April is National Poetry Month, a fitting birth month for Lee Bennett Hopkins, whose 100-plus books of poetry for children encompass his own work and that of other poets. This has been a busy season for Hopkins, who marked a memorable milestone—his 80th birthday—on April 13, and added two anthologies to his oeuvre, School People (Boyds Mills/WordSong, Feb.) and World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum (Abrams, Mar.).
Hopkins’s extensive body of work has earned the poet numerous national and state awards, as well as recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s most prolific anthologist of poetry for children.” He first discovered poetry’s value to children almost six decades ago, when he began teaching sixth grade in Fair Lawn, N.J. “I used verse with all students, but found that slower readers were excited over poems,” he recalled. “Vocabulary was often within their reach, works were short, and we learned that more could sometimes be said and felt in eight or l0 or l2 lines than sometimes an entire novel could convey.”
A love of reading and teaching poetry fueled Hopkins’s interest in trying his hand at writing poems. A self-described “city child all my life,” he chose a familiar urban image as the subject of his very first poem for children, “Hydrants,” which got a thumbs-up from a master of the genre. “I read the poem to May Swenson, one of America’s most renowned poets, who told me she liked it,” he said. And so a writing career was launched. “I was hooked,” he said. “My life has been, and is, blessed with poetry.”
The poet initially donned his anthologist cap after teaching for six years and earning his master’s degree at Bank Street College in New York. He was working at Bank Street’s Resource Center in Harlem when one of the area’s literary legends, Langston Hughes, died in 1967. “I was introducing language arts curricula into classroom programs, with an emphasis on poetry, and I realized when Hughes died that I could not share with students his only book for children, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, published in 1932, due to the art’s stereotypical depiction of blacks.”
That realization inspired Hopkins to compile Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes, which Knopf published in 1969 with woodcut engravings by Ann Grifalconi. “After that, I began to do many anthologies with the aim of bringing a bevy of poets’ work to children,” he explained, adding a rewarding postscript to the story of his publishing history with Hughes’s work: “In 1994, when the 75th anniversary edition of The Dream Keeper was published with wood engravings by Brian Pinkney, Janet Schulman, an icon in our industry, invited me to write the introduction to the book.”
Contentedly Juggling Tasks
After decades of balancing his own writing with compiling collections of others’ poems, Hopkins acknowledges that the two endeavors involve singular trials—which he willingly contends with. “The creation of an anthology always poses a new challenge,” he observed. “What to select, how to give the volume an arc, how to keep up with a topic so it doesn’t get dull, trying one’s best to get the reader to turn the page for a new adventure with wondrous words. It also involves working and reworking with poets.”
When it comes to creating his own poetry, Hopkins unequivocally stated, “It’s struggle time. A struggle with each syllable, word, line. Draft after draft after draft, and I’m ready to go shopping! Is a poem ever finished? Ah, eventually it tells you it is. ‘Leave me alone,’ says the poem. ‘You have given me life! You may now go shopping!’ ”
Noting that he is pleased to have welcomed two new anthologies in a single publishing season, Hopkins explained his inspiration for each. School People, he reflected, “had to be in the back of my head since the day I started teaching in 1960. I wanted to show the empathy of the many grownups whose jobs relate to a school—from the principal to the custodian to the lunch lady. I wanted to make them real.” Illustrated by Ellen Shi, School People includes poems by 15 contemporary writers, including Jane Yolen, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, and J. Patrick Lewis.
His intent in compiling World Make Way, Hopkins explained, was to enable young readers “to get inside the heads and hearts of artists, to let them view wondrous works, and to think what artists might have thought while producing a painting or sculpture.” Pairing poetry with works of art, the volume features writing by acclaimed children’s poets, among them Marilyn Singer, Alma Flor Ada, and Carole Boston Weatherford.
“It is impossible to overestimate the impact Lee has had on children’s poetry,” noted Rebecca Davis, senior editor of Boyds Mills Press and WordSong, who has edited Hopkins’s books at various publishing houses over a quarter-century span. “Lee is not only a great poet, but as an anthologist and teacher, he has brought so many new poets into their careers. He is exacting and honest and has very high standards, but he is also extremely encouraging when he sees talent in a poet.”
And, Davis added, she knows from personal experience that Hopkins also educates his editors. “I did not realize I liked poetry until I began working with Lee,” she said. “Given the way poetry was taught to me in school, I thought it was a hard mental challenge and a test. I discovered from Lee that poetry is not that at all—it is joyful and accessible, and connects readers to the wonders of the world around them. Lee teaches children, poets, and editors.”
As he enters a new decade, considering the wide swath of subjects he has explored in his own poetry and in anthologies, is there new thematic turf Hopkins hopes to mine? “Oh, yes! Life goes on,” he said. “Ideas, ideologies change. Who knows what tomorrow’s trend will bring? The key is to be there. Seize the moment. Grab on. Give it your all so you can give it back to our young readers—through that magical, mystical stuff called poetry.”
School People, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illus. by Ellen Shi. Boyds Mills Press/WordSong, $17.95 Feb. ISBN 978-1-62979-703-8
World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Abrams, $14.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4197-2845-7