Susan Marie Swanson on Poetry for Children

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SusanSusan Marie Swanson, Poet and Author, on Poetry for Children Marie Swanson is a poet and author of children’s picture books, including The House in the Night (awarded the Caldecott medal this year) and To Be Like the Sun. Besides writing children’s books, she has helped children write their own poetry for over 25 years!

Here she shares her own experience on writing poetry for children as well as her favorite children’s poetry books and tips for getting kids started writing poems.

JEAN: First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started writing poetry? How was your creativity encouraged as a child?

SUSAN MARIE: I grew up singing folk songs with my family and playing outdoors in all weathers. Those things have stayed with me all of my life. I cannot think of a more encouraging beginning for creative work.

The way I think of it now, my vocation is literature and my professional home is in children’s literature. Maybe it’s a house kind of like Pippi Longstocking’s Villa Villekulla. I do love how Pippi inhabits that ramshackle place with her whole imagination.

I did young-poet things in my twenties, sending work off to literary magazines and sending myself off to graduate school for an MFA in poetry, reading lots of poetry, and befriending poets (both in person and in my imagination).

SMSwansonBookSigning

JEAN: What made you move from writing poetry in general to writing it for children?

SUSAN MARIE: Writing poems with children in a writers-in-the-schools program sparked my involvement in children’s literature. So did reading with my own children, of course; but, because I was already deeply involved with literature, before I knew it I was writing reviews of children’s books, studying elementary education, connecting with others interested in children’s literature – and trying to figure out how what I am given to say as a writer might find its way into the children’s book world.

Getting_used_to_the_dark  The-First-Thing-My-Mama-Told-Me

Early on I got encouragement from two extraordinary editors. Richard Jackson published my first book, a volume of poems for young readers called Getting Used to the Dark; and Allyn Johnston championed the text that became The First Thing My Mama Told Me, a picture book.

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JEAN: Which of your books did you have the most fun with? Why?

SUSAN MARIE: Oh, I can honestly say that I have had a wonderful time with all of my books! But, really, it is all one big project: me and my notebook on a journey through the world. A big part of my work is simply to do all that I can to be the person who can write the next poem or picture book text.

It is important for me to remember that my life and growth as a writer is not completely described by my published books. That might seem counter-intuitive to some readers–after all my writing has been published in beautiful, award-winning books. But the children’s literature market is a complicated place, and so is the inside of my mind.

 SunCover  House-in-the-night-cover

My happiest experiences with my books are anchored in my own family life. To Be Like the Sun, a book about a sunflower, began with a little garden I planted with one of my boys. By the time the picture book was published he
was over six feet tall–but the sunflowers in his garden that summer were still taller than him! When The House in the Night won the Caldecott Medal, my younger son and my husband dug holes in the snow in the front yard and put lit candles in them.

JEAN: Can you tell us more about teaching children to write poetry through St. Paul’s COMPAS Writers and Artists in the Schools program?

SUSAN MARIE: I love reading and writing poetry with children. Here in Minnesota, COMPAS has for many years supported the work of poets in schools. Each year I do a limited number of week-long residencies in elementary schools through their Writers and Artists in the Schools program. I encourage kids to write about the stuff of their lives, engaging poetry tools like metaphor, sensory images, word play, and revision. I’ve also been the literary arts specialist in a summer arts program–there I’ve had my own classroom to fill with books. I’ve also done a project with third graders on Astrid Lindgren in collaboration with the American Swedish Institute here, and I’m excited to be continuing that this winter.  

SMSwansonby ChrisBohnhoffhsc

JEAN: Why do you feel poetry is important for children?

SUSAN MARIE: Poetry is part of our cultural legacy. Like visual art, storytelling, music, dance, theater, and other arts, poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry welcomes and challenges us with its rhythms, sounds, and patterns. Reading poems, we can imagine and explore different ways of thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world. Poetry maps the territory of the human heart.

JEAN: Do you have any tips you can share with those of us who are interested in encouraging our children to explore poetry as an art form?

SUSAN MARIE: Invite young children to tell you things and to play with words. Write stuff down for them, without worrying about whether it is a story or a poem or a report or something else. But be open to the thought that their words could be poems.

Try watching for models for poetry–they really are everywhere. Counting books can be poems, and they are fun to make. You can make a crazy list of words that rhyme with “lou” and make up new verses to “Skip to my Lou.” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a model for a letter poem–you can write your own letter to a star or the moon or . . . .

Poetry Books for Children - Concrete Poems

You and many of your readers love visual art, and I think you’d enjoy books of concrete poetry and the hands-on projects that they might inspire. Don’t miss Meow Ruff by Joyce Sidman: everything in the book is made of words! In Joan Bransfield Graham’s Splish Splash, there’s a popsicle made of words, and in Flicker Flash, a campfire. For older children, there’s a collection from Paul B. Janeczko called A Poke in the I.

JEAN: Are there any more good children’s poetry books you can recommend to us?

Poetry Books for Children - Great first collections

SUSAN MARIE: Of course! You and I connected about our enthusiasm for the books of rhymes collected by Iona Opie, My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose. There’s a wonderful book of poems called Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry that you must go find right away. It’s such a welcoming volume.

Poetry Books for Children

I like to remind people to locate the poetry section in their library–sometime’s it’s tricky to find. Look for friendly poets like Karla Kuskin and Douglas Florian

Poetry in Children's Literature

And you’ll find poetry in picture books as well. The text of Goodnight Moon is a poem, and many picture book texts have the attributes of poetry. I’m thinking today of Ox-Cart Man, When I Was Young in the Mountains, Five Creatures, and Apple Pie 4th of July. I hope that your readers will look for my books, too!

JEAN: Anything else you’d like to add?

SUSAN MARIE: Thank you! Your blog is a joy to read, and I am inspired by the ways you vividly describe your creative path with children. I am honored to be part of the space you are making here at The Artful Parent

JEAN: Thank you so much, Susan Marie!

By the way, Susan Marie has a relationship with her neighborhood bookstore, Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, Minnesota. Call them (651-646-5506) if you would like a signed copy of The House in the Night or To Be Like the Sun sent to you. Susan Marie signs her books when they come in. She’s also happy to stroll over and inscribe a book specially for you!

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Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Thursday, December 3rd at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing for a signed copy of of Susan Marie’s book, The House In the Night.

Giveaway now closed.

Photos of Susan Marie Swanson (except book signing image) by Chris Bohnhoff

This post contains affiliate links.

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Comments

  1. says

    What a great interview, thanks for sharing it with us. The book looks beautiful and there were a few books that she suggested that I am not familiar with, so off to find those.

  2. jill says

    Great interview! Ms. Swanson’s answers are poetic and I love that she gave book recommendations, thank you!!

  3. Taid says

    Thanks for the interview. Giving me Micawber’s Books phone number was just what I needed to order The House In The Night!

  4. says

    What a lovely interview. This stood out: “But, really, it is all one big project: me and my notebook on a journey through the world. A big part of my work is simply to do all that I can to be the person who can write the next poem or picture book text.” Thank you Jean and Susan Marie.

  5. Chandra says

    Wow. That was cool to read the interview. I’ll have to check out her books- I haven’t read them yet.

  6. michaela says

    Thanks so much for the interview and recommendations. I am trying to interest my 3-year-old in poetry… and this post made me realize that I’ve been treating it as something different rather than another way to tell stories. Would love to win this amazing book!

  7. Stephanie says

    I already tracked down her book at the library to read to my three little ones (thanks for the recommendation!) and would love the chance for her book to make a permanent home with us!

  8. Kate says

    Thanks for sharing! Any suggestions on books of poetry for older children? My niece turns 10 this week, and she claims that her “house doesn’t have enough poetry in it.” She’s beyond Mother Goose though…

  9. says

    Another wonderful interview! Poetry is a wonderful thing for sharing as a family. We love Douglas Florian and Shel Siverstein and all have fun reciting our favorites together. Look forward to checking out The House in the Night. Thank you, Susan Marie and Jean.

  10. says

    My husband’s poetry is a bit too grown up for the four year old in the house, so i’m always on the lookout for new, good sounds and rhythmns…

  11. says

    We have read The House in the Night before without realizing that the author lives just an hour away! Thank you for this enlightening interview!

  12. says

    We’ve been reading a library copy “The House in the Night” recently and absolutely love the beautiful imagery. It would be lovely to own a copy!

  13. Stephani says

    I may have to track this down if we don’t win it! Our book wish list is turning into a book itself.

  14. says

    oh dear… so many new books to add to my wishlist! But really – thanks for a great, inspirational interview.

  15. says

    After reading your post the other day, I put a hold on “The House in the Night” at my library and picked it up this morning. I have already read it three times today! My three year old loves the lyrical flow and my five year old is mesmerized by the drawings…she already has started one of her own using only black and yellow. Thank you so much to Susan Marie for not thinking children are below poetry and a special thanks to you, Jean for bringing her into our homes. If the giveaway goes to someone else, one way or another, this book will be wrapped underneath my tree!

  16. Light says

    Thanks for talking poetry and preschoolers! This is really inspiring me to keep poetry closer to the top of our reading lists!!!

  17. says

    I love hearing about all of these wonderful childrens books – perhaps I should start a list of books that I want to read to my future children…

  18. Barbara Zaborowski says

    Thank you so much for the interview, Jean. I love it that Susan reminds us that many children’s books are really poems, that it’s all in the reading.

  19. Rachel says

    I’ve been keeping a list of books to search out at the library or bookstore for my daughter, these will join the list!

  20. Nancy says

  21. says

    I’ve checked this book out from the library and everything about it is beautiful. I’d love to win a copy to keep in our home :) Thanks so much for the interview!

  22. Jenna says

    This was a very inspiring post. I can see that my two-year-old is already naturally drawn to poetry. I think kids have an easier time connecting with it than some adults – they don’t have as many preconceptions. Thank you for this interview!

  23. rae says

    can’t believe we’ve never checked out her books before! thanks for the tip and the opportunity to win one!! ;)

  24. says

    I was directed over here by another blog (maya*made) and am now hooked! The interview was so inspiring…what a beautiful way to live and share one’s story. I also can’t wait to read more on this blog! Thank you!

  25. [email protected] says

    Lovely…I would love a book!

  26. Mary says

    Great interview. Inspiring to hear about the author and her process. And how helpful to have some new poetry books to add to our wishlists!

  27. says

    Great interview! And I’m thrilled by all her books ideas. She has me shopping around something fun and bright and just in time for Christmas! Thanks!

  28. Michele Meyerhoff says

    I hope to win a copy, but in the meantime am headed to my library to check out these books. Thanks!

  29. Rebecca says

    Thanks so much for this interview – the books all look wonderful and I’m looking forward to discovering them with my toddlers!

  30. Heather says

    Thank you for the interview. I love to read about what inspired and inspires authors. I also love your Web site.

  31. amy souza says

    beautiful interview…thanks for sharing it with us.
    fingers crossed for the book!!!
    delicious.

  32. says

    Her books look so beautiful. I’ve put almost all of them on my wishlist! Thank you for introducing us to such a wonderful author/poet.

  33. Brittany says

    I love children’s books. I always have. One of my dreams is to write one myself. I love the inspiration from other writers though and maybe one day I can take experiences from my own family life and turn it into a fun childrens adventure. I’d love to win a copy!

  34. meghan says

    Thanks for introducing this author. We live in northern WI so St. Paul is relatively close. I’m always excited to support local authors.

  35. [email protected] says

    I never thought about teaching poetry to children like this! So simple and fun! Thanks for the interview

  36. says

    Great interview! I was chuffed to see that we own a couple of the books she recommends. We’d be honored to win a copy of this book.

  37. Carole says

    What a great interview!
    I love discovering new
    authors. We read tons
    of books and I am
    trying to include
    more poetry and this
    would be a great place
    to start.

  38. ahk says

    We absolutely loved A House in the Night! Would be a wonderful gift… Thanks for the interview.

  39. Holisticgal says

  40. says

    Thank you again Jean and Susan Marie for the wonderful interview. It made me think back to my favorite book of poems from my youth — Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee (with pictures by Frank Newfeld). Even now as the pages fall out of our copy, I can see my own kids enjoying the silly poems as much as I did. And, Susan Marie — The House in the Night is lovely, I can’t wait to check out To Be Like the Sun as well.
    (Posted on behalf of Molly M.)

  41. says

    This is absolutely MY favorite children’s book. We have checked it out from the library SO many times that we would be thrilled to own our own copy! :)

  42. Tracy says

    Thanks for the interview, this is one of our favorite books right now. I just checked it out at the library today for the third time.

  43. Allie says

    Reading with my boys is one of my greatest pleasures and this looks like a wonderful book. Thanks!

  44. says

    Wonderful interview. I’m so glad to be introduced to Susan Marie Swanson! Thanks, Jean, for interpreting a children’s art blog broadly enough to include children’s literature. I love that. This blog is a wonderful resource. Thank you for a chance to win her new book!

  45. Maureen says

    I just received my copy of this book in the mail. Pictures are just beautiful. I’d love to win the book so I could give it as a gift. Thanks so much, Maureen (jnomaxx at hotmail dot com)

  46. kate says

    To Be Like The Sun is one of my daughter’s favorite books, and I love to read it to her because of the poetic, thoughtful words. I would love to win another of her books for our collection!

  47. says

    Great interview! I didn’t know Susan Marie Swanson books. Her works looks so beautiful and inspiring, I would love to win this book!
    Love your blog!