Youth Will Be Served
Why Poet Elizabeth Spires Is Writing Kids' Books
Elizabeth Spires has published four volumes of poetry, receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Whiting Writer's Award for that work, but in recent years she's enjoyed a completely new kind of lyrical challenge: "There's something really freeing and fun about writing poems for a mouse."
Spires is referring to The Mouse of Amherst, her 1999 novel for readers ages 8 and up. For that book the author created Emmaline, a house mouse who lives with Emily Dickinson. The sensitive and sympathetic Emmaline recognizes her melancholy hostess' extraordinary talent and is inspired to pen her own verses in a similar style. The book was Spires' third work written for children; her fourth, I Am Arachne, was published this spring. During an interview in her North Baltimore home, where she lives with her husband, novelist Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls' Rising), and their 10-year-old daughter Celia, Spires talked about the reasons a critically acclaimed poet publishes children's literature.
"Writing poetry is not going to make you money you can live on," says Spires, whose poetry books include 1997's Wordling: Poems. "When you decide to [write poetry] when you're young, that doesn't make a difference. I've made a lot of accommodations." Besides penning book reviews and editing literary collections, she has long taught creative writing at all educational levels. (Spires currently holds a chair for distinguished achievement on the faculty of Goucher College's creative-writing program.) Her most recent career foray allows her to combine her various roles--poet, writer, teacher, mother--while reaching a far wider audience than her adult poetry ever has. It also places her in good company--poets from Ted Hughes to Nikki Giovanni have written for kids.
Spires first ventured into the field with two illustrated books of riddles, 1995's With One White Wing and 1999's Riddle Road. She was teaching in a middle school when she began writing the first book, and she realized that creating riddles for her students worked some of the same intellectual muscles that she called on in her poetry. The connection between poetry and riddle, Spires says, is metaphor.
"A lot of poetry operates on more than one level. A riddle has to [operate on more than one level] because it's keeping something from you--you can't come out and say what it is," she says. The different form of wordplay gave her something new to bring to her poetry. "If you write riddles every day, you get a new perspective. You start looking at things differently."
Perhaps most importantly, Spires found that writing for kids allowed her to enjoy the creativity of poetry without the need for outsized inspiration. "I can have more of a steady work routine," she says. Writing poetry requires "a pressing need" and "a strong response to something special," and Spires says the nature of the practice makes "you wonder if you will write more poems." Children's books provide an ongoing project that she can walk away from and return to without waiting for a flash of light.
That's not to say that Spires is slacking off with her children's books; these are works of literature as well. Take, for example, The Mouse of Amherst. The poet mined her love for Dickinson and came up with a witty, lyrical, and instructive way to bring the poet's work and life to children. Spires penned all of Emmaline's poetry (written in the style of Dickinson but aligned from a mouse's point of view). The book is charming and accessible but never condescending to its young readers.
"There's a real problem with people writing for kids and dumbing it down," Spires says. She originally feared that her literary approach might limit her audience; she was wrong. "I thought The Mouse of Amherst would appeal to a specific type of reader, [but] the paperback sold 10,000 in one month."
Spires' new book, I Am Arachne: Fifteen Greek and Roman Myths, reinvents familiar stories with the same charm and grace. She chose 15 myths--"half familiar, half less so"--and told each from a first-person perspective. In the title tale, Arachne explains how her vanity led her to challenge a goddess, who punished the weaver by turning her into a spider. In other tales, Callisto recounts how sleeping with a married man led to her position in the heavens as Ursa Major, and Eurydice gives the back story behind Orpheus' trip to Hades.
The writing is conversational, and Spires varies her approach, introducing one tale with mythical newspaper headlines ("Mt. Olympian: Poet Goes to Hell and Back") while casting another myth as a dialogue between two characters. Each narrator has a distinct voice and attitude, and Spires strikes an irreverent tone that makes the timeless stories feel contemporary.
Myths are standard territory for poets--in her classes at Goucher, Spires requires her students to read Edith Hamilton's Mythology--and Spires believes children are naturally drawn to gods and goddesses and their stories. Writing I Am Arachne allowed Spires to work from existing narratives but invent new details and work her own vision into the stories. "These are ancient stories, and they're very powerful," she says. Their longevity and familiarity ensure that these 15 tales can stand up to a dramatic retelling without losing their essential elements.
Given her way with words and poetic gift for imagery, it seems an unfair advantage over others who write for children that Spires has immediate access to a 10-year-old reader in her daughter Celia. Not so, Spires says. Other than observing her daughter's interests, the poet says she's seldom able to turn to her for input, especially criticism. "She's a very diplomatic person and probably would tell me it was OK when it wasn't."