The Poetry Foundation has announced that J. Patrick Lewis has been selected as its new Children’s Poetry Laureate. Presented to Lewis on Wednesday in a ceremony at the foundation’s Chicago headquarters, the award entails a two-year tenure and includes a $25,000 cash prize. The laureateship aims to raise awareness that children have a natural receptivity to poetry, especially when poems are written specifically for them. Lewis has written more than 50 books of poetry for children, including The Last Resort and A Hippopotamusn’t: A Book of Animal Poems, and his work has been widely anthologized. He is the third poet, after Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman, to receive this honor.
During his laureateship, Lewis will give two major public readings for children and their families, teachers, and librarians. He will also serve as an advisor to the Poetry Foundation on children’s literature. The foundation made Lewis’s appointment with input from a panel of children’s literature experts.
Not surprisingly, Lewis spontaneously calls on metaphors when asked about his reaction to the news. “Oh my goodness, I was as giddy as a pig in the sunshine,” he replies. “When I received the phone call, I immediately had butterflies, and they jumped up and began tap-dancing on my heart—and that’s where they are now!”
For years, Lewis wrote poetry while teaching business, accounting, and economics at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, before hanging up his professor cap in 1998 to write fulltime. “It was just serendipitous that I had two absolutely wonderful careers—one having nothing to do with the other—so I’ve been very lucky in that regard,” he says.
After publishing 10 volumes of poetry, Lewis opted for early retirement from teaching. “I decided that I really wanted to do school visits, and since I couldn’t be in two places at once, I decided to retire.” Since that time, the poet has made some 450 visits to schools all over the world.
Noting that poetry “can transport children when they realize the beauty of language,” Lewis finds it “absolutely gratifying” to watch children react to his poems when he does readings. “When I read poetry, I’m always looking for that ‘ah ha!’ moment, and I like to bring that to children as well,” he says. “On school visits, I like to think that if I can touch even one, two, or three kids in a school of 300 or 400 students, I’ve succeeded.”
Musing on the laureateship, Lewis comments that the Poetry Foundation, with its previous appointments of Prelutsky and Hoberman, “is doing a very good job in becoming a larger presence in the world of children’s poetry, and I see my task as trying to help extend that. I feel that this laureateship is the brass ring in children’s poetry, and I’m just thrilled beyond measure.”