Thursday, February 5, 2015

Spotlight on David Elliott + DMC Challenge

          Photo: Michael Seamans

David Elliott is the author of many picture books and novels for young people, including The New York Times bestselling And Here’s to You!. Other books include The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle; Finn Throws a Fit; this ORQ. (he cave boy.); and the poetry series, On the Farm, In the Wild, In the Sea, and On the Wing. Among the many honors his books have received are The International Reading Association Children’s Choice Award, Bank Street College Best of the Best, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, New York Public Library Best Books for Children, ALA Notable, and the Parents’ Guide to Media Award.  Currently, David has eight books in production, including a YA novel in verse to be published by Houghton in 2017.  He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and their Dandie Dinmont terrier, Queequeg.

When I approached David about being on the blog, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to feature his delightful picture book, this ORQ. (he cave boy.) (who wouldn't want a woolly mammoth to love this Valentine's Day?) or On the Wing, his captivating children's poetry collection about birds. I presented the options to David and hoped he wouldn't come back with, "Whatever you want is fine, Michelle." He chose On the Wing. Crisis averted.

Candlewick Press, September 2014
ISBN: 978-0763653248
Click HERE* to order.

*Note from David: "I'd be happy to personalize. In the
comment section, folks should write DAVID ELLIOTT
and also how they'd like the book signed or inscribed.
For example, 'Book–On the Wing' 'Inscription–to Michelle'."

So now I am privileged to tell you all about this gorgeous book of bird poems! I've always liked birds... until I lived in Australia. Then I fell in love with them. Truly. Madly. Deeply. In love. Trust me, the birdsong alone is worth the cost of airfare. David included two Australian birds in this 16-poem collection – the bowerbird and the Australian pelican – as well as other backyard and more exotic favorites. As it happens, neither of the Aussie birds David chose to write about have much of a singing voice, but they are interesting characters nonetheless. The bowerbird is more of a mimic than a singer. My husband likes to tell the story of one who sounded just like a truck changing gears while going uphill. The pelicans we came across preferred to chomp down on little girls' fingers. Had David known about the run-in my daughter had on her third birthday, his poem might have turned out differently.... but I digress.

Even if you're not a birdwatcher, a bird-listener, or any other type of bird enthusiast, after reading this collection you will, at the very least, have newfound respect for their different personalities.  David's poetry makes certain of that.  His wit and wordplay combine with a detailed focus and competent understanding of avian character to create short verse that is concise, graceful, amusing, and unforgettable. Becca Stadtlander's glorious illustrations are also vivid and absorbing, as she expertly reflects the character and tone of each bird and poem. The result is an engaging collection that children will ask for again and again.

Delighted to have you join us at Today's Little Ditty, David! 

Shall we get started? I expect TLD fans know the routine by now. We always begin with five favorites:

Favorite Childhood Memory:  
Playing Ghost in the Graveyard (a kind of backwards hide-and-seek) with the Defenbaughs, the Piatts, the Kennedys.
Favorite Music:  
Mozart, especially the operas. And Handel’s vocal music. But I love a good folk song, too. And old Broadway tunes. (I’m so not cool.) Gershwin. Noel Coward. Those guys. I grew up singing Baptist hymns. I learned about meter and rhyme from those beautiful, old songs.
Favorite Quote:  
Was it Katherine Paterson who wrote that living well is harder than writing well? 
Michelle: Yes, that's right. Here's the quote from Katherine Paterson's Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children:
“If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living." 
I love the inherent sense of perspective in that, and the implied warning about keeping one’s ego in line. 

A quote I always share with my students at Lesley’s Low Res MFA Program in Creative Writing is from the great E. L. Doctorow: 
"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
Recently, I've been thinking of a quote a friend sent me. It's by Wallace Stegner: 
“…it is a reduction of our humanity to hide from pain, our own or others.”                                                                                                                                               
Favorite Poet: 
I love the work of Wislawa Symborska. My favorite of hers is, “A Little Bit About the Soul”. 
Recently, I’ve been on a Richard Wilbur kick. Here is 

Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don’t instinctively know
How it would be to fly
(Read the whole poem at The Writer's Almanac)                                         
Favorite Book: 
It would be impossible for me to say which book is my absolute favorite, but the children’s book I think comes closest to perfection is TUCK EVERLASTING.  There is so much to admire (and emulate) in this little masterpiece. 

First, its craft. The Prologue alone is a master class in what writing can be, what it can do.  And then there is that central image of the wheel. I’m astounded at the way the book’s architecture supports this image. It begins on the road into Treegap and concludes on the same road, but this time, we are leaving. In other words, Babbitt has structured the narrative itself as a rolling wheel. It’s genius. 

But more than that, I love what I perceive to be Natalie Babbitt’s intention in the book. I think it was Lewis Carroll who described fairy tales as “love gifts”. For a long time, I puzzled over what that might mean. Love gift. And then it hit me. One of the reasons fairy tales have stayed with us for so long is because they give us a choice. We can read them as stories. (This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. ) And though the stories often strike us as weird – She turned into a what? – they always satisfy. But when we’re ready we can also read them as comforting and honest (a difficult combination) symbolic expressions of great human truths.  Natalie Babbitt gives us this choice in TUCK, at its heart an extended fairy tale. We can read it as an exciting story about a girl and the fountain of youth. Or, if were ready, we can read it at a much deeper level, taking from it a beautiful, but solemn truth about the human condition. TUCK is surely a gift of love, a love gift.

What inspires you to write for children and/or what do you enjoy most about being a children's author?
This is a difficult question because the truth is I don’t know. If we want to take a psychological route, perhaps we might find an analogy in the wisdom of Emily Dickinson. “Mirth is the mail of anguish,” says she. But let’s not take that route. Let me just say that I feel incredibly privileged to do what I do, and take as seriously as I know how the immense responsibility of writing for people who are still developing physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.

"I feel incredibly privileged to do what I do..." –David Elliott

The Great Sendak once famously said that he didn’t write for children. He just wrote and then someone told him who it was for.  As much as I admire The Master – and make no mistake about it, I do – I find this disheartening. What is wrong with saying outright that we write for kids?  Are we afraid the world won’t consider us real writers? And so what if it doesn’t? I sometimes wonder if the entire industry hasn’t become infected with an inferiority complex.

Uh-oh. I can feel myself going into Crackpot Mode. Next question, please.

You have amazing versatility as a storyteller. Last fall you had three children’s books released within six weeks of each other: a poetry collection: On the Wing (Candlewick Press); a picture book: this ORQ. [he cave boy.] (Boyds Mills Press); and a young adult novella: Forever and Ever (GemmaMedia). What is your secret to juggling different projects simultaneously?
Attention Deficit Disorder? ( I might not be kidding.)

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing On the Wing?
Each of the books in the poetry series (one more on its way) has presented a different set of challenges.  I can think of three right off the bat for ON THE WING.
1) In my feeble imagination, all birds had the same set-up. Beaks. Feathers. Wings. Real, real interesting. 
2) There are so many of them! How to choose fewer than twenty? 
3) I knew nothing – and when I say nothing, I mean nothing, no thing! – about birds. But then, as I began to read and watch and listen to them, both in my yard and on YouTube, etc., they all became interesting. This compounded my difficulties greatly.
In the end, I chose the birds based on a couple of criteria. The first was very personal: The bird had to get to me in some way. I don’t know how to explain this really except to say that if I were going to write about it, I had to have something I wanted to say, a feeling I could shape into words. I also kept in mind something my great editor for the series, Elizabeth Bicknell, said when we were working on the second book, IN THE WILD. We were talking about the poem for the zebra, the first iteration of which focused on guess what? Stripes. “Stripes?” Liz said with an inflection that only the British seem to be able to pull off. “Oh, David! Can’t you think of anything new to say?” This was tough to hear, but very, very smart. This idea, then, became my benchmark, trying to say something new, or at the very least, in a new way.

IN THE WILD, text © David Elliott, illustration © Holly Meade (click to enlarge)

As lovely as the antelope,
as lovely and as fast,
but Antelope
is always first
and Zebra always last.

They say that's just the ordered way,
unchangeable, and yet
I wish we had, 
for Zebra's sake,
a different alphabet.

               ~ David Elliott, In the Wild

The second criterion was easier. I wanted to be sure to give the illustrator plenty to work with. That meant selecting birds of various sizes, varying plumage, different environments and habits.  While we are all heartbroken to lose Holly [Holly Meade, Caldecott Medalist and illustrator for ON THE FARM, IN THE WILD, and IN THE SEA, who passed away in 2013], I want to say that Becca did a beautiful job. I couldn’t be happier with the illustrations.

But the poems are not just about birds. They are also very much about language. I wanted to demonstrate for children the power, the beauty, the resilience, the playfulness, the extravagance, the economy of their language. I wanted to imply that there is meaning, too, in what isn’t said. I wanted to show children how  malleable their language is, how it can be shaped into a form, and how the form itself can have meaning. All that and more. It’s up to others to judge how successful I’ve been, but that’s what I was striving for. It’s what I’m always trying to do.

Would you share a selection from On the Wing? 
Here's "The Cardinal," in honor of Valentine's Day:

ON THE WING, text © David Elliott, illustration © Becca Stadtlander (click to enlarge)

The Cardinal

He's a hotshot
She's a Plain Jane.
But one without
the other . . .
a song with no refrain.

               ~ David Elliott, On the Wing

If you were a bird, what kind would you be?
Well, I’m afraid of heights, so I wouldn’t be one of those majestic, soaring types. And I’m a homebody, so nothing too exotic. I love crows, their intelligence, their assertive blackness. But that voice! That’s a problem. (I wanted to be an opera singer.) Some of my smart-aleck friends – they’re all smart-alecks, by the way – might suggest a mockingbird. I wouldn’t mind that really because of the way those lovely birds sing. And sing. And sing.

What’s coming up next for you?
Currently, I have eight books in various stages of production. All of them coming out in the next two or three years. I’m also working on a novel in verse that will be published by Houghton in 2017.  It’s one of those outside-the-box projects, so I feel very, very fortunate to have signed it up with the brilliant Kate O’Sullivan at Houghton. (Also thank you to my incredible agent, Kelly Sonnack at ABLA.) I’m just finishing up a middle-grade novel that I’ve been working on in one way or another for about five years, and I always have a picture book or two  rattling around in my head. I’d like to do a book of ghost stories one day.  Eventually, I’d like to get around to some creative nonfiction for adults.

David Elliott's "novel" beginning

"I was in the first grade. I wish I had that
shirt today.  (Note comb in pocket.)
That snazzy haircut, by the way, was called
The Pineapple."
If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?  

The responsibility of such a thing is almost beyond the powers of my imagination. I guess I would tell them that each of their lives is a like a book with a beginning, middle and end. I would say that like any book, some of the chapters will be wonderful and, like any book, some of the chapters will be difficult. I would tell them to expect surprises, all kinds of surprises, big and small, welcome and otherwise. I would tell them to have hope, especially when the situation seems hopeless. And I would suggest that a sense of humor can get them through almost anything. I would tell them that kindness is a strength and that courage is sometimes silent. I would tell them to take each other's hand and not let go.

... hmm? Oh, sorry. I was cleaning up the mess from where my heart melted all over the floor. All set now. Please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.
A Letter Poem. Write a letter to a bird, an animal, an object of your choice. The letter may be one of affection, of inquiry, of complaint. It should look like a letter with a salutation, closing and signature, but internally should follow a rhyme scheme of your choice. Research your chosen topic first, even if it is as familiar to you as a spoon. Often, it is some quirky piece of information that will point you in the right direction. As an example, you might want to look at "The Orangutan" from IN THE WILD: 
Dear Orangutan,

Three cheers to you, man of the forest.
You arrived here long before us.
You paved the way; you saw it through.
How nice to have someone like you
sitting in our family tree.

Sincerely, from your cousin,
In that poem, "man of the forest" is an English translation from the Malay orang utan. Good luck!
And they say letter writing is a lost art. Pshaw! Sounds to me like another great DMC challenge!

Ready poets? 
Grab your quill and parchment...

The Letter, Alfred Stevens, Public Domain

I eagerly await your replies.

Throughout the month, send your letter poems to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.

Thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Would you also please send me a copy of your poem or a direct link to your post? That way I know I won't miss it, and I also know that I have your permission to post on Today's Little Ditty.

Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up post on February 27th, 2015. And, yes, your wish is my command. As extra incentive, David has generously offered a personalized copy of On the Wing to one lucky participant, chosen randomly at the end of the month!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, insights, and personality with us today, David. It's been such a pleasure to interview you!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Allow me to extend one more THANK YOU to everyone who participated in last month's ditty challenge, brought to us by Joyce Sidman.  The turnout was fantastic and the Deeper Wisdom poems were truly inspired! has determined that the winner of WINTER BEES & Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen is: 

KATIE GAST  – congratulations Katie!

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is being hosted by the talented Liz Steinglass.


  1. I love David Elliott's picture & poetry books (have read his other works). This Orq is such a fun read aloud! What a great poetry challenge too. The orangutan poem is hilarious.

    Thanks, Michelle & David!

  2. I've been a fan for a while - and LOVE "getting to know" David better here. Thanks for such a great interview, you two. [ I never met Holly Meade, but her work touches me deeply, still. ] Congrats on this new book - and I love the "assertive blackness" of crows, too!
    (Um, Michelle, you didn't ask if David has a secret box of Wheaties? That's a dizzying and delightful array of current projects, and those are just the ones he told us about...)

    1. Oh, but I did, Robyn! Well, maybe not in so many words, but that was the impetus behind question #2. Mind-boggling, isn't it?

    2. That's true - you did try! Yes, mind-boggling! But wonderful for readers.

  3. Michelle, there is so much in this post to ponder over. This is post to read and reread., Michelle. Thank you for sharing David Elliott's works and words.

    Another challenge-wow! need to keep up with all of the to dos.

    PS: Can you please send me the link to the round-up for the Deeper Wisdom poems (via Twitter)? I can't find it at the moment.

    1. There IS a lot to ponder here, Carol, that's for sure! For anyone else who reads this comment and would like to know where to find last month's round-up, the link is at the end of this post, in red, "last month's ditty challenge."

  4. Thanks for sharing this great interview post! I am off to look for my copy of Tuck Everlasting now... I must reread it!

  5. Thanks Michelle and David...again, I find a writer I'd only been vaguely aware of, so thanks for the inspiring interview! Crow would be my choice too--any creature that absorbs all the color spectrum has to make up for it by the reflection of its character. Crows do that.

    1. Well said about the crow, Damon! They're a favorite of mine as well.

  6. Michelle, thank you once again for your wonderful interview and to David, for his wonderful challenge. I'm sure you will inspire great poems again this month.

  7. So excited for another ditty challenge! I can hardly wait for each month's post to roll around.

    1. Thanks for being such an awesome cheerleader and participant, Kristi!

  8. Loved this post from A to Z! *happy sigh* (Am still trying to figure out what makes his haircut pineapple-y...)

    1. From David Elliott (whose comment is not publishing for some reason):

      Tabatha, Ah yes, The Pineapple. Very short on sides, back, and top, and then a smart, little isosceles triangle of bangs, meant to replicate, I think, the pineapple's crown. My mother still wishes I wore my hair this way. "Dave, you look so much better with short hair. Why don't you get your hair cut in a Pineapple?" She's also the only person on the planet who calls me Dave.

  9. Thanks for another great post. I am thrilled to have won the book and look forward to reading it. I am also afraid that today's challenge has inspired me and I am working on a submission.

  10. Thanks for sharing this interview with David, Michelle! He's a very talented fellow, and quite an amiable one, at that. My 5-year-old loves his animal poetry collections, but "In the Wild" is still his favourite! (along with "Finn Throws a Fit!")

    Looks like I need to get busy writing...

  11. I really enjoyed On the Wing when I read it - I love birds, so it was wonderful enjoying the beautiful words and illustrations. I, too, rank Tuck Everlasting as one of my favorite books!

  12. That was a great interview, and my heart melted, too. What beautiful books!

  13. I haven't time to look at many posts, but wanted to say this is another fabulous one, Michelle. I love David's books, & am excited to think about this "letter". Thank you!

    1. Despite our best intentions, I know how tough it can be to get around to everyone on Poetry Friday! Honored to be one of the posts you had time for this week, Linda. :)

  14. Wonderful interview. Thanks for posting it. I have seen On the Wing and would love to own it. Thanks for a chance to win.

  15. So much to love here -- getting to know David Elliott, the wisdom of his editor re: the zebra poem, the challenge. Fun, fun, fun!

  16. I read On the WIng for round one Cybils judging. I brought it to my classroom, too, and the students who read it cuddled it like a favorite stuffed animal. His way with language is entertaining and magical. Thanks for giving me a glimpse of who he is.

    1. Thanks for confirming what I suspected, Margaret. It makes me smile to imagine students cuddling David's book!

  17. Thoroughly enjoyed learning more about David. What an incredible array of current projects! ON THE FARM is a favorite (and one of the books we loved when I was a Cybils judge). Can't wait to see ON THE WING and his other books.

  18. Terrific interview and challenge--thank you Michelle and David!

  19. So much to take in. Great interview, Michelle!

    Did you know that Tuck Everlasting recently opened in Atlanta as a musical? I don't know what I think of that...and Variety seemed a little conflicted, too!

    1. Yes, I think I had heard about that. A few months ago, we watched the 2002 movie on DVD– just doesn't have quite the same magic on screen.

  20. Great interview! I love that poem on the cardinals. I have about five at the feeder in my yard right now.

  21. Thanks for the post. I'm ashamed to admit I don't know David's work - but will seek it out now!

  22. What an inspiring post, Michele! I have read several of David's books, but am so happy you've helped me to get to know him better. I'm afraid I'm going to have to break my vow not to buy any more books for a while; On the Wing looks to good to miss. Thanks so much!

    1. Oh shucks, a broken vow here and there never hurt anyone, right? ;)

  23. Wow, what a wonderful, inspiring, fun interview.

  24. Hi there Liz, what a riveting interview - I did get a chance to see On the Wing from our public library - beautiful book, I thought. When David mentioned that Kelly Sonnack is his literary agent, I am sure he's in capable hands. We had Kelly visit us here in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content - she knows her stuff. :)

    1. I thought the same thing, Myra! Kelly Sonnack is definitely on my list of dream agents.

  25. You have once again captured my imagination and challenged my life juggling poetry aspirations - if only my life would slow down so I could indulge! David Elliot is one of my favorite poets/authors ("this Orq" is a favorite in my house!) and how I want to try his Letter Poem challenge, but I can not promise I will get it done before the end of February. (when did time go into hyperdrive?) Thank you, Michelle, for being one of the best sources of inspiration and information in children's poetry. You truly are a gem. =)

    1. And you, dear Bridget, are truly a sweetheart for saying so! :)

      I'm not a fan of hyperdrive mode either, and totally understand if you don't get to this challenge. No guilt, okay? Just enjoy stopping by when you can.

  26. What a great post. Thanks to both of you for sharing.

  27. I can't tell you how glad I am that I just read this interview. I am somewhat blown away by the wisdom and beautiful words here, and will hold them for quite some time. Thank you, Michelle and David, for this rich and wonderful post.