Author of more than 20 books of verse and editor of several poetry anthologies, Prelutsky has been charming children and adults with his witty, musical verse for 30 years. His books have combined to sell well over a million copies, and his work has been translated into several languages. His The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is a perennial favorite of librarians.
A conversation with Brooklyn-born Prelutsky unfolds like one of his poems: clever rhymes, double entendres, puns, and verbal twists of language effervesce off his tongue. He occasionally speaks in verse. It's easy to imagine how a poem such as "I Wave Good-bye When Butter Flies" could have come from his pen.
I wave good-bye when butter flies
and cheer a boxing match,
I’ve often watched my pillow fight,
I’ve sewn a cabbage patch,
I like to dance at basket balls
or lead a rubber band,
I’ve marveled at a spelling bee,
I’ve helped a peanut stand.
When we spoke with Prelutsky at his Seattle-area home, he joked about his advancing age; he was born in 1940. In truth, he doesn’t show many signs of slowing down, at least when it comes to his work. At the end of 2005, he had several new books underway, all with looming deadlines.
Prelutsky didn’t start writing until he was 24. Before that, he worked as a plumber's assistant, piano mover, cab driver, standup comedian, and singer in local theater companies. During this time, Prelutsky remembers wanting, more than anything else, to be the best at something.
Though he displayed a range of artistic talents, he found it hard to succeed at any of them. He was musical and at one time considered becoming an opera singer. Then he heard Pavarotti. For a time, he tried to support himself as a photographer. He had loved drawing as a child, and he never stopped, no matter what his paying job.
After work, he'd create illustrations he intended for a children's book, and almost as an afterthought composed poems to accompany them.
A friend encouraged him to submit the drawings and verse to an editor. She rejected them. But the second editor he approached, Susan Hirschman at Random House, wanted to publish his work immediately. Not the illustrations, though. "You're the worst artist I've ever seen," she said. "But you have a natural gift for poetry."
She ended up giving him some petty cash to stave off the landlord and later published his first book. It was the beginning of a long professional relationship; Hirschman has remained his editor for over 30 years.
Hirschman asked him to refrain from reading any other children's poets until he'd established his own voice. So at the beginning of his career, he was really writing for himself. This worked until Prelutsky realized he might not understand his audience. He had never visited a school as an adult. He had never shared his poems with kids.
When he had a chance to teach kids about writing poetry, he asked a librarian what children really wanted. “Monsters and dinosaurs,” she told him. So he started reading books of folklore about witches and vampires and werewolves, and that’s what influenced his popular children’s book Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, a collection that proved that children’s poetry didn’t always have to be funny or silly to work.
Prelutsky worked hard to promote his poetry and reach out to kids. He has visited and given readings in classrooms all over America and Europe. Public readings did not come naturally to him. Over time, he learned to engage the audience by telling stories around the poems.
These days, Prelutsky is collecting books on birds. The material will eventually become a new book - with illustrations by Jack Prelutsky -- thus fulfilling his early ambition. He says it may also take him in a new direction: to prose fiction. Whatever transformation takes place, Prelutsky will always dream of making his work the best.