The Picture Book Buzz - Tribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins - Illustrator/ Poets of Construction People
“I’ve always maintained that more can be said or felt
in eight or 10 lines than sometimes in an entire novel.”
~ Lee Bennett Hopkins
The award-winning poet and anthologist, Lee Bennett Hopkins, published more than 100 anthologies of poetry for children over a half-century. He considered it his mission in life to get poetry into the hands of children.
In one of his last anthologies, Lee compiled fourteen poems about various construction people who "collaborate to create a high-rise hotel building, from architect to crane operator to glaziers and more."
He began this book of poems in 2017. Lee got to see the final layout of the book, but to our great sadness, he died August 8, 2019.
This post is a tribute to Lee from some of the poets and the illustrator of Construction People, which published March 17th.
Photo by Charles Egita
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or draw? How long have you been writing and/or illustrating? Do you prefer poetry anthology/books or picture books? What is your favorite poem form to write or book to illustrate?)
Ellen Shi - Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? (4/5/2020) - I’ve been illustrating professionally since 2015, but I’ve always been drawing and illustrating stories for as long as I can remember. I draw for my day job as well as for freelance in my little corner desk. Do I prefer poetry anthology books or picture books? They’re both great, they just cater to different audiences. As far as my favorite thing to illustrate, I’ve always loved fairytales because they have such rich and magical imagery!
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – Little Scoot (8/25/2020) - My favorite and best time to write is early morning with a cup of coffee in my writing room. I have been writing all of my life, since I was about 11. But I’ve been publishing poetry and picture books for about 30 years. My very deepest love is poetry, and included in that is lyrical language and often rhyme, so both poetry and picture books is where my heart is.
Matt Forrest Esenwine – Once Upon Another Time (8/18/2020) - As a stay-at-home dad, I write whenever I have the opportunity – after the kids are on the bus, once I get home from running errands, at night after they’re in bed. I’d love to be able to have a regular schedule, but it’s not possible at this point in my life!
I’ve been writing since I can remember; in fact, while cleaning out my parents’ house I came across several boxes of my old school paperwork and drawings and such, and one of the items was a 4-page ‘poetry book’ I wrote for my mom when I was about 10 years old! I don’t even remember doing that, but I guess it foreshadowed my future life. I began writing poetry in earnest in high school and had several poems published as an adult in various anthologies and journals, but I didn’t get serious about writing for children as a career until 2009 when I joined my first SCBWI critique group! I love writing poetry and have several manuscripts for poetry collections that I’m subbing, but so far editors seem to prefer my picture books. I have two already out and 7 more picture books or board books on the way, including Once Upon Another Time.
In addition, I have about 30 children’s poems published in various anthologies and magazines. I use a variety of poetic forms (rhyming, free verse, haiku, et al) when I write, as I feel that different subjects and tones require different approaches, but I will say that classic forms like sonnets and villanelles are my favorites. Yes, they can be very difficult to write, but I love the challenge and love the opportunity to play with words for a living!
Charles Ghigna - Once Upon Another Time (8/18/2020) - I write here in my treehouse in the middle of Alabama. I climb the steps each morning, turn on my computer, look out the window and search for my Muse. So far, she’s been showing up most every day. We write all day and late into the night, then do revisions the next afternoon.
I write picture books for kids and poems for all ages in various forms from traditional rhyming verse to free verse. We have four new books under contract right now that contain a variety of verse forms. Three are picture books and one is for teens that features art by my son, Chip Ghigna. I’ve been writing full-time now for nearly thirty years. Before that, I taught creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and Samford University.
B.J. Lee – Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble: Magical Poems chosen by Paul Cookson (2021) - I split my writing between a comfy chair in my living room (with an adjacent bookcase chock-full of mentor texts, reference books, pens and paper) with my more formal office where the computer is. I have been writing children’s poetry since 2007.
I love poetry collections and anthologies foremost and have a soft spot for poetic picture books as well. My favorite poetic form changes quite a bit, although I do like the repeating forms, especially the villanelle, triolet, roundel and pantoum. Recently, I've been writing some blue stanzas which are super fun. [FYI - here's a definition of a "blue stanza."]
Darren Sardelli – What If? (10/15/20) - I’m Darren Sardelli. I'm smoother than jelly. My rhymes are as tight as the skin on my belly. My weapon of choice is this pen that I write with. The ink it provides is the fuel that I fight with.
I started writing for fun when I was a junior in college. Once I graduated (with a degree in Business), I decided to challenge myself to see what I could actually do with my creativity. I spent all of my free time in bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries just writing and studying my favorite poets. After being rejected by every publishing company I could find, I met an author who really liked my poetry. He owned a publishing company and asked me to work on projects with him. Since that day, my poems have been published in 23 children's books, dozens of international textbooks, and a variety of magazines for children. Now I make a living (full-time) as a poet. It's pretty ironic since English was always my worst subject. One of my most favorite things in the world is visiting schools. I have assemblies and writing workshops for Pre-K, Elementary, Middle, and High School students. I've had the pleasure of visiting over 700 schools (worldwide).
Allan Wolf – The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party (9/2020) - I started performing and writing for kids in 1988 when I was 25 years old. You can do the math. One of my favorite poetical triumphs is the voice of the Iceberg in The Watch that Ends the Night. The Iceberg speaks completely in iambic pentameter. Initially I wanted to present this character in the form known as Blank Verse, which has no discernable rhyming pattern. But the Iceberg just kept rhyming, and so I went with it. I was just holding the pencil.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Ellen Shi - Something that few people know about me is that I almost became an industrial designer instead of an illustrator! After several friends yelled at me, I decided to switch my major from industrial designer to illustrator the day before the classes started. Luckily, they had space for one more person in that department! [Boy are we so lucky you did!]
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – Possibly that I have a quirky, leaning toward wacky, sense of humor. And that I am obsessed with color and polka dots, and keys and marbles and maps. And that I love to dance, although not very good. I can be serious to a fault, yet I am often just plain silly. [I love wacky humor!]
Matt Forrest Esenwine – Having spent years working in radio before leaving all that behind to be a stay-at-home dad, voice talent, and children’s writer, I had the opportunity to meet all sorts of cool, interesting people. I once interviewed Alice Cooper and engineered a radio show for him, then took him to the movies; hung out on one of Def Leppard’s tour buses after watching one of their shows from just offstage; discussed NAFTA with Bernie Sanders; even interviewed a former terrorist! [Oh my gosh!]
Charles Ghigna - I’m probably the only person on the planet over ten who doesn’t own a smartphone. When I’m away from my computer, I’m totally unplugged, disconnected, and free. [Wow, impressive and a bit scary.]
B.J. Lee – I married the same man twice. [Hmm, second time's the charm! *smiling*]
Darren Sardelli – During summer vacations, in college, I worked as a busboy at TGI Fridays. I was the hardest working busser in the restaurant and received really good tips from the waiters and waitresses. One day, corporate changed their tipping policy. I was pretty unhappy with the new system, so I decided to go on strike. One Sunday afternoon during brunch, I sat at the bar for my entire shift and didn’t budge. Many of the staff members supported me, but a few were upset. I didn’t care. I was the only busser in the restaurant during brunch. By the end of my shift, it looked like a hurricane blew through the restaurant. Corporate heard about what happened, and, within a week, reinstated their original tipping policy. It was an awesome victory for bussers. My bosses were amazed. [That's amazing and took lots of chutzpah. Congrats.]
Allan Wolf - I am a Third-Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. [Awesome!]
Had you worked with Lee Bennett Hopkins before he approached you to be part of this anthology? Did you choose the topic (person) for your poem or did he assign it to you? How about the specific form of your poem? (If you contributed to School People, was this experience any different?)
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – – I have worked with Lee for almost 30 years. From the time I began to publish books. Lee was also my dear, dear friend. We had a very special, very rare, friendship. No, I didn’t choose my topic. I never did. Lee always assigned poets their topics. In fact, he got a kick out of saying “no” and laughing if I ever hinted at a choice. I think through our years of working together he let me choose maybe 3 to 4 times. I was actually visiting Lee at his home for a few days as we talked over his work on Construction People. [She wrote Amazing Face in Lee's book, Amazing Faces.]
Matt Forrest Esenwine – I feel fortunate to have worked with Lee on several of his anthologies, beginning with Lullaby & Kisses Sweet (Abrams, 2015), which was the first book of children’s poetry to which I contributed.
He always assigned the subjects to his contributors, so we would rarely get to choose them ourselves. It’s interesting to note that people often ask me, “How long does it take to write a poem?” My response is always the same: as long as it takes! Case in point: when I wrote my 5-line poem, “First Tooth” for Lullaby, I wasn’t used to writing for toddlers, and it went through EIGHT revisions before we finally nailed it down. Conversely, my poem for Construction People, “Construction Project Manager,” is a villanelle – a highly-structured classic form that utilizes a tight rhyme scheme and repeating lines – and I completed it in one draft! I finished writing it, tweaked a couple of words the following day, and sent it off to Lee…and he wrote back immediately telling me it was “perfection” and that I had just made his week! So how long does it take to write a poem? You can never tell.
Charles Ghigna - I’ve been writing for Lee for many years. He usually assigned the subjects, but let me pick my verse forms. Some of the assigned poems he invited me to write appear in World Make Way, A Bunch of Punctuation, School People, Construction People, A Day in the Life of Math, Lullaby & Kisses Sweet, and a tribute poem to him in Dear One.
B.J. Lee – Yes, I had worked with Lee before. I met him at the 2018 Miami conference where he critiqued, and flipped for, a poetry collection manuscript of mine. He went on to champion the collection, editing it with me and personally putting it in an editor’s hands. After that we became very close and spoke on the phone frequently. [She wrote Troll Trick in Lee's book, Creatures.]
As far as Construction People, he gave me a selection of construction people to choose from and I chose the carpenter. My grandfather had done some carpentry work and I was curious as to what carpenters contributed to skyscraper construction. The form of the poem was left up to me.
Darren Sardelli – Before Lee gave me a shot, I emailed him every 6 months (for 3 years), asking if he was looking for poems (for future anthologies). He always said there were no openings for poets at that time, but he did encourage me to reach out again.
After watching a video I posted online, he reached out to me. I was shocked! He asked me if I’d be interested in writing a poem about a custodian… for the book, School People. I accepted the assignment, wrote the poem, and sent it off. Lee was impressed. After School People, Lee gave me specific poetry assignments for 5 more books. I have a poem featured in I Am Someone Else: Poems About Pretending as well as forthcoming poems in the other books Lee asked me to work on. Working with Lee has been one of the greatest highlights of my career.
Here’s a clip from an interview describing how I started working with Lee Bennett Hopkins (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AenT_omtsrg).
Allan Wolf - I have worked with Lee for years, first meeting him in the early 90's when I was the educational director of Poetry Alive! (a national touring group that presents poetry as theatre). When I received my first book contract from Candlewick Press, it was Lee who talked me through it.
As I can recall, almost every poem I’ve contributed to a LBH anthology began as a delightfully bizarre request. Allan, I need a poem about a Velociraptor (Dizzy Dinosaurs). Allan, I need a poem about an ellipses (A Bunch of Punctuation). Allan, I need a poem about The Mayflower (Traveling the Blue Road). For this final project, Construction People, he had requested a poem about welding! It never occurred to me to ever say no to Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Lee Bennett Hopkins was an amazing man who obviously loved poetry and enjoyed helping other poets succeed. Thank you all so much for sharing these special memories with us!
Ellen Shi - you illustrated Lee’s earlier anthology, School People (2018) and you’ve also illustrated a number of picture books Little Frog and the Scary Autumn Thing (2019), Do Doodlebugs Doodle? (2018), World Pizza (2017), & Little Frog and the Spring Polliwogs (2017). How different was it to work on these anthologies versus a picture book?
For a picture book, there’s a main character or a set of main characters that are going through a series of emotions and eventually reach a resolution. Anthologies are a bit different because each piece kind of functions separately, so there’s some freedom to insert your own visual story or secondary story lines. One example is the little dog that follows his boy to school in School People (2018). There’s the hope that the reader can find something new each time they read the book. [Hint: Look for the two characters that show up throughout Construction People.]
Do you have anything else about Lee that you would like to share?
Ellen Shi - I never met Lee in real life, but I remember him posting on my Facebook wall wishing me a "Happy Ellenday" for my birthday and suddenly realizing he was the center of a community of children’s book writers/poets. It was like I had been accepted into this warm secret club that I didn’t even knew existed! [What a special birthday gift!]
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – I could honestly write a book, so let me just say that he was brilliant, funny, kind, giving, and sometimes annoying. I can hear him roaring with laughter. He loved honesty. He knew he could be annoying. He was a good listener. When he was right, he was right. And when he was wrong, he apologized. He was a talented, amazing man and friend. [A beautiful tribute to a special and beloved man. Thank you.]
Matt Forrest Esenwine –Anyone who has ever known Lee has a story to tell! In fact, Lee was helping me with an anthology I was trying to put together when he passed away (hopefully one day it will see the light of day). He was a wonderful soul full of wit and charm and exuberance – but he also knew what he liked and what he didn’t like and didn’t mince words!
Early in 2019 I was working on a poem about fractions for an anthology about math, and after I sent it to him he emailed me back telling me he didn’t like it and why. I understood, and set work on a new poem. I eventually sent that one to him, and he liked it even less than the first one! I sent another – he disliked it, as well. I sent a fourth; same reaction. Frustrated, I talked to him on the phone about what he was looking for more specifically and came up with a fifth poem. I’ll admit I hesitated clicking “send”… but he loved it and agreed to include it in the book. The next time we were chatting on the phone, the subject of this book came up, and I joked to him that the next “fraction poem” I was going to write would be about the poetry anthologist who only liked one-fifth of my poems! He let out a hoot of laughter that half the state of Florida probably heard! [*Snort* I am sorry not to have gotten to know him.]
Charles Ghigna - I first “met” Lee via email many years ago through my friends, Rebecca Kai Dotlich and J. Patrick Lewis. I really didn’t know that much about Lee, but I immediately liked the directness and honesty he showed in our correspondence. In one of his first emails, he asked, “Why have I never heard about you before?” His question made me realize just how much of a recluse I am. Had it not been for email, we probably would never have “met.” [*Smiling* Isn't "recluse" in the job description of "author"?]
B.J. Lee – The greatest gift Lee gave me was believing in my poetry, validating me like no one ever has in my writing career. He said he hoped he’d live to stand in line for the signing of one of my poetry collections. Lee was a true mentor to many and a champion of poetry. I miss him very much. [He sounds like an amazing advocate and friend.]
Darren Sardelli – I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet Lee. I did have some fun phone conversations with him, though. He told me some really interesting stories about Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. I was beyond fascinated. [I'm sorry you didn't get to meet him in person.]
Allan Wolf - When I got my first real book contract in the mail, I called Lee on the phone to ask his advice. I couldn’t get more than two or three words into any question before Lee would interrupt me, blurting out, “Sign it, Allan! Sign the contract!” He said it in his very distinctive drawl. It was comical. [What a great memory!]
Thank you all for sharing what Lee meant to you. So. who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Ellen Shi - I loved, loved, loved Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter as a kid because my mother had gifted me the boxed set as well as a stuffed bunny. As I grew older and started purchasing books for myself, I happened upon Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and I quickly devoured the rest of her books. I think I read Ella Enchanted at least a dozen times because the main female lead was someone I could relate to and someone I aspired to be at the same time. Having such role models, although fictional, really shaped who I am as a person today.
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – When I was young we had Golden Books from the grocery. I especially loved The Gingerbread Man. And a few years later, Nancy Drew mysteries and Pippi Longstocking.
Matt Forrest Esenwine – I had a lot of favorite books growing up. First and foremost was my copy of A Secret Place and other poems by Dorothy Aldis. At the time, I had no idea how much that book would shape my approach to and affinity for children’s poetry. I also loved the picture book Mr. Snitzel’s Cookies by Jane Flory, The Land of Noom by Johnny Gruelle, every Hardy Boy book published, and anything written by Isaac Asimov, who taught me the value of a good surprise ending. Once I got into high school, I discovered folks like Frost, Poe, Shakespeare, and Shelley – and my eventual career path began to coalesce, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
Charles Ghigna - I have many favorite poets. As a kid, I enjoyed reading William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as the light verse poets Richard Armour, Arthur Guiterman, Ogden Nash, Phyllis McKinley, and Don Marquis. Later I discovered the poetry of Robert Hayden, John Updike and James Dickey.
B.J. Lee – A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh was my favorite book as a child. I also had a book of his poetry which included my favorite poem, James, James, Morrison, Morrison.
Darren Sardelli – I wasn’t much of a reader as a child, but I remember enjoying the book, Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina.
Allan Wolf - Every comic book ever written, Doctor Doolittle, and EB White’s Charlotte’s Web. Anything by Roald Dahl. But most of all The BFG. Remember Pardon Me You’re Stepping on My Eyeball by Paul Zindel? I also loved novels that depicted young people doing something (usually dangerous) all on their own.
I love asking this question and seeing what childhood books influenced authors and illustrators. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Construction People and/or your illustrations or specific poem in the book?
Ellen Shi - I actually own the shirt that the mother character wears in the book! [I love this! Thanks for sharing this "Easter egg."]
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – We went back and forth many times with revisions, often on the phone. We brainstormed and worked on lines and words on both my poems and his. We often disagreed. Sometimes he would win, sometimes I would. We worked well together. He loved the gentle back and forth of wrangling. After Rebecca Davis, his editor (and longtime friend) of Construction People came back with revision requests or suggestions, we would tackle it again. [What a fun critique partner he must have been.]
Matt Forrest Esenwine – The lesson I learned from writing this poem is to never underestimate the importance or impressiveness of anything…there are very cool, surprising facets to just about everything in life! [Excellent sentiment! I put it above my computer.]
I say this because when Lee asked me to write about the construction project manager, I admit I was disappointed – the manager doesn’t do anything fun like swing a hammer, weld steel girders, or run an excavator. He/she just…manages! Whoopie. But then I did my research and learned just how important the job is: the manager has his/her finger on the pulse of the entire operation, from hiring and setting deadlines to maintaining the budget and overseeing the project’s completion. It’s a very stressful job, and once I realized all this, the villanelle form – with its tall, skyscraper-like shape and repetitive lines – was the perfect vehicle for my poem. In fact, my poem couldn’t be anything other than a villanelle! And at that point, the poem really did write itself.
Charles Ghigna - I never knew writing about plumbers would be so much fun. Plumbers are a lot like poets. They connect lines together — only they get paid a lot for it. [*Howling with laughter*]
B.J. Lee – As far as working with Lee on this collection, I wrote two poems for him to choose from and he chose We Nail It. The only changes he made were to the line spacing.
Darren Sardelli – My poem, Dump Truck Drivers, recognizes all the amazing, hardworking people who drive dump trucks. It’s a tough job with remarkable responsibilities.
Allan Wolf - The poem that became “Song of the Welders” went through about three different incarnations. Lee was a hands-on curator of these thematic anthologies. I had a good ear and worked to make his anthologies truly age appropriate. My first attempt missed the mark. It was for an older reader. So, I made my adjustments. And he made a few. From the beginning, I was channeling the likes of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. I was pleased to see that the welder on the book’s cover is sporting a ponytail! [It is a nice touch by Ellen Shi!]
How about a fun question, if you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?
Ellen Shi - I would meet Madame de Morville and ask for her to read my future. I read a book in high school call the Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley. The main character is an abandoned disfigured young adult who rebuilds a life for herself in 17th Century France with fierce intelligence, intuition, lots luck, and a bit of poison by posing as a 150-year-old witch who can read people’s future in water accurately. [Very unique choice.]
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – Possibly Billy Collins. I mean, I’ve met him at college lectures and book signings, but would like to meet him, meet him. You know, dig in and talk, really talk for hours. Tomorrow I’ll think of someone else, too, that I left out. [*chuckling* Isn't that always the case?]
Matt Forrest Esenwine – Well of course, the easy answer is Jesus! That goes without saying, for obvious reasons. But fellow New Hampshire-ite Robert Frost would be on my list, as well – also for obvious reasons! [*smiling*]
Charles Ghigna - I wish I could have met my great grandfather, Charles Vincent Ghigna, an Italian immigrant whose profession was “book binder.” [Wouldn't that be awesome.]
B.J. Lee – As to who I would love to meet, it would definitely have to be an author. I think it’s a toss-up between Kazuo Ishiguro and Vladimir Nabokov. [Interesting choices.]
Darren Sardelli – It’d be cool to meet Lee Bennett Hopkins as well as play ice hockey with Adam Sandler. [Indeed!]
Allan Wolf - John Keats. [*smile*]
Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?
Ellen Shi - I recently got 2 snails for my fish tank to help maintain the algae level. They are adorable, especially when they are eating, and you can see their little mouths trying to suck in some algae. [How fun.]
Rebecca Kai Dotlich – Puppies. My favorite animal was my terrier Skippy which I loved for almost 18 years before he died. I’m enamored now with my grand dog Ozzy. [Oh, so like grandkids, you can play with them & then give them back! Perfect.]
Matt Forrest Esenwine – I’m a cat person! Yes, we have four dogs of our own and have fostered nearly a dozen and a half, but grey tigers and Siamese are still my all-time favorites. [My grey tabby, Pixie-bob will be very glad to hear that!]
Charles Ghigna - Right now I’m enamored by a puppy named Daisy Rose Ghigna, my son’s new Golden Retriever. [I've seen the pictures, It's adorable!]
B.J. Lee – My favorite animal of the moment is the sloth – the way they move so slowly and their cute faces. [Totally agree!]
Darren Sardelli – I’m intrigued by kangaroos. I’d love to be a kangaroo for a day and just hop everywhere. [I imagine you'd find challenges you never expected & tons of fun.]
Allan Wolf - I’m not really into any particular species. But I do fall in love with individuals. It’s all about personality. Except I DO like hedgehogs and contributed a poem titled “The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog” to Paul Janezcko’s anthology of the same name. To be honest, I’ve NEVER met a ferret that didn’t dislike. I had a very traumatic experience involving two ferrets in my bed one night. Don’t get me started. [HA!]
Thank you all so much for sharing with us your memories and experiences with Lee Bennett Hopkins and working on this amazing poetry anthology.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book post on Construction People.
To learn more about these wonderfully creative individuals, or to contact them:
Ellen Shi – illustrator of 4 picture books and 2 poetry anthologies, including Little Frog and the Scary Autumn Thing (2016).
Rebecca Kai Dotlich - author of 20 books and numerous poems, including Good Night, Oliver Wizard (2019).
Matt Forrest Esenwine – author of 30 poems and 7 picture books and board books, including Flashlight Night (2017).
Charles Ghigna - author of more than 5,000 poems and 125 award-winning books from Random House, Disney, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and other publishers, including The Night the Forest Came to Town (2018).
B.J. Lee – author of the picture book, There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth (2019) (previous interview/review), and poet with poems in 27 anthologies and over 100 poems published altogether.
Darren Sardelli – author of the picture book Galaxy Pizza and Meteor Pie (2009) and award-winning poet with poems in 23 anthologies, including School People.
Allan Wolf – author of picture books, poetry, and young adult novels, including The Day the Universe Exploded My Head: Poems to Take You into Space and Back Again (2019).