Five Minutes with J Patrick Lewis

J Patrick LewisHow can you not love a guy whose writing includes a book called Hippopotamustn’t? J Patrick Lewis, author, poet, a twin, and a former Professor of Economics (really), is indeed the talent behind nearly 100 children’s books. And one of my very favorites.

I apparently am not alone, because the literary world has honored Pat with award after notable award, hailing from organizations like the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. The one however, that stands out to me, is the designation of U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate. Wow…that’s like, one of those honors that becomes part of your definition.

Pat Lewis’ body of work is impressive and smart and diverse. There are obvious “kid’s” books like the Tugg & Teeny books, First Dog or God Made the Skunk. But there are equally as many “serious” selections like the wonderful When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders or the fascinating Harlem Hellfighters or And The Soldiers Sang. Young or old, there’s a JPL title that will keep you turning the pages.

I have to say, as I have previously, children’s authors have a special place with me. And for many reasons. I’ve discovered though, that in addition to all the other qualities that I respect in so many of them so much, it's just their general personality that makes them so...appealing. What I mean is, it seems that the majority of the children’s authors I’ve interviewed, share an almost comical take on life and work and their craft. It lends them to humor and a lightness that isn’t as common in so many other areas. And (how do I say this?), they’re, well…they’re chatty. Which is fine with me!

Pat Lewis is no exception to any of this. His FOTF answers, to me, were like a good baby-bear bowl of porridge…not too hot, not too cold, but just right. And he immediately comes across with a great wit and cleverness in his words and answers. It’s no surprise that he said, when asked what he used to want to be when he grew up, “…when I finally grew up, I realized I didn't want to stop being a kid after all. So I didn't.” That’s so something you might hear Willy Wonka say, isn’t it? :) Profoundly simple. Cool.

Something that will immediately impress or turn me off from a public figure, is their willingness (or lack thereof) to connect. The simple fact that I’m chatting with an author who visits over 50 Elementary schools a year to talk, share and connect with his “key demographic”, leads me to believe that he’s either very strategic in his efforts, or he’s a genuinely cool guy, who cares about the kids he’s writing for. I opt for the latter, and it compels me to listen to his answers even more intently and draw out the bits of wisdom and inspiration. Because who wouldn’t want to emulate someone like that?

I suggest you learn all you can and dig deeply into JPL’s broad and deep history or writing, and take home as many titles for your kids, grandkids or yourself, as you possibly can. His online home is at And you can purchase his works at any reputable online retailer (Amazon - or local bookstore. And you should no doubt find a plethora of JPL titles at your local or school library. If you don’t, tell your librarian to order a few!

This FOTF has been a tremendous pleasure for me. And I hope you’ll join me for the next five minutes (or less) and read, enjoy and be inspired by the words of one of the most loved children’s authors of our time, J Patrick Lewis!


(This FOTF is also available at


1.   Who has been your greatest influence (personally or artistically), and how?

In short, other people’s books. That is, the classic poets—Wordsworth,
Yeats, Auden, Frost, Dickinson, Larkin, the Thomases (Dylan and Edward), and so many others. And the classic children’s poets as well, namely, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I could mention a number of other brilliant writers, but I think no one in the 20th or present century has been able to surpass Lear and Carroll for imaginative power.

2.    Which previous job/project had the most impact on you, and why?

I wish I could say that half of the lies in that tongue-in-cheek biography (as in rodeo cowboy, secret agent and Russian spy) were true, but the only other job I’ve ever had was teaching economics to college students (Ph.D. The Ohio State University, 1974), which I did for 30 years. I wrote economics articles and many book reviews, all of which were deadly dull—an ironclad  requirement of the profession. But all of us deserve one epiphany in life, and mine came at the hoary age of 40 when I discovered Sister Poetry. There followed my transformation into a motley fool for verse. After another decade in the classroom—I could not afford to quit my day job—I finally awakened to the thought that I could become a full-time writer. And so I have.

3.    Is there a “secret of success”? If so, what? And if not, why?

The secret of success is no secret. I wish I could say it was inspiration, but my muse is usually putting on lipstick or reading Proust. I can’t remember the last time she sat on my shoulder and whispered sublime poetry ideas in my ear. As Thomas Edison put it, more or less, inspiration has very little to do with success. Perspiration is all.

Without seeming overly earnest, I confess that I’m at my desk by 7 AM every day, except when I’m making elementary school visits or attending conferences. If I had to define the secret of success, I would say it involves placing one’s butt firmly in a chair for very long hours. Not writing every minute, but reading and rewriting in equal parts. Samuel Johnson said, two hundred years ago: “Never trust anyone who writes more than he reads.”

4.    Is there a particular moment or event that had a great effect on your life or career?

I think of two seminal events. The first was at my birth when I heard a joyful noise of mewling and burping next to me in the crib. Yes, I was a twin. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I tell schoolchildren at all of my visits: If you can arrange it, get yourself a twin. My brother is the smartest person I’ve ever met personally. He is my first editor, the only one I show my work to when I think it is ready to fly to a publisher. I trust his judgment. If a poem passes muster with him, then I let it go. If not, then I keep working on it.

The second “moment”: As I was approaching my fifth decade, I happened to be dating an English professor. In the twilight nights of our courtship, we would bill and coo and read poetry to each other. And reading poetry was an entirely new experience for me. Then and there I was hooked. Eventually, the professor resumed her life, and I mine . . . separately. But I suppose I should thank her for the gift of poetry (not to mention the billing and cooing).

5.    If you could share one, single pearl of wisdom, what would it be?

Only one? Not fair.

—To state the obvious: Read, read, read.

—To state an absolute: Tell yourself you will always be a rewriter.

Don’t rhyme. When I was a child, my teachers told me, “Don’t draw outside the lines.” That’s horrible advice. Ask all illustrators and they will tell you the first rule of art: Break borders. I implore schoolchildren, Don’t put yourself in the box of rhymes. It’s too difficult to write yourself out of it. Many of my poems rhyme because I believe that sound is every bit as important as sense. But young writers are notoriously bad at writing. What they are good at is “saying the darnedest things,” i.e., coming up with natural and startling metaphors that are the envy of adult poets. But that’s a gift they will lose, studies have shown, by the time that are 11 or 12. Then they will have to do what the rest of us do: Sit in a chair for long hours at a time cobbling together metaphorical language.

—Verbs are muscles. Adjectives and adverbs are fat. The latter are the undertakers of good writing. As Mark Twain said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” And as Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Well, if you roll that list into one, you have my single pearl of wisdom.

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