In Memory: Lee Bennett Hopkins

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Lee Bennett Hopkins, celebrated and renowned poet, educator, and anthologist, died Aug. 8 in Cape Coral, Florida. He was 81.

Obituary: Lee Bennett Hopkins from The New York Times. Peek:

Mr. Hopkins was famed in the children’s book world for championing poetry as well as for the sheer volume of his output. Beginning in the late 1960s he published more than 100 anthologies over a half-century.”

Obituary: Lee Bennett Hopkins from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“One of Hopkins’s longtime editors, Rebecca Davis, senior editor at Boyds Mills and Kane, and poetry imprint WordSong Press, offered words of remembrance: ‘Lee was a teacher, mentor, and friend to countless poets, and to editors too.’”

The Horn Book’s Roger Sutton memorialized Hopkins by asking, “With his own work, his anthologies, and his nurturing of new poets, is there anyone who has done more for American children’s poetry than Lee?” Sutton posted Hopkins’s letter to The Horn Book advocating for Black voices in children’s poetry.

Hopkins, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on April 13, 1938, was the oldest of three children. He chronicled the hopes and troubles of his youth in his poetry collection Been to Yesterdays (WordSong, 1995). He attended Newark State Teachers College (now Kean University).

After impressing his principal during his first years of teaching, she secured him a scholarship with Bank Street College of Education. While taking graduate courses and continuing to work as a resource teacher, Hopkins continually looked for new ways to connect children with literature and poetry.

Hopkins’s passion to connect children with poetry drove his work. Of his days as an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, he said in an NPR interview, “My work in poetry was really influenced by the children I was teaching. I found that using poetry with them was a very miraculous thing…. Poems are usually short, vocabulary simple, and I’ve always maintained that more can be said or felt in eight or 10 lines than sometimes an entire novel.”

When Hopkins searched for poems by Langston Hughes to share with his students after the poet’s death, he found only one for children and it contained disrespectful illustrations from the 1930s. This inspired Hopkins to create poetry anthologies for children.

Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi (Knopf, 1969) was Hopkins’s first of 120 anthologies. Hopkins holds the Guinness World Record for most prolific anthologist of poetry for children.

He had three anthologies come out last year: School People, illustrated by Ellen Shi (WordSong 2018), World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abrams 2018), and A Bunch of Punctuation (WordSong, 2018), illustrated by Serge Bloch.

Forthcoming in October 2019 is his anthology I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage (Lee & Low) and in March 2020 is his anthology Construction People, illustrated by Ellen Shi (WordSong).

Hopkins worked as a curriculum and editorial specialist for Scholastic. Hopkins has left behind a vast legacy of work spanning several genres and subjects.

Even though much of his work contains fun, light verse, he remained dedicated to connecting children to serious material as well. He writes in the opening of America at War, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (McElderry, 2008), “What is emphasized is the emotional impact—the torment, grief, and angst that men, women, and children feel as war becomes part of their present-day lives, their future and forever-afters.”

In addition to winning the Regina Medal in 2016, the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2009, the Golden Kite Honor Book in 1996, and the Christopher Award in 1995, Hopkins established awards in his name to recognize outstanding poetry for children.

With the International Literacy Association he created the ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award and with SCBWI he established the SCBWI Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award.

Social media was full of tributes to Hopkins as news of his death broke: Nikki Grimes, Sharon Draper, Lin Oliver, and Jane Yolen.

Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “I adored Lee. We made time to visit when our author events overlapped. I was his go-to for online author marketing. He encouraged me to write children’s poetry and eventually included a poem of mine in a picture book collection. If you’re a writer for young readers, do your craft a favor and acquaint yourself with Lee’s formidable body of work.”

Listen to Hopkins share one of his poems on YouTube with NoWaterRiver.

Cynsational Notes

Lee Bennett Hopkins Left Legacy of Anthologies, Careers Launched, and the Call To Infuse Poetry Daily Across the Curriculum by Kara Yorio from School Library Journal. Peek: “‘If every teacher in America would read poems every day, he would have been thrilled,’ [Sylvia] Vardell says. ‘It’s really that simple. He just felt like everybody would be a better person if they had a diet of poetry…. Every day. Every kid. Every classroom.'”

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.