This October I was able to make another trip to Highlights for a poetry workshop. It was WONDERFUL! I wrote a ton of poems, was inspired every single day, and a bond was forged with MANY new friends. I don’t think I could’ve predicted that. Not to this extent. So it was that I met Matt Forrest Esenwine, today’s author interview.
Matt Forrest Esenwine is a poet, a writer, and a voice talent. That’s right! You heard me. He has a voice every radio loves (though he’d probably be embarrassed if I told you that). He is also incredibly talented in rhyme and meter! I don’t have those genes (because I AM convince that is a part of our DNA and you either have it or you don’t), so I have deep respect for those who do. I cannot write in iambic pentameter or any other meter. I hear it one second and then it’s changed the next. YET I can hear the “music of words” and this is why I’m a free verse poet myself. (Funny note: while I was at the Highlights workshop, working with SO many rhyming poets, I began to think in meter. My free verse started to change to include an internal rhythm I had NO control over!) His debut picture book, “Flashlight Night,” came out last year with Boyds Mills Press. His second picture book, “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur,” came out earlier this year. He has also published several poems in poetry picture book anthologies collected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and J. Patrick Lewis, etc. You can learn more about Matt at his website.
We are going to discuss both of Matt’s picture books in our interview today as both are such unique beasts that they both need to be looked at. “Flashlight Night” is written by Matt and illustrated by Fred Koehler. The text is in rhyme and reads like an imaginative poem, but the illustrations take it to a whole new level. In the dark is where the real scene for the characters takes place. In the light of the flashlight is where imagination soars (you can see this right on the cover). It’s a very unique take on what kids imagine the dark to be and it is quite a work of art (both written and illustrated).
“Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” is co-written with Deborah Bruss and illustrated by Louie Chin. It too is told in rhyme that boggles! Those dinosaur names! They are complicated enough to rhyme with by themselves, but they must also fit the meter. And then to throw in a collaboration on the project? WHOA. Yet it’s an evergreen topic told with a funny twist that’s sure to grab kids’ attention. It’s not a book to miss because this is definitely a writing accomplishment to behold and study!
Me: Let’s talk about your journey into kid lit and picture books because it’s different from many of the other authors who have visited my blog. Can you give us more details on where you got started? What was your first publication (and where)? How many subsequent publications did you have in picture book poetry anthologies?
Matt: Well, I’d been writing ever since I was in school – my first published poem was something I wrote back in 10th or 11th grade, which was selected for inclusion in the local college’s literary magazine. That was exciting for someone so young, and it whet my appetite to continue writing poetry and trying to get published. So over the years, I’ve had numerous adult-oriented poems in various literary journals and anthologies.
In 2009, I had accumulated a number of children’s poems I didn’t know what to do with, so I started investigating the children’s poetry market and decided to make a concerted effort to become published there. I joined an SCBWI critique group and began studying the craft as well as the market. My first published children’s poem, “Apple-Stealing,” was in the Young Adult Review Network online journal and even though it was unpaid, it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which is a great honor!
Then in 2011, Lee Bennett Hopkins and I met online and he loved my work – and offered to assist me in getting published, which is also a great honor. Thanks to Lee, my first paid published children’s poem was “First Tooth,” in his 2015 anthology, Lullabye & Kisses Sweet (Abrams Appleseed). At this point, if one counts all the poems I’ve had published or are under contract for publication in anthologies, Highlights magazine, or the YA Review, the grand total comes to nearly 30 – so I feel like I’ve made great headway in a short amount of time!
Me: How then did you arrive at your debut picture book, “Flashlight Night” which was released last year? What did the writing process for this book look like?
Matt: I wrote the manuscript in August 2014 – the first draft took about a week, then I spent a couple more weeks tweaking and revising it before I sent it to Boyds Mills Press editor Rebecca Davis in September. I had known Rebecca for a couple of years at that point, having first been introduced by Lee! Rebecca had seen a couple of my poetry collections and liked my writing, although she had felt the manuscripts themselves weren’t quite right for her company. But with Flashlight Night, I received a call just a few months later from her, telling me that everyone loved it and they wanted to purchase it!
Me: I love Fred Koehler’s illustration choices for “Flashlight Night.” They are so imaginative. What was your favorite illustration? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Matt: I think my favorite spread is the one where the reader is looking through the rock arch at Fred’s version of the Cutty Sark, with the Kraken in the foreground. (It’s a popular spread among many readers, actually!) I think the two biggest surprises were Rebecca’s choice of Fred to be the illustrator, as his style was not really the style I’d had in mind while writing it, and his decision to use the light of the flashlight to turn the backyard and everything in it into the fantasy. That was absolutely brilliant, and nothing I’d ever considered.
I was also pleasantly surprised that Rebecca allowed me to see Fred’s sketches as he went along, asking my opinion about certain scenes. So I would share my thoughts, and sometimes she’d agree, sometimes not – which is right as an editor, of course. In one case, Fred’s illustrations were so detailed and there was so much going on, Rebecca and I felt it was taking away from the story, so she had to sort of “reel him” back in; but towards the end of the book, I had to change a few lines of my original text because it didn’t make sense, due to Fred’s sub-narrative of the kids playing outside. So it really was a collaborative effort; the melding of text and picture is one of the book’s greatest strengths.
Me: Your latest book, “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur,” also has an incredible rhyme scheme. However, this one was co-authored with Deborah Bruss. Can you talk about how the writing process was different with this book than “Flashlight Night”? How did you work with another writer when writing such a complicated rhyming text?
Matt: This book was a looong process! We wrote the first rough draft back in early 2013, I believe, but several years before that, Deb had written a manuscript about random animals putting on a birthday party and messing up – like porcupines popping balloons, etc. She had sent it to a few places, but had no interest, and wondered how she could revise it. The idea of dinosaurs was intriguing, because kids love dinosaurs, but she wasn’t sure how to turn this new idea into a full narrative. So since we were both members of the same SCBWI critique group, she asked me if I had any interest in working with her.
It took at least 3 months of thinking and banging ideas around in my head, but one day a thought came to me and I jotted down some lines…and by the end of the week, the first draft was completed! That, however, was just the beginning, as it took 2 more years and TWENTY revisions before we had the manuscript where we wanted it. New, unusual dinosaur species like Therezinosaurus would be added, others (like Spinosaurus, Microraptor, and Anchiceratops) would be taken out, words would be changed due to rhythm issues – there was a lot to consider. And we sent the manuscript off to 14 different publishing companies before Pow! Kids Books in New York City contacted us to purchase it in 2016!
Me: The illustrations for “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” by Louis Chin are fantastic; they really help to bring your words alive. I assume you researched the variety of dinosaurs in the book because of the rhyming text. Did you share that information with him for his illustrations? Or did he also have to research them? Did you communicate with him at all?
Matt: We didn’t work with Louie at all, although we did discuss illustrator options with the editor, Jordan Nielsen, before she decided to hire him. As for research, he did it all on his own! But again, like Flashlight Night, the editor shared with us Louie’s sketches to get our thoughts on them, and occasionally he did have to tweak them a bit.
Me: What surprised you in writing either story that you hadn’t encountered in your writing before?
Matt: I don’t know if these were ‘surprises,’ necessarily, but there are a couple of things that I think make these books stand out from others. First, Flashlight Night is written very poetically with a strict meter and lots of poetic devices like alliteration, internal rhyme, and rich vocabulary like “mizzenmast,” “craggy,” and “vessel.” This makes the story more interesting to read, and I’m overjoyed that at least a couple of reviews (School Library Journal, for one) refer to the text as a poem, which is what it was when it started out. After all, poetry will always be at the heart of whatever I wrote, even if it’s prose!
What makes Dinosaur unusual is that Deb and I include the dinosaur species names within the text – which was harder to write, but made the text much more satisfying in the end. In fact, when Jordan first contacted us, she said that she knew how hard it is to write in rhyme, and was blown away by the fact that we had managed to do what we did while still maintaining the rhythm! So that was really what sold the book for us.
Me: What other poems, books, or stories can we look forward to from you in the future?
Matt: I have a third picture book, Everybody Counts!, due out hopefully in 2020 or 2021…it’s in the very early stages, so I can’t say too much about it yet. In the meantime, I will have several poems in various upcoming anthologies including I Am Someone Else (Charlesbridge, July 2019), about kids pretending to be firefighters, dancers, knights, etc.; Night Wishes (Eerdmans, 2019), in which the inanimate objects in a child’s room are each saying good night; Construction People (Boyds Mills Press, April 2020), a follow-up to this past February’s very successful School People anthology; and a math-focused poetry anthology that probably won’t be out until 2020 or 2021. I also have a poem in the recently-released The Poetry of US (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2018), a blank verse sonnet which was a lot of fun to write. And at least two of my poems will be showing up in 2019 issues of Highlights for Children!
That’s awesome news! I look forward to reading each and every one of them. Thank you for stopping by Matt. Dear readers, have I got a treat for you! I’ve got a copy of “Flashnight Night” to give away to one lucky winner AND I’ve got a copy of “Don’t Ask a Dinosaur” to give away to another lucky winner. There are plenty of opportunities to enter and win at the Rafflecopter here. Good luck!