Thursday, September 4, 2014

Spotlight on Irene Latham + DMC Challenge


Irene Latham is a Birmingham poet and novelist who writes heart-touching tales of unexpected adventure. Her debut historical novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND (Putnam/Penguin, 2010) is set in Alabama during the Great Depression and was awarded Alabama Library Association's 2011 Children's Book Award. Her second novel DON’T FEED THE BOY (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2012) is about a boy who wants to escape his life at the zoo. Poetry editor for Birmingham Arts Journal, Irene has also authored several poetry collections, including her latest adult collection THE SKY BETWEEN US (Blue Rooster Press, 2014) and her debut poetry collection for children, hot off the press: DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST (Millbrook Press, 2014).

And Other Poems from the Water Hole
Millbrook Press, September 2014
ISBN: 978-1467712323
Find at, Barnes & Noble,
or at your local independent bookstore.
Welcome wildebeest / and beetle, / Oxpecker and lion. / This water hole is yours. / It offers you oasis / beside its shrinking shores.

DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST AND OTHER POEMS FROM THE WATER HOLE introduces a variety of grassland creatures who frequent this life-sustaining water source.  Hesitating just long enough to satisfy their needs, Irene expertly captures them in poetry while Anna Wadham reflects them onto the page with a lush and inviting color palette.

The fifteen poems in this collection are as diverse as the animal life they represent.  Spare and evocative, serious and humorous,  rhyming and free verse, enlightening and engaging– all of these aspects come together to portray an accurate and vivid account of survival on the savannah. Each two-page spread also includes a brief prose description with just enough factual information to intrigue, without disrupting the the book's flow.

With starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus to whet our appetites last July, many of us Poetry Friday regulars have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST. I'm delighted to take part in this month's book launch festivities and proud to feature Irene as September's spotlight author!

As always, we'll start off the interview with a few favorites – a quick and dirty way to get to know Irene better. (Though not as dirty as, say, submerging oneself in a Kenyan water hole.)

Favorite color:
Purple. I have a February birthday, so I was born into the color. :)
Favorite vacation spot:
For many years my husband and I traveled to New York City every year. We love theater and art and good food and history. But we also love exploring the theater, art, good food, and history in small towns, so these days we take a lot of weekend trips. We also love National Parks! Obviously, it would never make sense for us to have a vacation home– we are explorers. :)
Favorite childhood memory:
For 5 years our family lived in Folsom, Louisiana, in a ranch-style house on a country road. The five of us kids spent whole days outside following the creek, exploring neighboring barns, and creating a wonderland out of the cow pasture on the farm across the street. We loved the movie THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and created our own Egypt by naming a giant oak Nefertari and a rocky knoll Ramesses. We caught crawdads and watched tadpoles grow to frogs and attached blankets to the ponies and rode them like chariots. I am so grateful for my siblings and those years on Willie Road.
Favorite teacher:
Mrs. Fattig, my third grade teacher. Her husband was a plumber, and she had a bathtub in her classroom. It was filled with pillows, and students were allowed to earn time in the bathtub. I loved reading in there!
Favorite writing quote:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something worth living for.” 
- Ray Bradbury
What inspires you to write for children, and how does it compare to your inspiration to write for adults?
Irene the Excavator
Writing, for me, is about discovery. My life and heart and mind become an excavation site, and what I am searching for is language and connection. When I write for children, I chip away at my younger self, the 2 and 7 and 9 year old that still lives inside me. I am inspired by my own childhood, my memories, and also by whatever I am experiencing in my current life – books, music, nature, art. The same things inspire my writing for adults, but the language and connections I find are different.

Can you give us a peek into your writing process? 
I used to think I needed big chunks of time to write – when I started out, my kids were small, and I only had 15 minute snatches. I used Dorothea Brande's BECOMING A WRITER to help train myself out of that limitation and other obstacles to the creative process. Now I can pretty much just sit down and instantly start writing. It's about trusting yourself – trusting the words are there, that your subconscious has been working away even as you've been doing laundry or driving kids to school or working a budget. We create a lot of our own hurdles. And I don't have time for hurdles. :)

Is your process the same whether you are writing poetry or prose, for children or for adults?
I find working in different genres for different audiences is like brain ballet. Lots of stretching, some amazing leaps and turns – sometimes a stumble and fall. I've developed a general habit of prose in the mornings, and poems in the afternoon. Of course I will drop anything when a poem calls... and poems are brilliant for helping get me unstuck when writing prose. On the flip side, I am constantly jotting ideas for poems in my Idea Notebook while working on novels. It works for me!

Where did the idea to write DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST come from and what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I come from a family of photographers and have long loved the art form. So, when I discovered Greg du Toit's amazing photographs taken while he was submerged inside a Kenyan water hole, I just had to sit with them awhile and marvel. I hope my book leads others to those photographs – and to du Toit's story! He took risks for his art, and the results are stunning. THAT inspires me.
©Greg du Toit/Barcroft Media

Do you have a favorite spread from DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST?
I knew I wanted to include one of the many species of African antelope in the book, so I wrote poems on impala, springbok and Thomson's gazelle. I eventually settled on “Impala Explosion,” and I have loved that spread since Anna's earliest sketches. I spent some serious time gazing lovingly at that page. However, as we were proofing the book – after copyedits, just before press time – one of the readers at Millbrook Press questioned something in the nonfiction note. When I checked it, I found that the note still included information about a Thomson's gazelle! (Thomson's gazelles have a black side stripe; Impalas do not... and are most easily identified by the “m” shape on their bums.) Eeek! Talk about a last-minute correction. Thank goodness for editors!
It is a gorgeous spread! Jama Rattigan included "Impala Explosion" in her review of DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST on Alphabet Soup last week. If you haven't already, make sure to leap over there and have a look.

Of all the animals that visit the water hole, which one do you identify with most? 
Lioness, After the Hunt. I am devoted to my pride and also hard-working – and I love naps! (Love how Anna's illustration shows the lioness sleeping with one eye open... I can relate to that, too. My eye is always open for new poems to write.)
DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, text ©Irene Latham, illustration ©Anna Wadham

            Lioness, After the Hunt

                    After the choosing,
                    after the chase,

                    after     rip

                    after first taste.

                    Lioness lifts,

                    past rhino,
                    past antelope.

                    She crouches,

                    savors favorite flavors,

                    and finally,

                    ©2014 Irene Latham. All rights reserved.

Can you tell us what’s coming up next for you?
I have two poetry books coming in 2016: FRESH DELICIOUS: Poems from the Farmer's Market (WordSong), will illustrations by Mique Miorichi; and my follow-up to WILDEBEEST is a collection set in Antarctica during the annual sunrise, with illustrations by Anna Wadham.
How exciting!  Looking forward to both of them!

If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?
Love yourself.

Finally, please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.
DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST contains several poems of address, like “Dear Wandering Wildebeest” and “Says Nightjar to the Stars.”

DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, text ©Irene Latham, illustration ©Anna Wadham

             Says Nightjar to the Stars

                    Yes, I claim ground
                    and you call sky.

                    Your signature is a twinkle,
                    while mine is a tititititit sigh.

                    You peer down
                    while I'm looking up.

                    When I hear a stampede,
                    you call it a hiccup.

                    I'm the preacher
                    in a plain, somber suit;

                    you're the robed choir
                    wearing shiny black boots.

                    Come, let's join the beasts
                    in thanks and in praise–

                    sing a song for the water hole
                    that sustains us night and day.

                    ©2014 Irene Latham. All rights reserved.       

Write your own poem of address... animal to animal (“Dear Wandering Wildebeest” is wildebeest to wildebeest), animal to some other part of the natural world (moon, tree, lake...), or natural world to animal. Unleash your imagination and go wild! :)
Thank you, Michelle, for having me, and for being such a positive force for poetry in the world. So happy to know you! xo
Aw shucks, Irene... the pleasure's all mine!

Okay, folks, you heard the nice lady.  Get your thinking caps on (and your galoshes, if necessary) and send your poems of address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com, or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. Some contributions may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will be collected in one wrap-up post on Friday, September 26, 2014.  And how's this for a little extra incentive: Irene has graciously offered a personalized copy of DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST to one lucky participant! A random drawing will take place at the end of the month.

I would also like to ask a favor of all my teacher friends and friends who know teachers.  Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities for students to interact with some fabulous contemporary children's poets and authors while having fun trying out different poetry forms.  Please help me spread the word!  Even if it's not a classroom activity, please encourage interested students to give these challenges a go at home.

For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.

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Before I announce the winner of August's Ditty of the Month Club giveaway, there were a couple of last minute entries you might want to check out.  Thanks again to Lori Degman for dishing up such a fun challenge, and, of course, to all of the DMC participants who stretched their punny, rhyming muscles!  Farmer McPeeper would be proud (if only he knew). has determined that the winner of a personalized copy of COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! by Lori Degman and illustrated by Deborah Zemke is:

 COREY SCHWARTZ – congratulations Corey!

TLD contributor, Laura Shovan, has today's Poetry Friday roundup along with another terrific "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse" pairing: the YA suspense novel, WE WERE LIARS, with a spooky, surreal poem by Margaret Atwood.  You can find her at Author Amok.



  1. Thank you, Michelle, so much for having me! I enjoyed answering your questions. :) Dashing this morning but real quick wanted to wish everyone who tries the Challenge happy writing today and every day. xo

  2. Thanks for the fun interview, ladies. I am now dreaming of putting an antique tub in my family room -- filled with pillows instead of water, perfect for quiet reading.

    1. Oh yes, Laura! Sounds heavenly. No wet pages to worry about either.

  3. What a lovely interview, Michelle and Irene! DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST sounds beautiful! I especially love the Bradbury quote. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Becky. The Bradbury quote hits home for me as well.

  4. Loved learning more about Irene -- and excited to hear about her upcoming books! I need a reading tub too :).

    1. I'm sure there's a reading tub somewhere with your name on it, Jama. No doubt filled with little alphabet letter pillows. ;)

  5. It's exciting to learn you have more books coming, Irene. Love hearing about your childhood, a special time! Thanks for a great interview, Michelle, & for the new challenge, Irene. I will also share this with the teachers at school!

  6. Doesn't Irene spark inspiration every time she speaks/writes? Thank you, two of my favorite poetry peeps, for this peek into book and process. (I got a sneak peek early on, lucky me, and I know kids are going to savor these poems and illustrations!)

    1. So true about Irene sparking inspiration every time she writes! I like to think of her as one of my writing gurus.

  7. Terrific interview - thanks Irene and Michelle! I'm going to give this challenge a try!

  8. I forgot to say how excited I am that Corey won the book and to say again how wonderful and clever all the entries were! Thanks again, Michelle!!

  9. I absolutely love this post and the book! Thanks for the chance to win it. And I'm going to get busy with my poem of address tonight!

  10. Thanks for the interview, Michelle! Irene writes so beautifully, and these poems are perfect examples. I enjoyed finding out more about Irene, particularly her learning how to write immediately - with 2 small kids here, I know what she means about only having 15-minute snatches of time available!

    1. That part gave me hope as well, Matt. I need to pick up a copy of BECOMING A WRITER asap!

  11. This is a wonderful interview of such a wise and generous writer-soul. Thank you both! I am imagining many new young readers meeting Irene through this book; they'll be so excited to know that she has chapter books too!

  12. Wow! This interview is so rich and full of insight that I know I will be returning to many of Irene's pearls of wisdom and resources. Thank you, Michelle, for presenting us with another Ditty challenge. Thinking cap on...we'll see what the month will bring. = )

    1. Knowing you, Bridget, it's going to bring something awesome!

  13. Thank you for the wonderful interview. I just ordered my own copy of Wildebeest -- I can't wait to see the whole thing!

  14. The more poems I read rom this wonderful new collection, the more impatient I get for my copy to arrive! Plus, I now have to figure out how to get a bathtub into my classroom ... the second floor site just might present a few problems...

    1. Let your students put on their problem-solver hats... they'll find a way!

  15. I am so excited about this new collection of poems. And Irene is so wonderful herself. I will definitely do the challenge with my students. They love writing poems.

  16. I love that Irene identifies with the lioness! If one of the animals in her book was a unicorn, I would peg her as that.
    I hope to write something for this challenge!

    1. LOL. A unicorn, huh? And what might YOU be, Tabatha? Perhaps your poem of address will tell all!

  17. I can't wait to get my hands on this book. I love the poem "Impala Explosion." I look forward to reading the rest. Thanks for an interesting interview.

    1. Even the title, "Impala Explosion," is wonderful isn't it? Irene does such a great job of finding the essence of each animal in her poems.

  18. Wandering Wildebeest sounds so special and beautiful. I particularly loved the Ray Bradbury quote that Irene cited. I am in love with Bradbury. And will continue to remain so until the time I stop reading altogether, which is, never.

  19. Every time I read about this book, I love it more! Can't wait to try a poem of address for the ditty challenge!

  20. This book sounds absolutely amazing. I love the pages you shared. I will be reading this one for sure.

  21. Enjoyed this informative interview with Irene. I enjoyed the spreads of the book as well. Thanks for highlighting.