Orel's words are luminous and thoughtful. When I'm feeling stagnant I read over one of her poems for inspiration. Orel creates a whole world on a page. She can make you laugh; she can make you cry. Most of all, she'll make you feel.
As a writer of children’s books, I wonder why many editors urge us to write more books for boys. Didn’t I, as a young girl, see myself in Huck Finn? I traveled down the
with him and Jim, the runaway slave. I didn’t need to be a boy to share a boy’s adventures, joys and fears. It was enough to be human. But now I hear that boys refuse to read girls’ books, demanding heroes who are decidedly male. Mississippi
|Are we gender-stereotyping books? Left to their own devices, will kids read anything?|
That has not been my experience. I remember doing a presentation of my first picture book, Since Lulu Learned the Cancan (illustrated by Sandra Forrest and reappearing this year as an app from Auryn, Inc.) in an elementary school. Its heroine, an ostrich who favors frilly dresses, kicks up a ruckus wherever she goes. Lulu may act like a tomboy, giving some powerfully dangerous kicks, but doesn’t dress like one. After the assembly, a very assertive little boy gave me a thumbs up and said, “You did good!”
One hopes to do good whenever one writes for any child or adult, of any age. And yet, when I wrote my second picture book, The Perilous Pit (a NY Times Ten Best-Illustrated book, illustrated by Jacqueline Chwast, to be granted a second life, very soon, as an app from Auryn, Inc.) I was criticized by some adults for casting a little boy as my hero, Daredevil Danny. He ends up riding a skateboard out to sea, all because of a carelessly thrown peach pit. Why not Daredevil Denise? a psychologist asked me. Was I trying to perpetuate the stereotype that girls were less adventurous than boys?
|Does it matter if the protagonist is Danny or Denise?|
In my next published picture book, Two Sticks (illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf and also slated for imminent appdom) my heroine, Maybelle, discovers the joys of making music with live crocodiles. It never occurred to me to make this one a boy’s book, since it was based on a dream I had when I was small, a girl’s book from a young girl’s dream. Was Maybelle to be shunned as second rate by boys barely old enough to read?
I haven’t been able to take a poll on that one, but the pendulum shifted again, back to a so-called boy’s book, when my next picture book, Thelonious Mouse, also illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, was published by FSG in 2011. Again, I wasn’t trying to write for boys when I created this feisty, scat-singing mouse. Girls can be rambunctious, too, as we all know and hope. I was simply attracted to the way Thelonious rhymes with melodious, the visual assonance with the word “mouse,” coupled with my desire to pay homage to the genius of Thelonious Monk, the great jazz pianist and composer. His name was the source of my inspiration and it’s not a girl’s name. I expected that all children, boys and girls, could identify with my slick-tongued mouse whose music grew from everything around him, even his arch-nemesis, Fat Cat.
So it has been gratifying to hear that a book for ages 4 and up has inspired a three-year-old to say that he wants to write books about “Fat Cat” when he grows up. My character has already sunk some sharp claws into his imagination. This little boy didn’t seem to be concerned that Fat Cat was a girl. And what of Thelonious himself, that rascally mouse with a knack for turning insult into musical, mousical art? I am still hoping to hear from some little girls who can identify.
My writing is somewhat eccentric, I suppose, because I write whatever I am moved to write, without regard for the market. I write for children and for adults, for all the children and adults in each of us, whether latent or emerging. Sometimes they write to me.
Most recently, I was touched by emails from readers of my chapbook of poems for adults, What Remains, published in 2011 by Finishing Line Press.
This little book, I’ve learned, has traveled by plane to
, Hong Kong, Berlin , Paris , London , and to the edge of the San Diego Blue Ridge Mountains. Everywhere, readers tell me that they recognize themselves in my words. My family, theirs. My emotions, their own. Grown men and women had to stop reading, moved to tears. I could not ask for more gratifying news, except, perhaps, to hear that Lulu made a little boy laugh to see such sport, as he kicked up his own flat heels.
Orel Protopopescu, children’s author and poet, has been published by major houses. A Thousand Peaks, Poems from
(with Siyu Liu) was selected for the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, 2003 list. Two Sticks is on Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year 2008 list. Thelonious Mouse (FSG, 2011) was praised by reviewers in Booklist, Kirkus, and SLJ. She has completed a novel for young adults and is working on an inter-active poetry app currently in production by Actialuna in China . Paris, France
Her poetry has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Long Island Quarterly, and Oberon Poetry Magazine, as well as in the anthology, PAUMANOK, Poems and Pictures of
Long Island, published by Cross-Cultural Communications. She won honorable mentions in the Oberon contests judged by Louis Simpson (2006) and Daniel Thomas Moran (2007) and was awarded first prize in Oberon’s 2010 contest judged by L. S. Asekoff for the poem, Listening to My Favorite Things from the Best of John Coltrane. Some of her poetry for children appears in her book for teachers, METAPHORS & SIMILES YOU CAN EAT And 12 More Poetry Writing Lessons (Scholastic Professional Books, 2003).
A gifted and nurturing teacher,
conducts writing workshops for students and teachers. As a former student, Christine Slatest, now a 7th grade English teacher, said, “My interest in writing poetry began in Mrs. Protopopescu’s workshops. Her visits to my elementary school changed my life.” Orel
Check out her website: www.OrelProtopopescu.com