Lee Bennett Hopkins, passionate educator and prolific children’s poet and anthologist, died on August 8 in Cape Coral, Fla., following a hospitalization for COPD. He was 81.
Hopkins was born April 13, 1938 in Scranton, Pa., to Leon Hall Hopkins, a police officer, and Gertrude Thomas Hawkins, a homemaker, and was the oldest of three children. In an autobiographical essay for Contemporary Authors Online, Hopkins wrote that he spent the first 10 years of his life surrounded by lots of relatives in what he described as a “very close-knit” family.
In 1948, tough economic times in Scranton spurred the Hopkins family to move to Newark, N.J. It was there that Hopkins said his childhood took a dramatic turn. By the time he was 14, Hopkins’s parents had separated and he often stayed home from school to babysit his younger sister while their mother did housekeeping work. Though this was a dark period for him, Hopkins does recall a bright spot in a favorite teacher who became one of his biggest influences. She introduced him to “the love of reading and the theatre,” he wrote, and later, wanting to emulate her example, Hopkins struck out on his own path to become a teacher.
Hopkins graduated from Newark’s South Side High School—where, he admits, he was a poor student—in 1956. He enrolled at Newark State Teachers College (now Kean University) and after floundering academically, found his footing as an education major, all while working outside of class time to pay his tuition. Upon earning his B.A. in 1960, Hopkins was hired to teach sixth graders at Westmoreland School in Fair Lawn, N.J. During his time there, Westmoreland was selected to be part of a pilot study comparing inner-city and suburban schools conducted by the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
Hopkins’s principal at Westmoreland was so impressed by his work during that study that she called in a favor and made arrangements to secure a scholarship for him to pursue his master’s degree in education at Bank Street. He took graduate courses while working in a new position as a resource teacher in his Fair Lawn district, where he championed establishing a school library and found new ways to use children’s literature, including children’s poetry, in the classroom. After six years in Fair Lawn, Hopkins became a consultant for Bank Street’s new Learning Resource Center, located in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.
The first of his writings that Hopkins saw published was an article about using the cinquain verse form with children, featured in a 1966 issue of Grade Teacher magazine. At that point, he wrote in his autobiographical essay, “The writing bug had stung.” He wrote numerous articles for educational journals, and was encouraged to collect his teaching ideas into a book, which led to the popular Let Them Be Themselves: Language Arts Enrichment for Disadvantaged Children in Elementary Schools (Citation Press, 1969) among others titles in the late 1960s.
Though his professional writing was successful, it was the death of poet Langston Hughes in 1967 that proved to be a spark for Hopkins’s career of anthologizing poetry for children. When Hopkins searched for works by Hughes to share with students, he was only able to find one collection of Hughes’s work for children, published by Knopf, and containing disrespectful, out-of-touch illustrations from the 1930s. Hopkins contacted Virginie Fowler, then the children’s book editor at Knopf, to express his shock about the situation, and was amazed when she invited him to lunch. The result of that meeting was Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi (Knopf, 1969) and the first of Hopkins’s more than 120 poetry anthologies for children.
Just as his children’s book career began to blossom, Hopkins accepted a position at Scholastic as a curriculum and editorial specialist in 1968, a job he held for nearly eight years until he left to become a full-time writer and anthologist. His oeuvre includes picture books, original poetry, and a few YA novels in addition to his compilation work. The span of subject matter for his poetry collections is vast, including holidays, the seasons, history, animals, love, and friendship. In 2011, he was honored by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children.”
Many of Hopkins’s books have been celebrated over the years with distinctions and awards from the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English, among others. Hopkins has lived in Cape Coral, Fla. since 2004 with his husband, Charles Egita, and in 2017 became the first Cape Coral resident to be inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. His most recently completed work, I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage, features poems from award-winning, diverse authors paired with artwork from illustrators of similar backgrounds, providing portraits of growing up in America. It will be published by Lee & Low in October.
Tributes from Hopkins’s fellow authors, editors and friends have appeared steadily on social media since his death. Several colleagues who knew him well contributed some of their memories of him here.
Elizabeth Harding, v-p at Curtis Brown, Ltd., and Hopkins’s literary agent, offered this appreciation: “We are going to miss Lee terribly. He was an admired member of the Curtis Brown family for decades. He was first represented by Marilyn Marlow until her death in 2003, and since then I have been lucky enough to work with him. I will miss many things about Lee, but especially his laugh. He had a wonderful, impish sense of humor and his laugh was such a distinct one. My conversations with Lee would, of course, cover business. But we’d always veer towards his determination to grow and support children’s poetry in classrooms and libraries, his excitement over discovering a new poet, news about the latest recipient of one of the funded poetry awards he generously supported, or his many ideas for inspiring new anthologies. And then I would be lucky enough to hear one of Lee’s many stories. It always seemed to me that Lee knew almost everyone in children’s publishing for the past few decades, and he was a great storyteller.”
Author Lois Lowry shared this reflection about her friend: “Everyone who was close to Lee, as I was, will never hear the phase ‘Dear One’ again without thinking of him. It’s how he began every email, no matter what the content was: a juicy piece of gossip, a request for a poem for an anthology, a lament about the state of publishing. It’s what I find myself thinking as he is laid to rest. Dear One.”
One of Hopkins’s longtime editors, Rebecca Davis, senior editor at Boyds Mills and Kane, and poetry imprint WordSong Press, offered words of remembrance: “Lee was a teacher, mentor, and friend to countless poets, and to editors too. I began working with him early in my career, I think in 1993. At the time, I didn’t even know I liked poetry! I thought I liked certain poets and certain poems, but poetry had been ruined for me by school, as happens for so many. Lee showed me what poetry is, what it should be, and helped me to realize that I liked it more than any other form of writing. He made me the editor that I am, an editor who would eventually head the only imprint in the country dedicated to publishing poetry for children. When I was offered my job at WordSong, my first phone call was to Lee. I felt that I couldn’t do the job or the imprint justice without him at my side. In his generous and encouraging way, he told me that of course I could do this all on my own, but that of course he’d be there for me.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen a number of people say that they somehow thought Lee would be around forever. I did too. I knew he was sick, but he was so full of life, so full of joy, it was hard to believe he would ever leave us. He had this laugh. Everyone who ever met him will remember his infectious ‘kheee-khee-khee’ of a chuckle that led up to his full, wide laugh. I keep thinking he was joy poured into human form. I will miss him and his joy for the rest of my days.”
Rebecca Kai Dotlich, fellow poet and author, is among those with humorous recollections of her time spent with Hopkins. “He loved regaling tales of people that he had met, nurtured, known, loved, lost, and adored, usually beginning with, ‘Did I tell you...?’ He often teased me about my horrendous sense of direction. After eating dinner in New York, we were outside debating how to get where we were going. I told him the way I thought we should walk, and he blurted that bubbling laugh of his with, ‘Are you kidding me? You think I’d listen to you? We’ll end up in New Jersey!’
He expected a lot of others both professionally and personally, but he had the tender and fierce heart of a child, and always said what he thought. He was honest and true, and I respected and loved him for this. He truly believed that poetry worked magic on children, and his life’s work was getting good poetry into their hands.
He was a character. Full of joy and wit and dedication. To truly know him was to love him.”
And author and friend Jane Yolen recalled a series of anecdotes about Hopkins.
“Lee and I first meet in the 1960s or 1970s at a conference, having both been pushed into it by our mutual agent Marilyn E. Marlow, or MEM for short. We both resisted, she insisted, and because neither of us could say no to her, Lee and I became instant friends. I remember us sitting on a sofa in the middle of streaming conference-goers, some who knew one or both of us. But we were so intent on our conversation we didn’t notice or respond to anyone else. That conversation never flagged—and up until last night—I guess I believed it never would. I thought he was forever. Well, in a sense, he is.
He was at the table at a Miami ALA when my daughter Heidi introduced us all—including me, her dad (my husband), MEM, and some others I don’t remember—to the man who would later become her husband.
Lee and I were at MEM’s funeral where, as usual, we gossiped, told stories about the field, recommended certain books to one another, and—in that instance—cried buckets on one another’s shoulders. Something we have been doing a lot of recently. The trees in the forest are falling fast around us, but we assured one another we were doing fine. We, the Eucalyptus and the Redwood, still standing tall.
Lee simply held—easily, crankily, wisely—the reins of children’s poetry in his hands. He gave out awards, started poets in their careers, pushed older poets (like me) to get better. But he was more than a famous face to me. He was my teasing, loving, smartass friend. I can hardly imagine children’s literature without him. Hell, I can hardly imagine the world without him.
I am going into a small corner of my heart now, where Lee—in all his outrageousness—is still alive and helping children, teachers, librarians, poets, new writers, old writers—and friends everywhere to be better people and better readers. Consider this a prose poem to you, Lee. And no! Unlike the poems I sent you for various anthologies, you aren’t allowed to edit it this time.”