Thank Lee Wardlaw for coming by Kid Lit Frenzy and answering a few questions from a fellow cat lover. I love Won Ton and his new buddy Chopstick.
You have an apparent love of poetry. What poetry/what poet has been most influential on you as an official or unofficial mentor?
If I’m forced to choose just one (to me, poets are like potato chips—how can you possibly stop at one?!), it must be Valerie Worth.
Worth’s book All the Small Poems and Fourteen More (FSG, 1994) is brilliant. Each poem is a compact observation of something ordinary, something you might never in a million years think of writing a poem about—a safety pin, asparagus, a pile of rags!—yet in a few spare but perfect words she turns that mundane object into something fresh and wow-worthy. Part of Worth’s talent lies in her ability to observe, to use all her senses to appreciate the complex and unique beauty in life’s simple things.
Won Ton & Won Ton and Chopstick are written in Haiku. I imagine that you have played with a variety of poetry styles. Any favorites and what ones have challenged you the most?
Haiku is obviously a favorite! In third grade, as a prize for perfect school attendance, I received a book of haiku poetry written by Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694). Centuries after his death, Bashō is still considered the world’s greatest haiku master. (I pay homage to him at the end of Won Ton and Chopstick.) As a child, I loved my Bashō book (yes, I still have it!), and I’ve been writing haiku ever since. In fact, eons ago, when doing my first student teaching assignment in a K-3rd grade classroom, the first lesson I taught was on haiku!
Haiku appeals to me because of its immediacy, its focus on one moment in time: Now. Its rules appeal to me, too. I have ADHD, so without structure and specific “rules,” I tend to get overwhelmed. There’s something safe and soothing to me about writing poetry that has specific boundaries. Some people find haiku too constricting, but within its parameters, I am free to do whatever I like.
As to the style of poetry that has challenged me the most? Sonnets. I suck at sonnets. Is that too crude to say? How about: Me + Writing Sonnets = Headache.
Poetry seems to be a form of writing that is less intimidating for English Language Learners and others. What are some of your tips for teachers to share poetry writing with children?
First: I highly recommend teachers start with Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston (HarperCollins, 1991). It’s an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand primer that covers voice, sound, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and various forms of poetry. The book is actually geared for ages 9-13, but everyone can learn from it. I did!
Second: If you’re going to share poetry writing with children, you must share poetry! You must read poetry aloud. Every. Single. Day. It only takes a few minutes. If teachers aren’t sure how or where to start, I recommend The Poetry Friday Anthology: Poems for the School Year with Connections to the Common Core compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. (Pomelo Books 2012)
Vardell and Wong have produced several other useful, creative, and fun anthologies, such as The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations (the latter features Spanish translations of each poem).
Third: An important key to writing good poetry is Observation. (Remember my answer to Question #1?) So take students outside! Before children can become poets, they must first act like scientists. They must use all their senses to explore and absorb the world around them. Poet Kristine O’Connell George has some excellent observation tips and activities on her website.
Can you describe your collaborative process with Eugene Yelchin (if any) and did it change this time around?
It’s a misconception that authors and illustrators collaborate when creating picture books. Here’s how it works: I submit a manuscript; my editor then hires an illustrator whose style, medium, technique, etc., she thinks will best bring my words to life. With Won Ton, I had no contact with Eugene (other than an email introducing myself) prior to the book’s publication. I had no say in what Won Ton would look like, or how the various scenes would be illustrated. This is as it should be. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted Eugene looking over my shoulder as I wrote, saying: “Hey, I’m not great at drawing cats. Couldn’t Won Ton be a schnauzer? I’m super at schnauzers!”
All that being said, I did get to see Eugene’s initial sketches for both books. For Won Ton and Chopstick, I made two minor suggestions.
First, in the two-page spread called The Banishment, there is a poem that reads:
Alone, Q-curled tight.
Night is cold without you, Boy,
despite my fur coat.
Eugene originally drew Won Ton sleeping outside in the middle of a large, empty yard. I know cats—and cats do not do this! They don’t allow themselves to be that exposed, that vulnerable—especially at night. So I suggested to Sally Doherty, my editor, that perhaps Won Ton could be shown catnapping under a lounge chair or table. Sally passed along my suggestion to Eugene, who agreed. The scene now shows Won Ton curled beneath one of those rickety, aluminum patio chairs. PURR-fect! The chair provides a teensy bit of feline protection, while also allowing the reader to see how vulnerable Won Ton feels.
The second suggestion I made was for a section called The Rainy Day:
No one home except
the wet…and you. Is a pest
better than nothing?
Eugene’s initial illustration showed Won Ton and Chopstick sitting side-by-side on a windowsill, staring out at the rain. At this point in the story, cat and puppy have reached détente: Won Ton has ceased his hissing and harassing of Chopstick—but they are not yet pals. So I suggested that Eugene move Chopstick a few inches away from Won Ton—and he agreed. It’s a fabulous illustration. You can only see them from the back, but the way Chopstick is hunched you can tell he feels like a lonely little brother, desperately hoping that Big Bro will condescend to play with him.
I noticed that your book launch was going to include a cat adoption. Love this idea. Can you tell us about your cats? How many? What kinds? And can you share a picture of your feline muses?
My book launch for Won Ton was a fundraiser for our local kitty shelter. (We raised over $600!) This time, my launch will benefit ARF! (Animals + Reading = Fun), a local program that gives students in grades K-6 an opportunity to improve their literacy skills by reading aloud to specially trained therapy dogs. Santa Barbara’s independent bookstore, Chaucer’s, has agreed to donate 20% of my book’s proceeds that day to ARF! Special guests will include the President of ARF! and her “date” Sandy, one of the program’s therapy dogs.
As for our resident felines . . . up until a couple of months ago, we shared our home with three former shelter cats: Mai Tai, an all-black domestic shorthair with gorgeous green eyes; Po’ipu (pronounced “poy-poo;” named after a beach on Kauai), a blue Lynx-point Siamese mutt with a fluffy tail much like a squirrel’s; and Papaya, your basic tabby tom but with a very orange belly (hence, his name).
Mai Tai died in February, at age 12; Po’ipu snuck outside a couple of weeks ago, and was killed by a coyote. (We are heartbroken.) Won Ton is actually based on the true story of how Patterson, our son, at age eight adopted Papaya as a kitten from our local cat shelter. That was 11 years ago, and they are still best buddies. We plan on adopting another kitten later this summer.
What has been your favorite letter from a young fan?
“Dear Lee; I loved your novel 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents. It was so good, I even read it on the toilet!”
Can you share with us your favorite part of Won Ton and Chopstick?
Bathroom skirmish ends
in triumph! Boredom subdued –
and I can blame you.
It’s ironic that this is my favorite part because cleaning up reams of strewn toilet paper after one of our cats has vigorously destroyed a roll is not one of my favorite activities!
Can you share with us any new projects that you are working on?
Nope! I prefer not to discuss my in-progress projects. Talking about them dilutes my enthusiasm for them. But I’m delighted to share some good news: My poem “It’s Routine” will be included in an anthology compiled by Kenn Nesbitt, Children’s Poet Laureate. The anthology is called One Minute Till Bedtime, and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will publish it next year. I also have two new poems in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. None of these poems is in haiku, though, and none is about cats! (I can hear Papaya yowling his disapproval . . . or maybe it’s playtime.)
I’ve also just started an informational website called PawsToRead.com. Its purpose is to help parents, educators, animal lovers, and child advocates connect to city, regional, state, and national programs that use shelter cats or trained therapy dogs to improve the literacy skills of children. It has a growing list of recommended dog/cat read-aloud books, too. Me-wow!
About Lee Wardlaw:
Lee Wardlaw swears that her first spoken word was “kitty.” Since then, she’s shared her life with 30 cats (not all at the same time!) and published 30 books for young readers, including Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children’s Poetry Award, the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry, and the Cat Writers’ Association Muse Medallion. She lives in Santa Barbara, California with her family.
Illustrations © 2015 by Eugene Yelchin from WON TON AND CHOPSTICK: A CAT AND DOG TALE TOLD IN HAIKU by Lee Wardlaw, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
Won Ton and Chopstick Blog Tour Stops:
Mon, Mar 30 Library Fanatic
Tues, Mar 31 Kid Lit Frenzy
Wed, Apr 1 Teach Mentor Texts
Thurs, Apr 2 Sharpread
Fri, Apr 3 A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
Sat, Apr 4 Booking Mama
Mon, Apr 6 The Children's Book Review
Tues, Apr 7 5 Minutes for Books
Wed, Apr 8 Cracking the Cover
Thurs, Apr 9 Unleashing Readers
Fri, Apr 10 Word Spelunker
Sat, Apr 11 Bermuda Onion
One lucky winner will receive both books featuring the adorable cat, WON TON--WON TON: A CAT TALE TOLD IN HAIKU and WON TON AND CHOPSTICK: A CAT AND DOG TALE TOLD IN HAIKU. (U.S. addresses.)