Monday, January 11, 2021

Matt Forrest Esenwine: Picture Books, Poetry, and Voice


Today I want to welcome picture book author and poet, Matt Forrest Esenwine  Matt started out in radio, working behind the scenes and on the air. He still maintains a career as a voice actor. But the publication of one of his poems in a college journal when he was just a high school student led to a passion for poetry that’s never waned.  

Matt has written poems for adults and children. His lighthearted verses have appeared in prestigious children’s magazines such as Highlights, and in numerous collections including many edited by the renowned Lee Bennett Hopkins. Matt’s picture books include the spooky Flashlight Night and the rollicking Don’t Ask a Dinosaur, which was co-authored by Deborah Bruss. Once Upon Another Time, co-authored by Charles Ghigna, will be out in 2021. And I hear there is a lot more to come. I can’t wait!

What draws you to poetry, Matt?

I always tell people that one of the main reasons I love poetry is that you can say so much in a tight, compact little package. A poem can be full of imagery, emotion, wit, and beauty – and you don’t need 500 pages, or even 32. And with my attention span, I love that I can write a short little scene in just a few lines and then move on to something else!

Is it difficult to get published as a poet? Is it true that many editors discourage submissions of rhyming picture book texts? How do you approach marketing your work?

It is difficult, but I think the more you get your name and work out there, the easier it gets. I’d been writing poetry since I was in high school, but had never been published as a children’s writer, so it took some effort to show decision-makers what I could do. A lot of beginning children’s poets feel that they need to write silly poems, or write poems that rhyme, or use simple words…and none of that is necessarily true. There’s a wide variety of poetry out there for kids and the one thing you don’t want to do is try to be the next Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. Be your own writer and develop your own unique style.

As for editors, it’s true that many discourage rhyme, but that’s because they see so much bad rhyme: words that are simple or expected rhymes; slant rhymes, which are words that almost rhyme but don’t quite (man/hand, down/loud, can/pans); words that are used only for the sake of the rhyme and not to move the story forward; and uneven rhythm/meter. So in my cover letters, I rarely tell editors I have a rhyming PB, lest they develop a preconceived negative expectation – I just say it’s a PB and let them read it for themselves!

I created my blog back in 2012 as a way of showcasing my abilities – knowing how difficult it would be to promote my poetry – so that has been a very useful means of marketing. Taking part in online events like #PoetryFriday and #PBPitch has helped me promote and market my writing, and I’m very active on social media, which also helps tremendously. Moreover, having spent 25 years in radio as an on-air personality as well as a commercial production director, I’ve learned a lot about advertising!

Do you have any suggestions for those of us, like me, who’d like to sharpen our poetic skills?

I’d say the first thing anyone should do is read, read, read! As I mentioned earlier, so many folks just getting started are unfamiliar with the variety of children’s poetry out there:  the witty rhyming poetry of Douglas Florian, the understated simplicity of Charles Ghigna, the emotional insight of Nikki Grimes, the variety of voice and style of Jane Yolen. And there are so many others! Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, J. Patrick Lewis, Rebecca Kai Dotlich…the list goes on and on, and that doesn’t even include the long list of past children’s poets who have come before us.

As for honing one’s craft, I suggest paying attention to the story or scene; don’t just rhyme a word because you need a rhyme, don’t use words or imagery that a reader might already anticipate, and definitely pay attention that you’re not speaking down to the reader. Kids are smarter than you think! In fact, don’t even worry about rhyming in the first place –free verse poetry is a wonderful (and quite popular) option, and is a great way for beginning poets to practice learning their subject and honing their skills without worrying about rhyme and meter.

What suggestions do you have for teachers who’d like to share poetry with their students?

Again, introducing children to a variety of poetry is crucial, because I think the reason many adults don’t appreciate poetry is because they were never introduced to the right ‘kind’ of poetry – that is, poetry they actually enjoy – as children. People who love Shakespeare might not like the work of Charles Simic; those who love poetry slams probably can’t get into Robert Frost. But it’s all poetry, whether it’s Jack Prelutsky or Kwame Alexander! A few books I recommend:

       Catch Your Breath: Writing Poignant Poetry, Laura Purdie Salas (Capstone, 2015)

       Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater (Heinemann, 2017)

       Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry, Myra Cohn Livingston (HarperCollins, 1991)

       Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, Alice B. Fogel (Hobblebush Books, 2009)

You were one of the judges for the new poetry collection, Friends and Anemones. How did it feel to be on the other side of the desk, selecting poems instead of submitting them?

It was definitely an unusual experience! I’ve critiqued poems and manuscripts through critique groups and the SCBWI, but never in this particular situation. Kip and I used a spreadsheet program to vote 1, 2, or 3 (1 was yes, 2 meant good but needed work, 3 meant likely not) and then the editors compared our notes to theirs and we moved forward.

You wrote Don’t Ask a Dinosaur and Once Upon Another Time with co-authors. What was that like? How did you share in the creation of these books?

Jane Yolen has said in the past that co-authored books are twice the work and half the pay – which is funny, but true! However, the experience is extremely gratifying, as well, because you get twice the insight and joy of watching your baby grow with both “parents.” For each of these books, I was given the germ of an idea by my co-author, spent a great deal of time considering narrative possibilities, wrote the initial rough draft, and then worked with the co-author on 20 or so revisions before we’d finally polished it to the point of being submission-ready.

Even after the manuscripts were picked up by their publishers, it was a great deal of fun working on editorial revisions, bouncing ideas of each other and seeing what surprising, creative solutions we’d come up with. I’m actually in the process of submitting a poetry collection that is also a collaboration with a highly esteemed children’s poet, so fingers crossed!

Flashlight Night
was unique in many ways. You wrote it in second person, a device that invites the reader to participate in its adventure. You also the worked closely with illustrator in creating the book. How did this book evolve?

I wrote the manuscript after a long drive at night, when all I could see were my car’s headlights. The phrase, “Flashlight…opens up the night” popped into my head, and I had no idea what to do with it. So I worked on it as I continued my drive home and eventually nailed it down after a couple of weeks. I deliberately wrote it in such a way as to have the reader as the person on the adventure – there’s no “Billy did this” or “Sally said that” – there are no characters mentioned at all, save for the flashlight!

It’s interesting to note that a published author critiqued the manuscript and had a number of concerns, including:  a) I was using 2nd person POV; b) flashlights show reality, not imagination, c) a tomb was too scary for kids, and d) I needed a better opening line. Good thing I stuck with my instinct, or we wouldn’t have a book to talk about!

Illustrator Fred Koehler are Facebook friends, but we didn’t work together directly…although you might think we did! The seamlessness of text and picture are all due to editor Rebecca Davis’ magical juggling handiwork, keeping Fred and I apprised of what each of us was doing. At one point, there was one scene where Fred had a lot going on in a spread, but Rebecca felt it was taking the reader away from my narrative, so she had to “reel him in,” so to speak – but there was another part in the book where his sub-narrative of the flashlight showing the story didn’t really mesh with my initial ending, so I had to slightly alter my text to better match his vision. In the end, Rebecca’s work made for a beautiful blend of art and text, and the book has even been used as a mentor text for that very reason.

Once Upon Another Time
is coming out in March 2021. How exciting! What is it about?

It’s a poetic look at the natural world around us, what it used to be like before humans made their mark, and how we can all experience that world again. Charles Ghigna (aka, “Father Goose®”) initially shared with me the first 4 stanzas he’d written back in 2012; not knowing where to go with them, he asked if I had any ideas. So I thought about it for a while and came up with a proposal for a storyline, and sent it to him along with 4 more stanzas so he could get a sense of what I was thinking. Charles couldn’t believe how closely our writing styles matched, and suggested I finish writing the rough draft.

So that’s what I did! And after about a dozen revisions back-and-forth, we began sending it out. A lesson in tenacity and persistence to those who are just starting their publishing careers:  our manuscript was rejected at least 25 times before getting picked up by editor Naomi Krueger at Beaming Books. Twenty-five times – and that’s with the gravitas of Father Goose’ name attached to the project! So if you send out a manuscript once or twice and it goes nowhere, don’t give up!

You have an incredible number of other books in the chute. (Something like eight, right?) Certainly, something to look forward to in the future! Tell us more!  

Yes, eight more books under contract, including a board book to kick off the new year,
Elliot, the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm Publishing, 2021). I have two other board books on the way (possibly this year), a few more picture books, and a poetry collection I’m eager to talk about – but can’t yet!

Wow! That’s extraordinary! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I would just say that if you’re considering writing for children, do your homework and read as much as you can – not only to get a sense of the varieties of storytelling and books out there but to get a sense of the market. Learn as much as you can about craft, the industry, and the people already doing what you want to do. What’s that saying, “if you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people who are better at it than you?” That’s absolutely true! It’s what I did, reaching out to as many folks  as I could through social media as well as through the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).

In fact, I tell people I owe my entire career to lunch. I was attending my first SCBWI conference in 2011, and while chatting during lunchtime with my New Hampshire neighbor, the late Tomie dePaola, and SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver, I mentioned that I write poetry. Lin told me I needed to contact the late Lee Bennett Hopkins, since he was “the” children’s poetry guy! I had no idea who Lee was, but we eventually connected and he was so taken with my work he said he’d do what he could to help me with my career. He eventually introduced me to his longtime friend, Rebecca Davis, who would become my Flashlight Night editor and the editor for several of Lee’s poetry anthologies to which I’ve contributed.

So don’t forsake networking, don’t forsake learning the craft, don’t forsake revisions – and keep at it!

Thank you so much for being my guest today. Whether you’re interested in Matt Forrest Esenwine’s work as a children’s author or a voice actor, you can find out more at

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