Judy Sierra is the author of many critically acclaimed children’s books, including “The Sleepy Little Alphabet,” “Born to Read,” “Mind Your Manners,” “B.B. Wolf” and “Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf.” She has just published, with Marc Brown, “Wild About You” (Knopf).
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2008 National Book Festival
You and Marc Brown have collaborated on your new book – Born to Read. Can you tell us how you got your inspiration for that book?
After Wild About Books was published in 2004, I wanted to write another tale of reading adventure, one that Marc would illustrate, of course. Around that time, I gave a speech at Bank Street College in New York, and in that speech I claimed I had been “born reading” (what I meant was that I had been born into a family of readers). Afterwards, a friend suggested I write a picture book about a kid who was born reading. I immediately started thinking about what might be special and wonderful about that kid’s life.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
Writing in rhyme takes a very long time. One of the challenges is that the lines may sound perfect in my head, yet another person reading them aloud may not hear them or say them the way I do. I ask friends and family members to read me the manuscript out loud at various stages.
Many of your books are in poetry format. How do you become inspired to write a poem?
I’ve written poetry nearly every day since I was seven. When I began writing children’s books, however, no children’s book editor wanted to look at stories in rhyme. My stories misbehaved, and editors forgave. For example, about twelve years ago I decided to write a nonfiction picture book about penguins. I did all my research, but I just couldn’t organize it into a book. One day I saw a little movie in my head. There were penguins on Broadway, dancing and singing songs about all the penguin facts I’d collected. The penguins’ songs became the poetry collection, Antarctic Antics. It hasn’t yet been produced on Broadway, but it was made into an award-winning music video and CD.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing poems or stories?
Two tips. First, read lots of books and many different kinds of books. Second, write in small bits: a couplet, a quatrain, a haiku, a one-paragraph description of a scene or a character. Work on that small bit until you love it. Don’t set out to write a long poem or a whole story. You will learn much more about writing if you start small.
Can you suggest a fun writing or poetry topic to get them started?
Here are two exercises I remember from my first class in writing for children:
- Go to the zoo, watch animals, and write five haiku about what you see.
- Write the first paragraph of the most exciting book ever written.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I love the classic children’s books, of course, but here are a few not-so-well-known books that I like to read aloud to children:
- Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer
- A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales by Lawrence Millman
- The Hat-Shaking Dance, and Other Ashanti tales from Ghana by Harold Courlander
- The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord
If you were not writing and drawing, what do you think you would be doing?
That could only happen if there were no pencils, paper, or computers in the world. If that happened, I’d be telling stories around the campfire.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Begin early, and always make reading fun. Never make reading a lesson or a chore. When you read aloud, let loose, dramatize, encourage your kids to take join in on words and phrases they remember from previous readings. Kids’ ability to understand and enjoy stories changes rapidly as they mature. Keep reading old favorites, but add new books to your repertoire. A good children’s librarian or bookseller has read hundreds of books aloud and collected the wisdom of countless parents. Seek out their recommendations.
Will you provide educators with a few fun ideas on how to incorporate poetry into the classroom?
This isn’t my original idea, but it’s my favorite. Put a poem in your pocket. Every day, have a new poem in your pocket to share with students. Encourage them to copy it, even learn it by heart, and take it home to share.