Author Interview: Kate Hosford Discusses Poetry in Picture Books, Teaching Poetry & You’ll Always Be My Chickadee

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By Gayleen Rabakukk

Today I’m thrilled to share an interview with one of my fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, author Kate Hosford. We discuss her latest picture book, along with writing and teaching poetry and how our writing interests shift over time.

Welcome back to Cynsations, Kate. I interviewed you in 2019 about A Songbird Dreams of Singing: Poems About Sleeping Animals, illustrated by Jennifer M. Potter (Running Press, 2019) and your new book is You’ll Always Be My Chickadee, illustrated by Sarah Gonzales (Chronicle Books, April 30, 2024). I detect a bird theme. Did Songbird help inspire You’ll Always Be My Chickadee?

Thank you for having me back, Gayleen! I do have a preoccupation with birds and learning that some songbirds dream of singing only increased my enthusiasm for these amazing creatures. So although neither book is actually about birds, once again a bird has worked its way into my title.

You’ll Always Be My Chickadee is about the steadfast love a parent feels for a child as they spend the day outdoors together. Each stanza ends with a similar tagline: you’ll always be my chickadee/sugar beet/ evergreen, etc. In addition to liking chickadees and observing them frequently growing up, I was also drawn to the chickadee for my title because I could create a nice internal rhyme with ‘be’.

What was the inspiration behind this book?

During the first summer of the pandemic, my family moved back to my home state of Vermont to be near my parents. I spent a lot of time thinking about the land where I grew up, which had a garden, forest, pond, river and meadow, and lots of wild animals. In a neighbor’s meadow nearby, there were also these fantastic Scottish cows called Belted Galloways.

Belted Galloways in the neighbor’s meadow.

I started imagining a story where a mother is showing her young child all the wonders of nature while simultaneously expressing how much she loves her. When my editor read the story, she pictured her childhood in Washington state, and when Sarah Gonzales, the illustrator, read the story, she pictured her childhood in British Columbia.

Interior spread from You’ll Always Be My Chickadee, illustrated by illustrated by Sarah Gonzales, used with permission.

In these uncertain times, I hope that children and adults who read the story will be comforted by its message. Perhaps they will even invent fun things that they will always be for one another.

You use lyrical, rhyming text to convey the bond between caregiver and child. Do you have tips for writers who want to incorporate rhyme into their picture books?

Reading rhyming poetry and listening to rhyming song lyrics can be helpful. When it comes to meter in rhyming songs, singer/songwriters have an advantage because they can provide an example of how to scan the lines.

Interior spread from You’ll Always Be My Chickadee, illustrated by illustrated by Sarah Gonzales, used with permission.

Writers do not have that luxury; once the words are on the page, we cannot guide the reader. Additionally, meter that works in our heads will not always work for our readers. Therefore, it’s important that we read our rhyming work out loud and also have other people read it out loud.

When creating rhymes, it’s important that the words feel natural. One forced rhyme is enough to take the reader out of the text. Good rhyme does not draw attention to itself. I like to think of it as the thread in the tapestry, holding everything together. The Ode Less Travelled; Unlocking the Poet Within by comedian Stephen Fry (Hutchinson, 2005) covers both meter and rhyme, and has helpful exercises one can do. It is also hilarious!

Sarah Gonzales’ illustrations are so joyful. What was the process of working together like?

Yes, I agree. Her illustrations are joyful, warm and vibrant! Kirkus commented on how they sometimes seem to “glow from within”. Sarah is an amazing illustrator from Montreal whose art combines watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, and digital work. Chronicle kept me in the loop throughout the illustration process from sketches to final art, and I reached out to Sarah once the final artwork was completed.

Interior spread from You’ll Always Be My Chickadee, illustrated by illustrated by Sarah Gonzales, used with permission.

We have been thinking about how we will market the book together. Sarah will be joining me for a May 3rd book launch at Books of Wonder in New York, and I plan to join her for the Montreal launch.

Can you talk about the editing process for this book?

My editor, Daria Harper, was a professional singer before becoming an editor and has a natural feeling for meter and rhyme. We did a couple rounds of editing, and although we didn’t make huge changes, the changes we did make were important. The process was so delightful. Puzzling over a couplet for hours is my happy place. I find it both relaxing and invigorating.

You also teach poetry, how does teaching influence your writing life?

When I was a fifth and sixth grade teacher, I taught year-long poetry units with lessons based on mentor texts. For the past year, I have been teaching poetry in an after-school program where I have learned a tremendous amount. My most recent class presented a few different challenges: it met from 4:15-5:15, there were twenty-one sessions during the fall term, and the group was mixed in terms of ages (7-11) and learning styles.

I really had to dig deep and think about how to keep poetry fresh over so many classes for this diverse group. I continued to have the students write poems based on mentor texts for some lessons, but also expanded into new forms of poetry such as blackout poetry, magnetic poetry and collage poetry. Some of these activities integrated art and poetry in a way that the students really enjoyed.

Next, I might want to try diorama poetry, or mobile poetry…there are so many good options! In terms of how this has affected my own writing, certain poetry exercises can be really helpful for accessing the subconscious, and I have enjoyed doing many of these exercises myself. I’m also inspired by the poetry of my students, such as this collage poem from a third grader.

What poetry resources do you recommend?

Some good teaching resources are Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? by Kenneth Koch (Knopf, 1973), Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, by Susan Wooldridge (Crown, 1997) and Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard (Heinemann, 1998/2024). There is also an updated version of Georgia’s book coming out in March.

One of my favorite multicultural anthologies is This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the World by Naomi Shihab Nye (Aladdin, 1996).

Your first book, Big Bouffant, published in 2011. Has your writing process changed over time? Have the stories you want to share shifted in any way?

I’m not sure my writing process has changed much, but perhaps my interests have changed. As the years go by, I find myself increasingly attracted to writing rhyming picture book texts and poetry collections. During the pandemic, I found myself mostly wanting to write stories about steadfast love and am working on some other stories that explore this theme. I’m also interested in writing more poetry collections based on various scientific themes. Aside from that, I am starting to explore other genres such as middle grade fiction and early readers.

What are you working on next?

Presently, I’m doing a post-graduate semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I’m working with writer, editor and teacher, Shelley Tanaka, and am focusing on a middle grade novel and early readers. It’s great to be back at VCFA after thirteen years!

Thanks again for having me back to Cynsations, Gayleen. It’s really been a pleasure!

Cynsational Notes

Kate Hosford is the author of six picture books and two poetry collections, garnering awards such as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Her books have been published in eight languages.

She is a graduate of Amherst College and Vermont College of Fine Arts where she earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her most recent book, You’ll Always Be My Chickadee, will be published on April 30th by Chronicle Books. Kate lives in Brooklyn with her family and is represented by Victoria Wells Arms at Wells Arms Literary/HG Agency.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library, an Austin SCBWI volunteer and bookseller at Paper Bark Birch Children’s Bookstore. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.