Transcript from our interview with Mary Ann Hoberman

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mary Ann Hoberman. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Mary Ann Hoberman

Tea with cherries

Growing up in Connecticut… It's a small state, but a very choice one. I was born in Stanford, Connecticut. Then we moved around quite a bit. I was born in 1930, the beginning of The Depression. My father was chasing jobs. Luckily, he always found them. They weren't the best jobs all the time, but he did put food in our mouths. But sometimes he would have to go off by himself and work and we would live somewhere else and he would come home weekends.

We moved shortly after I was born. We moved to Yonkers, New York. We moved over to New Jersey. And we fetched up in New Haven, Connecticut, where my mother's mother and her family lived and some of my father's family, as well. And some of my memories have to do with this large extended family. No one had very much money. They were immigrants. There was a great warmth, a lot of Yiddish speaking — which they kept from me — because it was the secret language that grownups could communicate with.

Two grandmothers whom I just adored, my grandfathers didn't live as long, aunts and uncles that I worshiped and that I was the oldest of the little cousins in one part of the family and so I was their pet. They sang. One uncle had a Dixieland band. Another uncle was the only one who was really going straight through Yale on scholarship and was the real intellectual and shared a lot of his books of poetry, etc. with me as a little girl and I just worshiped him.

And when I went back to Yale in my fifties to work on a doctorate in English Lit., I shared his house in Stratford with him and his wife and it felt as if I was going back to my little girlhood again because we'd talk about the same things and he was my mentor again. So it was really wonderful. With all the different things that have happened, I realize that the very strong love I have for family and the way I've incorporated it into many of my books — even books whose theme was not precisely that — but in the end, it does come through.

And it all has to do with this very loud, raucous, opinionated family, chattering around in various languages and just drinking tea in glasses with cherries in them. That was what they did around the kitchen table. And I, sitting there wanting to understand what they were talking about and not always succeeding, but just feeling very good to be a part of it. Yes, I loved that very much.

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Freedom to play

How did they encourage my love of writing and poetry? Not very much, I don't think. It was a very private thing with me and families weren't…at least in my experience and now watching my own children and grandchildren. Families were not as hands on then with their children as they seem to be now. And a lot of it is that there wasn't as much necessity to be as hands on. We were given a lot more freedom.

I grew up in Stanford mainly and in summertime, for example, from the time that you poked your head out of the door in the morning and either you take a little picnic lunch with you or you'd be home for lunch, but you were gone. Your mother didn't know where you were. You traveled with a pack of kids. There was a golf course near our house that we had free reign of when the golfers weren't around with a pond. We ice skated there in the winter.

Many blocks were our kind of bailiwick. We'd play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, we'd race all around. We had enemies, we had friends. We knew everyone who lived there. In the fall, I sold Girl Scout cookies to everybody there and we practically, yes, we practically knew everyone in every house. Some were kind of scary or didn't like kids or had a big dog that might be…so we knew which houses were the most-friendly ones; you knew where your friends lived.

But it was a very protective. I mean, you didn't think of it that way then, but you had absolutely no fear except for the bully boys who would kind of take off after the girls and sometimes scare us to death. And there were little gangs — nothing like the gangs you hear of now — but there were kids that kind of stuck together and other kids that didn't.

When I think of it, and even then I think I realized, I loved being a child. I've talked of this before, and I didn't really, I was kind of Peter Pan-ish kid. I didn't really want to grow up because I was convinced looking at my own parents and other adults that they had lost the ability to play. And I liked to play. And I thought that it is what it was — to grow up was to forget how to play. So I wanted to figure out how I could grow up, but not forget how to play.

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Word play

Language play is word play, and I always use that expression…word play. And that's exactly what it is. I don't think that I ever thought consciously about that. I just was in love with my words from the time I was tiny and had my little books of fairy tales. And in thinking about it, I think that one of them was by Walter de la Mare called Told Again. And I've gone back to that book and expresses himself so beautifully. And I think with that as a model of what language should sound like.

And then I had a Hans Christian Anderson translation, and that, too, was written very beautifully in a very quirky way sometimes. And I think some people — the more they're finding out about the brain, the more they're finding out that we have different pensions and that different people respond differently to different parts of culture, etc. And I guess that I was a word and rhythm responder. And no one knocked it out of me so I was able to go on with it because I made up songs and stories from the time as far back as I can remember. I've always been doing that long before I knew how to write.

I'm sure there are writers who are not great readers and just have a great talent of their own, but I think that you'll find that most writers are great readers and it certainly can't hurt you. And the more you read and the more you get these templates for what can be done and the more you experiment. And with me, I see a poem that I like and I'll emulate the rhythm or I'll try to write it in the form that it's been written. These are wonderful games. They're exercises. I think of them as games, like crossword puzzles or something. And I know that that's helped me. It's helped with analyzing poems and seeing how they're put together. They're an artifice and you see how they're put together. And that's always been a great joy.

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Strawberry Hill

I have a good friend or a fellow children's writer who lives in Greenwich named Anne Rockwell. She's published many, many books and she's also an illustrator. And at one point, we met each other and we both were expressing our dissatisfaction with writers' groups that we had belonged to and never seemed to work out right. So I said, "Why couldn't we be a writers' group with two?" Because I really respect her work and she picked the idea up. So we met for a year every Friday and we were very faithful about this. I don't think we missed more than one or two meetings. And we had decided for the ground rules we were each going to try something new…something we had not done before.

And I was very certain what I wanted to try, but what I thought it was a memoir, and probably an adult memoir. And Ann was going to do a historical novel. She got waylaid into barriers, she had deadlines, etc. So she started many things, which I think some of them she's completed, but I just worked on this one thing. And it started out as, "Now that I'm an old woman and I look back…" That was the first sentence, something like, "Now that I'm an old woman…"

And I wrote a page. And it had no life. It just didn't work at all. And I decided no, that's not the way it's going to go and then I just plunged right into, "I'm an old woman remembering. Here I am the child, write in…" And so that's how it happened and this little character Allie who talks in the first person, and she certainly started out, she has a lot of Mary Ann characteristics, but she very soon escaped Mary Ann. She's not me and she does a lot of things that I didn't do. She does some things that I did do.

And each time I get in the story of the dolls that she puts to bed each night and some have to sleep on the floor because there is no room for them in her bed, that's certainly Mary Ann. But the other characters are all fictional. Allie has a little brother named Danny. I have a little brother named Joel, now 76. And the book is dedicated to Joel. Danny is not Joel. The book takes over. The book decides what these characters have to do.

And Joel, in real life, as I remember him at that age was a terrible cry baby. But I did need Danny to be a cry baby. I needed Danny to be kind of a wise child. And Allie…I did have a friend named Rita Greenburg. Because it started off very realistically. We were at the Greenburg's house. We did live there. We didn't move. We were going to move to Strawberry Hill.

But as soon as we got to Strawberry Hill, the novel started taking over and once Mimi, this little chubby girl from across the street steps into the story, the story takes off, because there was a Mimi. There was a Mimi who lived across the street and she was probably five or so, as I was five when we moved there. And she was chubby and she had a chubby mother. And what I remember only, the only thing I remember about Mrs. Minnick… And her name, I slightly changed. First, I was keeping everybody's names exactly and then I kind of changed them. But her mother, I remember saying, and she was very large and so when she sneezed it was a huge sneeze, and afterwards she said, "Oh! It feels so good to sneeze." And I've never forgotten that.

And I put it into the book and always when I sneeze, almost invariably I think to myself, "Oh, it feels so good to sneeze," and there is Mrs. Minnick, looming in front of me. But the Mr. Minnick is a complete figment of my imagination, Cynthia, the friend, the mean spoiled kind of friend, another figment of my imagination. Most of it is, but the playing hopscotch, the playing dolls…those are all out of my childhood.

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A nickel for ice cream

I was young, but I was making this child nine, but putting her back. It's sort of complicated. I put her back to when Mary Ann was really five and we lived on Strawberry Hill. But it's a nine-year-old going on ten child that all this is happening to. But the Depression was a very important part of our lives as children and learning more about it as we grew older, a lot of things — like a puzzle, that kind of fits into place.

For example, one of my teachers at Heart School, the school that I went to, fourth grade, Mrs. Dunn, and her husband had served in World War Two and had come back gassed — World War One, and had come back gassed. And he and a bunch of other veterans would sit in front of the town hall down in Stanford with the sunshine — I always remember that — across from the bus stop, and they'd just go down there every day and just sit there together. And we didn't know quite what was going on and it was only until years later that I understood.

But World War One was just a decade earlier. And a few weeks ago, I realized the time from the Civil War until what's going on in this story is the same time frame as that story to right now. So it's really uncanny. It is a history book. It is a book of history. But the Depression was so many things — families being on relief, hobos coming to your backdoor and mothers feeding them. That happened all the time and they were always fed. And we realized, we did know we were lucky, but at same time with a mother like mine — and I think a lot of mothers — there was always that poor, poor, poor thing in your head and how lucky you were to have food.

And so that whole business about Allie and Danny only having a nickel to get Good Humors where all the other children were given dimes…that is straight out of my childhood. And when I got the free stick and could get a coconut Good Humor…I've never forgotten it and I can still taste that coconut Good Humor because it was probably the only one I had as a kid. I did some research because I wanted to get things straight — dates and things a little bit. I didn't bring as much politics into the book as I remembered because I remembered being the only child on the street. Our family was for Roosevelt and all the others were for Landon, so that is in the 1936 election, and being made to feel a real pariah because of that.

And the whole dirty Jew business. It didn't take place the way I have it take place. But it was certainly, those names that I was called, that's just the tip of the iceberg. I think for people who lived then, those were the days when a lot of Jewish families changed their names, changed their religions. We were very aware of that in Stanford, because it was quite a tight knit Jewish community, but we were a real minority, the neighborhoods that I grew up in, and very strong Catholic population, most of my friends were Catholic and Protestants as well. But it's the Italians and the Catholics that we lived among much more. There are so many families that I remember with such warmth and I would really so like to track down, but you don't know whether they are still alive.

It was such a neighborly feeling, place to live then. The Greco's on one side. Once we moved to West Broad Street, when I was indeed ten years old, and already on the other side that we definitely decided she was a witch — we knew it, we knew it. We would race across her yard you know yelling, "Witch! Witch!" Poor old lady! I don't know what she was thinking, but she scared us to death.

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Pushing the envelope

As far as writing, I think there's a lot more freedom I think today in pushing the envelope and the boundaries. For example, in Strawberry Hill, I used certain swear words and certain situations that I'm not sure how that would have gone over with my first books. But I certainly didn't put everything in because I have very strong feelings about what's appropriate for what age group. And this is for 8 to 12 years old; it's a puzzlement.

I wrote something on the Pen website — our Pen group in New York — about this very subject as to some others because a lot of horrible things happen to children, horrible things. And yet, do you want to include them in books for children of these young ages to whom it's not that they don't know about them, but depending on the kind of book you want to write…

I know with my book Strawberry Hill, if I had put in certain autobiographical things or certain things that I felt would work out with this story, it would have skewed the book so enormously and made that the center of the book and that was not where I wanted to go. So that's a puzzle. A lot of us have talked about that as well. And some people go further and some people go less far.

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The raucous auk

"Raucous auk, a squawk to talk, the squawk auks talked, squawked to talk…" I don't have it exactly. I don't know why, I don't know why, something pulls other things. But I just get such a kick out of language. I put myself to sleep doing anagrams and palindromes and play with words and what is it?

What is the thing that Lear wrote? The form with the five limericks. I have a huge body of limericks. I used to write double duck dills when that was something that I think William Cole, a wonderful anthologist, invented. And so I love light verse and I always think I was born in the wrong time. I should have been a contemporary of Phyllis McGinley or Dorothy Parker and then there would have been these magazines that I could have published in. But now there aren't so many outlets.

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A day in the life of a Poet Laureate

I don't know if there is a typical day in the life of a children's Poet Laureate, but the first day was kind of a mind blower because there was a message on our answering machine. It was just about a year ago, more than a year ago, because the term began in October, but I think I was called in July. Anyway, there was this message from John Barr at the Poetry Foundation and I didn't know him. And I knew that he published a poetry magazine and so I thought it was someone calling for a subscription.

And so I could very easily not even have responded to the call, but I did and there was the invitation that I had been chosen to be the children's Poet Laureate of the United States, would I accept? And I think my first reaction was, "Why me?" And after that, of course, I accept. That's wonderful! And from then on, I don't think there's been one typical day during the whole time.

And that explains why I'm here and why I'm all over the place. Because I really have now decided that for this, and it's going to be two and half year's employment, that I am someone who really is speaking up for poetry and children's poetry and as I described it, I would be a pied piper for children's poetry and for memory… I have a lot of little things that mean a lot to me. I love memorizing poetry and I think it's a great joy.

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Poetry read alouds

I feel that poetry should be read and listened to and be almost a communal thing, rather than just read on the page. Though I have some reservations about poetry slams, but I have to admit I don't know that much about them and a few that I've witnessed, I've liked parts of them very much. And it just seems that I'm not the only one. There are a lot of people out there now and really talking up poetry.

And I've known from the time I was a kid and then from the time that I had kids myself and went into the schools I have no doubt that children love poetry. They love language. They love word play. They have a good time and it just takes someone who really is enthusiastic and kind of knows her stuff a little bit to get them. Audience participation is the sine qua non. You just can't go into a school or an audience and just stand there and read the way you would at an adult poetry event; you've got to get the kids to participate from the get-go.

And it can get a little raucous sometimes, but that's just fine. And they all have ideas and they all want to share. And I'm always very curious and when I hear and get feedback about what a visit of mine has meant, it's often very, very encouraging because the teacher feels more empowered and the children are excited. And poetry is fun and you can go from fun and light verse and word play and you can segue very nicely into far more serious ideas and use of words and you bring the children with you.

I find no difficulty in talking to kids about serious ideas and using adult poems sometimes that are proper for them. And I believe that it's now one of the things that I'm saying with all the cutbacks in the arts and everything — no art supplies, no instruments — the art of poetry is free. It's absolutely free. It probably should be liberated to a certain extent from language arts and put into the arts where you can do it as choral reading, as back and forth reading, use it with plays, with drama. So there is just an infinite number of ways that you can use language.

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You Read to Me and I'll Read to You

Through my work with Literacy Volunteers, we're using picture books for a double way to engage young English as a second language parents. They would use the picture books as textbooks, but we would model the way they could use them with their children and they would bring them home each week and by the end of the 12-week session, they had a lovely little library of books.

And on my walk one day, where I get my good ideas, I thought, "Why couldn't I write a book that was especially designed for this?" They were reading every other line that way we were reading lines and use rhythm rhyme, repetition, all these kinds of things and have the two voices in different colors and sometimes have them read together with a third color. That's compressing it because a lot of people contributed ideas to this. But the original idea and the original title that came into my head, You Read to Me, I'll Read to You, I knew that was a bright idea.

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Wonder about the world, with Linda Winston

Linda Winston: The Tree That Time Built is a title that was given to us by a young, talented naturalist at the American Museum of Natural History. She was referring to the tree that Darwin sketched in the second of his small notebooks. And we have that, it's right here, I don't know if you can pick it up, but that's Darwin's tree, the first inkling of his idea of evolution and above it he writes, I think. And it's from his journal.

Mary Ann Hoberman: And so when Amy O'Donnell, and just in passing this phrase the tree that time built, I said, "That's our title." We knew it. And once you have a title for a book, everything else kind of coalesces around it; everything else will sort of fit. And this book really grew out of its title. And the more we played and thought about the title, the more it worked.

Linda Winston: Most people feel that there is a big divide between scientists and artists, poets, possibly because science seems very rational; something that you do in a methodical way without imagination. And arts are considered emotional, spontaneous, not coming from that other side of the brain.

But the more we talk to each other, the more we saw that the essential qualities of science and what scientists do and what poets do is rooted in the sense of wonder about the world. And Mary Ann uses that word in more than one way…wonder…and also the careful observation of nature that both scientists and poets do.

Mary Ann Hoberman: Poets and scientists themselves don't make this dichotomy; it's people on the outside that make this dichotomy. Scientists recognize they have to have that sort of eureka moment, that idea moment that comes to them not in a rational way, often because they've done a lot of spade work, but if that idea doesn't come, it's nothing and poets in the same way.

The other thing is that many poets are wonderful naturalists. There is a whole body of nature poetry where poets have been interested in nature, observed it very, very carefully and have even in a number of times pre—what's the word I want?

Linda Winston: They've anticipated.

Mary Ann Hoberman: They've anticipated. See, we need two of us to get one. They've anticipated scientific discoveries. The most wonderful thing with our book of course was that Charles Darwin whom we celebrate in this book, his grandfather was Erasmus Darwin. And Erasmus Darwin wrote a great long poem at the beginning of the 18th Century during which he describes evolution very beautifully. It's Charles though that did the hard spade work and really got scientific ballast that established the theory of evolution.

But William Blake in his Songs of Experience and Innocence… We use one of his little poems that I learned in school very young — To See a World in a Grain of Sand. And there is a world in a grain of sand, and scientists know this. So the more we worked, the more we explored and the more we read and the scientists who really value poetry, the more we thought it's really a fake and a false dichotomy.

Linda Winston: Also Charles Darwin himself was a great writer and his great granddaughter has contributed a poem to our anthology, almost at the last minute. It was a great, great event for us. She published a book about him based on his correspondence and his journals in the last year. And we both came upon it individually and called each other in great excitement and then spoke with our editorial director who tracked her down and she agreed at once to read a selection, which is the last paragraphs of The Origin of Species.

And she's turned it into a poem by scanning the lines differently, but the diction is so eloquent anyway, and that's the second to last poem in the anthology. And she does what we did; she introduces them in her own book with prose context. And on the disc where she reads, did we mention that many of the poets are reading on the disc that comes with the book? She reads also some of the context for those last couple of paragraphs, and they are really knockouts.

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Collecting poems, with Linda Winston

Linda Winston: Well, at one point, also quite late in the game, we were redoing the introduction to the whole book. And I think I said to you Mary Ann, "Gee, whiz. What anthologists do when they put together an anthology of various poets' work is a lot like what naturalists do when they sort through their collections of specimens." And I think maybe curating has that museum quality to it.

Mary Ann Hoberman: We make a parallel in our introduction between Charles Darwin and collectors in general, but naturalists are great collectors and Charles speaks of himself as I was always a very passionate collector. From the time he was a boy he collected everything. And that can relate to so many kids. We've gone into this…we've had more fun.

So we were up at Falmouth, Mass., and we had I guess our first seventh and eight grade audience because usually I'm used to younger children, but this book is perfect for middle schools, as well. And spontaneously, I asked, "How many of you have collections," because we had been talking about it and every hand went up. And they have collections from bottle caps to pieces of soap to what did they have?

Linda Winston: Shell…beach glass.

Mary Ann Hoberman: Beach glass and shells. But there were all kinds of other sorts of more off beat collections. And many of them had many, multiple collections. But it got the children so enthusiastic. I think they really ought to have a collections club. In junior high, I remember clubs were so wonderful. We had all kinds of clubs. And oh, we should write to the library. A collections club would be really wonderful.

Linda Winston: And then we suggest that readers might want to make collections of their own of an anthology of poetry even of their own.

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Oh, Fields of Wonder, with Linda Winston

Mary Ann Hoberman: It's divided into nine parts. And each part has as its introduction, the title of its introduction, the first line or the title of an appropriate poem. And so the first section is called Oh, Fields of Wonder, and that's from the Langston Hughes poem.

In unison: Birth. Oh, fields of wonder, out of which stars are born and moon and the sun and me as well. Like stroke of lightning in the night, some mark to make, some word to tell.

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You and I, with Linda Winston

Mary Ann Hoberman: And then I wrote a poem called You and I that is in this section. And it was really funny because we were at Chapin School in New York and we read this to little third graders and asked for questions and a little girl raised her hand and said I don't understand it.

So I saw a little girl and I said let's see if you can understand it, the title is You and I. And I had a nice little paper easel there so I wrote you, y-o-u, so the children wouldn't think it was just a U or an ewe and someone raised their hand and said or it could be ooh. And I said it wasn't that. And then I, the one letter I, not e-y-e. We had to get that straight.

So the poem goes like this. Only one I in the whole wide world and millions and millions of you. But every you is an I to itself and I am a you to you too. But if I am a you and you are an I then the opposite also is true. It makes us both the same somehow, yet splits us each in two. It's more and more mysterious the more I think it through, every you everywhere in the world is an I, every I in the world is a you. So with the little girl I got her name, so you can... what's your name?

Linda Winston: Linda.

Mary Ann Hoberman: Your name is Linda. And my name is Mary Ann, right? So only one I in the whole wide world, Mary Ann, right, and millions and millions of you, but every you is an I to itself, and I am a you to you too. And then how did we do this? Then she ... did she do the next part? We got it very established that she was an I and I was a you to her I and I was an I and she was a you to my I. And by the end...

Linda Winston: We got the whole group, there must have been 60 children sitting on the floor, and they began to read it as well.

Mary Ann

"Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world." —

Malala Yousafzei