Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Kid Lit Can, with Susan Hughes: Do I Have To Trick You Into Reading This?

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Kid Lit Can

Why the title? Confession: I love poetry, but I worry about it. I worry that people don't want to know about it, or read it. I worry that published Canadian poetry for kids is on the decline.

Sure, poetry for all ages suffers from a small readership, in Canada or any country, but I have this sense that kids' poetry books had a heyday in Canada — maybe 30 or 40 years ago, when Dennis Lee's Alligator Pie was first published — and since then have declined in number.

Probably books of poetry for kids just don't generate the sales necessary to make them viable. But why is that? Why don't we buy Canadian poetry for our kids to read?

  • Is it because we think our kids don't like poetry? Are we right?
  • Is it because Canadian poetry for kids isn't any good?
  • Is it because we can't find any books of Canadian poetry on the store shelves?
  • So what about older readers? Although publishers seem increasingly reluctant to publish poetry for younger Canadians, they do seem to be publishing a greater number of "free verse novels." What's that all about?
  • If our kids don't like poetry or read it, why was Boy Soup, by Canadian poet Loris Lesynski, chosen as the 2013 TD Grade One Book Giveaway selection?

When I began asking people — publishers, former publishers, editors — to share with me their thoughts on the status of children's poetry in Canada, including answers to the questions above, I kept striking out. Most said they didn't know enough about it to be helpful. When I decided to ask contributors for a general reflection on children's poetry, I had more success.

But I couldn't help wondering: Was my failure to find experts to opine on publishing trends in Canadian poetry for kids a reflection of poor sourcing skills on my part — or was the response indicative of something more significant, perhaps the general disinterest in, and appreciation of, children's poetry in this country?

I'm keen to hear your views, whether you're an expert on the topic or not. Post a comment and share your thoughts. (You needn't register on this website to post comments, although you're welcome to and it only takes about five seconds!) You may also find it interesting to peek at this list of a sampling of poetry books by Canadians compiled by the CCBC.

Then, scroll down and read the comments of my guests: a publisher of children's books, a teacher-librarian, in-house children's book editor and a poet (yes, it's Loris Lesynski herself!).

Christie Harkin, publisher of children's books at Fitzhenry & Whiteside:

I think  that there has been a trend away from traditional poetry over the past few years — not to say that there aren’t marvelous poems being published! Loris Lesynski and Helaine Becker are two authors, for example, who are putting out fabulous books of poems. Dennis Lee’s backlist is being given a new life, and he’s publishing a brand new volume of poetry next year, I believe. But I think that people need to rethink the idea of what a 'poem' is.

I am a huge fan of free verse. This is poetry that has meter and cadence and imagery, but doesn’t necessarily rhyme or have a dominant rhythm. I think it is a really strong medium for picture books because it naturally lends itself to being read aloud. Several of our recent picture books, like The Stamp Collector, Tadeo’s Search for Circles and Dog Breath are told in free verse.

Free verse novels are also beautifully effective ways of telling stories. They are rich in imagery while having the added bonus of being deceptively approachable — the phrases tend to be broken up into bite-sized lines. For a reluctant or struggling reader who might be intimidated by a huge page of dense text, free verse novels can be visually inviting.

I’ve found, however, that the success of edgy free-verse novels (like Crank by Ellen Hopkins — which I did like) has given the free-verse novel a bit of a reputation for being too mature and harsh. I find myself having to reassure parents and teachers that not all free-verse novels are like that: Yellow Mini and Counting Back from Nine, for example, are thoughtful, beautiful character pieces that are appropriate for all teens — including boys.


Paula Goepfert, a teacher-librarian in York Region and author of numerous language arts and literacy resources:

I haven’t seen any new, exciting children’s poetry in a long time. Probably I shouldn’t be surprised. Poetry is not universally taught the way it once was. I have a ton of poetry books in my library, over a hundred. They are rarely used. A few years ago, a grade 8 teacher at my school taught a great poetry unit each year and I bought deeply for him, but there wasn't much Canadian poetry in the mix. He's gone and I haven't been asked since.

I doubt the home market is more robust. How can four perfect lines compete with the sprawling excess and violence of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games? The novels are fabulously entertaining, but good poetry requires an investment of self and a beat before it hits home.

Recent publications of Canadian poems for young people have been a huge disappointment to me. I won’t name names, but compared to Roger McGough, Jack Prelutsky, Nikki Giovanni, Dennis Lee, John Ciardi, David McCord, Langston Hughes, they offer dreadful, superficial stuff with forced rhymes and faltering rhythm. One problem may be that poetry is more personal than fiction. In many poems, I can feel the Canadian-ness, the American-ness, the British-ness. Perhaps poetry, in our globalized world, doesn’t have the legs that fiction does and that makes it less attractive to publish... and the audience dwindles.

All of that speaks mostly to what younger readers are missing. Older, school-aged readers have the genre of the poetic novel to give them a glimpse of the spare perfect punch of poetry. I’ve admired several recent works in the tradition of Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave is original and affecting. Canadians Alma Fullerton and Melanie Little have given us two brilliant works in this poetry/novel genre, Libertad and The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, respectively.

But the gap is there! Please let me know if you hit on some new poetry that I can share with kids, something that gives them the shock of delight at being understood and laid bare by words wondrously wielded.


Karen Li, senior editor at Kids Can Press:

We do not have a dedicated poetry program at Kids Can, but I can say that we are certainly open to publishing poetry when we come across something special. For example, we've published several works by Robert Heidbreder (most recently, Noisy Poems for a Busy Day), and we had the pleasure of publishing a recent collection by JonArno Lawson (Think Again).

And I think in terms of children's books, the public is quite receptive to poetry. Kids and language-play naturally go hand-in-hand. And I'd bet that most adults (who of course make the purchasing decisions for children) wouldn't think twice about picking up a book of poetry for children — even if they never read the stuff themselves. Which is, of course, their loss.


Loris Lesynski, well-known Canadian poet, author, and illustrator:

I can't offer my opinions on how children's poetry is doing in Canada, because I don't know the insides of the trade. There are wonderful rhyming writers in this country, really beautiful, funny, kid-centered poems. I read children's books and poems all the time, but don't always evaluate where they came from, how well they're selling or what they mean in the scheme or trends.

Kids love good poems and rhyming verse. Especially boys — my theory: once you give them KER-, the first line of a couplet, you've got their attention until you finish, with the -PLOP. You set up expectation, and that holds their attention. After you've been writing this kind of stuff for a long time, you feel like you're putting together an orchestra — exploring all kinds of different rhythms, playing with alliteration, sound effects, slant rhymes and — one of the most overlooked tools in group recitation — pauses. If it was up to me, I'd start each morning in the classroom with some echo reading like this.

Just about everything I've had published has been in rhyming verse. I dunno why. I know that I love rhythm and beat. It cools me down, it cheers me up.

I like poems with stories in them, even if they're pebble-sized. They might be silly and funny, but not nonsense. Nonsense is, to my mind, usually about polka-dotted snaffle-pusses and that sort of thing and not my style.

Getting a good poem or rhyming story to the finish line is usually a huge amount of work, no matter how light and fluffy the final outcome might sound. But it's fantastic when it finally works — surprise the kids, engage them, reward them with what happens and what language is uses to do so.

________________________________________________________

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

13 comments

Hi Melissa,
Thanks for recommending Karma by Cathy Ostlere. I'll certainly get a copy and have a read.
You mention that you haven't read much poetry since you were a teen. I hadn't either -- until I took an online MOOC course on modern poetry this fall which has reignited my passion for it. It began by introducing us to Emily Dickinson's poems and led us forward in time up until the more contemporary poets. I feel know that "it's okay" to read a poem and enjoy it without needing to "understand" it. Poetry, like sports, like the landscape, can offer an experience that doesn't necessarily have to be primarily intellectual. Phew, what a relief! Maybe you'll want to crack open a few poetry collections and see if any appeal to you now, Melissa?

Susan

Hi Becky,
Thanks for writing in and sharing your frustration. I wonder if you've ever considered self-publishing your poetry as a chapbook? A friend of mine did this -- created a very beautiful chapbook of her poetry, a small print run, which she then sold to friends, who were thrilled to be able to have access to her poems in print. She also submits to magazines. She's now been successful in getting a contract with a publisher to have another collection of poems published.
Maybe Canadian poets who write for children need to band together, have some events, stir up some excitement, make some noise and get adults and kids excited about poetry and clamouring for their books! I wonder if CANSCAIP might be prepared to have a special subset just for poets?
Susan

I stumbled on this sight, as many of you have, looking for a publisher that will publish a book length collection of poems, verse and short stories. I recently received my manuscript back from a publisher telling me my work was 'very excellent' but not what they were looking for right now. From all the blogs that I read it seems like a lot of poetry books being published are from already established authors....how does the beginner get a break around here?:) It is such an emotionally and time draining experience for an aspiring author. If any one has any knowledge of even an agent that would be interested, I would love to know. I love writing, but after so many rejections, most with personalized feedback on how good my work is, but..... I at many times feel like giving up. At last I shall not. I do feel like I some how have to trick someone into reading my work...
thanks for any help or encouragement.
Becky

Christie Harkin mentioned Yellow Mini above as an example of a verse novel for teens that would be good for all teen readers. What about Karma by Cathy Ostlere? It's a great story of a Canadian-Sikh girl, who finds herself (along with her father) in India during 1984 massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Plus it features a male narrator as well as the teen girl.

Personally, I read some Canadian poetry as a young girl, but much less as a teen when my professors taught a lot of American and British authors most of the time. However, I think that verse novels are a great inroad for teens who might read more poetry, but feel resistant to it at first.

Donna,

Thanks for sharing your experiences with poetry as an educator. I sometimes wonder if the classroom is now the only place where kids get a chance to listen to, read, and write poetry.

I wonder if teachers are a little afraid of teaching poetry, in the same way that many seem to be nervous about science -- worried that they don't know enough about it and therefore hesitant to do more than the basic with it. Perhaps if teachers were encouraged to try their hand at poetry themselves, they could feel more comfortable exploring it with their students.

Risking the adventure of sharing a variety of styles of poetry on a variety of themes with kids can open them up to words and meaning in a way nothing else can.

Richard,

Thanks for writing in and sharing your experiences with us. It can be so discouraging be floundering in the black hole which is poetry for kids in Canada. I'm sure you've done anything that I might recommend: look to see which publishers, large or small, even accept poetry collection submission in Canada and then pitch them to the hilt; try to submit to educational publishers who often need poems for literacy collections; collaborate with other poets on a collection and together try to get some attention; look for children's publishers who like stories about dogs (Tundra, Scholastic) and see if they'll bite! (no pun intended)

To my May 20 guest:

Illustrations can make a huge difference in a young child's enjoyment of a written text, whether poetry or a picture book, for certain. I wonder if you might try reading poetry aloud to your kids while they snuggle in bed, you facing them, with a single light shining on the page so you can see the poems, them in darkness, not looking at the words or the illustrations, just listening. I've found that there are so many poems that I don't appreciate when I read them, but when I attend a poetry reading and just listen, the difference can be astounding.

Good luck with your own poetry book! Have you read your own poems to your children, the toughest critics in the world? What do they think?

Hi :-)

Just came upon your article -- ironically, while looking for a market for a couple of children's poetry collections I'm trying to flog. I've published several collections of YA verse that got excellent reviews but have been poorly distributed: two collections of cryptid critter poems: _Why Were All The Werewolves Men?_ (Thistledown Press, 1994),and _Nothing Definite Yeti_ (Ekstasis Editions, 1999); a collection of ufology/aliens- themed poems, _Take Me To Your Leader_ (Bayeux Arts, 2003); a children's picture book in verse, _Alex Anklebone and Andy the Dog_ (Bayeux Arts,2005); and a collection of haiku and senryu for teens, _Casting Out Nines_ (Ekstasis Editions, 2011). Please add 'em to your list and check out the publishers' websites.

I think the biggest problem with writing for children is that kids grow up too fast! If you run a kidlit mag, you're always having to completely renew your subscription base. If you are running a small press and want to do a picture book, the colour registrations are expensive and sales figures are discouraging. Then the few web sites devoted to kidlit are mostly academic/theme/kidlit teacher-oriented, and teachers are the last people to
know about anything ( I know: I teach at Lethbridge College, and have done so for the past 28 years). Very few of my colleagues give a radioactive rat's ass that I publish or am having a book launch (I get more students out!)or am running a reading series, or have put together Most Vocal tents for Word On The Street or have performed with jazz musicians or rock bands. They just yawn and say, "That's nice."

Am currently looking for a home for a collection of children's dachshund haiku called _Action Dachshund!_ and a picture book in haiku stanzas of hip hop English vernacular called _Action Dachshund at the O.K. Compost_. Anyone know of a publisher that might be interested in such work?

It's a big country and nobody lives in it -- information is spotty even on the Web. :-0

Richard Stevenson
Lethbridge, AB
author of 27 full-length books, 10 chapbooks, and still hopeful. ;-)

Interesting posts! I can still recall the fun of word play with my own children when reading poetry! Especially Canadian poetry! The play aspect of family life has perhaps changed in our hurried, busy, digital world. Perhaps people are forgetting how? Today's young parents may, or may not even have experienced reading poetry with a parent themselves, so it may no longer be on their radar. Do we need to reinvent it for a new generation, model it in marketing and make it accessible on the tablets and devices that parents and children take in their car to soccer practice, and keep on their coffee table? The visceral experience of the book in hand, becoming lost in illustrations that accompany children's poetry may need rethinking for today's child.

As an educator I completely agree with the comment above that poetry is very appealing to boys. It is also one of the easiest ways to get them to write! It can be fun, it can be silly, it can be gross.

Donna Stewart

This is a really interesting post. I have noticed with my own kids that they are far more interested in picture books than poetry depending on the illustrations. My daughter loves Bugs by Lee Bennett Hopkins because the images are brilliant.
I am attempting to self-publish my first book of children's poems in the nearby future depending on my drawing skills, but I would love to get a poetic picture book published traditionally one day. Thanks for all the great book recommendations.

Thanks to both my guests for their comments!

It's heartening to hear that Pedlar Press is publishing collections of children's poetry but oh so disheartening to hear that these collections are being overlooked and under-reviewed. Mind you, we could probably say that books in general -- for adults and for kids; fiction, nonfiction, and poetry -- are all being under-reviewed in Canada.

The CCBC list is not comprehensive by any means but I would suggest you contact this wonderful organisation with information about these collections by JonArno Lawson and perhaps the editors can expand their list to include these two books.

As for the gap, alas. It's difficult not to compare poetry with, say, hockey. Get enough people who are excited, give them the opportunity to play as children, nurture the talent, and you'll end with superstar players -- and a lot of others who may not be NHL material but who love to play, and watch, the game.

I enjoyed reading the varied views on poetry. Thanks for writing this!

Pedlar Press has published two collections of children's poetry by Toronto writer JonArno Lawson, with illustrations by Sherwin Tjia. The first, *The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask,* was nominated for the inaugural The Lion & The Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children's Literature (Johns Hopkins University), and the second, *Black Stars in a White Night Sky,* won its year's Lion & Unicorn Award. Pedlar has sold subsidiary rights for both books to an American publisher, and in spite of this evidence of excellence the two books have been overlooked and under-reviewed in Canada. These two books do not even show up on the list complied by CCBC, which Susan Hughes linked to in her Comment.

JonArno Lawson has quite a thick folder of letters written to him by children who wish to tell him how much a particular poem in one of his books meant to them. When I am able to hand-sell these two books, at fairs and the like, they do very well. Parents and other adults pick them up and read the poems and laugh. And then buy them. But for two books this good, more readers should know about them. How indeed to explain the gap?

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