Meet Kenn Nesbitt, the New Children’s Poet Laureate

The 51-year computer geek–turned–writer explains the duties and responsibilities that go with his new job

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Poetry Foundation

Everyone knows that authors — even bestselling authors — are familiar with sting of rejection, many seeing their manuscripts turned down by a dozen publishing houses before getting published. Everyone, that is, except for Kenn Nesbitt. The first publisher he approached snapped up his work on sight.

And everyone knows that writers are a miserable lot, cursed with a need to suffer for their art. Everyone, that is, except for Kenn Nesbitt. “It’s a blast!” he declares of his itinerant literary lifestyle. “There’s nothing more fun than actually getting to perform my work and write with a couple hundred third-graders.”

And most of all, everyone knows that Ken is spelled with one N. Everyone, that is, except Kenn Nesbitt. In a fanciful moment in high school, he took the name Kenneth, experimented with it, and created on his own idiosyncratic spelling.

That ability to see beyond the ordinary is the reason that Nesbitt, who began his fulltime writing career after 20 years in the computer industry, was named this week as the children’s poet laureate of the United States by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation.

How did a fellow who started out with more in common with Bill Gates than the Bard end up as the favorite of squealing grade-schoolers everywhere? TIME wanted to know, and caught up with the 51-year-old poet where he can often be reached: by cell phone, on the road, heading towards another elementary school. Today, Nesbitt was due at Port Dickinson Elementary School in Binghampton, N.Y. The children’s poet has already visited more than 60 schools around the country this year. That pace is sure to pick up during the two-year term of his new job.

Nesbitt, who grew up in Fresno and San Diego, now lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife, who manages a local YMCA camp, and their two teenaged children. He says that he “loved poetry as a kid, but we didn’t study it in school. I don’t remember ever reading a poem in school, and I certainly didn’t write it.”

So Nesbitt pursued another passion. “When I was in high school, I absolutely fell in love with computers,” he says. “I taught myself how to program.” He went to National University in San Diego and majored in computer science. He then worked in the computer industry from ages 25 to 42, working at Microsoft for two years and owning his own software company.

The multi-talented, self-styled geek started writing humorous children’s poetry as a hobby, after hearing a recording of Shel Silverstein reciting his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.” After his first book of children’s poetry was published, it grew into a second career, and Nesbitt’s life as a children’s author was launched.

The playful poet’s work (see a sample of his poetry below) now includes numerous books of poetry for kids, including The Tighty-Whitey Spider, My Hippo Has the Hiccups and Revenge of the Lunch Ladies. It can also be found in hundreds of magazines, textbooks and anthologies internationally.

So what exactly does a children’s poet laureate do, besides collect a $25,000 stipend? Nesbitt laughs when presented with the oft-asked question. His primary duty, he explains, is to crisscross the U.S. as the premier cheerleader for poetry among youth.  He will also give several public readings for his young enthusiasts and their families, as well as advise the Poetry Foundation about children’s literature.

(The Foundation’s recent history is another compelling story. In 2002, the heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune made Poetry magazine, a modest but respected literary journal, the recipient of a decidedly immodest $200 million bequest—from which arose the nonprofit Poetry Foundation. The staggering sum caused much controversy, even scorn, but Elizabeth Taylor, the literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, has only approving words now for their “midwestern understated authority. They have won me over.”)

“Poetry does have a tremendous impact on kids,” enthuses Nesbitt, a true believer in the potential of rollicking rhymes. “It has a power with kids that other kinds of writing might not. A poem can pack a lot of emotional punch in just a few lines. Children’s poetry is typically not more than one page or two pages long. And yet, within that one or two pages, kids can get a really strong positive emotional response that encourages them to want to read another poem.”

While girls adore his books, Nesbitt’s smart irreverent tone has a special lure for young boys, famously reluctant readers. There is a market for comic boy’s books that are “gross and disgusting,” full of “boogers and underpants,” explains the new poet laureate; Nesbitt’s books are a cut well above that. Instead, he relies, he says, “on lots of crashing and yelling and running” in his poems.

So what can parents to lure their kids towards a lifetime of poetry? Start with “Mother Goose nursery rhymes and simple Dr. Seuss beginner books,” advises Nesbitt. Read poetry to them, if only for a few minutes a day. And of course, steer them towards his amusing website, poetry4kids.com.

And who does Nesbitt himself read when he’s not writing or traveling or entertaining rooms of jazzed up young poetry converts? Yeats? Auden? Nah. “I don’t really read adult poetry. I write children’s poetry, honestly, because I like to read children’s poetry.” So bring on Nesbitt’s slyly subversive, hilarious verse. A classroom of kids is waiting.

I HAVE AN AMOEBA

I have an amoeba I keep as a pet.
Today is his birthday; I didn’t forget.
I baked him a cake so incredibly small,
a microscope’s needed to see it at all.

This miniscule morsel’s so meager and scant,
it wouldn’t suffice as a snack for an ant.
There isn’t a flea this confection would feed;
this particle pastry is paltry indeed.

It’s infinitesimal, barely a speck.
I managed to frost it with less than a fleck.
I topped it with candles of miniature size,
to give my amoeba his birthday surprise.

At last it was ready; the cake was all set,
And just the right size for my single-celled pet.
The candles were lit. It was perfectly frosted.
I set the cake down, and I instantly lost it.

© 2009 Kenn Nesbitt. Published in The Tighty Whitey Spider by Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.

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