Children's Poet Laureate Aims to Foster a Lifelong Love of Poetry

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Jack Prelutsky
Photo: Yuen Lui Studio

In September 2006, Jack Prelutsky, the author of more than 40 books of verse and the editor of several poetry anthologies, was named the first Children's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation, an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. Prelutsky, who will serve a two-year tenure, received a $25,000 cash prize and the Children's Poet Laureate Medallion, inscribed with the words "Permit a child to join," a quote from a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Prelutsky, 66, whose official title is Children's Poet Laureate: Consultant in Children's Poetry to the Poetry Foundation, took time from a busy touring schedule to answer some questions about children and poetry for Bookselling This Week.

BTW: According to the Poetry Foundation, the Children's Poet Laureate award is given in recognition of a career devoted to writing extraordinary poetry for the young child. What are your duties and responsibilities as the first Children's Poet Laureate?

Jack Prelutsky: The Poetry Foundation, which honored me as the Children's Poet Laureate last fall, didn't have a list of "things to do," other than asking me to give two public readings of my work. They've left it up to me to wear the laurel leaves as I like.

The Poetry Foundation and I both recognize that when young children are introduced to poetry in a positive way, it very likely leads to a lifelong love of poetry. To that end, I'm trying a couple of things to increase the audience for children's poetry. I've initiated a "Children's Poet of the Month" feature on the Poetry Foundation's website. For the next year and a half, I'll be highlighting different children's poets, giving a bit of their biography, listing a number of their books, printing three of their poems, and telling why I like each of those poems.

I'm also planning a contest that will appear on my own website, Children will be invited to write short essays about why their school ought to have more poetry, either in books or other media. The winners will get copies of several of my books, and the school library will receive cash prizes for the purchase of more poetry. I may come up with other ideas as well.

BTW: What has been the reaction from children since the award was given?

JP: I've received an increasing number of letters from children congratulating me, and I seem to get a little extra applause when I talk to kids in schools or bookstores. In one delightful case, a school in New Jersey presented me with a crown of laurel leaves.

BTW: How does poetry enrich the lives of children?

JP: Poetry does many things to enrich children's lives. I believe that poetry provides children with fresh perspectives. It shows them unexpected and unimagined ways of looking at the familiar, and nudges them to think about things that they'd never thought about before. It shows them the worth and the beauty of language, and the myriad ways we can weave words. It nurtures their creative impulses, and opens their minds to new possibilities. Also, sometimes it's just plain fun.

BTW: What advice can you give a child who wants to be a poet when he or she grows up?

JP: My advice for young poets is simple. Write about what you know: yourself, your family, your pets, your friends. Don't start out by writing about weird purple creatures on imaginary planets...that can come later. Also, always carry a notebook and a couple of pens or pencils. When you get an idea for a poem, write it down immediately. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you'll remember that idea later -- you probably won't. Also, don't worry too much about making things's much more important to express what you really want to say. And most of all, practice. The more that you practice, the better you'll get. I still practice and I continue to learn. --Interviewed by Nomi Schwartz