Caroline Kennedy and her brother John were encouraged by their mother, from childhood, to write or select favorite poems and illustrate them as gifts; their efforts were then collected in a scrapbook, inspiring in Kennedy a lifelong love of poetry.
Did you grow up hearing poetry as a child? Is that what prompted you to put together this collection for children?
Poetry has played an important role in my life and in my family’s life. When I was talking about poetry for my other collection [The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Hyperion], people would tell me how certain poems were favorites of theirs as well, or they’d read it with their parent or grandparent. People tend to think of poetry as very solitary, but after September 11 people turned to poetry in a broader sense. It really did form connections between people.
How did you select these poems?
I looked through poems that my brother and I enjoyed, and poems that my own children are reading. And I got reacquainted with a lot of anthologies. I was so sorry it came to an end! The book I handed in was five times the size [of what got published].
What criteria did you use?
I tried to include poems that could be read out loud together, poems that are fun and enjoyable. And poems that are perhaps more complex, that you can come back to throughout your entire life. Kids are very capable of thinking about very complex things, much more than we give them credit for. I tried to capture poems that meant a lot to my family. And I tried to organize them around a child’s year—the seasons, animals, and so on, as a way to encourage them to look at the world around them.
Is there a role for poetry in schools today?
Poetry had sort of disappeared from schools for a while, but now when I visit schools [Kennedy is vice chair of the Fund for Public Schools in New York City], students are studying poetry in every grade, particularly in elementary school. I see how teachers use poetry to bring classes together, especially when you have [students] from all over the world.
How did you collaborate with illustrator Jon J. Muth?
Working with an illustrator gave me a whole new perspective on the poems, and added a dimension to it. [Muth] wanted to know what was special about each poem and why I selected it. He did a really great job. His pictures encourage that spirit of questioning and inquiry.
What role would you like poetry to play in children’s lives?
Poetry can encourage children to explore the world on their own, It’s so important for parents to read poems to kids—you can start a conversation that way. When kids “get” a poem, a look of delight crosses their faces. Children’s books are really the entry point of a whole generation learning to love words and ideas, and it’s great to be a part of that. Once kids connect with reading, they’re on their way.