04/14/2015 03:59 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2015

K.A. Holt On Writing Poems For Kids, And Why Gender-Related Reading Habits Are A Myth

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K.A. Holt's poems have energy; to read one of her books is to go on an adventure. Which is why it's great that she's currently so focused on penning poetry for kids and young adults -- she takes the medium back to its playful roots.

"I do think that this insatiable, damaging focus on testing is making it harder for all children to be able to just pick up a book and read for fun," Holt says. As a mother of elementary-aged kids, she feels personally impacted. "It's pretty harrowing," she adds.

Though the heroes of Holt's books -- which are typically compilations of poems that collectively tell a story -- are frequently rebellious boys, she rejects the idea that books should aim to interest young male readers. "I see just as many boys with books in their hands I as I see girls," she says.

Holt's new book, House Arrest, is out later this year. Read her views on humor, and why reading "is not really a girl thing or a boy thing," along with an excerpt from her previous book, Rhyme Schemer:

What do you think poetry offers that other mediums don’t?
Poetry has this amazing ability to take everything you get in literature and boil it all down to its essence. The drama, mood, character ... everything is tighter but in a way that requires trust from your audience. You give them these ingredients and then you have to trust your reader to share the emotions you're trying to convey.

What led you to fall in love with poetry?
I'm a verbose kind of person, so being forced to take my thoughts and ideas and convey them through metaphor and imagery (and sometimes syllable counts and rhythm and rhyme) is such a lovely challenge. Being forced to get to the point is something I need and love.

What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?
Read it more than once. Go through it first and enjoy the sounds, the rhythm, then read it again and find the hidden assonance and consonance. Go through it again and look for patterns in words and meanings. By the time you're done, you realize that this one poem is really four or five poems depending on how you read it.

Which contemporary poets do you think people should read?
I think if you have someone who is skeptical about poetry, or who thinks it's complicated and awful, sit them down and read Billy Collins to them out loud. His poetry is so accessible. It's full of literary and historic references, and pathos, but it's also funny and relatable. I also really enjoy Tracy K. Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, the blackout poetry of Austin Kleon, and, of course, middle grade verse novels like the ones written by Kwame Alexander and Jacqueline Woodson.

You often write verse about young boys. What do you like about them as subjects?
I have two young boys of my own (and a daughter) and I always find myself wondering what they're thinking. How can I see the world through their eyes, where everything is so bright and then so dark, so light and then so heavy? My boys are sensitive souls and I work hard to help them understand that emotion is okay. I enjoy writing about kids who will appeal to everyone, because everyone has complicated inner workings they are trying to sort out. It's not really a girl thing or a boy thing.

Boys are often discussed as being less inclined to read fiction or poetry than girls. Why do you think that is?
I'm not so sure this is true. I think there is a prevalent assumption that boys read less than girls, but in my experience (and I am at the elementary and middle school every day picking up my kids) I see just as many boys with books in their hands I as I see girls. I do think that this insatiable, damaging focus on testing is making it harder for all children to be able to just pick up a book and read for fun, and that is pretty harrowing.

Your poetry is described as humorous. What makes a poem funny?
Humor is always in the eye of the beholder, you know? You can use rhyme to get a giggle. You can throw off the rhythm of a piece to go for something surprising and dissonant. I like surprising my reader with analogies that aren't typical, and I like to make people snort with empathy -- the kind of humor that's sort of dark and relatable and funny all at the same time. That doesn't mean I won't throw in a fart joke (because I totally will), but I do enjoy humor that has just enough of a poke to make you think, too.

In your forthcoming book, House Arrest, a boy is instructed to keep a journal, and his mentor says there "no rules." How do you feel about rules as applied to poetry and writing?
The thing I like about rules is that once you learn them, you can break them. You know you're not supposed to begin a sentence with the word But. You know traditional haiku is about nature. But just because you know these things doesn't mean you always have to obey them. Being able to take the rules of writing and poetry and give them your own spin ... that's a freedom I like to explore, and a freedom I encourage other writers to explore. Pushing boundaries is not just for your characters.

Read an excerpt from K.A. Holt's Rhyme Schemer:

K.A. Holt's 'Rhyme Schemer'


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