  1. Oh this is just a terrific post, Renee and Lee. I have a Celebration of Bees which is just wonderful. I love the poems you have found here to share. Such seemingly effortless writing. Wonderful. And I love how she does not encourage kids to rhyme. That can come, some have the knack but it does not always work early on! This sentence really gets me: “If you have an accepting, adventurous atmosphere in a classroom, you may find some poets.” Teachers need to teach all the subjects in most elementary classrooms. Now there is way too much pressure and test prep going on. IF we want kids to really learn we should listen to Barbara and Lee. We need more poetry, more acceptance, more creativity in our classrooms, not less! Thanks Renee! And Lee. And Barbara!

  2. I also like, “It doesn’t do any good just to think. You must see your words . . . . As you start letting a few of them out on the paper, you’re surprised; they are all holding hands, and they are all yanking each other along.” This is a wonderful series. Thank you, Renee.

  3. Oh Renee, I always learn SO MUCH from these NCTE posts! Thank you for the tremendous effort you put into them.

    And Lee, with so many of these books out of print, the service you’re doing for us – allowing us to get to know these authors through your own paper and memory files – is phenomenal! Thank you.

    Besides her wonderful poems, I love Barbara’s quote on writing – especially the “quiet explosions of delight” when readers discover “sentences [that] catch fire and shower down sparks!”

  4. There is a radio segment called “A Moment of Science” which attempt to bring a bit of science joy and magic into an average person’s life. Your posts are like “A Moment of Poetry” to me, bringing the joy and magic of poetry and lyrical writing to the average person! It’s always a delight to learn about these incredible poets who have filled so many young hearts with poetry and word miracles through the years.

  5. Thanks Renee and Lee for another wonderful interview. I am a big Barbara Juster Esbensen fan–I used a poem of hers as a model for one of the very first children’s poems I wrote.

  6. Another tremendous job, Renee & Lee! Thanks so much for sharing these poems and thoughts. I never knew much about her, so I’m glad I was able to learn!

    One thing that really caught me was how influential poets may be on each other – even if they don’t know it – and how different writers may express themselves in similar ways. The reason I say this is that two of the poems reminded me of two other writers: “Umbrellas” has a Dorothy Aldis sort of feel to it, and “Invitation to the Wind” read like something Amy Ludwig VanDerwater might have penned.

    1. Matt, I thought the same thing as I read this about the Wind poem and Amy LV!! I love how you can sense that some people just know how to pick the perfect words at the perfect moment.

  7. Dear Renee and Lee,

    Once again, this post is a gift! Those words “all yanking each other along” will remain with me, as will the combination of beauty and joy in this post, so many reminders of how to write…and how to live.

    “Sometimes lying is just wonderful!” I am incredibly grateful that you two are keeping the spirits of so many poets alive, with reverence and laughter too. Thank you.


  8. Renee and Lee, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these posts. HUG. That quote is wonderful Oh, my, Lee you know how much I love you and your beautiful anthologies. (This comment is full of love.) 🙂 Your poetry always fills me with joy and makes me WISH I could write poetry like you write it. Your heart and soul is in each poem.

    I have a Celebration of Bees in Kindle. It is AMAZING. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Saving this post.

  9. RENEE: Thank you again for all the research you put into this SPOTLIGHT series. It is so appreciated. With love… Lee

  10. What an enchanting poet- and person! And I love how she would tell students that poets have to lie. I’m sure that got their attention 🙂 Thank you Renee and Lee for intruding me to this inspiring and talented poet. Her umbrella poem is pure delight.

  11. Now that’s a beautiful title: cold stars and fireflies and the night rainbow. Bursts of inspiration there that seem so alive and authentic. I didn’t know about Barbara, dear Renee. You are really doing something amazing here in this series that you so lovingly put together.

  12. This is another of this series I’ve been especially looking forward to. Thank you, Lee and Renee, for this much needed spotlight on Barbara Juster Esbensen. I was first pointed to her work by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, and I’m very thankful. She truly wrote with “those word combinations that make sentences catch fire and shower down sparks.” :0)

  13. Thank you so much, Renee and Lee, for this glimpse of Barbara Juster Esbensen’s life and amazing work! I love A Celebration of Bees and was honored to receive the Barbara Juster Esbensen 2000 Poetry Teaching Award, given to me by Tory Esbensen for my work with a third grade class; the lessons were partly based on the book. With the prize money, I bought a copy of Words with Wrinkled Knees for each child in the class. I hope they all remember the experience–and the poems–as fondly as I do!

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