Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Curiouser and Curiouser with Lee Bennett Hopkins

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins

As I read each of Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ col­lec­tions of poet­ry, I find my curios­i­ty piqued: “How does he do this?” When I was a grad stu­dent, I came across Mr. Hop­kins’ book, Books Are by Peo­ple: inter­views with 104 authors and illus­tra­tors of books for young chil­dren. Those inter­views pro­voked my imag­i­na­tion and pro­pelled my career. It’s a priv­i­lege to be inter­view­ing Mr. Hop­kins for Bookol­o­gy.

Lee: My good­ness! Between 1969 and 1974 I inter­viewed 169 book peo­ple; l04 in Books Are By Peo­ple and 65 in More Books by More Peo­ple. Thank you for remind­ing me of these incred­i­ble adven­tures.

You have been an edu­ca­tor, an author, and an influ­encer. How did you turn to poet­ry books as a path in your life’s work?

I began to real­ize the impor­tance of poet­ry when I began teach­ing sixth grade in Fair Lawn, New Jer­sey, in 1960. I used verse with all stu­dents but found that slow­er read­ers were excit­ed over poems. Vocab­u­lary was often with­in their reach, works were short; more impor­tant we learned that more could some­times be said and felt in 8 or l0 or l2 lines than some­times an entire nov­el could con­vey.

Been to YesterdaysBeing a city child my entire life, I think the rust­ed metronome start­ed beat­ing, telling me to write ‘city.’ “Hydrants” was the first poem I wrote for chil­dren. At a din­ner par­ty of her home in Long Island, I read it to May Swen­son, one of America’s most renowned poets, who told me she liked it. I was hooked. This led me to cre­at­ing Been to Yes­ter­days: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong). Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1995, now close to 25 years since its pub­li­ca­tion, the book is being used in Al-Anon pro­grams, youth groups, and stud­ied in writ­ing cours­es. In essence, it is about a strug­gling teen who wants to “make/ this world/a whole lot brighter” to grow up to become a writer.” My life has been, is, blessed with poet­ry.

After teach­ing six years and get­ting my master’s degree at Bank Street Col­lege in New York (when Bank Street was on Bank Street in Green­wich Vil­lage), I was offered a job to work at Bank Street’s Resource Cen­ter in Harlem, enrich­ing lan­guage arts cur­ric­u­la into class­room pro­grams with an empha­sis on poet­ry.

Don't You Turn BookOn May 22, 1967, when Hugh­es died, I could not share his only book for chil­dren, The Dream­keep­er and Oth­er Poems, pub­lished in l932, due to the stereo­typ­i­cal depic­tion of blacks. I bold­ly called Vir­ginia Fowler, edi­tor at Knopf, ask­ing why a new edi­tion had nev­er been done. Vir­ginia asked me to lunch, also sug­gest­ing I do a new col­lec­tion. The result was one of my first antholo­gies, Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hugh­es, illus­trat­ed in won­drous two-col­or wood­cut engrav­ings by Ann Gri­fal­coni (l969). In addi­tion to a host of awards, it was an ALA Notable.

In 1994, the 75th Anniver­sary edi­tion of The Dream Keep­er was pub­lished with wood engrav­ings by Bri­an Pinkney. I was invit­ed to write the intro­duc­tion to the book by Janet Schul­man, an icon in our indus­try.

The Dream KeeperI then began to do many antholo­gies with the aim to bring a bevy of poets’ works to chil­dren.

Hook­ing chil­dren on read­ing at a young age is imper­a­tive. I believe they should be read to in the womb! Poet­ry, in par­tic­u­lar, brings a sense of song, melody, sootheness into a child’s life. This can be a life­long gift.

Which comes first: the idea for a book of poet­ry, the theme, or do poems swirl about you until they sug­gest a col­lec­tion?

Each of the three above hap­pen. At times I get an idea or focus on a theme; at oth­er times poems do swirl that sug­gest a col­lec­tion.

What are the steps by which you gath­er poems for a book?

I have a vast library of poet­ry to turn to. Thank­ful­ly, I have a very good mem­o­ry. Ask me for a ‘horse’ poem, a poem about piz­za, or a poem about a jacaran­da tree and I’ll have it for you in min­utes. If I am cre­at­ing a new col­lec­tion of poems espe­cial­ly com­mis­sioned for a book, I issue a BY INVITATION ONLY to a select group of poets.

Do you scout new poets?

At times I do. How­ev­er, “new” poets scout me. I real­ize how dif­fi­cult it is to get one’s work into an anthol­o­gy since very few are pub­lished each year. Hard­ly more than two to five are pub­lished annu­al­ly.  A pic­ture book themed poet­ry col­lec­tion might have between 16 to 20 poems. Major poets must be includ­ed. How­ev­er, I love giv­ing new voic­es a chance. I have start­ed many poets on their path to suc­cess.

Do you visu­al­ize how a poet­ry book will be laid out when you’re select­ing poems?

All of my col­lec­tions have an arc. I want read­ers to read a col­lec­tion as if they were read­ing any book. There is a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end.

When you’re assem­bling a new book, do you think about bal­ance? Col­or? Sound?

Most def­i­nite­ly. All of these are impor­tant.

A sampling

A sam­pling of Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ pop­u­lar poet­ry antholo­gies

Do you ever run out of the right poems for a book? What do you do then?

For­tu­nate­ly, I work with pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers who will go back to the “draw­ing board.” It some­times takes many rewrites to get to the place where one feels the work is done. Poets only want their best to be pub­lished.

What are the tools you work with? Pen, scis­sors, jour­nals, the com­put­er?

I work on the com­put­er. Poets send work via email attach­ments. I print them, edit them, often cut and paste. Some­times a poem comes through full-blown; at oth­er times a poet and I will work togeth­er.

What does your work­space look like?

I work in my library/study sur­round­ed by thou­sands of books. I have a large cher­ry-wood desk com­mis­sioned by an Amish crafts­man ide­al for space, fil­ing, etc.

Lee Bennett Hopkins' office

Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins at work in his library/study

Some of the bookshelves in Lee Bennett Hopkins' office

Do you work in silence? Or is there sound sur­round­ing you?

I work in total silence. I love the noth­ing­ness of qui­et. I have a per­fect view from the win­dows in my study, look­ing out at sway­ing palm trees, a rush­ing water­fall, beau­ti­ful sculp­ture. I’m star­ing at all this as I write now. Mag­ic in the mak­ing.

The view from Lee Bennett Hopkins' office window

The view from Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ office win­dow

The fountain and grotto at night

The foun­tain at night

What is your favorite object in your work­space?

I have many. A few? A piece of wood sculp­ture the poet and dear­est friend Aileen Fish­er made for me. A let­ter open­er from a won­drous friend who died far too ear­ly in life. A bronze bust of Har­ri­et Tub­man with a sto­ry too long to tell. A paper­weight designed by Tri­na Schart Hyman that launched the first issue of Crick­et mag­a­zine. And shelf upon shelf of trea­sured auto­graphed books by author-friends, lit­er­al­ly A-Z—Alma Flor Ada to Char­lotte Zolo­tow. These are a life­time of trea­sures.

What pleas­es you about the work you do?

My entire career has been devot­ed to bring­ing chil­dren and poet­ry togeth­er. Poet­ry is life in its deep­est form.

You leave the chil­dren of the world with the gift of poet­ry. We’re thank­ful for the work you’ve done, the wis­dom you’ve shown, the ded­i­ca­tion that has shared poems that res­onate with indi­vid­ual read­ers. Thank you, Mr. Hop­kins, for your con­tri­bu­tions to the world of lit­er­a­ture.

Lee: AND … I thank YOU for bring­ing chil­dren and books togeth­er.

Lee Bennett Hopkins Guinness Book of World Records

Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins is in the Guin­ness Book of World Records as the per­son who has pub­lished the most poet­ry antholo­gies, num­ber­ing 113 in 2011 when he broke the record.

Intrigued? Please vis­it Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins’ web­site for more infor­ma­tion and a wider selec­tion of books.

3 Responses to Curiouser and Curiouser with Lee Bennett Hopkins

  1. Lee Bennett Hopkins January 15, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    THANK YOU, Vic­ki. I am very hon­ored you chose to inter­view me.

  2. Renee LaTulippe January 16, 2019 at 5:02 am #

    Mar­velous inter­view. Lee is a trea­sure trove of expe­ri­ence, infor­ma­tion, and Poet­ry with a cap­i­tal P. Big smooches to you, Lee! xo

  3. Virginia Euwer Wolff January 25, 2019 at 11:40 am #

    This is a love­ly inter­view, and how does Lee get to have such a stun­ning­ly broad and deep library? Ah, he’s earned it. Thanks to Lee for such thought­ful and gen­er­ous work through the years, and thanks to Vic­ki for tak­ing us on this reward­ing tour. Hap­py New Year to us all.

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