Bruce Lansky is one of North America’s most popular authors and editors of children¹s poetry and children’s fiction.
His twenty children’s poetry books have sold more than 3.5 million copies. His three children’s fiction series including Girls to the Rescue, Newfangled Fairy Tales and Can You Solve the Mystery? have sold more than 1.4 million
Interview with Bruce Lansky
S&S: What book hooked you on reading as a kid?
BL: My mother was a school librarian. She always left three or four books on my nightstand. As soon as I’d finish reading one book, there would be another book that looked inviting. So, I think it was the choice of many books and making them easily available to me that got me hooked on reading. Because if I didn’t like one of the books and didn’t want to read it, that was up to me. Now, at a very advanced age, I am currently reading two or three books at the same time (I listen to an audio book when I drive to and from work, and when I work-out or go for a walk; and there’s always a print edition on my nightstand.)
S&S: Do you have any success stories where your poetry or stories has hooked a non-reader into reading?
BL: I visit schools throughout the year and once a year I attend the Int’l Literacy Assn. conference where I exhibit and sign books and where I present (at the Poetry Olio). At the ILA, I often meet one or more teachers from schools at which I have spent the day as a visiting author. That’s when I find out about kids who enjoyed my presentation (or perhaps collaborated with me in reading or performing a poem) who “didn’t used to like books—but now always has his/her nose in a book” (often it’s a poetry book…and often it’s one of my books).
S&S: What was the subject of the first kids’ poem you ever wrote?
BL: I was excited about the “idea” of writing an alternative to Mother Goose nursery rhymes—in which the poems wouldn’t be mean-spirited (“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe”) or abusive (“Georgy Porgie) and in which the characters wouldn’t all be lily white. I forget which poem I wrote first, but it was great fun to start with familiar characters (like Mary and her lamb) and use the same or similar rhythm and rhyme pattern to write more reader-friendly, contemporary and humorous versions of the originals. (Come to think of it, this might be the very first poem I wrote: “Mary Had a Little Jam./ She spread it on a waffle./ And if she hadn’t eaten 10,/ she wouldn’t fell so awful.”
S&S: What is the most popular kids’ poem you’ve ever written?
BL: Probably “How to Torture your Teacher.” The title certainly appeals to mischievous kids, but instead of describing what most people think of as “painful torture” the poem turns out to be about inadvertent behavior by kids (like raising their hands and, when called on, forgetting what they were going to say) that, done to excess, can try the patience of teachers .
S&S: Your interactive poetry sessions are a huge hit with kids all over the country. What’s your favorite thing about doing them?
BL: I start the presentations by saying I’m going to teach the kids how to do something I call “poetry telepathy.” So instead of handing out poems and asking the students to recite them with me, I recite the poems and then pause to give them a chance use “telepathy” to figure out which word comes next or what gesture to use or what sound effect to make as they “perform” the poems with me. That’s an intriguing and funny premise for an assembly. In practice some of the collaborative opportunities are easy and some are challenging; but pretty much all of them are funny. Needless to say, the kids have a great time as they learn how to “think like poets.”
S&S: What was the hardest part of compiling and editing the first Newfangled Fairy Tales book?
BL: The first thing I had to do was learn how to write “newfangled fairy tales.” I had previously learned how to write short mysteries (for a children’s mystery series called “Can You Solve the Mystery?”) and how to write short stories featuring girls who save the day (for a series called Girls to the Rescue). I knew a little about writing short stories, so I collected a number of short stories which had female heroes and studied their structure—with the help of an editor. Then I tried to write a few. After I had finally written a pretty good one, I was able to send out a few samples (to authors who were interested in writing for the series, that would serve as “model stories” to demonstrate the kind of style we were looking for. That also made it easier for me (when I copyedited the stories) and the editors (when they proofed the stories) to find and polish about 16 stories that we used in Newfangled Fairy Tales Book 1 and Book 2.
S&S: Out of all the stories that have appeared in the Newfangled Fairy Tales series overall, do you have a favorite (besides yours, of course.)
BL: I think my favorite story (not written by me) is called “And So They Did,” which was written by V. McQuinn, a Cheynne, Wyoming mother of three. It reads like a play and can be read like a reader’s theater play. It is great fun to perform with a narrator, a king, a queen, three princesses and a few servants. What’s great fun about it is that most of the dialog is repeated by other characters who have trouble believing the story, as presented by the narrator and the characters named above. Permit me to tell you about my favorite of the stories I wrote. It’s called “The Girl Who Wanted to Be a Princess.” I think this story will appeal to parents who want to alter the mindset of a daughter who wishes she could be a princess. Among other things, the would-be princess refuses to make her bed, wash the dishes, and babysit her younger brother when her parents are busy. If you have a daughter like that, this is the story she should read.)
S&S: What made you start your Girls to the Rescue series? (I’ll be looking to start my 7-year-old on those, by the way. I love the idea!)
BL: I noticed that most traditional (Grimm) fairy tales were about handsome princes who rescued beautiful (but passive) maidens. I thought it would be a lot more fun (and inspiring) for girls to read stories in which girls were heroes. So the idea for creating the GTR series was similar to the idea for creating nursery rhymes that aren’t mean-spirited. But there was one other motivating element: My daughter loved to read (which is a good thing). But we often needed a crowbar to pry her away from her books long enough to do anything but read. On the cover of every GTR book is this reading line: “Tales of Clever Courageous Girls from Around the World.” I wanted girls to grow up thinking they could do anything they set their minds to—which is exactly what happened when my daughter set her mind of going to Harvard.
S&S: I ask all my authors this: What does your drinking mug say about you? (Mine says: I hate morning people. And mornings. And people.)
BL: You have a very funny drinking mug. I’m guessing, you made it and wrote that line of copy. Sorry, but there are no words on my coffee mug. I’d probably enjoy having a coffee mug that said, “Wake Up and Slay a Few (Metaphorical) Dragons.”
S&S: I wish, but no. Bought it from an Amazon mass-producer!
S&S: I know you’re good for visiting teacher conferences and such to help teach how to get kids interesting in reading. So, what’s your opinion on the A-Z Guided Level system? (Speaking as a mom with a 7-year-old who reads at a 4th grade level according to the system, I’m not a fan. I feel like it pushes kids more than letting them just enjoy the awesomeness that is reading. )
BL: I looked up “A-Z Guided Level Reading” in Wikipedia and was told “it does not exist.” (S&S note: This is totally my fault. Everyone I’ve ever talked to refers to it like that instead of it’s proper name so I didn’t even think about it! It’s actually Learning A-Z, and here’s the link to it. I kept this question in, though, because I still wanted to display his thoughts.)So permit me to address the question of what books should be assigned reading in school . The books curriculum directors select for kids to read and discuss and do homework on and be tested on had better be a pleasure to read; otherwise many kids will not grow up understanding how much pleasure reading can be. If kids don’t understand that reading is fun, they won’t choose to read and they are likely to look for comic book or movie versions of the books they are assigned rather than read what they’re assigned. When I was in school I always had my mother’s books on my nightstand to read. So I learned at a very early age how much fun reading could be. And speaking to the “reading level idea” I think kids who read what they enjoy will grow to enjoy reading enough to (at least) try to read what they are assigned by their teachers. So kids need to find their own level so they can be properly introduced to the pleasure of reading. Needless to say, some kids will want to read books their teachers think are “too easy” for them; and some will want to read books there teachers will think are “too hard” for them. However once kids discover the joy of reading, they will (eventually) be encouraged to try new books that might be a little outside of what they think is their comfort zone.
When I was starting my career as an editor and publisher, my son decided he didn’t like reading. So when we all would go to a bookstore for an event featuring my wife (who had written a cookbook called Feed Me I’m Yours, he didn’t want us to buy him a “book.” But he liked it when we would buy him a cartoon book about “Garfield the Cat” or “The Far Side.” By finding him “things” he wanted to read (like the sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune or the Sunday Funnies, his reading taste eventually shifted from cartoons to funny words. So it was a wonderful development when he became the entertainment editor of his high school newspaper and (in his junior year of high school) and co-authored a humor book with his best friend called How to Survive High School with Minimal Brain Damage that sold 35,000 copies. Not surprisingly he first job was writing syndicated adventure travel column for the Tribune Media Syndicate and he eventually became an author and speaker like his parents. (He’s very pleased that all three of his daughters enjoy reading.)
S&S: If you could get one message out to parents of young children in regards to reading, what would it be?
BL: How about three things? It’s great to read “to” your kids. Great for the parents and great for the kids. Kids need to hear stories and poems fluently read. But it’s also great to read “with” your kids. By that I mean, pointing to pictures so your young child can say the word that moves the story along. Or finding simple words like “A” or “I” that your young child can recognize and read. Or, later on, assigning words that, e.g., Winnie the Pooh says, like “Tut, tut it looks like rain” that your child can say when you tap her on the shoulder. Or reading a story or play as “reader’s theater” and assigning one of the roles to your son and another role to your daughter. They get to read all dialog spoken by their character. And, it’s also great to” listen to” your child read. That will motivate your child to “take a shot” when you point to some words and indicate that you want her to read them. Or giving your child a short poem and giving her a chance to (as the Brits say) give it a go. (Check out my “Poetry Theater” feature on GigglePoetry.com for scripts that turn funny poems into “skits” kids can perform.
This collection of ten contemporary fairy tales puts a delightful new spin on classic stories and themes. King Midas is a workaholic banker who would rather play with his money than attend his son’s Little League baseball games. The Big Bad Wolf is running a successful scam on Little Red’s Grandma until Little Red catches him in the act. The Three Bears invade Goldy’s house because their forest home is being stripped to build a super highway. A Prince refuses to marry any of the grumpy princesses who lost sleep because there were peas under their mattresses. A clever princess pays a dragon to lose a fight so she can marry the man she loves. See my review of Newfangled Fairy Tales #1 here.