It was my privilege to present the Washington Poets Association’s 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award to Jack Prelutsky, who was also, at that time, the United States Children’s Poet Laureate. I read the following citation for Mr. Prelutsky at the WPA’s Burning Word poetry festival at Greenbank Farm, Whidbey Island, Washington, on 28 April 2007. This text was originally published on the WPA website.
On behalf of the Washington Poets Association, it gives me great pleasure to present the most important award that the organization offers—the Lifetime Achievement Award. Recipients in the previous three years have been Carolyn Kizer, Sam Hamill, and Tess Gallagher, all excellent and well-known poets who write for adults. Our honoree for 2007 is Jack Prelutsky. He has been making words prance and dance for an even more demanding clientele—an audience of children. And he’s been doing this for forty years. In 1967, at the age of 27, Mr. Prelutsky published his first book of humorous verse, A Gopher in the Garden. “I figured that was it,” he said in a recent interview; “Everybody has one book in them, right? I thought that was mine.” But since then he has produced close to seventy books of poetry, many of them critically acclaimed, including such bestselling classics as A Pizza the Size of the Sun, The New Kid on the Block, The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, and The Frogs Wore Red Suspenders, as well as the beloved books Ride a Purple Pelican, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, The Gargoyle on the Roof, and, in collaboration with the late Dr. Seuss, Hoorah for Diffendoofer Day! He has also compiled a number of poetry anthologies that are perennial favorites of librarians, including The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury and The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Some recent delights are Scranimals and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, plus a book of haiku, If Not for the Cat. And two more of his books have just been published in 2007: Me I Am and Good Sports: Rhymes about Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. Two more books will be out by the summer of 2007: In Aunt Giraffe’s Green Garden and The Wizard. Jack Prelutsky’s books have combined to sell well over a million copies, inspiring countless children and their parents with their creativity and whimsy, excelling at a kind of poetry that reminds us that we can all be children at heart, that all of us can learn by laughing.
Jack Prelutsky was educated at Hunter College in New York. As a child, he says he hated poetry because of the way it was taught. As an adult, he discovered its power, particularly for children. “Children are flesh and blood; they’re just like us (adults), only smaller; I write about the things kids care about,” he told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer last September. Prelutsky and his wife make their home on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.
In September of 2006 the Poetry Foundation named Jack Prelutsky as America’s first children’s poet laureate, a two-year appointment that came with a medallion and a $25,000 prize. In making the appointment, the president of the Poetry Foundation, John Barr, said that “Generations of children have learned to love poetry through Jack Prelutsky’s work,” and that “His extraordinary service to an important branch of literature makes him the perfect first recipient of the Children’s Poet Laureate award.” Indeed, few current poets have achieved his stature for the length and breadth of his achievement and commitment to poetry for children—a poetry that shows children the wonder of words, the magic of being alive. That the first such honor should come to a Seattle-based poet is a testament to the depth and diversity of poetry in Washington State. Although Mr. Prelutsky is a New York City native, we are fortunate that he has lived most of his professional life in the Seattle area and that we can count him as one of our own. Carolynn Prelutsky has told me that, after a visit here in the 70s, he “fell in love with the beauty of the area,” and that “he likes cloudy skies and rain.” In an interview in April of 2007 with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said “I was born in Brooklyn but grew up in the Bronx, which is why I’m a Yankee fan. But, I’m really a Mariners fan now.”
Jack Prelutsky is also serious about the pleasure he brings to children. To honor his readers, as well as the teachers who celebrate poetry in the classroom, he and his wife, Carolynn, will be using part of his $25,000 poet laureate prize money to sponsor a contest for kids to win books for their schools. Elementary school children will be invited to submit poems or essays explaining why their school needs new poetry books. The Prelutskys will provide awards for the school libraries of the first-, second-, and third-place winners for the purchase of poetry books and media. Details will be available in September of 2007 on www.jackprelutsky.com.
In introducing The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury, Mr. Prelutsky wrote that “Contemporary children’s poets have thrown . . . [19th century] condescension and moralizing out the window, and write with today’s real child in mind.” He then describes the kind of children’s poetry that the best poets have produced in the last hundred years: “They write about sports, sibling rivalry, outer space, monsters, food fights, school, and just plain silliness.” He could just as easily have been talking about himself. And so too when he adds that “Of course today’s poets still address the ageless themes of children’s poetry—imagination, nature and the seasons, Who am I?, wordplay, and the many moods of human beings.” Readers will find all of this breadth and creativity in Jack Prelutsky’s poetry, and we are here today to celebrate this accomplishment, as well as his long dedication to his craft, by awarding him the Washington Poets Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He concludes The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury by referring to contemporary children’s poetry as a renaissance. Indeed it is, and Jack Prelutsky is one of its masters.
As WPA president Victory Lee Schouten said in the organization’s press release for this award, “We’re excited to honor such a deserving poet. Jack lives his life creating and teaching poetry and has brought such wonderful attention to children’s poetry. He’s also a great match for the Burning Word festival, which celebrates all kinds of poetry for people of all ages.”
On the Poetry Foundation website, writer Karen Glenn reports that reviewers have used the following words to describe Jack Prelutsky’s work: “zany, charming, irreverent, gothic, tongue-in-cheek, surreal, rich, varied, rib-tickling, silly, playful, wacky, inventive, whimsical, preposterous, frivolous, hilarious, and pure fun. Not to mention WEIRD and BIZARRE.” She also writes that he knows what kids like, that he can be very funny in many different ways, and also be frightening, that he writes both formal and informal poetry, that he’s extremely literate (and has a library of 5,000 children’s books), that he makes kids think, that he acknowledges emotions, and, perhaps most importantly, that he hooks kids on poetry, and on reading in general. Perhaps there’s no higher compliment than that—and it’s certainly a huge part of why Jack Prelutsky is deserving of today’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Prelutsky, in junior high school you wrote a poem about a werewolf that was published in the school yearbook. As a result, poetry became hazardous to your health. You have explained that you grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, and that when some of the school’s tougher kids found out that you’d written a poem, you got beat up. Writing poetry just wasn’t something guys did in your neighborhood. Well, here we are today, and no one’s going to beat you up. Instead, the Washington Poets Association is very pleased and honored to present you with its 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations!
—Michael Dylan Welch, WPA Board Member