The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Matt Forrest Esenwine
Matt Forrest Esenwine is a poet, author, voice actor, and former radio broadcaster. While he’s had numerous adult-oriented poems published in various journals and books, it's Matt’s love of children's poetry - writing it and teaching it - that truly motivates him.
In 2012, his poem, "Apple-Stealing" was nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize; another poem, "Stone-Kicking," was selected for inclusion in the Donald Hall tribute anthology, Except for Love (Encircle Pub., 2019); and in 2019 he received the MacGregor Poetry Prize, coordinated by the Derry (NH) Public Library and the Robert Frost Farm board of trustees.
He’s the author of multiple books including Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm Publishing, 2021), Don't Ask a Dinosaur (POW! Kids, 2018), and Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017), and has children’s poems in numerous anthologies like Lee Bennett Hopkins’ Construction People and School People (Wordsong, 2018, 2020), J. Patrick Lewis’ The Poetry of US and The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National Geographic Children's Books, 2018, 2015) and 'Highlights for Children' magazine.
His most recent picture book, with co-author Charles Ghigna, Once Upon Another Time, releases Tomorrow!
Welcome Matt, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? Do you prefer poetry anthology/books or picture books? Do you prefer writing children’s books or poems?)
These days, I try to write whenever I find the time – with Covid upending everyone’s schedules and plans these days, my wife and I found ourselves homeschooling our two young kids, and as a stay-at-home dad, that’s my priority. I’d love to be able to have a regular schedule, but it’s just not possible.
I’ve been writing since I can remember. When I was 7 or 8 I wrote an absolutely horrible song about swallowing a goat down my throat on a boat, or something like that…but even at that early age I really loved rhyme and the imagery poems created. I began writing poetry in earnest in high school, but I didn’t get serious about writing for children as a career until 2009 when I joined my first SCBWI critique group. I went to my first SCBWI conference in 2011, had my first paid poem published in Lee Bennett Hopkins’ “Lullaby and Kisses Sweet” (Abrams) in 2015, and now here I am with 11 books either out or under contract and more than 35 children’s poems published in various anthologies and magazines.
Sometimes I scratch my head trying to figure out how it all happened so quickly – but I realize that all those years of writing poetry and radio commercials (I must have written and/or produced nearly a thousand) was preparing me for this!
Seems like you were prepping for this all your life. Congrats on the 11 books! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Having spent years working in radio before leaving to be a stay-at-home writer/dad/voiceover guy, I’ve had the opportunity to meet all sorts of cool, interesting people. I once interviewed Alice Cooper, 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!
I'll bet you have some amazing stories! It sounds really exciting! How did you and Charles Ghigna start this collaboration? What was the inspiration for Once Upon Another Time?
It started back in 2013! Charles had written the first four stanzas about a year or so before and wasn’t sure where to go with them, so he posted them on his blog and asked if anyone had any ideas. Of course, he was inundated with responses – he’s Father Goose, after all! But he emailed the lines to me and I spent a few weeks thinking about how they could be incorporated into a picture book. I came up with a possible loose narrative and wrote four more stanzas to give him an idea of what I was thinking, and he was amazed at how well our writing styles meshed! He loved my plan and suggested I finish up the rough draft, and then we could work on revisions.
That's so cool. How did you divvy up the writing for Once Upon Another Time? Who chose the specific poetic form? And what was the hardest part of collaborating on this book?
Using Charles’ initial structure for the stanzas (which varied slightly), I completed the first draft in April 2014 and we began emailing each other back-and-forth with edits and tweaks, and after 7 or 8 revisions eventually nailed down the polished, final version. Then we began sending it out on submission!
Honestly, the submission process was the hardest part. It went through more than 25 editors and agents before Naomi Krueger at Beaming Books picked it up in early 2019. (And then it went through a second round of revisions!) So let’s consider the math: 8 years, 16 or so revisions, 25+ submissions…it’s definitely a lesson in tenacity!
Oh my! I would say so. Congratulations to the both of you for sticking with it. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was your favorite book as a child?
My very first book of poetry was A Secret Place and Other Poems by Dorothy Aldis. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that book would instill in me a love of poetry and helped develop my style. 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, along with just about anything written by Isaac Asimov. In high school, I discovered more poetry from the likes of Shakespeare, Frost, Poe, and others – and that was when I discovered a love of classic poetic forms like sonnets and villanelles. Once I became a parent, I discovered folks like Chris Van Allsburg, Steven Kellogg, and my former neighbor, Tomie dePaola, which really sparked my desire to write for children.
That's a great list of favorites. So in a Poetry Friday post in January, you mentioned that writing a Board Book is even tougher than writing a Picture Book. Tell us a little about Elliot the Heart-Shaped Frog and how writing it differed from Once Upon Another Time and Flashlight Night.
Well, every time you are forced to write with fewer words you are faced with the challenge of maintaining a narrative – and the reader’s interest – with less fuel. So word economy becomes paramount. You need to pay close attention to what you need to say, and what you can let an illustrator show. Allowing an illustrator plenty of latitude in telling a story is something that’s always on my mind, no matter what picture book it is (this was particularly true with Flashlight Night, which I knew from the outset would need to rely heavily on illustrations). Elliot actually has twice as many words now as it did in my original manuscript, if you can believe it!
Ha! How many authors can claim that?! Is there something you want your readers to know about Once Upon Another Time?
I would say that it’s a lesson for all readers: for parents, caregivers, and teachers, it’s an invitation to stop for a moment and take stock of all this world has to offer, and how far we’ve come as a species. For authors and illustrators, it’s an example of persistence and patience (did I mention the 25 rejections?) as well as how one can successfully write a rhyming picture book without maintaining a strict, repetitive rhythm – something all the workshop presenters tell you not to do, ha! But I think the varying structure of the text works here because it’s a quiet, poetic sort of book that doesn’t require a steady, bouncing rhythm…the fact that we utilize two different stanza structures actually forces the reader to slow down while reading and take in each spread, and enhances the text’s poetic qualities.
It's fun that you broke 'the rules' and created a very beautiful and interesting rhythm. What do you find to be the hardest part of writing in Rhyme? What is your most relied upon resource?
You know what – I’ve been writing in rhyme for so long (going back to the early ‘80s in high school), that I don’t find it hard at all, ha! Rhythm and rhyme come very easily for me, but I will say that there are many occasions when I want to say something and I just can’t figure out a way to say it in rhyme. I’ll try different words and that won’t work; I’ll try different phrasing of the lines, and that won’t work. What do I do? I leave it alone and come back to it the next day. Or the next week. And eventually, something will pop into my head that hadn’t popped into it before, and I’m back on the road, trucking along!
Websites like Rhymezone.com and Thesaurus.com are invaluable – but be forewarned, RhymeZone often includes “rhyming” words that don’t actually rhyme (like ‘tangelo’ & ‘fellow’, which have accents on different syllables, or ‘Carol’ & ‘peril’), so try not to be fooled!
Even writing in prose can require distance at times. When you first got to see Andrés F. Landazábal’s illustrations, did anything surprise or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Charles Ghigna & Matt Forrest Esenwine, 2021. Image © Andrés F. Landazábal, 2021.
Neither Charles nor I knew Andrés or his work, so we were pleasantly surprised when our editor, Naomi, first shared his initial illustrations – they were so classically beautiful, so serene yet vibrant, pastoral yet full of energy. We couldn’t be happier! As for a favorite spread, that’s hard…I love the “Wonder waited” spread featuring the flock of sparrows, the “land was fresh” landscape, and the spread featuring the early humans, but the whole thing is just absolutely stunning.
I'm partial to birds, so I really liked this spread too. How have you been staying creative these days. What have you been doing to prime the well?
It has, for me, been difficult to “stay creative,” so to speak – although not for lack of inspiration or ideas. As a stay-at-home dad who has discovered himself homeschooling two young kids, it’s my lack of time that has been the biggest obstacle. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, and no one seems to want to do anything about it, ha! But I do find time here and there to be able to write a little bit and get a few submissions out – and have managed to sign three book contracts since Covid struck, so I consider myself fortunate. (One book is actually going to be coming out next year with my Once Upon Another Time publisher Beaming Books, so I’m looking forward to working with them again!)
Three books sold during Covid? Nice. It may be crazy right now, but I've loved your posts from the trenches of home-schooling; your kids are so lucky. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have several books I’m working on right now and am submitting several of them. One of the books I sold last year, I Am Today, which is coming out this fall from my Don’t Ask a Dinosaur publisher, POW! Kids Books, is currently going through illustrations, so it’s fun being able to watch that part of the process. I also anticipate getting to work on revisions for the upcoming Beaming Books project I mentioned. And the other book I sold last year is a major collaborative effort that I can’t say anything about – aargh! But hopefully soon.
I will be watching closely for news on that one, as well as the others. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored of right now. Why?
I will always be a cat person! We actually just adopted our third cat, a grey tiger my son named Kovu, after the protagonist in Disney’s Lion King 2, and the little guy is the cutest, most loving cat I’ve ever owned – and that’s saying something! We also have 4 dogs, so life can get pretty crazy when the 1-year-old Great Dane wants to play with the Maltese.
Now I know why you don't have a lot of spare time. Thank you, Matt for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Once Upon Another Time.
To find out more about Matt Forrest Esenwine, or get in touch with him: