In the Beginning…
I used to be a hairy little bugger (though to look at me now, you might not believe it). My first home was an apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side, a neighborhood that overlooked the George Washington Bridge. My mother used to give me sunbaths on the fire escape.
Shortly after my fifth birthday, I found myself in kindergarten. I was happy to be in school. I had two younger brothers at home who were constantly soiling their diapers and crying for a change. I wonder if my parents sent me to school so they wouldn't have three kids at home crying for a change.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I was held back. I don't know if I flunked kindergarten or if there was a rule against passing students who were constantly crying for a change.
My initial disappointment quickly changed to gratitude. I was in love with my teacher. I would do anything to please her. I built the tallest alphabet-block skyscraper, wrote an essay on "The Meaning of Life," and learned how to add, subtract, and do trigonometry. I even occasionally kept my diapers dry.
Life after Kindergarten (or Things Picked Up Once I was Potty Trained)
My father must have been very successful. He and my mother spent most of their weekends looking for a home in a community with "good schools." They finally settled on Scarsdale, and we moved to a home that seemed to be in the "country."
As I unpacked my belongings, I worried about how I would survive another year of kindergarten in such a bastion of academic excellence. On the first day of school, I was flabbergasted to discover that I had graduated from kindergarten, skipped first grade, and was now in second grade.
Since I was no longer wearing diapers or sucking my thumb, there wasn't much to tease me about. But because I was the shortest kid in class, the teacher put me first in every line. It bugged the heck out of the kid who had that honor the previous year, so I came back from my first day of school with a black eye.
The battle wound gave the kids at my neighborhood bus stop an idea. They used me as a punching bag whenever they caught me. Lucky for me, I was pretty fast. I'd arrive early at the bus stop, hide behind a bush or tree, then scamper onto the bus after everyone else was on. I'd sit near the driver for safety, but I still got the occasional noogie.
I quickly made friends and began to enjoy school. I seem to recall that there were five boys and about twelve girls in my homeroom-a far cry from overcrowded classrooms I see today when I visit schools.
I did well in school, receiving mostly As and a few B+s. I was always chosen to be on teams because there were so few boys. If you ask me about my elementary school days, I'd say I was happy, popular, and a good student. But I don't think that's what my parents would say. You see, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about attending Sunday school or practicing my clarinet. My parents, who should have been happy that I wasn't a juvenile delinquent, were always on my case.
When I began fifth grade, I noticed that I was still the shortest kid and that the girls were, suddenly, twice as tall as I was. That's the year I learned to be respectful of the so-called weaker sex.
We had a recreational baseball league on Saturdays. I was the shortstop and usually batted first because I almost always got on base. Being short, I had a pretty small strike zone. If a pitcher did find the zone, I'd usually get some wood on the ball-enough for a single or double. I made up my mind in the seventh grade that I would go the whole season without striking out. I almost achieved that goal until I faced a pitcher who knew how to throw a curve ball.
My father must have become even more successful because we moved to a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood. I started the eighth grade not knowing anyone in my new school. I was still the shortest kid, but I had no trouble getting picked for basketball or touch football games-I lived across the street from an athletic field and always supplied the game ball.
I did pretty well academically in my first two years of high school, but nobody seemed to notice me-particularly girls. Then in my junior year, I made the varsity soccer and wrestling teams. I remember running around Scarsdale High School in my tights to lose weight for the weekly prematch weigh-ins. I was "discovered" by some sophomore and freshman girls, and high school started to be fun. In my senior year, I broke my ankle when I went out for the lacrosse team, so I wrote a sports column for the school newspaper. I don't think I showed any particular talent for writing in high school. The New York Times never offered me a million-dollar signing bonus to skip college and cover the Yankees.
I never understood the concept of building a "permanent record" to impress college admission directors until my junior year. That's too bad because I could have gone to almost any college if I had done as well in my freshman and sophomore years as I did in my junior and senior years.
As it worked out, I wound up at St. John's College-"the great books" college-in Annapolis, Maryland. I actually learned to read Greek (I didn't understand it, though), and my mind was stretched discussing Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aeschylus. What a year!
My second year wasn't as much fun. At St. John's, there are no electives. Everyone takes the same classes and reads the same "great books." In fact, I got so bored reading St. Thomas and St. Augustine (though I enjoyed reading the New and Old Testaments cover-to-cover) that I became a radical and traveled to Cuba during spring break.
That trip quickly got my mind out of the Middle Ages and into the front pages of the New York Times. I transferred from St. John's to New York University, so I could study political science and economics instead of classics.
I was living in the East Village during a very exciting time: the hippie era. I knew Abbie Hoffman, the famous Yippie, and a guy named Ed Sanders of the Fugs, a rock band that played dirty songs. Tie-dyed shirts and sandals was the dress code back then. With all the distractions, I made the transition from tiny classes to huge ones quite smoothly. My academic performance was stellar.
I quickly found myself in the middle of a group of friends, most of whom had transferred to NYU, who pretty much ran the extracurricular life at NYU. One of my friends edited the literary magazine. I became president of the glee club and editor of the political magazine.
I graduated with a major in philosophy, a minor in English, and almost enough credits for minors in political science, sociology, anthropology, nuclear physics, and psychology. I enjoyed learning new subjects and would have stayed on at NYU for another year or two if it hadn't been for the Vietnam War.
Because I had no inclination to shoot (or be shot by) people I had never met, I decided on a "career" as a graduate student in sociology-though I had no particular desire to be a sociologist (whatever that might be).
I was accepted by the University of Chicago. I spent two years improving my squash game and occasionally attending class. One summer, my strong interest in the civil rights movement led me to establish, publish, and edit an alternative community newspaper. (At the time, Hyde Park had a large black population.)
Toward the end of my second year at U of C, my father told me that as a result of business problems, he would no longer be able to pay for my education. I wasn't overly upset. When school ended, I rode a Honda 90 all the way from Chicago to New York. I started to grow up on that trip. I left my dependence and aimlessness behind me and decided I would take a job-no matter what-to support myself. Not only that, I decided I would be someone, though I had no idea who.
Working for a Living
I remember being tested for "aptitude." I learned I could be almost anything having to do with words or analytical thinking: a lawyer, a social scientist, a writer, a journalist, an advertising copywriter, an editor, a graffiti artist, a publisher. Never having thought about a career, I took pretty much the first job I was offered: a market research position for a beer company in Newark, New Jersey.
Though I didn't love the job, it launched me into the job market. Over the next five years, I switched positions and jobs several times, so I had lots of job titles: market researcher, advertising copywriter, advertising account executive (on Madison Avenue), marketing manager (at a candy company), and toilet scrubber.
I almost forgot to mention that I married Vicki during that period and that we had a baby, Douglas. I was crazy about Doug. I wanted him to have a home surrounded by grass and trees and ball fields, so I started looking for a job outside New York City. I remember the day a recruiter approached me about a job interview in Minnesota. I called Vicki and told her the good news. She said, "Minnesota? Where's that?"
In Minneapolis, my job was to develop new products for Pillsbury. We had a house surrounded by grass, trees, and lakes filled with icebergs. We were happy. Doug had a pacifier stuck in his mouth, a pet parakeet perched on his shoulder, and a baby sister named Dana, who seemed to annoy him from the start.
Jobs come and go. Mine went. I couldn't find a new job I liked, so I sort of freelanced on various short-term consulting projects. I formed my own advertising and marketing agency, which was distinguished by clients who couldn't afford to pay their bills. One client, a wild rice company, paid me in wild rice. Unfortunately, I had to rent a canoe to harvest it.
What I Wanted to Be If and When I Grew Up
What rescued me from poverty was something my wife did while caring for our two children; she and five other mothers wrote a cookbook called Feed Me! I'm Yours. A local childbirth education group funded its first publication, and we collated two thousand copies with the help of a local girls' basketball team. I lined up two interviews for Vicki with the food editors of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. When the articles were published, we sold out of all our copies.
After selling those copies, we decided to get the book published by a real publisher. We sent copies to scores of New York publishers and got scores of rejection notes, so we decided to publish the book ourselves, which is how I got to be a "real" publisher.
I arranged newspaper, radio, and TV interviews for Vicki in the top forty markets and made sure her book was in every bookstore in those cities. After booking Vicki on Donahue and completing an exhausting West Coast media trip, we hit some major milestones. Feed Me! I'm Yours reached number twenty-four on B. Dalton's bestseller list and passed one hundred thousand copies in print. Bantam made us an offer for paperback rights that equaled our copies-in-print number. That's how I figured out that I wanted to be a publisher when I grew up.
Over a thirteen-year period, we built Meadowbrook Press, book by book, to a position as one of the leading publishers of parenting books in North America. Unfortunately, I wanted the company to grow rapidly, and Vicki preferred it to grow slowly. There wasn't a right or wrong about it, but the differences at work ultimately led to a split.
The Write Way
Up until that time, I hadn't written any books. Vicki had been one of our star authors. I'd also published Lynn (For Better or For Worse) Johnston and Mary Ellen (Mary Ellen's Best of Helpful Hints) Pinkham. After the divorce, I didn't have enough money to afford to add any new authors, so I was forced to write or edit most of the books we published.
I became an author of baby name books, and I also wrote humor books for adults. In the '90s, I came up with an idea for a children's poetry book-an anthology of many poets' best work. (I had noticed that when my own children picked up their well-worn copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, they would read the same five or ten poems over and over again.) To find the poems kids liked best, I decided to test some poems in elementary schools.
My first poetry anthology was called Kids Pick the Funniest Poems for two reasons: 1) all the poems in the book were picked by a panel of elementary-school kids and 2) the poems they liked best were the funny ones.
As long as I was testing poems on children, I decided to write a few to see what the response would be. In fact, kids didn't "pick" any of my poems, so I didn't put any into that first edition. (My writing improved, so I added some of my own poems in later editions.)
That book went on to be a big success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. (In most bookstores, it's become the fourth best-selling children's poetry book-after three by Shel Silverstein.) I was bitten by the poetry bug.
I actually learned how to write children's poems while working on The New Adventures of Mother Goose (now titled Mary Had a Little Jam), a poetry anthology aimed at preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders. I learned how to rewrite the classic nursery rhymes by creating a new story with the original rhythm and rhyme pattern. To get them just right, I'd rewrite them over and over. And to make sure they worked, I tested them in day-care and kindergarten classes. Since we couldn't ask the children to "rate" the poems, we had to watch their eyes and faces while we read. If they smiled or giggled, we figured they liked the poems. If they cried for a change, we figured they didn't like the poems.
While doing media interviews to promote The New Adventures of Mother Goose, a reporter from the Baltimore Sun said, "I gather that you think Mother Goose is sexist, mean-spirited, violent, and bigoted. What do you think of the Grimm brothers?"
I thought about it for a moment and answered, "Sexist, mean-spirited, violent, and bigoted."
What I find sexist is that most of the Grimm brothers' female protagonists (main female characters) are beautiful and kind but wimpy. They usually have to be rescued by Prince Charming, who saves them from their dysfunctional families and marries them. (Prince Charming sure married a lot of damsels in distress. In those days, maybe it wasn't against the law for one prince to have lots of wives.)
What I find mean-spirited and violent are stories like "Hansel and Gretel." Little children are abandoned in woods, and they meet a wicked witch who wants to bake them in an oven and eat them. Likewise, "Jack and the Beanstalk" is about a dull-witted kid who is almost eaten by a giant. "Snow White" is a story about an evil queen who is so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty, she tries to have her killed; when she learns Snow White is still alive, she dresses up as a witch and tries to poison her. And they say that Hollywood movies are violent.
What I find bigoted are stories in which stepmothers and stepsisters are all mean and ugly, guys named Jack are all dull-witted but lucky, and princes are all handsome and great kissers.
As I answered the reporter's question, I realized kids needed new fairy tales that departed from the Grimm brothers' standard recipe. Shortly after the interview, I started writing a story called "The Fairy Godmother's Assistant," a newfangled fairy tale that portrayed Cinderella as a pathetic weeper. The hero of the story was the fairy godmother's assistant-a clever young woman who used common sense rather than magic to help Cinderella get to the ball.
That story led me to develop two series of short stories: Girls to the Rescue (stories about clever, courageous girls) and Newfangled Fairy Tales (fairy tales with a clever twist). Although it takes me a lot more time and effort to write stories than it does to write poems, my delight is all the greater when I manage to write something that kids enjoy.
My Life as a Performer
Since that time, I've edited eight poetry anthologies and filled four books with my very own poems: My Dog Ate My Homework, If Pigs Could Fly, Funny Little Poems for Funny Little People and Sweet Dreams. Because I spent a lot of time reading poems and testing responses in classrooms, schools started inviting me to perform at assemblies. I don't think I had any natural talent as a performer, but the pretested poems were so well received that teachers at one school would recommend me to teachers at another school. I was motivated to go out on the school "circuit."
I had performed my poetry assembly at seventy-five schools before a teacher asked, "What do you charge?" (I had no idea that schools had any money to pay for assemblies or that my assemblies were worth paying for.) I said the first price that came to mind, and to my amazement, she said, "Okay."
Over the last five years, I've performed at hundreds of schools. It is my goal to put on the most entertaining, the most educational, and the most motivating assembly a school has ever had. Quite often, that's what teachers tell me as I'm walking out the door. (Perhaps they say that because they know I won't leave until they either praise me to the skies or say those magic words: "Please go.")
These days, I have lots of challenges. I am still publisher at Meadowbrook Press with responsibility for finding new books to publish. I still write several books a year, and I still go out on the circuit to visit schools, writers' conferences, and bookstores. What's new is that I have created several popular websites (including gigglepoetry.com for kids, poetryteachers.com and fictionteachers.com for teachers, and meadowbrookpress.com for customers), and I enjoy updating them. I can't possibly visit all the schools who want me, so I try, via the Internet, to help kids discover the fun of reading and writing stories and poetry.