Photo: James D. Gabbard
Helen Frost is the author of numerous novels-in-poems for upper elementary and teens, non-fiction for younger readers, plays, poetry for adults, and resource books for teachers. Her body of work reflects an adventurous life, an enduring sense of curiosity, a love of children, and an ardent appreciation for her craft. She was born in South Dakota, the fifth of ten children and the product of a supportive environment that instilled a can-do attitude and a desire to live life to its fullest. Along the way to that full life, Helen has lived in several places, writing and teaching in a variety of settings, including a progressive boarding school in Scotland and a one-teacher school in Alaska! She now lives her intrepid life from a home base in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Read more about Helen's life and works at her website.
Have you seen Sylvia Vardell's sneak peek list of poetry-related books for 2017? The number of verse novels on that list is impressive. But while novels-in-verse have clearly been gaining momentum in recent years, there are some verse novelists who have been writing narrative poetry well before it became trendy to do so. These are the verse novelists I will return to again and again, and Helen Frost is among them.
Helen's first novel-in-poems, Keesha's House, was awarded the 2004 Printz Honor Award. Subsequent verse novels have also received honors, including the 2009 Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Diamond Willow; a 2007, 2010, and 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor for The Braid, Crossing Stones, and Hidden respectively; and the Children's History Book Prize in 2015 by the New York Historical Society for Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War.
|Watch book trailers for this and other|
Frost/Lieder collaborations HERE.
Wake Up! (Candlewick Press, 2017) is her most recent in a series of collaborations with photographer Rick Lieder that explore the natural world through lyrical and captivating portraits for beginning readers.
|WHEN MY SISTER STARTED KISSING|
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), March 14, 2017
Find at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or via Indiebound.org.
Her other March release is the heartwarming novel-in-poems When My Sister Started Kissing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017). As the title suggests, it's a coming of age story involving two sisters—Claire (10) and Abigail (13).
Having lost their mother at a very young age, Claire and Abigail have always been close, and until now, they've always enjoyed their summers together at the family lake house. But this year things are different. Mom's belongings have been replaced by a new stepmom and a baby on the way. Also, Abigail is exploring her identity, her independence, and her budding interest in boys, while Claire is not quite sure what to make of any of it. The novel is insightful and sensitive to the complex nature of family relationships in transition, and sympathetic to the trials of becoming a teenager and the personal growth entailed.
If you're familiar with any of Helen's distinctive novels-in-poems, you already know the importance she places on using language and structured form to help convey story. For her, the structure of poetry and the sound of language is a "precise paintbrush" used to illustrate the essence of different characters. For example, in When My Sister Started Kissing, Claire's rhyming quatrains are set against Abi's free verse poems that resemble lightning; Claire's kayak poems show movement through water; and then there's my favorite—the voice of the lake. Lake poems are centered on the page to appear lake-like, but they are also acrostics. Reading down the first letters of each line spells out lines from other poems by William Blake, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, William Stafford, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and others. According to the "Notes on Form" at the back of the book, they represent the current running through the lake.
You'll read an example of a lake poem later on in our interview, but for now, let's explore the current that runs through Helen Frost. We'll begin as we always do, with a few favorites.
A favorite color: Turquoise
A favorite smell: My husband cooking dinner
A favorite children's book:
Shadrach, by Meindert DeJong
A favorite childhood memory:
Sharing a room with sisters: squabbling over boundaries within the room, talking in the dark, figuring out each others secrets, climbing out our window onto the roof on a starry night, sharing clothes, lighting candles and playing with a Ouija board—no end to these memories, each leading to another.
Mingulay, an uninhabited island off the coast of Barra, in the Western Isles of Scotland (The Braid is partly set there.)
|Mingulay Cliffs West|
photo: Damian Entwistle
A favorite country you'd like to visit:
I’ll mention where I will be visiting on the day this interview is published: the beautiful country of Burma/Myanmar, in the city of Mawlamyine, a Sister City to my city of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
|ZeiGyi Market, Mawlamyine, Myanmar|
Photo: James Antrobus
From a young age you showed signs of being a poet (a keen observer, crossing the line between imagination and reality, discovering the power of words), yet writing wasn’t always your topmost priority. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even while you found community with other creative writers throughout your life, there were many years it seemed like you were not in a huge hurry to get published. Writing took a back seat to other life choices—you followed your intuition, lived at your own pace, and amassed a wealth of experience to draw on later. What role did writing play for you during the time when you were teaching and exploring the world? Did you keep a journal? Write poems? Stories?
Such an interesting question. Yes, I think you are somewhat wrong, but I’m intrigued by the perception. It may be true that I wasn’t in a hurry to get published (people often are in too much of a hurry, and I encourage new authors to have patience with the process), but I was always writing, and I was sending things out for publication for many years before my first books were published. I spent almost twenty years honing the craft of poetry—attending workshops and writers conferences, learning from, and nurturing friendships with, other writers, etc.—before my first collection of poems was published. (I was sending out individual poems and many were published during that time.) Then it took another ten years or so to learn the craft of writing for children before my first book for young readers was published. During all those years I was also making a living, mostly as a teacher, and I got married and had children—but always, writing was at the core of whatever I was doing.
It’s true about amassing a wealth of experience, though of course at the time you are living it, it doesn’t feel like that—you’re just living, and then the years go by and you find that you have experienced a lot!
|Helen Frost on an Alaskan adventure (with friends Agnes and Magoo the dog).|
With such a fascinating personal background, I find the connections between your novels and your real life intriguing. Where did you find the inspiration for When My Sister Started Kissing?
|The family summer cabin on Lake Kabekona in northern Minnesota.|
Woodcut print by Helen's cousin, Ann Kronlokken (1981).
You describe your work as “novels-in-poems” rather than “novels-in-verse.” Is that because of the more structured verse forms you use, or is there another reason you make that distinction?
It’s probably a somewhat snobby holdover from the years I was focused on poetry for adult readers. In that world, “verse” is usually used to describe Hallmark greetings, or other less substantive kinds of poems. I always try to bring some elements of “real poetry” into my novels; formal structure is the most easily recognized, but that’s just what’s on the surface. Poetry is, for me, more about a way of seeing the world, a depth of perception and precision of language. But once I’ve said that, it sounds self-aggrandizing to call my novels poetry, so I’m actually fine with either term these days—novels-in-verse or novels-in-poems.
One thing I love about your novels-in-poems is the visual impact. Each of the narrators in When My Sister Started Kissing (including non-human ones) has a different poetry form that serves as a unique “voice” to help tell the story.
You Make Me Happy
Heartstone Lake remembers
The baby, Claire, in a sunsuit andyellow hat, sat on her father's shoulders, thegreat wide world spread out before them. Twoegrets flew home to their nest, as thunderrumbled, far off in the distance.The mother, Cari, lifted Abigail—You are my sunshine, they sang together,gently rocking. Cari waded in up to her ankles.Everyone was smiling then, held close by therhythm of the song: You make me happy.Blue sky, one cloud, an open beachumbrella shading their red blanket. Did theraindrops fall from the sun itself? I rememberno cold wind, no whitecaps, just a few smallindentations on my glassy surface,not enough to make them pack up andgo home. Cari smiled at her husband, Andrew, and atBaby Claire, who whimpered. I did not know why. Did sherealize, before the others did, what was coming, what it meant?It seemed to happen all at once: Claire cried out, the skygrew dark, lightning sent its dazzle through me. Cariheld Abigail tight in her arms for a split second,then fell, her face in mine.
From When My Sister Started Kissing
Used with permission by Margaret Ferguson Books, an imprint of
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Macmillan, 2017
What aspects do you consider when matching a character with a poetry form?
I think about voice and personality, and what is going on in the story. It’s different in each book, and I usually give notes at the end of the book to describe what I’m doing. Finding the form is part of the exploration of my writing, so sometimes I only see what I’m doing after I’ve done it!
Please share a favorite poem from When My Sister Started Kissing and tell us why it’s meaningful to you.
At times, it seems like Abigail is still the same
as she’s always been. When we got back
from the beach today, we came into our room
and stretched out on our beds to relax.
Pam has this blog called “Pointers from Pam.”
Little tips about how to get extra use out of all
the things normal people throw away, like
the cardboard tube inside a toilet paper roll:
“Cut one up and paint it to make napkin rings!
Use them to keep your socks in pairs!” Umm…
really? Would anyone actually do that? Abigail
and I try not to laugh at something that dumb,
but sometimes in private we make up pointers
of our own: “If your parents won’t let you do
something you want to do, try asking when they’re
too busy to say no.” And: “They might believe you
if you tell one of them the other one said yes.”
Even though I’m not a teenager, we call ours “Tips
for Teens.” But today when I say, I have a tip for teens,
Abigail walks over to the mirror to gloss her lips,
kisses a piece of Kleenex, then kisses the air and
announces, I’m not going to make fun of Pam anymore.
What? One trip to the mall, a haircut, a new swimsuit,
and now she’s on Pam’s side? Wow, Abigail, I say, how mature.
From When My Sister Started Kissing
Used with permission by Margaret Ferguson Books, an imprint of
Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Macmillan, 2017
I love “Hints from Heloise” (now called simply “Heloise”)—the ideas people have that they write down and send to her can be so funny. I love to think of the people writing them and getting excited about seeing them in print or online. They make me laugh, and then every so often one is really useful, and that makes me laugh at myself. So I had fun writing this poem, and I enjoy seeing the girls’ relationship, with each other and with their new stepmother, Pam, come into focus in this scene between the two sisters.
Just for fun, imagine your next book is a memoir. What poetry form might you use to represent yourself?
I’m not sure—maybe some kind of spiral form that circles back on itself like a crown of sonnets, but more experimental than that.
What’s coming up next for you?
Look! I’m Standing. is scheduled for Spring, 2019 (Candlewick). It’s a picture book collaboration with Rick Lieder about a Sandhill Crane family. I’m working on some other things that aren’t under contract yet, but I’m not quite ready to talk about them.
|Helen Frost in her tricycle days.|
You are so beautiful.
So smart. So good.
The world is lucky to have you.
Finally, what have you chosen as this month’s ditty challenge?
I call this an “Ode Poem” and the title can be, if you wish, “Ode to…(your object)”.
Choose an object (a seashell, a hairbrush, a bird nest, a rolling pin). It should not be anything symbolic (such as a doll, a wedding ring, or a flag). Write five lines about the object, using a different sense in each line (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). Then ask the object a question, listen for its answer, and write the question, the answer, or both.
Here's an example:
Ode to a River
You smell like rain today,
as you wash her feet with splashing light.
She leans in to caress you
and you whisper something
she can almost understand: a taste, a memory
a question. Why did you leave me? River,
she needed stillness. You could not stop.
Wow. Go ahead, folks, reread it—I've read it at least 23 times already.
Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to soak in Helen's poem to better understand the form, then find a voice that's all your own. I know you can do it!
But before diving in, would you please join me in thanking Helen for this fantastic interview today?
Not only that—Helen has also offered a personalized copy of When My Sister Started Kissing to one lucky DMC participant!
(Winner to be selected randomly at the end of the month.)
HOW TO PARTICIPATE:
Post your ode poem (be sure to follow Helen Frost's instructions) on our March 2017 padlet. Stop by any time during the month to add your work or to check out what others are contributing.
By posting on the padlet, you are granting me permission to share your poem on Today's Little Ditty. Some poems will be featured as daily ditties, though authors may not be given advanced notice. Subscribe to the blog if you'd like to keep tabs. You can do that in the sidebar to the right where it says "Follow TLD by Email." As always, all of the poems will be included in a wrap-up celebration on the last Friday of the month—March 31st for our current challenge.
TEACHERS, it's great when students get involved! Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to learn about working poets and authors while having fun with poetry prompts. Thank you for spreading the word! For children under 13, please read my COPPA compliance statement in the sidebar to the right.
FIRST-TIMERS (those who have never contributed to a ditty challenge before), in addition to posting your work on the padlet, please send your name and email address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com. That way I'll be able to contact you for possible inclusion in future Best of Today's Little Ditty anthologies.
BLOGGERS, thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that! Please let me know about it, so I can share your post! Also remember to include your poem (or a direct link to your post) on the padlet in order to be included in the wrap-up celebration and end-of-month giveaway.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thank you to everyone who contributed personified feeling poems for last month's ditty challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed such lively dialog! We received three latecomers to last week's wrap-up—poems by Buffy Silverman, Sandie Vaisnoras, and Matt Forrest Esenwine. You can find them HERE.
Random.org has determined that a personalized copy of Stone Mirrrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins will go to . . .
Finally, I know reading these Spotlight posts are a workout all by themselves, but I couldn't resist taking part in Heidi Mordhorst's "All-Billy" celebration of poems by Billy Collins. Here's one of my favorites, "Budapest":
my juicy little universe for Billy, Billy, and more Billy Collins (plus a few other goodies) at this week's Poetry Friday roundup.