Interview with children’s poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich

I have been a fan of Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s work ever since I began striving in earnest toward my goal of becoming a published children’s writer, so I’m thrilled to present this post today!

Rebecca has a way of writing that simultaneously paints a familiar picture while touching the reader in a new way. We recently had an online chat about writing, inspiration, collaboration – and a similar start to our careers!

But before we begin, a little background:

REBECCA headRebecca grew up in the Midwest exploring trails, reading comic books, making paper dolls, and building snow forts. She was a good student in school…but by her own account, not a perfect one. Although she loved reading and writing, numbers (ie, math!) was a bit of a challenge.

She attended Indiana University where she studied creative writing, art history and anthropology while working in the student library. After college she held many jobs: working in a department store, for a real estate firm, a state representative, and in public relations. After her children were born she decided that writing for children would be her life’s work – although that took many years to achieve, as you’ll see from the interview.

RKD - CraneRebecca is the author of titles such as What Can A Crane Pick Up? (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2014), which received a *starred* review from Publishers Weekly; What is Science? (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), an AAAS Subaru SB&F prize finalist; Bella and Bean (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009), an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor; and Grumbles From The Forest; Fairy Tale Voices with a Twist (WordSong, 2013), co-authored with Jane Yolen.

She speaks at conferences, retreats, libraries, and schools across the country to teachers, aspiring writers, poets, and students of all ages. Her books have received the Gold Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award as well as a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the year, and her work has been featured on television programs like Reading Rainbow and Between the Lions.

She lives in the Midwest with her husband and her four young grandchildren live nearby.

First of all, thanks so much for taking the time, Rebecca! There is so much to talk about, but I would be remiss if I neglected to share a little “mutual experience” of sorts that you and I  share…and that is that we both can say our very first books were published by the good folks at Boyd’s Mills Press!

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - Sweet DreamsYours was Sweet Dreams of the Wild, a bedtime book of poems published in 1995…and since then, you’ve had approximately 30 books you’ve authored, co-authored, or have in the pipeline, and you’ve had poems selected to be in about 100 anthologies. So congratulations on all your successes!

I heard the good news Matt, and send you an abundance of congratulations! Each and every book is exciting in its own way every single time, yet that first book, that first sale, will always be something so very special.

Who – or what – inspires you? And how do you know when a piece of writing is complete? 

I’ve always been inspired by words noodled together like a puzzle; words that send my head into the clouds or my heart thumping or my dreams dreaming. Since I can remember, lyrical language and metaphor have been somewhat like a hobby for me. When I came across words or phrases or metaphors I loved, I collected them by writing them down in notebooks.  Sometimes I’d paste photos to go with them.

Rebecca’s newest! (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2014)

My grandparents and my parents inspired me in every way. My big brother had a sea of books on his shelves, on his bed, in front of his nose. He’d read me excerpts when I didn’t even understand what I was hearing. He’d throw words into conversation to stump me, and when I didn’t know what the word was, he’d tell me to look it up. So I did. Probably he nudged me to feel the wonder of books and what they held inside.

And I was initially inspired to write poetry for children when my own children were small and I was going through a hard time in my life, and pouring over poems about puddles and umbrellas, giants and mermaids, skies and stars and snowmen seemed to soothe my soul.

Two books that initially inspired me to write poetry for children were Poems and Rhymes, a book from the Childcraft library, and Side by Side compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins. And by the way, LBH has always inspired me to dig deeper just when I think I can’t.

So at what point do you decide a poem is finally done?

Can you ever really know when the writing is complete? I don’t believe so. That’s the magic of creativity. It’s a feeling of finally letting go, of sensing you’ve wrapped up a moment or an idea or a package of words as tight and as telling as you can.  For the moment. It’s like saying how do you know when you’re done staring at the sky.  You don’t. You just feel it’s time to get up. To move on. Time stopped for that small bit of time, and held some form of magic or fascination or angst or play or joy in your soul, and hopefully will again.

Do you share your poems or manuscript texts with anyone before submitting?

For the most part I don’t; I am a pretty solitary writer and submitter. When I began years (and years) ago, I knew no one to share with and of course it was way before computers and internet, so I just happily read, studied and wrote. But having said that, there are times now that I do share poems and manuscripts back and forth with just a few poet and author friends who I respect and trust. I am also lucky enough to have an agent, and a few really special editors who are in my corner.

How did your career progress from writing poems and picture books to writing things like books for HarperCollins’ I Can Read and Growing Tree series, which – while creative – are more educational in nature? How does a poet make that leap?

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - RoundThe shape books for The Growing Tree series started out actually as a poem.  I wrote What is Round, a list poem, simply because I had always loved (and still do) things like marbles and beads and coins and all things round, and I had intended to send it to a magazine.  My agent decided to send it to Harper for the Growing Tree series.  They bought it right away and gave me an additional two book contract to write Square and Triangle.  If I remember right, Away We Go was bought then as an additional and different book for the series (again, a poem that I had written about transportation, with thoughts of sending it to a magazine.)

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - P&PNow the I Can Read (Peanut & Pearl) is a different story.  I had always wanted to write an I Can Read book. I fell in love, years ago, with Frog and Toad.  Who didn’t?  I read them to my children when they were young. So I had studied the structure, word count, page breaks, etc., on and off for a long time.  They seem simple, but they really aren’t.  I’d like to write more.

Are there any genres of writing that intrigue you, but that you have yet to tackle?

Yes. I am working on a novel in verse and have ideas for a chapter book series.  But poetry is (as my granddaughter would say) my favorite and my best.

Do you have a process for figuring out what you’re going to write and how you’re going to write it? That is, if a subject is a poem or a picture book, and how you’ll construct it?

I wish I did have a process. I can’t say that I do. Things just kind of happen. A seed of an idea, a lyrical line, a phrase, and I let it spill onto the page and see where it takes me. Then when I get the bones of it down, I take a look and see if I want or need to mold it differently.

Over the years, what part of writing has gotten easier for you, and what has gotten more difficult?

Nothing has gotten easier.  Finding time has gotten more difficult.


You collaborated with Jane Yolen to write Grumbles From the Forest, a collection of poems about the secret thoughts of fairy tale characters. How do you come up with fresh ideas for collections such as this, and what is it like to write a book with someone who is half a country away from you?

To be honest, I didn’t come up with the idea, Jane did. Sounded great to me; I’m always on board with anything that involves fairy tales.  I loved them as a young girl, and still do.  We both thought putting a twist on them by way of poems would bring new readers to the tales.  Working together was easy  because of the internet. Much easier than it would have been by letter writing before email. We had ideas and first drafts and revisions flying back and forth constantly.

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - One DaySpeaking of collaborations, tell us about your upcoming new book, One Day, The End: Short, Very Short, Shorter-Than-Ever Stories (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2015). This must have required a great deal of collaborating with illustrator Fred Koehler, yes?

No collaborating at all! I didn’t know Fred. I wrote the (short) and spare picture book knowing an illustrator would add layers to it, and possibly even take over the book in his or her own way, which I expected and delighted in.

That’s fascinating to me, because it looks like the type of book that would have necessitated the author conspire with the illustrator.

Artists, and what they bring to the table, fascinate me.  It’s magical to see your words brought to life in a new, different, clever and colorful way.  My editor, Rebecca Davis, brought Fred Koehler on board and gave him full reign to add his own view of the stories.  He had a different vision that I had, but that is usually a very good thing!

Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a poem or book, but can’t flesh it out for weeks or months or even longer. Are there any subjects or ideas you’d like to tackle in a poem or book, but just haven’t yet?

Absolutely.  I have drawers and files with parts and pieces and beginnings. Some take months and some take years and some never do get fleshed out. I have a few ideas on the back burner but since they are just ideas, I probably will let them simmer awhile.

In some ways, it’s become harder for a new writer to break into children’s literature and get published; technology has allowed more and more people to share their work via blogs and self-publishing, so making a mark for oneself can be difficult with so much competition. Conversely, though, technology has also allowed more people to learn the craft and be able to connect with editors and agents – so in some ways, it’s easier. What are your thoughts on the changes in the industry, as you’ve witnessed them over the past 20 or so years?

The opportunity to publish is definitely easier.  My younger self can’t imagine *connecting* with, or *chatting* with an editor all the way in New York City. Goodness, one lived in Indiana or Montana or Texas and sent a manuscript with an SASE and hoped for a postcard months and months later.  There was no connecting until the connection. Hard to imagine now.

Finally, the obvious last question is…what’s next??

REBECCA KAI DOTLICH - Race CarOne Day, The End (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2015), will be out this fall along with Race Car Count (Henry Holt, 2015)illustrated by Michael Slack.  Then next year will be The Knowing Book (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2016), illustrated by Matthew Cordell – a picture book that is closest to my heart – and a poetry collection in the Grumbles series, Grumbles from the Town (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2016)illustrated by Angela Matteson. Soon after, What Is Math? (Henry Holt and Co.), will be added to the What Is Series (What Is Science?).

I’m also finishing up a new picture book to be published by Boyd’s Mills Press about a young boy who imagines himself a wizard at bedtime and another poetry collection, which I’m excited about. I bet I’ve forgotten something, but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised.

Can you share your favorite self-penned poem here?

Favorite is a hard concept to nail down.  It seems cliché to say I don’t have a favorite, but I don’t.  I have a few favorites though, and one would be a poem that conjures up the memory of my mom tucking me in all those years ago – published in Hopkins’ anthology, Song and Dance (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1997):


Down the narrow hall she came,

a symphony of jingle bells

as tiny


silver charms

waltzed like wind-chimes

on her arm,

and haunting notes

of tinkling tin

played music on

her perfumed skin . . .

when mama came to tuck me in.

– © Rebecca Kai Dotlich, reprinted with permission; all rights reserved

(I still love and wear charm bracelets, not only for the clink, clang and jingle, but because they remind me of mom.)

I love those “waltzing wind-chimes” and the “tinkling tin!” Well, thank you so much, Rebecca, for taking the time to chat…it’s very much appreciated, and I wish you much success with all your new books!

And for anyone who is interested in learning more about Rebecca, visit her website HERE!

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49 thoughts on “Interview with children’s poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich

  1. I LOVE visits with Rebecca, whether in person or through friends’ blogs! So exciting to see all this new work in the pipeline. That sentence, “Time stopped for a small bit…” is a perfect description of poetry making. Thanks to both of you!


  2. Ah here I am again trying to post after days of failed attempts. New password (forgotten because I don’t post on blogs enough) … Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to put this interview together and invite me into your blogging world! Thank you, too, so much, for the compliments. And huge congratulations again for the forthcoming Flashlight Night!


  3. Really terrific interview with one of the most generous folks in children’s literature–and there are a LOT of them. I’m so excited as a teacher to bring this book into the Writing Workshop–it looks like it will be perfect for the kids who prefer to draw than write, and excellent for the kids who are working on writing deeper because they don’t like drawing. Thanks for all the work that took, Matt, and I like your new blog look!


    1. Heidi so good to hear from you as always. What an amazing compliment, and I can’t thank you enough. SO excited to know you’ll be bringing ONE DAY, THE END into your writing workshops with the kids and please tell them a special hello from me 🙂 Matt certainly is a busy (and organized) man!


  4. Thanks, both, for this interview! One of my life-changing moments was a poetry retreat with Rebecca. So grateful! Love the “both our first books were from Boyds Mills.” Wonderful! Long live presses committed to bringing forth poetry for children!!


    1. Ah, Irene. I remember it so well. That little room, two chairs, and in an instant spotting your amazing talent — you were kind to listen (and so humble). I so admire BMP for their Wordsong imprint and being committed to bringing poetry to children. Long live, for sure!


    1. Dori, it WAS with Irene! And Robyn. We had such fun didn’t we? I remember we laughed so hard at something I drew on the board but can’t remember now what it was. One of those “had to be there” moments. Something about a mouse? And a bed? (There was quite a scurry of mouse talk there; uh-huh!) Thanks for stopping by Matt’s blog to read my interview!


    1. Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I recall you mentioning a couple years ago that you met Rebecca at the Highlights workshop – when you stayed in the same cabin I stayed in, two years later! Another example that we all have connections to everyone…too bad more folks don’t realize that.


  5. I’ve been a RKD follower for years and have actually heard her speak at a few conferences. It’s always fun to learn about someone’s writing journey and process, I am planning to print this out and share excerpts with kids. And congratulations on your book!


    1. Carol you can follow me any day. As my mom would say, “please don’t stop.” I am with you … I adore hearing journeys and process and love peeks into creativity. Please do share and another special hello from me to the kids.


  6. Matt, this interview was so well constructed and delivered. Thank you so much for sharing your delightful conversation with Rebecca. Her poetry is so filled with zest, sights, and sounds that it makes reading to children a delight. Thank you for sharing Rebecca’s voice that brings joy to the reader. “Tucking In Song” is a beautiful example of how memory is powerful.

    If you do not mind, I am using your interview as a model for me when I speak with Georgia Heard about her poetry practice.


    1. Carol thank you for the wonderful compliments. I also admire how Matt formed this interview and blog post. When he asked I was a bit overwhelmed with other things at the time but he said no pressure, and he was patient with me while I probably overwhelmed HIM with questions back and forth 🙂 What you said is true; memory is so powerful. Those tiny slivers of memory are so sharp that we sometimes amaze our own brains — because we can’t often remember the huge things w/that kind of detail. Speaking of Georgia Heard — she and I are running a Poetry Retreat By The Sea in September (26-29) in Jupiter Florida! There are 2 spots still open if anyone reading wants to join us.


  7. Thank you, Matt, for this beautiful interview with the extraordinary Rebecca Kai Dotlich! Even though she is a dear friend I learned more about her writing life from this interview. She is the real deal! I look forward to reading everything she writes.


  8. Forgive my lateness to this post, Matt. Such a wonderful interview with Rebecca! I read it early last week, but now re-reading a week later, I’m finding even more connections.

    Rebecca, I too have indulged myself with snippets of lyrical language and metaphor in notebooks. I love your work – “Tucking-in Song” is beautiful! I will be featuring Lee and JUMPING OFF LIBRARY SHELVES on my blog in September, and I have to tell you, your opening poem just takes my breath away. I’m also really looking forward to THE KNOWING BOOK.


    1. Wow, thanks Michelle! For so many things. So glad you will feature LIBRARY!! And I’m particularly happy that you love the opening poem 🙂 I hope you’ll love having KNOWING on your shelf and in your heart. Keep on snipping away and filling those notebooks . . .


  9. Hey Matt, I’ve had quite a few personal emails and FB messages about this interview. And my thanks to all (you know who you are) for the kind comments and additional questions. (I think; kidding.) I forgot to comment to Georgia (even though I’ll see her in a few weeks) and tell her thank you, publically, for taking the time to write such a sweet and complimentary post here. She’s one busy lady. By the way, her and I are giving a Poetry By The Sea retreat in Jupiter Florida in September and we are so excited about it! If this one goes as smooth as we expect, we’ll have one next year, too! So all of you are welcome to sign up for next year! We do have TWO spots left still for this one. In case anyone is interested, email me privately. rebeccakai at aol dot com — have a great writing and word weaving week, everyone!


    1. Thanks you again for taking the time for this, Rebecca. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, I couldn’t have posted the interview without you! (Of course, I could’ve just made up everything, which isn’t a bad idea for next time…hmmm…)

      Best wishes for your Poetry By The Sea retreat – I’m sure it’ll be wonderful – and please stay in touch. Hopefully our paths will cross one day and we can meet in person!


  10. Pingback: Faculty Interview: Poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich | Workshops for Children's Authors & Illustrators | Highlights Foundation

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