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Children’s Poet Laureate Speaks of Food Fights and Sports

May 11, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight, a poetry series encore. Jack Prelutsky was recently named the first children’s poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation. It helps fund the NewsHour’s poetry coverage. Prelutsky has written more than 40 books of verse, the latest being “Good Sports.”

JACK PRELUTSKY, Poet: I’m building a bridge of bananas. It’s pretty, but not very strong.

Hello, I’m Jack Prelutsky, and I write poetry for children. I’ve been a cabdriver, and a furniture mover, and a piano mover. And I pick fruit. I’ve put watch bands on watches. I’ve been a janitor, lots of things. But now I’m mostly a children’s poet.

There’s a surprising amount of children’s poetry around, and there’s been a renaissance in about the last 30 or 40 years. There are more and better children’s poets writing today than ever.

When I was a kid, I was not crazy about poetry. I had a teacher who, in retrospect, I realize didn’t care for poetry herself. The syllabus said she had to recite a poem for her captives once a week, kind of the literary equivalent of liver. I wanted to hear poetry about kids like myself, about food fights in the cafeteria…

“Do not catapult the carrots”…

… from outer space and sports.

“I had to slide into the plate. It was my only chance. Though, if I hadn’t slid, then I would not have lost my pants.”

Of all the poems in “Scranimals,” probably the nastiest, meanest of all is the radish shark.

“In the middle of the ocean, in the deep, deep dark, dwells a monstrous apparition, the detested radish shark. It’s an underwater nightmare that you hope you never meet, for it eats what it wants, and it always wants to eat.

Its appalling bulbous body is astonishingly red, and its fangs are sharp and gleaming in its huge and horrid head. And the only thought it harbors in its small, but frightful mind, is to catch you and to bite you on your belly and behind.”

“It is ruthless. It is brutal. It swims swiftly; it swims far. So it’s guaranteed to find you almost anywhere you are. If the radish shark is near you, pray the beast is fast asleep in the middle of the ocean, in the dark, dark deep.”

I never condescend the kids. I never use five-cent words where fifty-dollar words will do the trick better. So I do use words like mucilaginous and gelatinous, because they love those words. Most kids are not going to know what “gelatinously” means, but it sounds just right. And maybe they’ll look it up, and maybe they’ll ask their teacher.

“I wonder why dad is so thoroughly mad.”

I believe I do think differently than most people. I have trouble writing a shopping list, a laundry list, but I can make anything rhyme.

… “unless it’s the bee still afloat in the sea, or his underwear pinned to the wall.”

I try to recapture the feelings that I had when I was 10 years old, and everything worked right, and I was safe and secure, and I had good friends. You know, to a poet, to any writer, but especially to a poet, the sounds of words are just as important as the meanings of words.

Now here come those I words. Three of them are very difficult. You may have to ask your teacher.

Kids are not stupid. They’re just short. Kids learn stuff much quicker than we do. They’re just like we are, I mean, just their bones haven’t completely formed yet, but their brains are wide open.

“Rat for lunch, rat for lunch, yum, delicious, munch, munch, munch. One by one or by the bunch, rat, oh, rat, oh, rat for lunch.”