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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday - Lee Bennett Hopkins and MARY'S SONG

MARY'S SONG by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Eerdman's, 2012Illustrations ©Stephen AlcornThis page reads:"I even thought I heard a whisperfrom spider above the manger,spinning her web - though I know what silent spinners spiders are.

Merry Christmas! Christmas in July, I mean, and we’re unwrapping a very special gift today. Instead of a poem, we have a renowned poet and a magical, lyrical picture book.

Lee Bennett Hopkins is here! THE most prolific children’s poetry anthologist, Lee has received the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for “outstanding contributions to the field of children’s literature,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Excellence in Poetry for Children Award and the Florida Libraries’ Lifetime Achievement Award, just to name a few.

In addition to his award-winning anthologies, Lee’s own poetry collections, picture books and professional texts have won countless awards, and he established two coveted awards “to encourage the recognition of poetry.” He’s also a popular keynote speaker at literature conferences.

Busy as he is, he agreed to stop by and tell us about his newest book. MARY’S SONG, hot off the press from Eerdman’s and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, is sure to become part of family traditions and treasures this Christmas and for years and years to come.
I’ve been anticipating this book for a long time. When my copy arrived last week, my first reaction was not so much that the writing is brilliant (it is) or that the art is amazing (it is) but that I wished I’d had this book to share with my own children when they were small.

I love the magical interplay of text, which describes a new mother’s longing for a quiet moment with her baby, and the gorgeous art with its warm palette and cross hatchings which seem to invite readers to find connections between halos, spider webs, the light of the sun, The Light of the World… I’m getting carried away. Let me turn it over to Lee.

You’ve referred to Mary’s Song as “my nativity lovesong.” Do you remember how the idea came to you? How long did it drift around in your mind before you wrote the text?

I have always wanted to write about Mary. There are so many books about her yet so few about Her! I knew deep inside I needed to write a tribute to Mary being with HER child -- alone. I remember my niece, Jennifer, giving birth to my grand-niece, Erin Elizabeth, after years of trying to bear a child. So many rushed to the hospital bringing balloons, gifts, wanting to see and hold the baby. I remember looking at my niece, her eyes almost shouting how she wanted to be alone with this precious gift. In some ways the idea clicked then. In all nativity stories we hear of the hubbub, the fuss, Wise Men bearing gifts, shepherds, animals crowding the manger. I am certain Mary might have felt the same way. Thus, I wanted MARY'S SONG to BE a tribute to Motherhood. More than a Christmas story, it is about Motherhood.

I was struck, as a reader, not only that the tale is told from Mary’s perspective, but that it’s all about sound. Poetry is all about sound. Was this a natural way for you to explore Mary’s feelings, after your own life’s work immersed in poetry?

Truly, I do not remember writing this piece. Looking back on my notes I began the book on December 3, 2007, finished a fourth and final draft on December 6th. The words simply flowed. I wanted sounds of noise in the text; I also wanted the one word QUIET emphasized. Stephen Alcorn created a work of splendor in the double-page spread with simply the one word.

How did you put yourself in Mary’s place to imagine all these rich, sensory details?

Another oddity. I wrote the text, it went through the near five-year publishing process, I saw proofs, read them through, was thrilled to hold the first bound copy in my hand. One night my brother-in-law, Anthony, came to the house and began poring through the pages. He looked at me and said: "This is all told from the voice of Mary. How could you do this?" I never realized I had done that. I still read through the text and find it fascinating that the whole book IS Mary's point of view. If Anthony hadn't seen this would I have ever? Ah, the mysteries of writing.

I was delighted to see the appearance of a spider in the story, such symbolic little creatures. Was she there from the beginning?

Spider came about in the second draft. I thought the idea of this quiet creature was so allegorical. Or was it because I've always been 'caught in Stephen Alcorn's “web”?

Speaking again of Stephen Alcorn, what glorious illustrations! Another great collaboration between your words and his art. (MY AMERICA, DAYS TO CELEBRATE, and AMERICA AT WAR also spring to mind.) His gentle depictions in MARY’S SONG reflect the story so beautifully and of course add magic of their own. How did you react when you saw the illustrations?

Stephen and I have done many books together. I only wanted him as the artist. Before the manuscript was even submitted I knew he had to do the artwork. It wasn't hard to convince anyone at Eerdmans; the art director, Gayle Brown, knew and loved his work. While attempting the first draft of MARY'S SONG, I saw his work throughout the writing. I saw his spider and her web. I could feel his ever-changing palette - his mood, rhythm, his sense of distinct design. Stephen was taken with the text immediately. How lucky I am to have him in my life. When I first saw Stephen's sketches, and after the goose bumps went away, I cried. I feel as if he and I became one on this book. It is interesting to note that his wife, Sabina, is the model for Mary. And the Dedication to my beloved sister was penned the moment the text was finished.

Thank you for being my special guest today to share Christmas in July! Any other upcoming projects you’d like to whet our appetites for?

Scheduled for Fall, 2013 is ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE to appear from Creative Editions. The book, based on Shakespeare's famed monologue from AS YOU LIKE IT, is a young adult collection following "Seven Ages of Man" from ENTRANCES: 'At first the infant' to ENDS: "Last scene." It is, I hope, a powerful collection illustrated by Guy Billout, another remarkable artist.

Oooh, now I’ll be eagerly anticipating this one! Can’t wait. Thank you again for joining us today and for the generous behind-the-scenes peek at MARY’S SONG.

To learn more about Lee and his incomparable body of work, please visit his website.

And for more Poetry Friday surprises, hop over to Life is Better with Books for this week’s Roundup.
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