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

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:

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen
Yes, From Prada to Nada was meant to be a... liberal... interpretation of Jane Austen's classic about a flighty, sentimental girl's path to maturity. It's somehow difficult to imagine that a present-day Marianne would say, "I love poetry and... Prada!" or "No more shopping. No high-protein diet. Poor people only eat carbs."

Reviewer's take on From Prada to Nada (from Jam! Movies): "Hear that funny swooshing noise? That's the sound of Jane Austen spinning in her grave."
'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson
Jackson's novel is a smart and thrilling ghost story -- it was even nominated for a National Book Award in 1959, and adapted into a great and terrifying film in 1963. The 1999 remake, however, might be one of the very worst horror movies to crop up in the past few decades. Rather than delving into the psychological implications of a woman who believes a house is possessed, the movie mostly features Catherine Zeta Jones making breathy comments about the mansion's lavishness. At least its cast -- Owen Wilson and Liam Neeson -- make it an enjoyable so-bad-it's-good flick.

Review of The Haunting (from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): "It is missing the coherent story, credible characters and literate dialogue that can make any film, no matter how outlandish the dramatic circumstances, involving."
'Gulliver's Travels' by Jonathan Swift
In case you've wisely blocked out any knowledge you might've had about this film being made, here's a run-down: Jack Black, for some reason, was cast as Gulliver, a dopey mailroom dude who has a crush on a coworker whose worldliness he envies. He's sent to "find the secret to the Bermuda Triangle," and the resulting mess would more accurately be described as a sequel to "Honey I Blew Up the Kid" than an adaptation of Swift's satire.

Review of Gulliver's Travels (from The Washington Post): "The movie, by the way, is in 3-D. Other than enhancing the bathroom humor, it doesn't help."
'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Poor Gary Oldman. If only someone'd told him he by no means had to settle for starring beside Demi Moore in what was essential a soft-core porn adaptation of an already dull but inarguably good novel. Seriously. Mute this movie, and it's just a really long Herbal Essences commercial.

Review of The Scarlet Letter (from The New York Times): "If you have heard anything about this film, you probably know the film makers have added a happy ending. As it turns out, they have also changed the beginning, the middle and the very essence of the book."
'The Grandmothers' by Doris Lessing
Yes, Robin Wright and Naomi Watts starred in an adaptation of a Doris Lessing novella, and somehow it wasn't incredibly amazing. It's not the duo's fault -- they're still remarkable actresses -- but Lessing's interesting meditation on age seems completely trashy and bizarre when dressed up with cheesy dialogue.

Review of Adore (from Time Out): "Each of the characters is either obnoxious – the mothers are forever worrying that the townsfolk see them as ‘a pair of lezzos’ -- or horrendously dull: the male leads don’t do anything except surf, pout, shag and look good in swimwear."
'As I Lay Dying' by William Faulkner
The intricacies of Faulkner's story, which shifts frequently between the consciousnesses of its characters, are lost almost entirely in this adaptation. It's even arguable that this is a story that should remain a book -- it'd take a pretty abstract adaptation to convey, say, Dewey-Dell's naivety and neuroses involving her unwanted pregnancy. But James Franco tried, and fail he did.

Review of As I Lay Dying (from New York Post): "I don't pretend to have a clue how to adapt William Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying' for the screen, but unlike James Franco, I, at least, didn't try."
'Ella Enchanted' by Gail Carson Levine
Even Anne Hathaway's five fans would agree that this is hands-down her worst performance, even though she does manage to beat up "an elf with an attitude" using kung fu. To the movie's credit, it doesn't pretend to be more than a very loose adaptation of Levine's Newbery Honor winner.

Review of Ella Enchanted (from Boston Globe): "The producers of 'Ella Enchanted' probably assume, correctly, that many more kids haven't read the book than have, and they're out to give that audience a slick, shallow good time. They forget that you don't have to have read a book to recognize a sell-out when you see it."
'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams
Adams's humor is dry and subtle when read (or even read aloud, sans visuals, via a radio program), but is a touch too zany when performed by the ever-twee Zooey Deschanel and the slapsticky Sam Rockwell. One redeeming quality: Martin Freeman makes a perfect Arthur.

Review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (from MovieCrypt): "In the end, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a British comedy written by a British author populated by British actors, then severely tarnished by treating it like an American idea."
'Hellblazer' (comic book series)
Unless your idea of a good time is listening to Keanu Reeves stating the obvious for two hours (he literally says, in his most dramatic, scraggly voice, "Cats are good"), then you're probably better off reading the comic book series that Constantine was based on.

Review of Constantine (from Variety): "Indeed, whatever meticulous plotting might have gone into the novel, the movie too often seems to be conjuring up twists as it goes along. By the time the climactic sequence arrives, even Satan himself (a well-cast Peter Stormare) can’t generate the heat required to salvage things."
'The Cat in the Hat' by Dr. Seuss
While turning an illustrated book for children into a live-action comedy typically proves to be a fruitful venture (...), this, shockingly, was not. Not only does the flick nix a lot of Dr. Seuss's clever rhymes, replacing them with modern-day equivalents ("no video games!"), it also featured Mike Myers coughing up a hairball.

Review of The Cat in the Hat (from USA Today): "As silly as all the contrivances are, the real disappointment is Myers' human-size cat, who is a fast-talking, self-centered, litigious annoyance instead of the nutty, endearingly childlike fun-seeker he was on the page."
'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (come book series)
Alan Moore's thrilling graphic novels have proven to be difficult to adapt into films, but this attempt is arguably the biggest flop to date. The concept of Professor Moriarty teaming up with Dr. Jekyll and Captain Nemo is a clever one, but becomes less so when paired with Sean Connery muttering canned dialogue and head-butting people.

Review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (from Chicago Reader): "I don't know the comic book series, but it could hardly be as lifeless as this leaden adaptation, in which the weapons have more personality than the characters and the nonstop action often feels like no action at all."
'Vanity Fair' by William Thackeray
Hollywood's persistent desire to sex up classics is sometimes forgivable, but spinning Becky Sharp's story into one of a young girl who can finally achieve what she's always wanted (*ahem* social status, obtained by marrying into a wealthy family) misses the mark by just a hair. Thackeray paints Sharp as a malicious but charming social climber, but the movie adaptation filtered out all of her complexities.

Review of Vanity Fair (from TIME): "Thackeray said he was writing about pompous, self-satisfied people trying to live without God or humility. It makes no difference if you see their furious scurryings existentially or traditionally. You must impute some larger resonance to them. Otherwise you are left with only a twittering among the teacups -- or a vanity fair."
'The Iliad' by Homer
The epic story that serves as a foundation for much of Western literature might be a better creation than, say, Brad Pitt running around acting angsty.

Review of Troy (from New York Magazine): "Homer’s unpitying recitation of war’s awful allure is rendered as a series of confused skirmishes, and the Trojan horse looks like a gigantic wicker objet d’art."

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