He's a Poet - and Kids All Know It ; J. Patrick Lewis Is a Prolific Children's Poet Known Equally for Humor and Serious Verse

By Schnall, Sharon | The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

He's a Poet - and Kids All Know It ; J. Patrick Lewis Is a Prolific Children's Poet Known Equally for Humor and Serious Verse


Schnall, Sharon, The Christian Science Monitor


He's written poems about sumo wrestlers and ladybugs, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower, Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez. He filled an entire book with poems on the life of Italian astronomer Galileo.

His rhyming riddles unravel the mysteries behind oxidation and rust, and his math riddles engage the reader in arithmetic without their realizing it.

Children's poet J. Patrick "Pat" Lewis is willing to write about almost any subject.

Dr. Lewis has penned 45 children's books, mostly collections of poetry. He's known for humor, whimsy, and a nonsensical style. But Lewis also addresses serious issues: discrimination, the environment, and extinct creatures.

He devotes hours daily to his work, selecting the best word to complete a line of verse.

"Good verbs are muscle, and adjectives are fat," Lewis says. "Finding that great action verb is what good writing is all about."

What takes equal dedication and passion is speaking to groups of children. Lewis leaves his home near Cleveland to make more than 40 appearances at schools, libraries, and conferences each year. Last month, he traveled to the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, and Hungary; this month he'll be touring Ohio and New York.

"He's a Pied Piper ... teaching children to love poetry," says children's poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins.

Lewis is at ease before audiences of all ages. Rebecca Kai Dotlich, poet and author,fondly describes him as a "ham."

But he isn't just an entertainer. He describes the tedious mechanics of writing poetry and reveals that even successful poets face rejection.

Once upon a time, Pat Lewis did not like poetry. As a college student, he was taught to analyze poetry - to find its meaning. Because some of the poems were long and dull, he didn't realize that reading poetry could be fun.

He earned three college degrees - bachelor's, master's, and doctorate - all in the same subject: economics. He taught college economics for 30 years. He also wrote books and articles on economics.

During this time, a friend reintroduced him to poetry, and he discovered that he loved it. Among his favorite poets are Edward Lear and X.J. Kennedy.

Not wanting his poems to all sound alike, Lewis strives to use "a hundred different voices," he says. He also does extensive research.

"Pat can write complete whimsy, and then he can write poems that are very serious, steeped in fact and history," said Ms. Dotlich, who was co-author with Lewis of "Castles: Old Stone Poems."

"He doesn't shy away from poems that need particular dates, or battles, or names of presidents," she notes, "In each poem, there are facts ... that seem to be thrown in naturally so they tell the story."

The research and writing process for "Blackbeard: The Pirate King" was challenging. That's because reliable information about Edward Teach, known as "Blackbeard, the Pirate," is limited. Lewis had to do more than read historical records; he talked with David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Mr. Moore was happy to talk with Lewis about the project, but he was also skeptical. "I thought, 'Here's a guy who's going to write poetry about Blackbeard. Now that's going to be interesting,' " Moore recalls. "I didn't think poetry would work with the telling of the story of this notorious pirate."

Lewis listened to Moore's suggestions - especially feedback concerning wording and dates. The poetry about the pirate succeeds in dispelling myths. Blackbeard was responsible for many inhumane acts, but was also falsely accused of committing other misdeeds. …

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