Poetry Friday: On Langston Hughes, School People, and Riotous Punctuation: an Interview (& Giveaway!) with Lee Bennett Hopkins

School People (Wordsong), Lee Bennett Hopkins’ new children’s poetry anthology, is officially in stores!

Edited by  Flashlight Night editor Rebecca Davis, this book includes 15 poems about the grown-ups that children meet at school – including my poem, “Bus Driver.” Today, Lee Bennett Hopkins joins me for a brief interview about the book and how he goes about creating these exceptional anthologies.

First of all, Lee, I want to thank you for asking me to contribute a poem to another one of your books! I know I speak for all of the contributors when I say that is always an honor when asked to write something for a Lee Bennett Hopkins anthology. What was your first anthology, and how did it come about?

After teaching for six years in an elementary school in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and having completed my Master’s Degree at Bank Street College of Education (when Bank Street College was on Bank Street in Greenwich Village),  I was offered a job working with Bank Street to develop new programs in Harlem where I wrote numerous articles, many dealing with African American studies. My work was with junior high school students and teachers to bring African American literature and poetry to weave into curricula.

Born in Scranton, PA, Hopkins graduated Kean University, Bank Street College of Education, and holds a Professional Diploma in Educational Supervision and Administration from Hunter College. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Kean University, the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “outstanding contributions to the field of children’s literature,” and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for his 120+ children’s poetry anthologies. He also received the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Poetry for Children award and the Florida Libraries’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died in Harlem; a few blocks away from where I was working. I wanted to share more of his work. The only book he had done for children was The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (Knopf) published in 1932. 1932! Although the words were as universal as ever, the artwork was stereotypically appalling. I could not share an Aunt Jemima-looking woman in her bandana nor a tap dancing-like dude with cap and cane with students or colleagues.

I brazenly called the Knopf office and asked to speak to their current editor. Imagine this! I was young, naïve – and truly didn’t know better! After asking why a new book of Hughes poems had not been published and angry over the artwork, the editor, Virginia Fowler, stopped me mid-ranting and asked me to meet her for lunch. She remained shocked I had the nerve to call her but told me how she loved my enthusiasm.

Voila, I was offered a contract to bring a new edition of Hughes work to life. The result Don’t You Turn Back, with exquisite woodcuts by Ann Grifalconi. The book was highly touted, won numerous awards including an ALA Notable Book. The Introduction was written by Arna Bontemps, noted author, historian, and friend of Hughes. I was truly on my way; the first of many books I published with Knopf!

These days, there are poetry collections about everything from food to bugs to historical events. How difficult is it to come up with thematic concepts that will not only be commercially successful, but of a high literary value, as well?

It isn’t so much a theme but how one executes it. There are many books of poems about school. In School People, for example, I begin with the building itself; it is “School’s Story.” I asked Rebecca Kai Dotlich to begin the book with the building… what it awaits, what it holds, what it is. “I am waiting—come on in!” Come on in to “A building full of soul and heart.”

The cast of personnel is then presented beginning with your poem “Bus Driver” showing the empathy of a smiling face that brings a child to school and home again. Various school workers are presented, each detailing their various roles. The book ends with “School’s Story Reprise” by Dotlich who brings the collection to a whole where the building tells of ‘all these parts; / hours of wonders, surprises, starts.”

The “high literary value” comes via the pens of today’s poets, established voices and well as newer ones. It is the culmination of hours, days, months, sometimes even years of back-and-forth-ing, editing, rewrites galore, the supreme delight of working with disciplined poets. How lucky I am to have them in my life.

Lee’s poem from “School People,” ©2018 Wordsong, all rights reserved, reprinted with permission (Click to enlarge)

Can you provide us with some insight as to how an anthology comes together? That is, once a subject is determined and the publishing contract is signed, what happens next?

I make a list of poets I would like to invite. Knowing their work I have the gut feeling of what they will create. Many have appeared in past collections. I know, for example, that Joan Bransfield Graham writes with emotion which gives me goose bumps. I sigh after she is finished with a poem. It is remarkable the empathy she can bring to a few lines. I also want to take chances with ‘newer’ poets to help them advance their careers.

Once all the poems are in they are sent to an editor. In this case, Rebecca M. Davis at Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press. Rebecca and I have worked on countless collections. Not only is she my dearest friend, she is among the best editors in the industry. We sort of know where to go. If I go astray she’ll lead me right back on track. She is my Poetry Mistress! (Smile, Rebecca!) I can’t wait to begin a collection under her keen guidance.

Last year, you were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame along with such highly esteemed folks as guitarist Don Felder of the Eagles and country signers Billy Dean and Jim Stafford. I know you were very surprised when it was first announced…but how did it feel to actually be there, accepting the award?

The Award Ceremony was held in Gainsville, Florida. It was a mind-boggling gala to be in a room filled with such creative people. A host of people were instrumental to my induction including the tireless, determined work of Jude Mandel and Stephanie Salkin. My greatest shock and delight was to appear on a roster of people such as Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston and my all-time idol, Tennessee Williams. I shall forever be on A Streetcar Named Desire due to this honor!

The Contents page reads like a Who’s Who of children’s poets…and somehow, I ended up in there, too! ©2018 Wordsong, all rights reserved, reprinted with permission (Click to enlarge)

Finally, since this new book, School People, is all about the grown-ups that children meet when they go to school…who was your favorite “school person” when you were in elementary school?

There were many but one stands out – my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ethel Kite MacLachlan, who saw something in the mixed-up child I was and turned my life around with her compassion and understanding. Like Joan Bransfield Graham’s poem, “Teacher”, she was the one to ‘stretch my world much wider” made me feel “I, too, can fly.”

Oh, and I would be remiss if I neglected to ask what is next on your publishing schedule! I know you have a couple of other anthologies coming out next year; any more books this year?

I am looking forward to the release next month of World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abrams). World Make Way is visually stunning, highlighting masterpieces by artists as Mary Cassatt and Henri Rousseau to the contemporary Kerry James Marshall. The poetry is ekphrastic verse featuring all new works by such award-winning poets as Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Carole Boston Weatherford.

In the fall, a romp of a collection, A Bunch of Punctuation (Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press) bringing punctuation marks to riotous adventures. O! what some of my wondrous poet friends have come up with including odes to a dash, a hyphen and parentheses!

French artist, Serge Bloch’s whimsical artwork is simply “!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Well, thank you again, Lee, for taking the time to chat – and thank you also for inviting me to be part of School People and some of your other upcoming books. Congratulations on this newest accomplishment!

Thank you, Matt, for all you do to promote poetry.

Speaking of poetry, folks…if you head on over to Ms. Mac’s place, Check It Out, you’ll find today’s complete Poetry Friday roundup! If you’d like to order a copy of “School People” personally signed by Yours Truly, just CLICK HERE!




SCHOOL PEOPLE are here…and the DINOSAURS are on their way!

“Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” hits bookshelves April 17!

New dates continue to be added to the Dinosaur Tour! Don’t Ask a Dinosaur co-author Deborah Bruss and I have quite a busy schedule planned, and more dates continue to be added:

  • Sat., April 14, 11am:  Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH, (Children’s Author Day with illustrator Ryan O’Rourke AND Local Book Launch for Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!)
  • Sat., April 14, 2pm:  Toadstool Bookshop, Keene, NH, (Children’s Author Day with illustrator Ryan O’Rourke AND Local Book Launch for Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!)
  • Tue., April 17, 7pm:  Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MADon’t Ask a Dinosaur National Launch Party!! 
  • Thur., April 26, 10:30am:  Pillsbury Free Library, Warner, NH, Dinosaur Storytime with Don’t Ask a Dinosaur!
  • Sat., April 28, 10:30am: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
  • Sat., April 28, 2pm: Barnes & Noble, Framingham, MA, Don’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing (with Sara Levine, Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones reading/signing)
  • Sun., April 29, 2pm:  MainStreet BookEnds, Warner, NHDon’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing and discussion
  • Sat., May 5, 10am: Barnes & Noble, Burlington, MADon’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
  • Sat., May 5, 1pm:  Barnes & Noble, Nashua, NHDon’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing
  • Sat., May 12, 11am:  Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord, NHDon’t Ask a Dinosaur reading/signing


Thank you so much to all the librarians, bloggers, and parents who are still discovering “Flashlight Night!” 


Purchasing personalized signed copies ONLINE? Yes, it’s true!

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new way to purchase personalized signed copies of not only Flashlight Night, but ANY of my books or anthologies I’ve been part of!

I’ve teamed up with the good folks MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH to present an option for people who would love to have a signed copy of one of my books but don’t live anywhere near me. MainStreet BookEnds has ALL but one of my books available for ordering…and the best part is, you can get them personalized!

Just log onto my website and click the cover of whichever book you want, and they will get it to me to sign and send it off to you. Try doing that with those big online booksellers! (Plus, you’ll be helping to support local book-selling – and wouldn’t that make you feel good?)


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57 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: On Langston Hughes, School People, and Riotous Punctuation: an Interview (& Giveaway!) with Lee Bennett Hopkins

  1. Irene Latham

    Thank you, Matt, for sharing about SCHOOL PEOPLE…I, too, am delighted to have a poem included — my first LBH anthology! I am gifting them like crazy. 🙂 I love Lee’s moxie, and how it resulted in a new Langston Hughes collection… great story! I think the work of anthologists is often underappreciated… not only must one have a big-picture creative eye, but also the microscopic eye, and then there are so many business-y details to tend to…rights and payments, etc.. and with POETS, who aren’t necessarily the most timely or organized… lots of challenges, methinks. Ahd here’s Lee, still doing it all, and writing his own poems, too. Amazing and inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jheitman22

    Thanks, Matt, for this wonderful interview with Lee. He is a national treasure. Congrats to both of you for SCHOOL PEOPLE. I look forward to Lee’s upcoming anthologies!


  3. margaretsmn

    Such a wonderful interview and a collection to celebrate! So many of my PF friends are included. Thanks for offering a give away and for being the amazing poet that you are.


    1. Thank you so much, Margaret…it really is so nice to see so many familiar names! And thank you, especially, for considering me a ‘poet,’ which is a title I never use to refer to myself, but rather one that I prefer to bestow unto others – so your comment means a great deal. Some may dismiss the poet/non-poet issue as semantics; I, however, consider it an honor.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I so love that this book honors all of the ways that school people love and care for and teach children. It is a gift in many ways, as is generous, wise Lee. That story of him calling up Knopf like that is absolutely Lee…and a great lesson to us all. Thank you for this interview, Matt and Lee. xx


  5. Great interview — always enjoy learning something new about Lee and his work. The Langston Hughes anthology story is wonderful. Looking forward to reading School People — always exciting to see PF friends in a new collection!


  6. Kay Mcgriff

    Thank you for this delightful interview–and the introduction to what looks to be a delightful book. And congratulations on your poem being included!


  7. What a great interview! You sure do ask the right questions, Matt, and Lee is very generous in his responses. I love that he is committed to including new voices in his anthologies. World Make Way is one i will be sure to look out for, since I really love ekphrastic poetry. Congratulations and best wishes to all who are part of School People! A little aside – Matt, I read Don’t Ask a Dinosaur yesterday (saw Deb)! It’s fun, it’s bold, it’s great!


  8. lindabaie

    Love hearing about Lee’s first anthology and being about Langston Hughes makes it more special. School People is on its way, and I look forward to your next one, too, Matt!


  9. Thank you so much for this interview! It was very fun to read– and so interesting to get some insight into Lee’s process compiling his marvelous anthologies. I can’t wait to see this book! And, hopefully, I’ll be able to pop over to your Porter Square Books event.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sarah, thank you! And I do hope you’ll be able to join us at Porter Square; earlier this week I confirmed with Holly Thompson that she’ll be joining Deb and me, to launch HER new book, “One Wave at a Time!” It’s going to be a great night!


  10. Such a rich blog post Matt, thanks for hosting Lee Bennett Hopkins, he and his anthologies are both favorites of mine! I’m looking forward to all three of these new books; congrats on your poem in the book! The ekphrastic, “World Make Way,” looks marvelous too!


  11. Janet F.

    I love School People, Matt. As a 40 plus year school person, I feel every word in every poem sing for me and touch my heart. Your interview with Lee enlightened. While I know much about him, there are such nuggets here! Thank you both. I read the poems, more than once, then read the contents’ list and realized I know (and in person, too) so many of the poets. Breathtakingly talented! A school’s potential for greatness, love and hope is embodied in the people, how they care for one another, how they bring hope and joy and education to our most treasured ones. Lee creates from the heart and mind with the highest standards. I am quietly and eagerly awaiting a new book in which I have a poem. That speaks volumes. He is a blessing to our lives and to all who read his books as are you and your words and work. On a day for love and religious awareness for many, there was also what should be unimaginable pain. I pray we can help the lost ones and all people feel the hope found in these important poems. We must never forget the power of all parts of school. It’s not test scores. So much work to be done.


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Janet (and congrats on being included in that upcoming book you told me about!). When we get right down to it, a school is only a building without the people who make it a school. Thank you for your years of service to our young people.


  12. Mr. Hopkins is quite something, isn’t he? Thank you, Matt, for this interview. So many exciting works headed our way. Looking forward to all of them! “World Make Way” will have new meaning for me since I am participating in Laura Shovan’s ekphrastic challenge this month for the first time. I’m enjoying myself, and have had my Kindergarten poets give some of the images a go, too!


  13. Pingback: SCHOOL PEOPLE: Kids’ Poetry Anthology!

  14. maryleehahn

    Fabulous interview! One of my team members and I are doing a 4 week Black History Month series with our 5th graders in which we study two Black poets each week. Langston Hughes and Nikki Grimes are on the schedule for next week, so it’s fascinating to hear how Lee had a part in making sure Hughes’ poetry was made accessible to children!


  15. I never tire of interviews with Lee because there’s always something new to learn and a remarkable new story to be heard. Today’s story is a real humdinger! Thanks to Lee, as always, for sharing his insights, and to you, Matt, as well. Congratulations on your bus driver poem, too, and on the other books in the works.


  16. I’m looking forward to getting this book. I appreciated the interview with Lee. Fingers crossed for winning a copy. (I am giving each of my Poetry Rocks kids a book at the end of our time together).


  17. Susan Hutchens

    Now, after reading the above interview, I REALLY want to get this book to read! I can just imagine students getting excited about it, as well! I’m not sure why some kids tell me they don’t like poetry, but when I share good poetry books with them…they change their minds really quickly! LOL!


    1. They don’t like poetry because they haven’t come across poetry that speaks to them! Once students begin getting exposed to different subjects, styles, and forms, they suddenly realize there’s a world out there they never knew. Thanks for stopping by, Susan!


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  19. Pingback: National Poetry Month/Poetry Friday: More “Poetry Cubed #5” entries, and Interview w/ “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” illustrator Louie Chin – Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

  20. Pingback: Poetry Friday: Heading back to school with “School People” – Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

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