Friday, April 1, 2011

PoetryTagTime: A Conversation with Janet Wong & Sylvia Vardell

A Poetry Conversation with Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell about Their Exciting New PoetryTagTime Project

About PoetryTagTime (From the PoetryTagTime Website):

PoetryTagTime is the first electronic-only poetry anthology for kids! With 30 new poems by 30 well-known contemporary poets writing for children today, here is a poem-a-day for a month of poetry reading, sharing, and exploring.

Jack Prelutsky starts us off with a down-to-earth poem about the moon. Neither balloon nor cheese nor sun, it is... just the moon. Then: Tag--You’re IT! It’s Joyce Sidman’s turn.

Jack’s poem makes Joyce think of the sun as an egg yolk and she shares a shape poem, “Maybe.” Joyce then chooses Nikki Grimes: Tag--You’re IT!

Nikki connects to Joyce’s poem with a dancing prairie sunflower... and so on. A month of poems later, Janet Wong brings us back where Jack began: with the moon...sort of. Read the book and find out!

Thirty of the world’s best children’s poets play Poetry Tag in this eBook anthology designed for READ-ALOUD FUN, connecting subjects ranging from snow to dogs to smelly hotels to YouTube to turtles and toenails.

Why an eBook?

JW: Let me say first that I have been blessed with some of the best publishers and I am so thankful to them for publishing gorgeous hardcover books. I don’t think that eBooks can be a substitute for regular books. But poetry books are expensive. They rarely are put into paperback, so a book of poems usually costs $17 or more.

At last fall’s NCTE conference for teachers, I talked with a teacher who was so frustrated because she was dying to buy a dozen new poetry books that she’d gotten excited about during the Poetry Notables session and Sylvia’s blog session, but she had no official budget for books for her classroom, and she’d already spent hundreds of dollars of her own money that year on books for her students. She was going nuts trying to decide which additional 1 or 2 books she could afford.

SV: We liked the idea of using technology to get more poetry out to more kids and at an affordable price. We know people are eager for good books for their Kindles, Nooks, iPads, etc., but there’s not much available in the way of poetry, particularly for kids. And we thought it might be fun to create an anthology with the e-reader in mind, rather than converting a paper book into an electronic one. So, it was an adventure on many levels.

JW: The best thing about eBooks is that they cost very little to produce, so an eBook can be sold for $3.99 and still be slightly profitable to a publisher. PoetryTagTime costs only 99 cents; we’ll tell you more about that later. A teacher can afford to buy a whole library of eBooks. And you don’t need a Kindle or iPad to read these books--you can download an eBook to your phone, or your regular computer. I really feel that eBooks have become the best way to bring poetry to children in an affordable way.

Tell us more about how you’re able to offer PoetryTagTime for 99 cents. Will you be making any money?

JW: We probably won’t even cover our expenses unless 100,000 copies are sold. But we see this as a Public Service Project for poetry. Our poets generously donated use of their poems--original, unpublished poems--for just a penny per download because they believed in our mission. We want to reach people who never have bought poetry before, to make poetry an “impulse buy.” There are millions of people out there with Kindles and iPads and Nooks who are looking for content and most of those people have never thought about buying poetry. (A lot of people have negative memories of poetry homework.) If we can somehow get them just to read our book, we know they’ll fall in love with the work of today’s poets. It’s really easy to give an eBook as a gift; you just enter the email address of the person you want to give the book to, enter your credit card info, and click send. We’re hoping that the people reading blogs like this one will become Poetry Evangelists and start spreading the word about this 99-cent book!

Can you explain PoetryTagTime’s “tag” format?

SV: In PoetryTagTime, when a poet is tagged, that poet must write a poem that connects with the previous poem. Part of the fun is the poet’s explanation of the sometimes-whimsical “connection” between the two poems. PoetryTagTime is a chain of poets and poems that makes language part of a playful game. So, for instance, Jack Prelutsky started us off with a poem about the moon. Joyce Sidman followed that poem with a prose “connection piece” that talked about the moon and sun, and then her poem imagined the world as an egg that split, with the yolk becoming the sun. Joyce tagged Nikki Grimes, who followed with a poem about sunflowers. And on and on—30 times! We love the notion that kids PLAY tag, and we wanted to encourage PLAYING with poetry, too.

How long did it take to assemble this anthology?

SV: We decided to start this project at the NCTE convention in November, and we knew that we wanted it to debut on April 1st, so we were under a very tight deadline. We asked our poets to spend no more than a day or two on their poem and connection piece and they all delivered beautifully!

JW: Actually, Sylvia politely gave deadlines of a day or two or three, and I sent follow-up emails begging for poems to be sent in a day or even a few hours. But I think that the quick pace of this book gave the poems a certain freshness. This whole process also provides a great model for kids, who usually have just a few hours to do their homework poems.

SV: Yes, we’re hoping that children might want to compile their own anthologies based on this eBook, or to play their own PoetryTagTime game. I’ve created an “ancillary” blog as a kind of “readers’ guide” for our e-book, chock-a-block full of ideas for sharing these poems with kids in a variety of creative ways. Go to

Do you see PoetryTagTime being used mainly in a classroom or at home?

SV: We think it would be really neat if a teacher, librarian, or principal started each day by reading a poem. There are 30 poems here, one for each day of National Poetry Month—or for nearly any month, for that matter.

JW: Or a teacher could visit our website,, with her class. At the website, each of our contributing poets has a short bio, a photo, and a list of books. Each student could pretend to be one poet and read that poet’s poem from our eBook aloud. Someone might choose Robert Weinstock because they love the great drawing of him that his daughter did, or they might choose April Halprin Wayland because they like the title of the poem “World Wide Wag.” It would be great fun to have kids stand up and say, “Hello, I’m Jack Prelutsky, the first Children’s Poet Laureate” or “I’m the current Children’s Poet Laureate, Mary Ann Hoberman.” And each month we hope to update by adding poets reading their poems aloud, so kids will actually be able to hear some of the poets themselves.

SV: And I would like to see kids reading their poems at home to their brothers and sisters or grandmothers. My favorite book, when I was a child, was a book of nursery rhymes in German (my first language). I remember memorizing my favorite poem and reciting it to my mother. She was so happy and proud!

We’ve entered an alliance with to make PoetryTagTime available to children in Ghana and Kenya, where the oral tradition is strong. We love the idea of families sitting together sharing and enjoying poetry.

Will there be more PoetryTagTime anthologies?

SV: Yes! We started with 30 poets in our game of "poetry tag" and we're hoping this will be the first in a series of paperless poetry books for kids. There are many poets whose work we would love to include!

The 30 PoetryTagTime Poets

Calef Brown

Leslie Bulion

Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Douglas Florian

Betsy Franco

Helen Frost

Joan Bransfield Graham

Nikki Grimes

Avis Harley

David L. Harrison

Mary Ann Hoberman

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Paul B. Janeczko

Bobbi Katz

X. J. Kennedy

Julie Larios

J. Patrick Lewis

Pat Mora

Ann Whitford Paul

Jack Prelutsky

Laura Purdie Salas

Alice Schertle

Joyce Sidman

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

April Halprin Wayland

Carole Boston Weatherford

Robert Weinstock

Janet Wong

Jane Yolen

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

PoetryTagTime Table of Contents

PoetryTagTime Tips (A Blog)


Check out my National Poetry Month Resources for 2011 post at Wild Rose Reader.

Amy has the Poetry Friday Roundup at The Poem Farm.


jama said...

Wow! What a great project. Enjoyed hearing all the details from Sylvia and Janet. Wonderful way to spread the love of poetry. ♥

Bridget R. Wilson said...

I'd never considered the cost before for teachers and school librarians alike. A friend of mine just moved from the public library environment to a school library and she's told about the reduction in budget.

I think this is a great idea and I hope to see more ebook poetry collections in the future. I've bought my copy and I'm loving it.

Amy L V said...

It's a treat to hear the story behind this project. As a participant, I can't say enough how exciting it was to wait for, receive, and respond to a secret poem! I will definitely try this with students! Thank you for the interview, Elaine. A.

Mary Lee said...

I got my copy, and I'll be lobbying out tech guy to get this on our school's set of iPods! SO MUCH FUN!!! (love the graphics)

Martha Calderaro said...

Great project -- and great to go behind the scenes on it! Happy Poetry Month!

Linda B said...

I did a poetry tag event with my poetry group. They loved it. Can't wait to tell the students about this book!