Rx for Writers


"Writing Kid-Friendly Poetry" with Heidi Roemer

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Mel: is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Heidi Roemer, and editor of the ICL Web Site.

Heidi: is Heidi Roemer, a children’s writer who has made over a hundred sales to numerous children’s magazines. Heidi was first published in 1996 with a modest sale to a children’s Sunday school paper; today she is the author of a picture book called, All Aboard for Zippity Zoo! (1999) and a children’s poetry collection, Come to My Party (Henry Holt, 2004). Heidi Roemer’s poetry has been included in several poetry anthologies, Phonics Through Poetry: Teaching Phonemic Awareness, The Big Book of Holiday and Seasonal Celebrations, plus anothologies compiled by the well-respected Lee Bennett Hopkins: A Pet for Me, Wonderful Words and Valentine Hearts. Heidi is also a contributing editor for the writer’s newsletter, The Prairie Wind, and is a poetry writer for Teaching PK-8 Magazine. In June, 2002, she was the featured author on Cricket Magazine’s website page, as well. Heidi teaches poetry courses at the Hinsdale Center for the Arts and the Lemont Park District in Illinois; she conducts poetry contests, offers manuscript critiques, and visits schools.

Green shows the usernames of the people and their questions asked of Heidi Roemer.


Interviews are held every other Thursday evening for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.

Mel: I have had the most fun practicing with Heidi Roemer in the chat room in preparation for this evening’s chat. We talked about poetry, and Heidi mentioned NONFICTION poetry! I had never read or heard tell of such a thing. (I’m a "Shortfellow" rather than a Longfellow!) I thought all poetry was of course FICTION. But not so, said Heidi. Then she proceeded to teach me to write nonfiction poetry—and the fun really started. Heidi is a talented expert in children’s poetry, having had poems published hundreds of times. I am looking forward to the fun as much as you are tonight. Heidi Roemer, a WARM WELCOME to the ICL Chat Room!

Heidi: Hello, fellow poets!

Mel: Heidi, you are such a talented poet, you must have started as a child—did you?

Heidi: Like many of you probably did, I wrote cards for family members. Didn't we all?

Mel: Do you remember ANY of your childhood poems?

Heidi: Heck no. I'd prefer to forget them!

Mel: Were your parents, either one, poets?

Heidi: Not really, but my mother is a painter. She's very talented!

Mel: You MUST have been a great reader AND writer as a child, right?

Heidi: Yes! My goal was to own every single Nancy Drew book. To support my "addiction" my parents gave me chores to earn money. Many a summer day I spent pulling weeds and swatting mosquitos, I got paid one penny for every weed, and nothing for the dead mosquitos.

Mel: Did you ever complete your collection of Nancy Drews?

Heidi: I don't think that's possible! They go on and on!

lasmithm2000: How does poetry affect your lifestyle, Heidi?

Heidi: Well, ideas for poems come at all weird times, like just before I fall asleep. And I have to get up—my poor hubby—and write them down before I forget. So poetry can be disrupting, I guess!

isgals: We've all heard publishers get a lot of "bad" poetry. Would you define bad poetry, and then "good" poetry?

Heidi: Sure. I'll try! The thing editors complain the most about is that the poems they receive don't have a regular beat. That is a very tricky thing to do well. But you can learn! Another thing is some poems have a blaa ending; you finish reading it and think, "So what?" The first idea isn't always the best.

lasmithm2000: I wanted to tell you that I think poetry is in the genes. I’m related to Christopher Marlow, are you?

Heidi: Lucky for you! We'll expect great things published by you!

Passion: I am related to Robert Browning.

Heidi: Wow. All these famous people in this room!

jack: How is it different writing poetry for children than poetry for adults?

Heidi: Children's poetry is far more concrete. Visual. Delcious on the tongue, delightful to the ear. Abstract topics like prayer and love are connected to the senses or compared to things children can touch and see. And best of all, most children's poetry is light-hearted. That's why I love it so!

isgals: Who are your favorite poets, children's or otherwise?

Heidi: I'm glad you asked, isgals. Myra Cohn Livingston is one of the greats. Valarie Worth, J. Patrick Lewis, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Douglas Florain. I could go on and on!

dreamwanderer: Heidi, how did you make the transition from writer to editor? Are there special classes or anything else one should concentrate on if they eventually want to become an editor?

Heidi: Dreamwanderer, I'm not actually an editor, though I do critique poetry. I don't know too much about the "becoming an editor" process. Sorry!

craig: I would like to know if it is possible to submit one poem to a magazine at a time or do you have to submit a series of them together, and do you have to query the magazines that you are interested in and lastly, what are some of the magazines that cater to children's poetry?

Heidi: Hey, three questions in one! That's using your question wisley. ;>) Check the Children’s Magazine Market to find out the maximum number of poems they'll accept. Ladybug, for example, allows five. So send five! You have to wait so long for a reply, so get ‘em out there! Magazines want to see the poem, they do not require a query. And lastly, there are so many really GREAT mags interested in poetry: Ladybug Hopscotch, Turtle, to name a few.

kari_jk: Do you think it’s easier to get poetry published?

Heidi: Getting poetry published is easy IF the poem has that "magic" kid-friendly appeal.

passion: What makes a poem that editors want to buy?

Heidi: I like your question, passion. That is what we're here to find out tonight! So let me suggest a few things. Write poems that have something special. Try riddle poems. They're clues-in-rhyme. I've sent three to Spider. One clever poet sent them three haiku, all giving clues about various sea creatures. What a great approach! Action rhyme and finger plays are in high demand with Highlights and Ladybug, but they recieve very few. Try a fresh approach, write a "mask" poem: pretend you're a magnet and write down its point of view. Try a Q and A approach. Or, like the book Brown Bear Brown Bear, use repetition. Oh, there's lots of ways to write fun poetry!

kari_jk: I am a published poet in a collaboration—does that count?

Heidi: It counts with me, kari_jk! Mention it in your cover letter. Yes!

adele: once you sell a poem do you give up all rights to it?

Heidi: Sometimes, adele. I don't like to, but sometimes it just makes sense, especially when you're new.

kari_jk: I have been taking this course for what seems like forever. I had to take a leave for personal reasons and am having a hard time getting back into it. Any advice?

Heidi: If it's something you love doing, yes. Do it for yourself and jump back in!

kari_jk: I want to write mysteries but I also love to write poetry. Do you think it's possible to do both WELL?

Heidi: Oh yes, kari. You can be prolific! Don't sell yourself short. Of course it's easier if you have the TIME to write as muchas you want. Time is hard to find!

jack: Do you have any opinion on performance poetry or slam?

Heidi: They can be nerve-racking, but still, what a thrill!

isgals: What about picture book-length poems? Are they harder to get published? Any special treatment?

Heidi: I'm not sure which is harder, rhymed picture books or poetry collections.


Heidi: I always tell myself: "This is just a practice." Then if I goof up, I see what I've learned.

Mel: Do you schedule time to write every day?

Heidi: I really try to write every day. But, as you know, life doesn't always co-operate!

Mel: Do you only write poetry?

Heidi: No, Mel, I do enjoy writing other things. But I admit, most of my time. is focused on poetry. I love reading it and writing it!

dreamwanderer: Can you explain "finger play" and "action ryhme."

Heidi: Sure, dreamwanderer. Finger play is a delightful poem that uses only your hands. Read a bunch before you attempt to write them. You'll get the hang of it quickly. Action rhymes use the entire body from head to toe. Make sense?

lasmithm2000: How do you overcome criticism, if you do?

Heidi: Ask yourself, lasmith: Is the person making the suggestions a polished writer? Do you believe this person's motive is to help you or to show off her smartness? If you know the heart of a person you can figure out what they're saying, even if the words are gruff. Some people are more tactful! Don't let one person's comment discourage you. I once got a two-page single-spaced lette from a respected author who critiqued my work. I was very new and thin-skinned. The first day I only could bear to read the first paragraph or two. It took almost a month till I actually read the entire letter. BUT—I knew she was an advanced writer, I knew she cared about me, and I knew (though I couldn't see it then ) she had some great comments. Since then, it's been easier. I suggest you join a critique group!

tkat_2: How do you know if a poetry contest is worth submitting to?

Heidi: A poem is worth the time and trouble of submitting IF it has some playful elements. Wordplay is a great one. Consider Douglas Florain's playful poem:

"Aardvaarks aare odd. Aardvaarks aare staark.

Aardaarks look better by faar in the daark."

Don't you wish you had written that? My poem, "The Egg-ceptional Chick," goes:

Chick egg-zists inside his shell.

He pickpickpicks his oval cell.

He peckpeckpecks egg-citedly,

Egg-zerting all his engery..

until, at last, the egg shell splits.

Egg-zit one egg-zhausted chick!?

Mel: EXCELLENT, Heidi!

Heidi: Thanks, Mel.

kari_jk: That was an egg-cellent poem, Heidi!

Heidi: Thanks! It's teacher-friendly, too. Think educational when you write.

lasmithm2000: Do you think reading plays a big role in how well you write?

Heidi: Absolutely. At first I ws afraid to read other people’s work thinking it might appear in mine. But you have to expose yourself to good stuff!

isgals: Any special tricks for connecting with the world of a child? Or are you naturally young at heart?!

Heidi: Yes, isgals. Think like a child. Remember that WONDER of everything? Remember how easy it was to laugh as a child? (They say adults only laugh about 5 times a day—not kids!) I am young at heart. Innocent. The other day a driver cut me off and I called him a poo poo head!

Mel: HA--I LOVE it! That is thinking like a child, for sure.

isgals: Do you have an agent?

Heidi: No, isgals, I don't. Agents don't want us unless we have several published books. Till then we have to do all the legwork!

jack: what poetic forms are best used for children?

Heidi: For younger children, definately rhyme and (in my humble opinion) rhythm. Repetitive lines are excellent. Mask poems, which I mentioned ( a term coined by Myra Cohn Livingston) are great because a child can imagine BEING that object or animal. Apostrophe poems such as "Twinkle Twinkle" are wonderful because the poem "talks" to an object or creature. All very playful approaches for kid-friendly poetry.

Heidi: Mel mentioned "nonfiction poems" earlier. I'd like to clarify that and change the word slightly to "factual poems." If you had to write a poem, say about the Antarctica, you SHOULD research it! Don't base it on what you think you know. Find out more! I wrote "Antarctica, Antarctic-o, It's a place where blizzards blow," and gave descriptions of penguins floating on icy floes, etc. And at the end I came back to the child's world with: "So if you care to travel there, bring lots of woolen underwear!"

Mel: What’s the first step to becoming a better children’s poet?

Heidi: Combine some of the elements we've talked about. Use sprinkles of alliteration, assonance, onomatopeia (I think that's how you spell it.). These all appeal to the ear and the tongue. Kids eat it up! ;>) And hopefully, your editor will, too! Sounds are great.

kari_jk: Onomatopeia—direct from Hey Arnold!

Mel: How do you write kid-friendly poetry, Heidi?

Heidi: Ms. Quito Bandito. She hums as she works.

Drilling for blood is the worst of her quirks.

She applies her proboscis with vigor and zest.

So small a mosquito, but such a big pest!

Ei yi! that Ms. Quito has robbed me again!

I SMACK that bandito. Finito! -The End.

Sorry , Mel. I got carried away!

Mel: We’re LUCKY that you did, Heidi, we were carried away with you, and with pleasure! What other tips can you give about writing kids’ poetry and making it appealing?

Heidi: Observe what others have written. Note the techniques used. Take Verla Kay's books for example. She has a knack for telling entire stores with just a few words. She calls it "cryptic" rhyme. I call it "terse verse." Same thing. Do you all know what that is?

Mel: No, can you explain terse verse?

Heidi: Sure, Mel. It's a poetry form that uses short, clipped lines that rhyme. "Trains" by Chris Demarest begins:

Train chugs/Clickety clack.

Engine up front./Caboose in the back.

This form is very effective for young children. It would be appropriate for Babybug magazine or others geared to that same age group.

checkert: Hi, Heidi, I'm interested in the best magazine markets—how can I find them?

Heidi: Well, checkert, get a hold of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market, 2004. It's like a directory and will tell you the names of magazines and what their focus is. Also the Institute of Children's Literature publishes a similar book. Mel, can that be purchased outright, or does one have to be a student to get it?

Mel: No, you don't have to be a student. You go to www.institutechildrenslit.com

and click on the BOOKSTORE link, and you will find the two market books, the Children’s Magazine Market and the Children’s Book Market.

tkat_2: Going back to your EGGceptional poem, I actually got to see the hatching of chicks. Bravo!

Heidi: Thanks, tkat2!

isgals: So a mask poem is written in the first person, like "I am?"

Heidi: Yes! That's right. If you don'tgive away the object’s/creatures' identity in the body of the poem, but only provide clues, the poem could easily become a riddle poem or a "What is it?' rhyme. Really fun!

I had a real "Aha!" experience a few years ago. I was at the Butler University Children's Conference. Rebecca Kai Dotlich read a poem called "Paperclip." At first I thought, how odd. Isn't a paper clip about as kid-friendly a topic as a toliet bowl plunger? But THEN, she explained that it was in an anthology called School Supplies (compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins). I was still a little puzzled until she read it.

The poem goes:

With tiny teeth of tin they take

One slender breath before they make

A move and then—a silver pinch!

With jaws no bigger than an inch

These dragon grips are small and slight—

They conquer pages with one bite!

Do you see the skill here?

Mel: BRAVA!!!

Heidi: The poem has similies, brilliant verbs—and a wonderful ending! When I review others’ poems, I often see the ending has a weakness. A poem needs a solid ending, a summary, a punch line. a bit of whimsy. Somewhat like a gymnast who, after flipping around in the air, makes a solid landing on the mat. Your poems should be like that. They should elicit a smile or reaction of some sort by the reader. Otherwise it's like "So what?"

kari_jk:Do you "test run" your poems on children before submitting?

Heidi: No, I don't, kari. I know lots of authors and poets who do!

isgals: Can you suggest a good rhyming dictionary?

Heidi: Yes. The cover is worn off mine, I've used it so much. I like Sue Young's The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary. There are others. You should look at several and see the page layout....what you think is easiest for YOU to read.

kari_jk: Your poems are very entertaining for adults as well.

Heidi: Thanks, kari.

isgals: Why do the magazines pay so LITTLE for poems?

Heidi: I'd like to know that, too, isgals! Apparently, like most everyone else in the world, they're on a tight budget. I heard that one magazine (I hope I have this right) took five years in business before they showed a profit. And don’t assume the editors are being paid what THEY deserve! They work really hard—and talk about long hours!

kari_jk: Can a person make a living writing children's poetry?

Heidi: Make a living, kari? Well, what standard are we talking about? ;>) Yes, it's possible. But for many, especially when starting out, it is challenging. Maybe Mel, you could offer your opinion on this. I know Mel has had success as an author, and like many of us, does things like school visits. Or we teach classes to help with the income. That's what I do! So, your advice, Mel? Marry rich?

Mel: I think ANY of the ARTS will NEVER make a good living for MOST of us practitioners of the arts. In film acting, for instance, 98% of actors have some kind of other job, because they can’t make a living from the film roles they receive. I have always done OTHER things as WELL as doing writing—it just seems the way most of us writers have to do. But marrying rich, that’s a very practical idea, Heidi! (-:}

Heidi: It's wonderful to follow your passion. But we have to be practical!

kari_jk: So is poetry just a hobby then?

Heidi: Do you mean is it a hobby for me, kari? No, it's more than that for me!

Mel: Is it a hobby for MOST poets, do you think, Heidi?

Heidi: Oh, I guess a lot of people think that just because they've written some lines that makes them a poet. Actually, they are! But to become a published poet will take a little more practice, more revisions and a lot more tweaking!

Mel: What advice do you have for those beginning to write poetry—to better understand rhythm in a poem?

Heidi: READ. ABSORB. WRITE. REWRITE. Repeat that formula daily!

Mel: When writing a poem, does the meter have to be perfect?

Heidi: I was just going to say no one's asked about meter. It would be surprising if no one did! If you ask an editor, I'm sure they'd say, "Yes." It has to be perfect. No doubt about it. But getting a regular rhythm is tricky business. How do you say, "file" or "fire"? Is it one syllable or two? These are the problems poets face. Some readers will scan it correctly. Others won't.

kari_jk: The meter is different depending upon who's reading. You can make YOUR poems read at any meter you choose—right?

Heidi: Well, kari, the meter SHOULD be the same no matter WHO reads it. The poet must try to arrange the words so that there's no confusion about that. Learn the basic meters—iambic, troche, anapest and dactyl. When I was a new poet wanting to become a better poet, I re-typed LOTS of other poets’ poems. This helped me learn not only rhythm, but style and voice as well, Try it!

Mel: Do you have any tips about writing and submitting poetry to magazines?

Heidi: My tip is to send your poems to XYZ Publisher and then immediately write MORE poems for them in the event that they return your first batch, Keep your name in front of them!

Mel: How many submissions do you have out at one time?

Heidi: I began, Mel, by trying to keep a dozen submission circulating at one time. Now I have so much more material to sell, so I try to keep 30 things out at one time.

kimberly: How do submit poetry for anthologies?

Heidi: Anthologies are a great way to go, kimberly. The ICL Children’s Writer newsletter (There are others, too.) is one way to learn about openings for anthologies. I was only paid for several poems I sold to my first editor who was compling an anthology.

checkert: For your new book, Heidi, did you pre-publish in magazines?

Heidi: Yes, checkert. I'm a big beliver in garnering magazine credits, even before trying to sell a book manuscript. Magazine sales are really fun! You get to see your poem accompanied by oftentimes fantastic artwork! And the money is nice, and so is the reassurance that "somebody loves my writing!" when a poem is accepted.

Mel: Why publish in magazines first, Heidi?

Heidi: I think that magzine sales are a wonderful way to introduce your skills to a book editor. They'll know you're not a rookie writer.

isgals: What's a reasonable length of time in which to expect a response to a submission?

Heidi: A "reasonable"time usually seems always too long for us poor writers! But if you check the magazine's guidelines they will give you an indication of what's reasonable. Remember that sometimes editors get pregnant, go on vacation, get sick, etc. I usually wait an extra month or two before I make an inquiry about the status of any manuscript. If you feel you need to check, most magazines prefer a written letter rather than a phone call.

jdwrites4kids: What is the best number of poems to send in a batch?

Heidi: Well, jd, I suggest you send the maximum number allowed by the publisher. If they take three months to reply, that means you can only submit to them four times a year. So make it worth your while! Remember to send them only your best, polished poems!

passion: All a poet wants is to see her name in print, right, Heidi?

Heidi: It is nice, Passion, to see your name in print. Very exciting, actually. But there's also pleasure in knowing that other people are reading your words! And, hopefully, enjoying them!

jack: Besides beguiling beauty, poetry also can touch the soul of a child in a very special and important way.

checkert: So do you reserve "book rights" in an "all rights" contract?

Heidi: Hmmm. It will depend. Mel, you probably know more than I do about this! I try for non-exclusive rights, if the magazine insists on all rights. That way we both can reuse the work.

Mel: You can ASK to retain book rights before you sign a contract, but you may not get to keep them, then. But I do on occasion, reluctantly let them take all rights. AND, you can also ask AFTER it's published, and in my experience, many magazines will give you them back.

young_writer04: Have you ever been to poetry.com? I am published there.

Heidi: Really! I'm thrilled for you! I promise I'll check it out later. Thanks for letting us know, young_writer04!

Heidi: A great website for poetry is Kristine O'Connell George's:

www. kristinegeorge.com/poetry_book_shop.htm. She has ideas for teachers and parents as well as kids. PLUS she's a wonderful, wonderful poet. I love her books, Old Elm Speaks and The Great Frog Race. Every week, we poets should be at the libraries dragging home all these wonderful books and filling our minds with the beauty of words! Make it a regular habit. Promise me you will!

Mel: THANKS, Heidi, for those GREAT resources!

kimberly: What software do you use to create your shape poems?

Heidi: Oh Boy! I'm no techie, but I got lucky one day when I was fooling around on the computer. I hit INSERT on the menu at the top of Microsoft Word (or you can do the same in Microsoft Works), scrolled down to PICTURE, then down to WORDART, and bingo! I found the answer to a problem I’d been mulling over. I wanted to write a collection of shape poems, but didn't want to send in a bunch of scribble. Microsoft Word also has AUTOSHAPES just above WORDART, and the two of them will allow you to write and submit a professional looking manuscript that is artfully colorful with shaped poems. Like this:





My lucky discovery came to be a book called Come to My Party. Thanks for asking!

Mel: How do you go about writing a poetry collection?

Heidi: Probably the best way to start is with a theme. What do you enjoy writing about? Horses? Family? What? Then decide on the tone of your book. Will it be silly poems about goofy people in a family? Or will it be gentle poems about family members who love one another? Brainstorm for various aspects on that theme. Start writing those poems. When you have enough, sort them in some way. One logical way is by time. Start with morning, end with evening. Or begin the collection with a spring poem, and end with winter poems. Just use some logic there.

Then go over each poem. Weed out the poorest ones. They may cost you a sale! Perhaps you don't have to get rid of them; perhaps they need more work. You have to be willing to put in the time to make EVERY poem sparkle.

Mel: Heidi, the time has sped by, and we must end. It has been pure poetical pleasure to chat with you this evening. It’s easy to see why you have been so successful at publishing poetry for children. You have helped us see how much

FUN poetry is, and you must be an EXCELLENT teacher. Our chatsters still have endless questions about poetry, so could you please come back to our chat room for another visit in the future, friend?

Heidi: I'd love to, Mel! Thanks for all the wonderful questions!

Mel: Our next Guest Chat will be on April 8, two weeks from tonight. On that Thursday evening, we will have a return visit by Toni Buzzeo, who was a charming picture book author guest of ours last year. Toni will soon have her third picture book published, Little Loon and Papa in May 2004. It will join her very successful picture books, The Sea Chest and Dawdle Duckling. Toni tells me Dawdle Duckling will soon have a sequel! So come back for a chat with Toni Buzzeo on April 8!

MANY thanks to you again, Heidi Roemer, for spreading your contagious love of children’s poetry! You’ve inspired me to try what I never thought I would—writing poetry for children! THANK YOU, and our BEST to you in your writing future!

Heidi: I enjoyed being with all of you!

dreamwanderer: Thank you, Heidi, for wonderful insight and an entertaining two hours.

Mel: Goodnight, everyone!

Heidi: Good night!



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