Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Interview with Douglas Florian

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from Douglas Florian last month thanking me for supporting his new book COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS…and telling me he liked the Pluto poem I posted at Blue Rose Girls! He may not know this, but his compliment meant a lot to me. You see…I’m a big fan of Douglas Florian’s poetry. I own all of his poetry collections—I even own two copies of some of them!!!

I wrote back to Douglas Florian and asked if he would like to be interviewed for Wild Rose Reader. Need I tell you that I was elated when he answered in the affirmative?


I used to share Douglas Florian’s poetry with my second grade students all the time—and later with students in my elementary school library. They enjoyed his poetry as much as I did. Florian is truly one of my favorite poets. His humorous, rhyming poetry is in a class by itself. I will admit that I find some of the light, humorous verse written for children today mildly amusing at best. It just doesn’t sing to me, doesn’t make me laugh, doesn’t beg to be read over and over again, doesn’t surprise with puns, clever wordplay, or pithy endings like the poetry of Douglas Florian. His poems frolic on the page hand in hand with his colorful and energetic art.


I interviewed Douglas Florian about his latest collection of space poems. You can read my review of COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS at Blue Rose Girls. I also posted an additional article—Update: Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars…and Pluto. That’s where Douglas read my Pluto poem.


Elaine: Douglas, you are probably most well known for your collections of animal poems, including BEAST FEAST, MAMMALABILIA, and my particular favorite INSECTLOPEDIA. Your four books of seasonal poems, WINTER EYES, SUMMERSAULTS, AUTUMNBLINGS, and HANDSPRINGS have also been very popular. Can you tell us what inspired you to write a collection of poems about space?

Douglas: The book was inspired by a visit to a school on Long Island. With an hour of time to kill I left the windowless gym where I was presenting, to wander the halls. I came upon a charming exhibit of art about the planets done by what looked to be first graders. It was so charming and fresh that I decided to do a book about space.

Elaine: Once you got the inspiration to write a book of space poems, how did you approach the project? Did you start with research, with your poems, or with your paintings?

Douglas: Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars began with much research. I visited the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. I took out many space books from the library and purchased several source volumes including The Compact NASA Atlas of the Solar System and The National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky. I also looked at several web sites online. When I found contradictory information online I usually turned to NASA's detailed authoritative site.

Elaine: Did you know much about astronomy before you began work on Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars?

Douglas: When I was young I was more interested in science fiction about space than the actual science. I enjoyed reading such authors as Isaac Asimov, the author of Foundation and Ray Bradbury, who wrote The Martian Chronicles. I even subscribed to the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction as a pre-teen. As an adult most of my knowledge came from such popular books as Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I did study astronomy very briefly in a Queens College physics course, but found far too much math involved.

Elaine: How long did the entire process of research, writing, and painting the illustrations for the book take you?

Douglas: The poems began to emerge from the research almost immediately. That's the way my mind works. Reading a fact can instantly spark a poem, such as when a black hole is referred to as a cosmic broom ("Wish I had one in my room"). The research was ongoing until the very end of the project, with my editors challenging some of my facts along the way. Of course some poems came from wordplay, such as Saturn containing the word turn or Jupiter being Jupiterrific. After about five weeks of writing I turned to painting the illustrations, which took another three months.

Elaine: Reviewers have had high praise for the paintings you made for this book. Can you tell us about the artwork you created for your book of space poems?

Douglas: I wanted a book of space to have art that expansively fills up the pages, unlike the previous poetry books I had done about animals, where the art is surrounded by much white space. I used gouache watercolor paints because they are so brilliant, and much collage to give energy to the book. I created little asides such as a picture of a Mercury car and racing feet on the painting of the planet Mercury. I used some historical references, such as an ancient mosaic of the god Neptune, and old engravings of the Sun doubling as sunspots. I often veered away from "naturalistic" colors of celestial objects, as astronomical books often do to better convey information. So my solar system is a green living thing, always changing and evolving in our understanding of it. Rubber stamp letters were ideal for adding information in a graphic way, such as the names of moons revolving around.

Elaine: How did you come up with the idea for the die-cut holes in the pages of the book?

Douglas: I used the die-cut holes to give the reader the feeling of a space voyage in a continuum of the universe. The holes both preview and review the art and also have a telescopic feeling to them.

Elaine: I read in a Publishers Weekly online article that your editor wrote you an email after the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status last August. How far had you come in the actual publishing process when the decision was made to change your poem about Pluto?

Douglas: I had actually been following the events of the convention of the International Astronomical Union, but I was surprised that Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet," as there had been much speculation that the astronomers were going to add planets to our solar system. I rewrote my Pluto poem within one hour of finding out the "bad" news, which, as it turns out, has been good news for me, as it is one of the funniest poems in the book. Too bad they didn't fire more planets!

Here’s a sprightly poem from COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AMD MARS:


Jupiter’s jumbo
So wide
Side to side,
But gaseous, not dense.
With some sixteen moons
It’s plainly prolific—
So super-dupiter

And here's part of the painting that illustrates the poem The Universe.

Take my word for it...this image does not do justice to Florian's illustrations in the book. You'll want to see his space art firsthand...and you'll want to read the rest of the poems in his latest book!

The poem Jupiter and the universe image were used here with permission. Poem and art © 2007 Douglas Florian.

I want to thank Douglas Florian for being such a wonderful interviewee and for giving me permission to post a poem and an image from his excellent new collection of space poems-- COMETS, STARS, THE MOON, AND MARS.


Tricia said...

Hi Elaine,
This is a terrific interview. As you know, I too love Douglas Florian. When I wrote a celebratory post about him on his birthday, he sent me a thank you note. He seems just lovely.
I have decided that I want to be you for a day and eat with Janet Wong, interview authors, hang out with Joseph Bruchac, and write lots and lots of poetry!

Elaine Magliaro said...


It's a great interview thanks to Douglas Florian! I heard him speak at the Children's Literature Institute at Simmons College in 2005. The 2001 institute was where I met Janet Wong. She's lovely, too and--like Douglas--very approachable. Come up to Boston this summer for the Simmons institute. I'll make you some potato pancakes, cold zabaglione, and introduce you to Grace Lin.
And we can write some poetry together!

Camille said...

Oh how I love Douglas Florian's art and poetry. Thank you for this terrific interview.

Greg Pincus said...

Wonderful interview, Elaine. I looooooveeee his work, both poetic and artistic, and it was great to read this interview, too. And a compliment on your Pluto poem???!!!! Sweeeeet.