Thursday, March 2, 2017

Spotlight on Helen Frost + DMC Challenge

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.
As luck would have it, Helen has two books coming out this month, both on March 14th, and both with starred reviews.

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.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), March 14, 2017
ISBN: 978-0374303037
Find at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or via

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.

A favorite place:
Mingulay, an uninhabited island off the coast of Barra, in the Western Isles of Scotland (The Braid is partly set there.)

Mingulay Cliffs West

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

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?

I do have a lot of sisters, four older and three younger (as well as two younger brothers), and like most kids would, I found their love lives interesting—more interesting than my own, I must admit, especially in my pre-and-early-teen years. And we did have a summer cabin on a lake that we went to. And there were neighbors there, and some were boys. But I don’t think I’d go quite so far as to call all that an inspiration for the book, because when I first started writing it, the setting was a school, the characters’ online lives were important, some of the characters were more villainous than I eventually allowed them to be; so, all in all, looking back on the process, it is hard to separate inspiration from evolution.

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 and
yellow hat, sat on her father's shoulders, the
great wide world spread out before them. Two
egrets flew home to their nest, as thunder
rumbled, 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 the
rhythm of the song: You make me happy.

Blue sky, one cloud, an open beach
umbrella shading their red blanket. Did the
raindrops fall from the sun itself? I remember 
no cold wind, no whitecaps, just a few small
indentations on my glassy surface,
not enough to make them pack up and 
go home. Cari smiled at her husband, Andrew, and at

Baby Claire, who whimpered. I did not know why. Did she
realize, before the others did, what was coming, what it meant?
It seemed to happen all at once: Claire cried out, the sky
grew dark, lightning sent its dazzle through me. Cari
held 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.
If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?

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.

                                 Helen Frost

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.)


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. has determined that a personalized copy of Stone Mirrrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins will go to . . .

Congratulations, Brenda!

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":

Join Heidi at my juicy little universe for Billy, Billy, and more Billy Collins (plus a few other goodies) at this week's Poetry Friday roundup.


  1. What a full and exciting life, reflected in an incredible collection of writing! I discovered verse novels a few years ago, and I just cannot get enough!

  2. Oh, I'm not going to be able to finish this interview before driving off to work. But, I'm absolutely hooked....not only on details Helen Frost is willing to share with us but Michelle, your questions are incredible. Your questions help ME grow. This one is wonderful: "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?"
    I'll be back later to finish with my favorite cuppa mocha coffee as the snowflakes fall and I can settle into Poetry Friday.

  3. I'm a big fan of Helen's writing, and I love this deeper peek into personal history and process - thank you both for all the thoughtfulness and wonder in this interview! Excited about these new works on the horizon as well. (& Safe travels, Helen!)
    PS - The "favorite smell" cracks me up - mine, too!

  4. Yes, a huge thank you to Helen for her interview and her writing. Years ago my daughter and I read Hidden for a mother/daughter book club. Thank you also for this fascinating challenge. And thanks to you Michelle, for offering your monthly inspiration!

  5. WONDERFUL interview with a wondrous woman who has blessed us all with her incredible writing. Thank you, again, Michelle, for your worthwhile blogs.

  6. I absolutely loved this interview! I can't wait to read When My Sister Started Kissing. I adore novels-in-poems. And what a great ditty challenge this month! Thanks!

  7. I love Helen's books & Keesha's House was a favorite to share with my students a long time ago. And I had the pleasure of seeing Helen present at All-Write a couple of years ago, and get a book autographed. What a great (maybe tough?) challenge. Thanks for the details in the interview, Michelle. I'm looking forward to these next novels from Helen.

  8. Thank you so much for this, Helen and Michelle. Enjoyed learning more about Helen and enjoyed the sample poems from her new book. Mention of Heloise took me back to my childhood when my mom and aunts were big fans. Congrats to Helen on having two new books out this month! Love the tricycle pic. :)

  9. Thank you for this wonderful interview. Helen, your patience and dedication to honing your craft is inspiring. You make me want to work that much harder on my own.

  10. Another fabulous spotlight! I love Helen Frost's books!

  11. Thanks for this wonderful interview!

  12. First, I am still thinking it's February & am dwelling with the Jannine Atkins visit.
    When did March sneak in these bustling days?

    Second, hurray for Brenda!

    Third - appreciations for the meeting with Helen Frost. I am looking forward to
    rereading it a few times. And to checking out her books from the Library. And to attempting the prompt.

    Fourth - That writer's arm snaking through the paper - I love the video of "Budapest."

  13. JEANNINE.... spell wrecker dwells with me.
    Maybe I will write my ode to it . . .

  14. If I could, I would write an ode to the Ditty Challenge.
    The one who makes my pen jump into the inkwell, like Billy's.
    Maybe I will, maybe I will...

  15. I have not read any of Helen Frost's novels-in-poems. I wonder how I missed them since my library has a few. I am familiar with Step Gently Out, which is absolutely gorgeous. I do not exaggerate!

  16. Thanks Michelle for this rich blog review on Helen Frost, and thank you Helen for sharing your poems and journey. I'm inspired by the ditty challenge, and "Ode to a River." And . . . that mystical, magical insect producing pen is marvelous Michelle!

  17. I love Helen Frost's books! I especially love how she uses different forms of poetry in one book. Her work inspires me to become a better writer. I look forward to reading her new books. Great interview and questions, Michele. Wow, is correct on Ode to River! A definite challenge.

  18. I the end of my long day to finish this spectacular interview....and see the challenge and read the comments. I do so love, TLD. Thank you for the tremendous visit.

  19. Absolutely awesome writer!

  20. What a wonderful interview! Both the questions and responses are thought-provoking. I'm a huge fan of Step Gently Out but haven't read other works by Helen Frost. I will have to rectify that soon! I love how the lake poems have currents running through them--there is clearly so much to discover and enjoy in Helen Frost's work!

  21. Wow wow wow. Of course I know of Helen but didn't realize there were so many books to catch up with. And having judged the Cybils and struggled with comparing "novels-in-verse" to straight-up poetry collections, I'm fascinated by Helen's approach to a novel in poems, which I will resolutely distinguish from the alternative. I LOVE the idea of building voice and character through "mere" structure. So good, Michelle.

    And thank you for "Budapest"--Billy totally gets away with writing ABOUT poems and poetry and writing over and over again (which is usually a cop-out, if you ask me) because they're just so perfect and precise and personal.

  22. And also, the Ode challenge, based on Helen's "River," is so much more than an ode. I'm going for it.

  23. I love Helen Frost's books and I look forward to reading her new ones! Her writing inspires me to be a better writer. I love how she challenges herself by using different poetic forms in the same book! What a great interview! Ode to a River is a definite WOW! I am a first timer, but I definitely want to try the ditty challenge. Thank you for an excellent post!

  24. Wow, I've learned so much! Thank you, Michelle, and thank you, Helen Frost! Ode Poem: I'm inspired, challenged... still going back to read "Ode to a River" again. And of course, BC's Budapest was more than perfect.

  25. Yay! Thanks for Stone Mirrors, Michelle and Jeannine! Another great month with Helen Frost, too. Wow, those poems. What fun. I look forward to trying a new form.

  26. I'll have to look for some of Helen's book Thank you Michelle for sharing her amazing writing life with us looking forward to reading everyone pomes

  27. Michelle, I am dazzled by this interview with Helen Frost whose background is fascinating. Her writing is crystal clear and draws me in so quickly. Thank you for introducing her to me. I would like to participate in your new challenge so let me mull this over. Helen's ode form is very interesting and will be a challenge indeed. Michelle, this is a wonderful interview. You did an outstanding job.

  28. Another wonderful interview! As I often do, I shared TLD with my classes, and we will be writing odes soon! Thank you!

  29. What a rich, satisfying post, Michelle! Helen Frost is a long-time favorite. Thank you for sharing her insights and new work with us. And a wonderful Billy Collins poem to top it off!

  30. What a truly rich post you have here. We had a novel-in-verse reading theme a few years back and featured so many of Helen Frost's novel-in-verse. She is wonderful. Definitely one of my absolute favourites.

  31. This is lovely, and Helen's novels in poems are fantastic. Thanks for the interview, and the challenge. Can't wait to read both of Helen's forthcoming titles.