A Poet Lets His Inner Child Out to Play
Sunday, December 31, 2006
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. The birth of the bananaconda was an accident of insomnia, cable television and tropical produce.
"Books happen in odd ways," said poet Jack Prelutsky, creator of the bananaconda, a constrictor with the skin of a fruit.
So it was one sleepless night several years ago that he descended the stairs in his home for a snack, a banana, and settled into an easy chair, too tired to write. He is a fan of nature programs, and that night he found a TV documentary on the giant snake from the Amazon. He noticed the coincidence of syllables, and inspiration struck. His poem begins:
Oh sleek bananaconda
You longest long long fellow,
How sinuous and sly you are,
How slippery, how yellow.
Soon, he had invented "broccolions" and "potatoads," and within a couple of weeks he had written "Scranimals," one of his best-known compilations and a perfect example of his brand of logic-defying verse.
"He once wrote a poem about a lion tamer and he's sort of like that," said Susan Hirschman, Prelutsky's former longtime editor. "He controls the language in such a brilliant way. And he never repeats himself, he never takes the easy way out."
Prelutsky was recently named the first-ever "children's poet laureate" by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. It's a title, complete with $25,000 cash prize and an inscribed medallion, he will hold for two years, a sort of blessed community service that compels him to give two major public readings and act as adviser, ambassador and pollinator of his art.
This he has already done unofficially for decades as the preferred poet of two generations of children. He has written more than 35 books, which have been translated into several languages and become mainstays of school libraries everywhere. His anthology "The Random House Book of Poetry for Children" is considered a standard-bearer.
Prelutsky is lauded for many things: his cleverly silly wordplay ("It makes me sad when lettuce leaves, I laugh when dinner rolls"); then there's his surrealism ("Imagine if your precious nose / were sandwiched in between your toes, / that clearly would not be a treat, / for you'd be forced to smell your feet").