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5 Questions With... J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen (TAKE TWO! A CELEBRATION OF TWINS)

by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen
 | May 23, 2012
J. Patrick Lewis is the author of more than seventy books for children and was recently named Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. His books include FIRST DOG, SPOT THE PLOT: A RIDDLE BOOK OF BOOK RIDDLES, THE HOUSE, and KINDERGARTEN CAT.

Jane Yolen is the award-winning author of over three hundred children’s books, including OWL MOON, a Caldecott Medal winner; the How Do Dinoaurs…? series; and SEA QUEENS. She lives in western Massachusetts and Scotland and has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America.

Reviewers of your new book, TAKE TWO! A CELEBRATION OF TWINS, often mention that their initial thought is that the book will only appeal to those who are twins or who have twin children. But then they discover that the poems are funny and relatable regardless. How did you make the poems twin-specific, but still accessible to non-twins?

J. PATRICK LEWIS: One glib answer is that, just as most humans are not twins, neither are they monsters, soccer stars, or U.S. presidents, and yet children will respond enthusiastically to books about all of those subjects. I’ve found that being a twin resonates with all sorts of singletons who are simply fascinated to learn what it is like to have a truly “significant other.” And that’s what I have tried to share in TAKE TWO!

JANE YOLEN: Every singleton has fantasized at some point about having a twin. To have a best friend who understands (and loves) you totally? Wow! And most mothers I know have thought (naively) that having twins would be a treat. They don't reckon with sleepless nights times two (or more). Diapers by the dozens. But I'm not sure that when we sat down to write poems we thought in terms of audience as much as we thought in terms of the twin experience.

You each have different experiences of “twinness” in your own lives. Can you tell us about the viewpoints and experiences that you brought to the writing of this book?

JPL: Apart from the wonder and delight of having children of my own, the seminal event in my life has been the existence of my twin brother. Perhaps because we agree on everything, we talk incessantly, and have done so for as long as I can remember, even though we live states away. He is my first editor, my last refuge, and my best friend. Little wonder that I tell children at my school visits, “If you can arrange it, get yourself a twin.”

JY: I had twin aunts, Sylvia and Eva. Not that they ever looked like twins. One was tall, one short, one was round and the other…well, rounder. I never got straight which one was which, even though they looked and were nothing alike.

Then when I got married, I acquired three brothers-in-law. The youngest brothers were a set of mirror twins and they were (and still are) so much alike that I only know that if I am in Clarksburg, West Virginia, it's Bob, and if I’m in Phoenix, Arizona, it's Dick. Otherwise, I use their common shared nickname: Bobordick.

Finally, when my youngest son had his first baby, it turned out to be twin girls. Like their great-great aunts, they looked nothing alike. Even at birth, they were incredibly distinct: Caroline, the oldest by one minute, was immediately people-centric and center stage, larger and louder. Amelia was the airy-fairy, "the silent assassin," as her other grandfather called her. She could always quietly entertain herself. And at nine years old, they have remained the same.

JPL: I knew Jane had twin granddaughters, so we thought we would parlay our experiences and do this collection. Happily, Candlewick was most enthusiastic and suggested that instead of a traditional 32-page picture book we do an 80-page gift book.

What surprises me is that it took me this long to write (co-write) a book like TAKE TWO!

You’ve predicted that your next collaboration, LAST LAUGHS: ANIMAL EPITAPHS, will be one of the “most love/hate” books you’ve ever written. What makes you think that the reaction will be so polarized?

JY: Well, to begin with, it's a humorous look at dead animals! Horses, dogs, cats, birds, fish, whales, frogs, deer, bear, chickens, eels, etc. Death, where is thy sting? Well, no, we see it as a laughing matter.

And the pictures are equally morbid and side-splitting.

It was fun being at IRA [for the Annual Convention in May] and watching teachers and librarians picking up the book and howling—with laughter and not in agony.

JPL: Have you ever read real epitaphs? The dead can be very funny, and their last lines are written in stone! I had written a daft collection of epitaph poems (for humans), ONCE UPON A TOMB: GRAVELY HUMOROUS VERSES (Candlewick), and so it seemed a natural progression to go whole hog, as it were, and include the rest of the animal kingdom. Jane eagerly joined me in the wicked fun. The humor lies in the wacky incongruity of it all—first, that a beast would actually be buried, and second that its tombstone might reveal something of its unfortunate demise.

You’ve now worked as collaborators on several projects. What are the keys to successful collaborative writing?

JY: First, I think, is that we adore one another’s work. Second, we are equally at ease with serious and with humorous poetry, loving metaphor and lyric lines and puns equally. Third, we both have a Type A writing personality. By that I mean, we sit down and get the work done. And lastly, we seem to have the same senses of poetry, humor, and self-deprecating honesty. Plus we both are willing to listen to criticism.

JPL: Ditto to all of the above.

Last year you teamed up on a book for older readers, SELF PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS: THE LIFE OF MARC CHAGALL IN VERSE. What were the special challenges in translating a nonfiction story into verse?

JPL: Like many artists, Chagall led a life and a half, a mother lode for biographers. By turns heroic and tragic, a kind of flawed perfection, he presents himself as a nonpareil microcosm of humankind. Our words were in no way intended to approximate the stature or the grandeur of Chagall’s art. SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS is merely an homage to his greatness, two hands pointing eagerly in the direction of his virtuosity.

JY: The book was an interesting mix of biography, art, and personality. Chagall was quite a character. His artwork ranges from that ionic, colorful, kabbalistic and mystic stuff to the more decorous. He worked in multiple art styles and genres. And his life story included some of the most amazing and deadly moments of the twentieth century—including the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, World War II and beyond.

The poetry had to find a way to include, honor, as well as make metaphor and melody of it all. I think we managed in our individual ways to write good poems, and still were able to make a book that works as a whole. We ARE the Flying Wallendas!

© 2012 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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