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Kids like to scan his verse

With lines surreal or silly, Jack Prelutsky has been the preferred poet to two generations of children.

January 05, 2007|Hugo Kugiya | Associated Press

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WASH. — The birth of the bananaconda was an accident of insomnia, cable television and tropical produce.

"Books happen in odd ways," said poet Jack Prelutsky, creator of the bananaconda, a constrictor with the skin of a fruit.

So it was one sleepless night several years ago that he descended the stairs in his home for a snack, a banana, and settled into an easy chair. He found a TV documentary on the giant snake from the Amazon, noticed the coincidence of syllables, and inspiration struck. His poem begins:

"Oh sleek bananaconda

You longest long long fellow,

How sinuous and sly you are,

How slippery, how yellow."

Soon, he had invented "broccolions" and "potatoads" and within weeks had written "Scranimals," a compilation of logic-defying verse.

"He controls the language in such a brilliant way," said Susan Hirschman, Prelutsky's former longtime editor. "And he never repeats himself, he never takes the easy way out."

Prelutsky was recently named the first ever "children's poet laureate" by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. It's a title, complete with $25,000 cash prize and an inscribed medallion, that he will hold for two years, a sort of blessed community service that compels him to give two major public readings and act as advisor, ambassador and pollinator of his art.

He's done that unofficially for decades as the preferred poet of two generations of children. His more than 35 books, translated into several languages, have become mainstays of school libraries everywhere.

Prelutsky is lauded for many things: his cleverly silly wordplay....

"It makes me sad when lettuce leaves,

I laugh when dinner rolls ... "

Then there's his surrealism....

"Imagine if your precious nose

were sandwiched in between your toes,

that clearly would not be a treat,

for you'd be forced to smell your feet.... "

But ultimately, his poetry works because it is embraceable, because no matter how fun, how singable, it always empathizes.

Consider one of his most popular poems:

"Homework! Oh Homework!

I hate you! You stink!

I wish I could wash you

away in the sink,

if only a bomb

would explode you to bits.

Homework! Oh, Homework!

You're giving me fits!"

Though his publisher had doubts, Prelutsky felt sure it would strike a universal chord among children. He was right.

Before he was the poet laureate, he likes to say, he was the "poet laminate." So often he found his poems laminated and hung on the walls of schools, where he has given countless readings, always studying his audience.

His books have sold more than a million copies (children's poetry vastly outsells adult poetry), making him one of the bestselling living poets.

"In 99% of my life, I'm the same as the next guy," said Prelutsky, 66.

What sets him apart, he said, is that "one little, bizarre part of my bean brain."

It is a most curious 1% that muses about little girls who eat car parts, and imaginary creatures like the solitary spatuloon who resides in a blue lagoon and flips pancakes with its tail amid plaintive cries of "syrup!"

Given his audience, it surprises some that he has no children himself. He was 39 when he married, his wife 34.

"I always thought I would have children," he said. "One day it was just too late."

Because he has never been a parent, perhaps Prelutsky never stopped being a kid.

"I write what I would have liked to have heard when I was 10 years old," Prelutsky said. "One of the problems is that people expect us [children's poets] to be Santa Claus. And we're not Santa Claus."

One of his books, "The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight and Other Poems to Trouble Your Sleep," was banned by some school libraries -- a point he notes with pride.

Monsters and dinosaurs were favorites of Prelutsky's childhood. In his poetry, underwear, flatulence, boogers and the kid that gets picked on can all be funny.

"He's never winking at the parents over the heads of children," Hirschman said.

Prelutsky was born in Brooklyn, lived first in a tenement supposedly owned by a gangster and might have perished there had his Uncle Charlie, a Borscht Belt comic who would become a big influence, not retrieved the baby Jack from a fire.

He grew up in the Bronx, the older of two boys in a poor, working-class family. His father hid the family's Buick from the welfare officer, lest they lose benefits.

On the strength of his talents as a singer, he was admitted to the High School of Music & Art. As a college student, he discovered creativity and indulgence of life in Greenwich Village, running into young talents including Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Joan Baez.

He began writing poetry in his mid-20s but struggled. To make ends meet, he drove cabs, picked fruit, built loft beds, taught guitar and performed in coffeehouses and clubs.

He was nearly a pauper about 40 years ago when he arrived in an editor's office with 24 ink drawings he'd done of imaginary creatures. As an afterthought, he wrote poems to accompany them. The editor he showed them to was Hirschman.

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