Friday, February 18, 2011


There has been a lot of discussion recently about, to put it dramatically, the death of the poetry anthology and the difficulty of getting our themed and "random" collections of poetry published and recognized. As I read to my kids this week in school--more Ezra Jack Keats for 1st graders (full of poetic moments) and Rosemary Wells for the kindergarteners--it occurs to me that we may be neglecting another approach to getting our best work into the hands of young readers--the "picture poem book."

Wells's Noisy Nora is a grand example of a rhymed picture book text that could easily stand alone, even without her characteristic, finely detailed illustrations, as one poem in a collection like Sing a Song of Popcorn. If we begin to imagine all the picture book texts that could "cross over" into the realm of anthologized poems, it becomes easier to imagine the poems that might cross over in the other direction, into the realm of stand-alone picture books.

There are plenty of out there--one of my favorites is e.e. cummings "little tree" rendered beautifully book-length by Deborah Kogan Ray (and adapted into an actual story, possibly unnecessarily, by Chris Raschka). Several have mentioned the Delmore Schwartz-Barbara Cooney work pictured here, I Am Cherry Alive--enjoy Kate Coombs's reflections on it here. And a kind Booklist reviewer of my own Squeeze suggested that "The best poem, “How to Run Away,” could be a picture book in itself." What a compliment!

Of course, not all good or even excellent poems will stand up to a picture poem book treatment--and if we have exerted ourselves to percolate ideas and write poems from a "collection" point of view, it's likely that most of the poems written from that stance huddle too close to their flockmates to be comfortable out on their own.

I'm going to spend some time reflecting on what qualities make a poem picture-bookable and try to articulate them. I'm also going to be thinking which of my poems offer enough possibility for an illustrator, enough richness to warrant whole books to themselves. And then I'll start thinking again about the agent who might shop them for me!

Which of your poems are "bookable?"


  1. Another nice one is "I Am Cherry Alive, the Little Girl Sang" (Delmore Schwartz). I think about this issue all the time, Heidi. Most of my picture books are kinda sorta poems, they resemble poems in parts, but they are not really poems. They have picture book elements that make them bookable. Sometimes people suggest that I submit poems I've written as picture book texts, but I haven't found one yet that measures up in bookability. They're just too slight.

    I wrote one long poem years ago, "The Kitefisher," that contains a whole story, and I worked with my editor for months on it, trying to make it work as a picture book. After many revisions, I felt it had lost an essential part of the original, something mysterious and - yes - a little vague. Making it more concrete, closing the gaps in the action, clarifying motives, ended up spoiling the poem for me. I finally had to tell my editor that I couldn't do this, and I withdrew it.

    I'd be interested in your views, and those of other commenters.

  2. I just bought Little Tree -- love that! I mentioned to someone recently that her poem (which she'd written for adults) might work well as a picture book. It's good for us to broaden the way we think, add to the possibilities. Good luck finding an agent!


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