- Virginia Johnson
He was trouble, into everything at once, with an imagination that just wouldn't quit. Neither his teachers nor his parents knew quite what to do with him. But when he opened his mouth the most beautiful sounds came out. Young Jack Prelutsky had a glorious voice, so good they called him a prodigy, and the New York Metropolitan Opera's choirmaster gave him free lessons. But he gave up his dream of being the world's best opera singer when he heard Luciano Pavarotti perform. He knew he couldn't match that amazing voice, and he did know for certain that whatever he did in his life, he wanted to be the very best at it.
On the way to figuring out exactly what that was, he worked as cab driver, a bookseller, a clerk, a carpenter, and many other jobs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he joined the Beatnik scene, and traveled around the countryside, making his living by singing and playing his guitar. He was friends with Bob Dylan, who said his voice sounded "like a cross between Woody Guthrie and Enrico Caruso." Still, he wasn't sure that being a folksinger was his best art.
He moved on to drawing--quick, sketches that might be interesting to kids. While he was at it, he scribbled some poetry to go along with them. He was so happy when a publisher said his pieces showed real talent. No, not the drawings-- those were the worst she had ever seen. But his poetry was terrific. It was different from the old, boring pieces that teachers assigned for memorization. Students ENJOYED reading them. His words had zing. His topics were edgy. He never talked down to his readers, or stretched a poem longer than it should be. Finally, he had found the job where he could be the very best in the world: Kids' Poet.
The Sickening, the Silly, and the Just Plain Gross
"Its fangs were red with bloody gore,
its eyes were red with menace,
it battered down my bedroom door
and burst across my bedroom floor,
and with a loud, resounding roar
said, 'ANYONE FOR TENNIS?'"
From The New Kid on the Block
Gross-me-out humor has held a sweet spot for kids ever since "Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts" made its playground debut. Jack adds a healthy splosh of cleverness to his rhymes, from the doughnuts tasting of pickled whale at "Gussie's Greasy Spoon," to "Drumpp the Grump" who never washes and likes to squash his fingers into worms. He's full of fleas and smelly cheese and fifty million germs, but he likes the way he is. Judging from Jack's rave reviews when he comes to visit schools and libraries, kids like Drumpp and the rest of the gang just the way they are: warts, rumblings, shrieks, and all.
Things That Go Bump, Slither, and Rip
Jack's mind goes non-stop, even when he's asleep. He often uses dream images as part of his poetry, such as the boneless chicken and the elephants' ball. Check out Writers Dreaming to learn more about his creative process. Some of those dream creatures are the stuff of nightmares.
In some untidy, illogical, but necessary part of kids' (and adults') minds, the monsters are real, or at least they should be. Scooby Do's most annoying feature has to be the revealing of the mundane villains at the end of each episode. Jack wrote two terrific books of scary poems, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep and The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight. These are not your cutesy monsters a la Maurice Sendak. The teeth are sharp, and the claws are not retractable:
In wildest woods, on treetop shelves,
sit evil beings with evil selves--
they are the dreaded darkling elves
and they are always hungry.
--The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight
Want to try some more popular poetry? Click here for all the books in the library by Jack Prelutsky.
Prelutsky Prowls the Web
Biography in Context
Use your CRRL library card to get articles from Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Contemporary Authors Online, and St. James Guide to Children's Writers.
Poetry Writing With Jack Prelutsky
"Poetry's cool — and a lot of fun! In this workshop, I will help you turn your words and ideas into descriptive and powerful poems. As you explore the world of poetry writing, I'll share with you writing tips that I use when I write my poems, as well as ideas for revising your work. When you complete the workshop, you can create a special edition of your poem — published online! I won't be commenting on your poems, but I'll enjoy reading them after you've posted them online."
The Teachers' Corner: Jack Prelutsky
Several terrific online poems (Homework! Oh, Homework!, WHEN TILLIE ATE THE CHILI, and more), an interview with the author, and a short biography.