He's a poet - and kids all know it
J. Patrick Lewis is a prolific children's poet known equally for humor and serious verse.
He's written poems about sumo wrestlers and ladybugs, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower, Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez. He filled an entire book with poems on the life of Italian astronomer Galileo.
His rhyming riddles unravel the mysteries behind oxidation and rust, and his math riddles engage the reader in arithmetic without their realizing it.
Children's poet J. Patrick "Pat" Lewis is willing to write about almost any subject.
Dr. Lewis has penned 45 children's books, mostly collections of poetry. He's known for humor, whimsy, and a nonsensical style. But Lewis also addresses serious issues: discrimination, the environment, and extinct creatures.
He devotes hours daily to his work, selecting the best word to complete a line of verse.
"Good verbs are muscle, and adjectives are fat," Lewis says. "Finding that great action verb is what good writing is all about."
What takes equal dedication and passion is speaking to groups of children. Lewis leaves his home near Cleveland to make more than 40 appearances at schools, libraries, and conferences each year. Last month, he traveled to the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, and Hungary; this month he'll be touring Ohio and New York.
"He's a Pied Piper ... teaching children to love poetry," says children's poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Lewis is at ease before audiences of all ages. Rebecca Kai Dotlich, poet and author,fondly describes him as a "ham."
But he isn't just an entertainer. He describes the tedious mechanics of writing poetry and reveals that even successful poets face rejection.
Once upon a time, Pat Lewis did not like poetry. As a college student, he was taught to analyze poetry - to find its meaning. Because some of the poems were long and dull, he didn't realize that reading poetry could be fun.
He earned three college degrees - bachelor's, master's, and doctorate - all in the same subject: economics. He taught college economics for 30 years. He also wrote books and articles on economics.
During this time, a friend reintroduced him to poetry, and he discovered that he loved it. Among his favorite poets are Edward Lear and X.J. Kennedy.
Not wanting his poems to all sound alike, Lewis strives to use "a hundred different voices," he says. He also does extensive research.
"Pat can write complete whimsy, and then he can write poems that are very serious, steeped in fact and history," said Ms. Dotlich, who was co-author with Lewis of "Castles: Old Stone Poems."
"He doesn't shy away from poems that need particular dates, or battles, or names of presidents," she notes, "In each poem, there are facts ... that seem to be thrown in naturally so they tell the story."
The research and writing process for "Blackbeard: The Pirate King" was challenging. That's because reliable information about Edward Teach, known as "Blackbeard, the Pirate," is limited. Lewis had to do more than read historical records; he talked with David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Mr. Moore was happy to talk with Lewis about the project, but he was also skeptical. "I thought, 'Here's a guy who's going to write poetry about Blackbeard. Now that's going to be interesting,' " Moore recalls. "I didn't think poetry would work with the telling of the story of this notorious pirate."
Lewis listened to Moore's suggestions - especially feedback concerning wording and dates. The poetry about the pirate succeeds in dispelling myths. Blackbeard was responsible for many inhumane acts, but was also falsely accused of committing other misdeeds. Moore was pleased that Lewis could "peel away" the misconceptions, all within the framework and rhythm of poetry.
Lewis first wrote poems for adults. Then, for seven years, he submitted his writing for children to publishers. And for seven years he received rejection letters. That changed when his first book, "The Tsar and the Amazing Cow," was published in 1988.
Writing is rewarding, but not easy, he says. Even though he has published many books of poetry, Lewis has a "sagging bookcase" that holds 25 unpublished manuscripts that have been rejected by publishers. "The biggest thing I try to emphasize [to the children] is the importance of rewriting," he says. "They believe [that] once it's written, it's published. I try to leave kids with four words: 'Nothing succeeds like failure.' "
Lewis will rewrite a single poem 20 times.
"If writing were easy, everybody would be doing it," Lewis says. "If you're failing, you're trying."
This year he will publish six more books. He gets his ideas from his imagination, from reading books, and from other people.
He will have other books published in the next few years: a parody of the baseball classic "Casey at the Bat," riddles, the Civil War in verse, and Christmas poetry.
"If you give me a weird subject, and I think there's the remotest possibility, then I'll do it," he says. "If you are open to the idea of possibility, then the possibilities expand for you."
Is the Yellow Sea yellow?
Is the Red Sea red?
Is the Black Sea black?
Is the Dead Sea dead?
Yes, because there's too much loess -
A fine, rich yellow silt.
Yes, because the red seaweed
Is floating like a quilt.
No, the black comes from,
They say, dark, brooding storms.
Yes, it's dead. No fish, no plants,
Or any of life's forms.
It's no one's fault ...
Just too much salt!
- J. Patrick Lewis
Born in 1680
(No one can say for sure),
Possibly in Bristol, England,
Early life, obscure,
Teach heard them calling longingly -
The sirens of the sea.
Obsessed, he navigated west.
His landfall? Destiny.
Sometime between 1702 and 1713,
Was it a Jamaica privateer
That sailed for the Queen?
And did Teach prove his valor
And his boldness to the cause
Of Queen Anne's War before he set
About to breaking laws?
Apprenticed to the famous pirate
Teach taught the crew a thing or two,
And the future was foretold.
New Providence, Bahamas,
Was the sea dog's port of call.
He would become the most
Swashbuckling buccaneer of all.
- J. Patrick Lewis
A children's book is a classic
If at six, excitedly
You read it to another kid
Who just turned sixty-three.
- J. Patrick Lewis
My advice to the Tablespoon Slurper:
Beware what you do with that scoop!
The Capitals, sir,
Can cause quite a stir
In a bowlful of Alphabet Soup.
While K, Z, and B do the backstroke
Across this hot, steamy lagoon,
The fun-loving Vowels
May want tiny towels
To dry themselves off on the spoon.
But when Letters go swimming together
In sentences, nothing can beat
The pleasure of reading
The food that you're eating!
So dive in and - bon appétit!
- J. Patrick Lewis
The poem 'Eating Alphabet Soup,' from 'Please Bury Me in the Library'; 'Apprentice Pirate,' from 'Blackbeard: The Pirate King,' to be published in May; 'A Classic,' from 'Please Bury Me in the Library'; and 'Is the Yellow Sea Yellow?' from 'A Book of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme.'