Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Marilyn Singer. The transcript is divided into the following clips:
Hello, I am Marilyn Singer, I write children's and young adult books in many, many genres. I've written… I think about 87 books at this point, and there are more to come. My favorite thing to write is poetry but I do write lots and lots of things so that I don't get bored.
Well, let's see, what were the early signs that I was going to become a writer? I would say the earliest was my Grandmother who came to this country from Romania when I think she was about 12. And she was not able to read and write in English. But she certainly was able to speak English and she told me many, many folk tales and fairy tales that she must have heard when she was a girl.
And I would request her to tell certain tales over and over again because I loved them so much. So that was certainly one early influence. Another influence was my mom who read many books to me, and I particularly like the poetry books that she read. At that time there were a lot of the little golden books that were very popular. I think most parents had them and read them to kids. She read those to me a lot along with other things. And then there was my dad. And my dad did something quite extraordinary and that is he sang to me every single night.
And what he sang were the popular songs of the day. There were these sheets that were apricot colored, light green, they were the hit parade songs. And he would sing these different songs, so I grew up hearing these wonderful lyricists. And I think all of those things were influential on me.
Becoming a Writer
I didn't actually become a writer until I quit teaching. I was a high school English teacher for about 4 years, and then when I quit I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. And I began to write stories. I didn't know where I was going with these stories.
But I started to write and the first stories were based on insect characters that I made up when I was about 8 years old. I would go into my parents bathroom with a flashlight and flash it on the ceiling and that was the character "Lightey the Lightning Bug". Lightey had lots of insect friends all of whom had names. And they all talked and made up stories and had many wonderful things to say.
And I would sit there doing that. And my parents thought I had an imaginary pal. But I knew Lightey wasn't imaginary I knew Lightey was something I was making up in my head. It was a flashlight flashing on the ceiling basically. But they were stories, and I wrote those stories down after I quit teaching. I didn't sell those immediately, they did become part of a book later on. But those are the very first stories that I started writing.
And then I wrote a story called The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn't. By this time I had joined the Bank Street Writer's Lab. Which was a free workshop for people who wanted to become children's writers. And we would read our stories out loud and get critiqued. That was one of the stories people liked. It became my first published book. So that's how I got started and those are some of the early influences on my writing career.
Let's see were there were any writers in particular that influenced me or any songs in particular? Well, I'm a big Cole Porter fan. And anybody who can write an internal rhyme, like "flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do." It was such a big influence on me I thought how can somebody do that? That's just great. All those rhymes and they work. So that was definitely that stuck in my head.
When I was little, I sang a lot of songs. I'm not sure I sung the ones with the best lyrics, but they definitely you know, you get that rhythm and that sense of rhyme in your body. So one of the songs I always sang was "Give Me a Little Kiss Will Ya Huh". That was my party song. I was put on you display and I would get to sing this song, and that sort of stuck in my head that was one of the things I sang. I sang "Once I had a Secret Love", from Calamity Jane. Do not ask me why, because I'm sure at the age 5 I did not really know what the song meant.
I think the emotion of it, I could get. So those were influential. As far as writers go, I think in the poetry book my mom read me there were things by Eleanor Wiley and Robert Lewis Stevenson and those were definitely two of the poets I remember when I was young. And then I read a lot of books.
I got a fan letter recently, and the fan asked, what was your favorite book as a child? And it's sort of hard to remember because I read a lot of things. But I loved the All of a King Family, by Sidney Taylor. Yeah, and I read that over and over and that was a favorite. And I loved Alice in Wonderland. I had a teacher in seventh grade who loved Lewis Carroll, and he said to the whole class we're going to read Alice in Wonderland. And now we're seventh graders, right so, so seventh graders are like that's a baby book. Well it's not a baby book.
And we all got into it. This same teacher also said we're going to read Shakespeare. I have to say, Shakespeare is my absolute favorite writer. It may be corny but he's my absolute favorite writer. And the same teacher who had us read Alice in Wonderland said okay I'm going to give you a choice which play would you like to read? Here is the list.
Seventh grade, right? What did we pick? King Lear, I mean that is bizarre. But we picked King Lear, and I think we actually understood a lot of it. And it was really strange. But I remember I got to play the most disgusting scene in all of King Lear, because I got to be the person who put out Gloucester's eyes in King Lear. So, I have to say Shakespeare may have influenced me but I do not write horror and I don't horror. So that's scene did not particularly influence me.
But, those are some of the influences on my writing. Midsummer Night's Dream definitely influence me. I wrote one novel called The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, which is a line from the play. And it's based on these high school kids putting on a production and their lives starts paralleling some of the things that happened in the play. I would say Shakespeare has definitely influenced me and crept into a lot of my writing as well.
How do I keep in touch with kids today? And do I have an inner child? I definitely have an inner child. I think if you scratch any children's writer, we're somewhere between 10 and 16. Maybe some who are younger, and I don't think there are many who are older, actually. So I think that's a very important thing to stay in touch with. And when I say that it's obviously you try to recall some experience you had and emotions.
But I think one of the biggest things and I've said this over and over. In fact I'm giving a talk at Oakland University and I'm going to say this then. Keeping a sense of curiosity and wonder is unbelievably important. It's vital for a writer and to be honest with you I really think it's vital for anybody. If you want to be a happy person, you have to be curious about the world and you have to appreciate the wonder in it.
And I think that, that's a very, very important thing. And that helps me a lot in my writing. And as far as kids go, I have a lot of kid friends. We have a lot of nieces and nephews. We've always stayed friends with kids, we don't have kids my husband and I. But we our friends have a lot of kids and some of them have become our unofficial godchildren as it were. And we watched them grow up.
I often them ask them questions to make sure I'm not being an old fogey somehow. And, and that helps a lot too but we also live across the street from a school. In Brooklyn, New York it's PS 282. And I get to watch kids all the time in the schoolyard. I get to watch behavior and I get to talk them usually in the library. I like to go to the library more than the school actually because I find that when the kids takes a field trip they tend to pay attention more and the teacher's prepare them better to ask questions.
So you get to see a lot of things and the interesting thing is even though a lot of things have changed obviously in the world. A lot since I was a kid, emotions don't. They really don't. That's a good thing to keep in mind. And to couple that with the changes in the world, but with the emotional truth that everybody has and everybody always has. I think that helps a lot.
Why poetry is great
Why do I think poetry is a great thing? Well, I've always loved it. And I frankly think all people love it when we're small. I think the rhythms of it, the rhyme, although I certainly don't think the only poetry kids should be exposed to is rhyme poetry. I don't think I was and I think that it's good to show different kinds. But rhyme is very appealing, I don't know anyone who doesn't respond to that especially when they're young.
I think the fact that, poetry has the ability to surprise in different ways than prose can. The thing about poetry I believe is you read something and you get this little frisson of you know, your hair stands on end because you recognize something or your seeing something in a way that maybe you haven't seen it before. I think that it has the power to make the familiar mysterious, and the mysterious familiar. That's the best way I can put it.
So, for those reasons I really love it. I also like the fact that you can a lot in a very small amount of words. That to me is very important. I think, again, people respond to that. It's capturing a moment in time, it's capturing an emotion in this small space. I also think that it relates to pretty much any subject you can think. So when I think about using it in schools, the first thing I think of is if your doing teaching American History, If you're teaching Mythology, if you're teaching pretty much anything science for goodness sake, you can find poems that supplement whatever your teaching or whatever your talking about.
I'm a big believer in cross pollination. You know I that it's good to show there are different ways of looking at the same thing and I think there's something wondrous about. So, that's a basic thing, to tell people to find things that relate to the subject matter. And I also think there are a lot of ways of interesting kids.
I did this article for a school library journal called "Knock Poetry off the Pedestal". Which has a lot of different ways that poetry can be used in schools and I interviewed a lot of poets for it. And some of the ways that people came up with have to do with taking poems and sticking them into different books so people will open and be surprised with a poem. It can be a science book, it can be a novel, it can be another poetry book.
One thing I came up with were poetry trading cards. Where kids could write out a poem and decorate them, and trade them with other kids. I met someone yesterday who said she had a poetry jar. Where she put poems in a jar and kids could and take a poem out of this jar. And when those kids were in other classes they said, we want the poetry jar — we liked the poetry jar.
Someone else used a fish bowl. A poetry fish bowl. Janet Wong who is a wonderful poet uses a suitcase. She attaches a poem to a prop. It could be an umbrella, it could be a shoe. The prop in the poem relates in that it's kind of like a show and tell thing. It can hold, here's an umbrella, here's a poem that relates to this. I just think there are just so many ways that people can use it. But one thing that I always tell teachers is that you the teacher, you have to read these poems yourself first.
You have to read them out loud. It is extremely important that poetry be heard. But first, you have to relate to it. You can't just sort of walk into a classroom and wing it. You have to really read it, you have to know what it means, you have to have some connection to it. And then you can read it and Jane Yolen says you can have one voice read it, one teacher, an adult, one kid read it, the whole class read it, and then go back to one voice.
It seeps into your bones. It gets into your blood stream. So those are, those are just a few of the ways, there is many, many more and I'm not going to go on all day about them. But I think there's a lot of different possible ways to use poetry. But reading it, it really helps.
But I also want to say to you to not just rhyme I want to repeat because I love rhyme. There is great poets out there but Tracy Von Zimmer, another great poet said, with all due respect to the wonderful men, there is more than Shell Silverstein out there. So familiarize yourself with other poets, and other forms of poetry. I think that's a big service to everyone. And also I think that people can find different kinds of poems they relate to that way.
Getting kids to write poetry
I heard the best story today. Okay here's something that I heard. Somebody was teaching their kids different forms. The kids were really interesting in my book Mirror Mirror, because I came up with a form.
I will explain what that form is, it's the reverseo. You read a poem down one way and it's one poem. Then you read it back up and it only changes in punctuation and capitalization, and it's a different poem. So the kids in the poem were fascinated by that a poet could create a form. So they were working on haikus, and one boy didn't quite understand what a haiku was instead of five, seven, five syllables, he thought it five, seven, five words.
He came up with this thing, his name was Zack so they call him "Zack-u". And he has come up with the "Zack-u", which I think is thrilling. So one thing you could certainly do is give kids the permission to play with form. This particular person said she does acrostics a lot with kids. But she stresses that they have to make sense. You can just write anything out there. So I think permission to play is a really great thing.
I think, another idea, is Sylvia Vardel had a wonderful teacher, professor was to pair two kids. One of them is the poet and one is the scientist. And one of them writes a poem about this topic and the other writes the prose piece about the topic. That's a great way that has so many uses, it's unbelievable because you get poetry, you get prose, you get science, you get a topic, you get a understanding of genres. So that I think is a really great thing to get kids to write.
Another thing I think is just to… artists who use still lives. I think it would be interesting to say okay, this is what an artist does with a still life. Here's, here's something an artist might use for a still life. Let's create a poem, a still life poem. I think that anything you can do show that things interconnect would be a great thing. Those are some of the ideas off the top of my head that people have told me. I'd be curious to know how teachers actually get kids to write poetry.
I don't think they have too much of a problem from what I understand. When I've spoken in libraries I've asked kids, "Do you like to write poetry?" And they really do, and I asked why — and I think maybe this is the key — one of them said is because I can write my feelings. So another thing that teachers can do, I used to be a teacher I taught high school English, as I said, for a number of years.
One of the things I used to do is at the beginning of each class I would have free writing time. And I would say I don't care what you write about, but you have to write something. If you want to make it specific I don't care what you write about in a poem, but you must you know attempt to write something. I won't grade it, I will read it and if you like, I will read it out loud. I think that's another good thing to give, I like to see people freed a little bit. I think that's a major issue.
I think it's a major issue for adults. Not feeling free enough. I talk to people all the time who say "I really, I really want to write, I have all these ideas rattling around in my head but it's so hard for me to get it down on paper." There's something constraining them. It probably dated back to school, dare I say I say school…
How can we stop beating poetry to death? This is related to knocking it off the pedestal I think. I think, a while ago, I think it's so much an issue now, I think it's changed a lot. That people used to over analyze everything. What is poetry? It was you know, I was an English teacher, and we had to like what does the Scarlet Letter actually mean? And people would evaluate you.
If you did not do this kind of analysis, you could get a bad evaluation. I don't think that's the case now, fortunately. A lot of educators now recommend just simply reading the poem. The teacher reading poem, and kids can talk about what it means to them, how they relate to it without a lot of analysis. I think it's good especially with the, with the younger kids. Hearing the musicality in poetry.
Is very important. I remember Monica Gunning when I interviewed her, people how to hear how it sings and develop a certain kind of sense of the music of it. So that involves listening to it a lot, again. I always struggle with this myself because I don't think somebody should let just anything go in terms of, this poem is about a horse when it's clearly nothing having to do with horses in this poem.
I think what you can do if a kid says this poem is about horses is to say, "Why do you think that? Why are you relating this to a horse? How is it? Why is it inspiring a horse?" And you might get some very interesting and surprising answers and in which case you can say "Oh that's really interesting. So even though the poet didn't specify a horse or talk about horses, you're taking it to another dimension in your head."
That I think creates a kind freedom. You can go back in a very gentle way then and say "I like where you took this but what, let's talk about the poet a little. What do you think was going on in the poet's head?"
Without this over-analysis you can start opening the door to looking at other kinds of poetry, it's like if you like that, take a look a look at this. And if someone says well I don't like that, it's like that's interesting too. Why don't you like it? What's bugging you about this? You might get some very interesting answers. Sometimes if something really bugs somebody, it's because they're trying to process it.
They haven't quite processed it yet. And that's a process in itself. So, could talk about that, like what's bothering you about this? Why do you like rhyme more than this? Or why do you like free verse more than you like rhyme? I think that would also be helpful. The other thing, please don't share poems with people. That sounds terrible and simple. There's a lot of great poetry out there. And there's some stuff maybe not so good.
I think, it's good to like really show the best stuff. Because I think that's inspirational to people. And they may still hate and that's okay. Another thing I think is really important, as I said, teach high school. And I get kind of emotional over certain poems. And if you truly love something it goes a long way with students. And if you get emotional over it, it really goes a long way.
One of my favorite poems is "Fern Hill", by Dylan Thomas. Which is a very sad poem, it's touching, it's about getting older. And what that means, and even now I'm like oh my god. And I would start crying. Before it, I would say to the class, I'm going to read you this poem and I'm going to cry. I'm sorry that's what happens — I cry. First of all I think everybody wanted to pat me or hug me. Or do something.
"The teacher's crying, oh my god the teacher's crying!" But I think that, then there would be poems I'd be laughing at. I think that's really important to people. You know you showing naked emotion. You're having a response to something. How can somebody negate that, or find this a dead thing anymore, if somebody is really having a response? There not just standing there going, "What does he mean when I was young and easy under the apple… bleh bleh bleh." You know?
It's like you know, no, this is about you know. Who cares if they were 16 years old? They still understood what it would mean that eventually, that you're not going to be, that you're going to be older. You know? I think that is really important to pick things that, that you relate to. That you have an emotional response to and that will carry over a lot.
How to spot the bad stuff
How do you know it's bad poetry? I think, for one thing with rhyme, if doesn't scan well, and I think most people can hear scanning, I hope if they, if they read it out loud and listen to it. If it's not scanning really well, if it's very clichéd, if it says the same thing that you've heard before in a way that's not particularly fresh, I think those are some indications that maybe this isn't the best poetry in the world.
I hate to say it, but there are good articles and reviews out there where people talk, not where they don't just say this is a good book. Where they really talk about why it's a good book and what makes it a good book. And there are some bloggers out there like Silvia Vardell and Elaine Magliaro and Patricia Stohr Hunt who specialize in poetry. And talk about, what are good poems, what makes I think a good poem. I think those things can be really helpful.
I would say those are the main things. Really cliché-ridden stuff, I think people at this point, should know what's cliché-ridden, I hope. I mean, and what doesn't sound euphonious maybe to the ear. I hope those are some of the things. But it is tricky. And people do have different tastes. When I say bad poetry, I don't mean necessarily something I don't like because that's something else.
ButI think there are things that just… Oh here's another thing! There's a great book out called Bad Verse or I think Bad Poetry. There are sites on the internet called "Bad Poetry." You can go to those and find them and see examples of what's bad. You may go, why is this bad? I think if you read enough of them, you get a sense. And one of the most hilarious things, is that very famous, very good famous poets have written extremely bad poetry.
When I was in college, we had a class on the romantic poets. Our teacher deliberately brought in bad stuff by Keats and other people to show us how a poet grows and develops. I will never forget, I don't even remember the name of the poem, but I know that Keats wrote one poem and a line in it was about a goose, a dying goose. It has a line "It gave a feeble honk". And the whole class just cracked up. It just sounds terrible to your ears. There's nothing euphonious about it, unless you're writing a comic verse, which he was not. And I think if you get exposed to enough of that stuff, you go what is wrong with this picture? So I think that can go a long way. Actually, I really like that idea of finding bad poems if you can by well-known poets. It's like yeah, they can blow it too. And that would be a good lesson, you know for students.
It's like, look at this. So-and-so had an off day here, I don't know what's going on!
This lady loves animals… and plants
I love animals. There is actually no animal that does not interest me. So most of my non-fiction is about animals, also plants, I'm fascinated by. The whole natural world really, I really, really love. The very first non-fiction book I wrote was actually on garlic, leeks, and onions. It was supposed to be a short book and it turned into this mammoth fat thing because there was no editor there.
Nobody told me what they really wanted from this book and it just got completely out of hand. That book is long out of print, but it was a lot of fun to do. It was on the allium family. But I think A Wasp is Not a Bee was maybe the first really for kids in picture book format. And how it came about is, I get very irritated when people confuse species.
You might say who cares? So somebody calls a bee a wasp? Or a wasp a bee? Usually they would calls wasps bees, they would go "Oh look at those bees". And I would go they're wasps- wasps!
I think part of the problem that we have with environmental protection and studies and all that, is that people don't recognize that diversity is really important. You, I mean, species are here for a reason, they evolve, they developed over, many, many, many years.
They each have a niche. Sometimes that niche intersects with ours. And it's actually important for our survival. Sometimes it isn't, you know? But they have a right to survive, too. And I again, I'm back to this trope of wonder and curiosity. The more diversity in the world, and the more you realize it, the more wondrous that world is. And the more you need to be curious about it.
So, I was sitting there one day — and I think it was the last straw person saying this. "Oh get those bees away from me.", and they were wasps. And I thought okay, there has got to be a way of putting that into a book. And I thought I know, A Wasp Is Not A Bee. And then I went and looked up species that are easily confused. So it's a really a book on taxonomy. But I didn't call it that. So that was the first one. So whenever I do research on anything it leads to research on other things, and I save all of the research.
So some of the other ones I did Prairie Dog's Kiss and Lobster's Wave is about how animals say hello. There's a lot of books, not a lot, but there are books on courtship and aggression. But there wasn't anything on greetings. And animals really do have to greet each other like "hey I'm friendly, you know, don't do anything." Of course that started, that did start with prairie dogs because they kiss when they greet.
I thought oh that's a nice thing to put. Then I found out later that the lobsters are waving their claws like hello male, female, you know "blah blah blah". So I thought that would be a really cool title. And I got to research other animals on how they greet and of course we all have dogs and cats. And we know how they greet. I also wanted to know why cats will come up to you and stick their butt in your face, you know like, what? I mean everybody sort of goes like… But that's actually a friendly sign.
It's like you may sniff me and see who I am. You know, it's like okay thank you. We'll pass, but thank you for offering, it's lovely of you to do that. (laughing) Very kind, very gentle, in cat language. So that was another one. And then Tough Beginning: How Baby Animals Survive came from watching a lot of the animals at the zoo. And seeing a sign, I think that one, there was a sign that 1 out of every 5 baby emperor penguins survive.
I thought that's a heavy statistic. I wanted to know why, and I found out about a lot of other animals. And that's sort of led to other books. I've done on wings, one on eggs, those are a little more normal. And then venom. Venom. Venom is in poisonous animals. Who is not interested in venomous, you may be grossed out and frightened, but you still have to be interested in them.
Reading from Mirror Mirror
Hello I'm Marilyn Singer, this is my book Mirror Mirror, Which was illustrated by Josee Masse and published by Dutton. And for this book I came up with a poetry form called the reverso. You read poem down and it's one poem and you can read it back, and it changes only in punctuation and capitalization and it's another poem. So a reverso is actually two poems in one, but two separate poems.
All of the poems in this book are based on fairy-tales except the opening and closing poems which provide a framework. And I'm going to read you first the opening poem called, "In Reverse".
Who says it's true that down is the only view? If you believe that this poem will challenge you. Up is something new. Something new is up. You will challenge this poem if you believe the only view is down. It's true. Says who?
The next poem I'm going to read is based on a fairytale. And it's one you probably all know, I won't even tell you what it is because you will figure it out. It's called "In the Hood".
In my hood, skipping through the woods, carrying a basket picking berries to eat, juicy and sweet. What a treat! But a girl mustn't doddle. After all, grandma is waiting. After all, grandma is waiting. Mustn't doddle. A treat juicy and sweet. Picking berries to eat. Carrying a basket. Skipping through the wood. In my hood.
And here is the very last poem, "The Road". It may be such a fairytale secret. This much I know. The road leads wherever you need to go. You need to go wherever the road leads. I know this much. A fairytale it may be such.