Poetry was a lifeline for the late Bill Martin Jr. After struggling with reading for years, Martin was so captivated by a college professor’s poetry recitations that he sought out poems and discovered a love of reading. He went on to earn a doctorate in education and write more than 300 children’s books, including Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, illustrated by Eric Carle. Due in November from Simon & Schuster is a tribute to Martin’s legacy, The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry, which he compiled with his longtime collaborator Michael Sampson. A 60,000-copy first printing is planned for the anthology, which includes 200 poems illustrated by 13 artists, as well as an introduction by Carle and an afterword by Steven Kellogg.
“I think, given that poetry was Bill’s greatest love of language, that he would consider this the most important book of his career,” Sampson says. “Poetry allowed him to become a reader—if he could hear it, he could read it. And as a writer, Bill worked with his ear. How his writing sounded was the most important thing. Poetry was his mentor. It inspired and guided him.”
The new compendium, which features classic and contemporary verse as well as several original poems by the anthologists, had a lengthy gestation. Sampson and Martin, who died in 2004, conceived of the project in the early 1990s. Brenda Bowen initially signed up the book when she was at Holt, and the collaborators spent six months poring through poetry volumes until they had amassed some 3,000 potential entries. When Bowen left the company, Martin and Sampson turned their attention to other projects and, Sampson says, “the collection gathered dust in the corner of the room.”
Collaborators Michael Sampson (l.) and Bill Martin Jr.
After Bowen arrived at S&S in 2002, says Sampson, she encouraged the authors to resurrect the anthology. For months, the two collaborators, who were next-door neighbors in Texas, worked together nearly every morning, trying to whittle down their selections. “It was very hard to decide what to include,” Sampson says. “Our vision was guided by The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. We wanted to take the concept of this book and bring it into the 21st century. Bill loved many current poets’ voices and voices from earlier decades too, especially the 1930s and ’40s.” Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti and Robert Frost—some of Martin’s favorite poets, according to Sampson—are represented in the book, as are contemporary poets including Mary Ann Hoberman, Jack Prelutsky and Myra Cohn Livingston.
The anthology came under Elizabeth Law’s editorial direction after Bowen left S&S, and in 2004 Alexandra Cooper took over the hands-on editing of the book, working with Sampson to finalize the collection’s entries. Cooper notes that Law and her successor Justin Chanda, now publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, “were instrumental in pulling this very worthwhile project together.”
Cooper also tackled the task of lining up illustrators. Sampson provided a list of suggested artists, many of
Kellogg's illustration for Robert Frost's "The Pasture."
whom he and Martin had collaborated with on earlier books. “That became our wish list,” Cooper says, “and many of the artists we contacted responded immediately that they’d love to be part of this project.” Lois Ehlert, Chris Raschka, Ashley Bryan, Dan Yaccarino and Aliki were among the numerous illustrators who signed on.
Cooper has special praise for Kellogg, who illustrated a handful of the volume’s poems in addition to contributing the afterword. “He was an enthusiastic advocate of this project from the start, and he went above and beyond,” she says. After he had turned in his assigned art for the book, Kellogg asked if he could do one more illustration as a tribute to his late friend. This painting—accompanying Robert Frost’s “The Pasture,” which opens the collection—reveals a man who bears a very strong resemblance to Martin, bidding farewell to a trio of children.
The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry by Bill Martin Jr. with Michael Sampson. Simon & Schuster, $21 ISBN 978-1-4169-3971-9