My friend David L. Harrison’s brand-new children’s poetry anthology, After Dark: Poems About Nocturnal Animals (Wordsong, 2020), just came out this past Tuesday, and today the official blog tour rolls into the ol’ Triple-R! David’s first book, The Boy with a Drum (Golden Press, 1969) came out a little more than 50 years ago, and since then he’s had more than 90 books and hundreds of poems published, received numerous awards and distinctions, and is the only fellow I know who has a school named after him: David Harrison Elementary School in Springfield, MO.
While lots of folks have been sharing reviews of his book – and it is, indeed, beautiful all the way around – I’m very excited to chat with David about the creative process behind his book (we’re both writers, after all, and I love learning how others approach the task).
Plus, I’ll have a FREE COPY to give away, so stay close for details on that!
First of all, congratulations, David – and thank you for joining me here! The book is beautiful, in both words and pictures. Stephanie Laberis does a fantastic job of maintaining the nocturnal mood you created while still keeping the subjects bright and intriguing.
Thank you, Matt, for hosting me today. I’m delighted to be here and I greatly appreciate your help as I introduce my 97th book, AFTER DARK.
Wow, 97!? That’s amazing, David. You know, people often ask me where my ideas come from and in many cases I don’t really know – I just sit there and brainstorm and try to come up with a concept I like, and occasionally something clicks! So my first question for you is the “ultimate question” when it comes to writing books: Why did you feel this book needed to be written?
As an old biologist, I’ve had a lifelong habit of watching animals around me. Through study and observation I’ve developed a deep interest in their comings and goings and how they and we impact on one another. Humans are essentially diurnal. Daytime is work and play time. But the rest of the animal kingdom is divided on the subject.
I saw a funny cartoon that showed a line of day creatures at dusk yawning past a line of night creatures punching in for work. I’m fascinated by the animals in that second line and always have been. In this book I share with young readers what I found out about some of them.
How did you begin the process? I mean, other than coming up with a list of possible subjects, how much effort was invested in thinking about the organization of the book, the poetic forms you wanted to use, etc.?
The book was a long time coming and went through four editors. In 2014 I mentioned my interest in writing it to Larry Rosler, my longtime editor at Boyds Mills Press. Larry liked the idea but retired before we could get anything started. Mary Colgan became my editor, liked the proposal, and we went forward. I went looking for subjects that represented a variety of animal orders: insects, mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles. With Mary’s help we settled on a suitable table of contents even as I was working on poems and back matter.
A couple of years into the project Mary left the company and Brittany Ryan took over. Each editor has a different set of skills and sensibilities so a certain amount of tweaking and re-tweaking became necessary. At the last, Kane Publishing bought Boyds Mills Press from Highlights and Rebecca Davis became my editor of record to boot the book across the publishing line.
That’s a long time for a manuscript to finally see the light of day – four editors! But that’s four times as much input as you would’ve had with just one editor, so that’s probably a good thing. And as I always tell aspiring authors, one needs patience, tenacity, and resilience as much as talent!
I’m sure AFTER DARK is a better book for having four sets of editorial eyes on it during its long incubation. For my part, I approached these poems the same as always – searching for ways to make each stand alone but still fit into the overall tone of the group. I never worry much if I mix verse and free verse poems in the same collection. Kids probably like rhyme better, but well-turned free verse can also have strong appeal and I believe it’s helpful to young readers to provide them with a rich menu of poems served up with and without rhyme.
Research is a big part of the process for a book like this; what did you learn? And what surprised you the most about the book, either through the research or the writing?
Matt, I’ve always enjoyed researching for a new book. There’s a sense of beckoning adventure that keeps me looking for one more fact before I stop reading. In the book I wrote with Mary Jo Fresch, 7 KEYS TO RESEARCH FOR SUCCESSFUL WRITING (Scholastic, 2017), I stress the importance of three lists a researcher should make by borrowing from a Donald Rumsfeld speech when he was
United States Secretary of Defense: “There are things we know that we know . . . there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also . . . things we do not know we don’t know.” As a researcher I use those same three lists.
- There are things I know.
- There are things I know I don’t know.
- But there are also things that I don’t know yet that I don’t know.
During the course of getting ready to write AFTER DARK, I learned that male porcupines scream at one another and fight, sometimes inflicting serious injury, for the right to approach a female during mating season. I hadn’t known before that an armadillo can hold its breath and walk along stream bottoms looking for something to eat and nor did I know that a flathead catfish can grow to weigh three times more than a coyote.
I was surprised at that armadillo revelation myself! That’s why I wondered how much of this was a surprise to you, as well.
Turning from research to writing, when I’m writing, a poem will often show me what form it needs to be – it just sort of develops, and I roll with it. But it’s those occasions when it doesn’t, that I wrestle with the poem and labor over every word and syllable and phrase, and after hours or days or weeks of wrangling and revising and rewriting and pummeling the poor thing into submission I’m not sure the poem even wanted to be written in the first place! So for you, which of these poems was the easiest to write, and which was the problem child?
I think about my subject. While re-reading my notes, I look for the scene I’ll hope to bring to life. By now I know a lot about this creature – where it lives, what it eats, when it mates, how long it lives – but I can’t put all I know into a single poem. I have to decide on my focus and try to see it as a picture in my head. What comes next is the magic part of creativity. Based on what it knows and intuits about the subject, the mind conjures up a tentative first line. And that line sets the tone and rhythm for everything that follows.
For the wolf poem I decided to focus on the pups. I visualized them playing roughhouse with one another, oblivious to the grown-up world around them. For them I needed to create a poem in quick, jerky lines that reflect the willy-nilly life of a pup:
You bouncy pup…
on your siblings.
… small eyes probe dark water.
For some reason I struggled most over the skunk poem, the last stanza in particular, even though the poem was patterned after a similar scene I witnessed one night driving home. I tried repeatedly to find a strong ending. At last it came out: “the street is/never empty.” By contrast, the cricket poem practically wrote itself. Thank goodness for the quick ones now and then!
Ha, I know what you mean – those ones that write themselves are like little gems from Heaven! Speaking of struggling with poetic structure, some of the spreads are rather unusual in that Stephanie Laberis’ illustrations necessitate that a few particular poems be broken up into multiple panels. How much input did you have in working with her and editor Rebecca Davis to make sure the integrity of the poem was diminished by the layout?
True, sometimes the layout artist suggests breaking poems or moving a spread into a different order to accommodate needs that throw the poem itself into danger of being distorted and/or losing its impact. Such movements are never done without my agreement, which I normally can give without a problem, but now and then it becomes important to protect the integrity of the poem’s structure, and that takes precedence over layout issues.
As I mentioned earlier, the illustrations’ colors are quite bold even though it’s a nocturnal-themed book – which makes the subjects really come to life, so to speak. Do you happen to have a favorite spread?
I agree and I do. Stephanie did a superb job of keeping the night dark while somehow highlighting the actors in each poem. I was greatly impressed! My favorite spread is about the skunk. (see above) Mama is trying desperately to herd her playful kits out of the street. She knows the dangers that may lurk there. And even though she doesn’t actually see danger at the moment, WE do. Down the street a dog has become aware of the situation and is on alert. Steph’s painting sets up tension that hangs over the poem and adds drama.
I also noticed that one of your poems is located where a poem is rarely ever seen: on the back cover! And this isn’t a sample of a poem that’s inside the book, either, it’s a full-length poem, all its own. Whose idea was that?
Not my idea but I approve of it. I wrote the poem using slant rhymes and was pleased by how it turned out. Seeing it featured on the back cover was a pleasant surprise.
I know you have many other projects in the old proverbial oven; would you care to share what’s coming up next for you?
In the education field I’m working on two books set for publication this year, each with a highly respected educator. Mary Jo Fresch (Professor Emeritus in Teaching and Learning, from The Ohio State University), and I are nearly finished with our eighth collaboration. This one will be published by National Council for Teachers of English and is about building vocabulary and understanding how language works for students in grades 3-5.
The second title, also nearly finished, is my first collaboration with Laura Robb. It’s for struggling readers in grades 4-8 and will be published by Corwin Press. My contributions are poems, texts, essays, professional development pieces, and simulated school visits with the target audiences.
In August I have a new picture book due out from Holiday House. It grew from something I posted on my blog one day. Jane Yolen responded; I responded; she responded; until we realized we were writing a book. I’m eager to see it in print so it won’t be long before I’ll need to turn my attention to promoting that title.
Other books are in the works, including one of poetry and one that’s nonfiction, but they don’t have pub dates set yet. Beyond that a number of projects are in the works and I work seven hours each week day to make sure my agent, James McGowan, doesn’t run out of Harrison manuscripts to submit.
Ha! We certainly don’t want James to be reduced to twindling his thumbs, hoping for some David Harrison magic to come his way, do we? You know, I remember that exchange you had with Jane – I’m looking forward to seeing the book! David, we’ve known each other for nearly 10 years now and I have to tell you what a joy it’s been learning from you and developing my career with your support and friendship. I’m grateful to know poets like you, Jane, Rebecca, Charles, our late friend Lee, and so many others. I wish you continued success!
Matt, thank you again for hosting me today and featuring AFTER DARK. I’m glad our paths crossed and am loving your successes since then. I wish you many years of future successes and have every confidence you’ll have them.
Thank you, David. And to all my readers:
WE HAVE A GIVEAWAY!!
Thanks to our good friends at Boyds Mills & Kane (my Flashlight Night publisher, by the way), I have a copy of After Dark I will give away to a lucky reader! Just leave a comment below and I’ll choose one name at random to receive the book. Comments must be received by 5pm EST on Thur., March 5, as the winner will be announced next Fri., March 6. Good luck!
For more poetry, be sure to stop by Karen Edmisten’s blog, where she’s hosting Poetry Friday today with Jane Hirschfield’s a perfectly-timed poem, “February 29!”
I’ve teamed up with several other children’s authors to promote our upcoming books this year! And there are a LOT of them, too – including SEVEN in March, plus the new poetry anthology Construction People (Wordsong, March 17, 2020), of which I’m a contributor:
Ordering personalized signed copies online?
Oh, yes, you can!
Just click the cover of whichever book you want and send the good folks at MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH a note requesting the signature and to whom I should make it out to. (alternatively, you can log onto my website and do the same thing) They’ll contact me, I’ll stop by and sign it, and then they’ll ship it! (Plus, you’ll be supporting your local bookseller – and won’t that make you feel good?)
- NY Public Library’s “100 Best Book for Kids 2017” AND “Staff Pick!”
- KIRKUS Starred review!
- Kansas NEA Reading Circle Recommended Books!
- “Best Reads of 2017,” Unleashing Readers
- Finalist, 2019 New Hampshire Literary Awards
- Positive reviews from Horn Book, School Library Connection, School Library Connection, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, and Shelf-Awareness!
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