Lee Bennett Hopkins, who dedicated a lifetime to writing and anthologizing poetry for children, amassing troves of verse to help young people navigate the unknowns of life, from why stink bugs stink to how to survive a divorce, died Aug. 8 at a hospital in Cape Coral, Fla. He was 81.
The cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his husband, Charles Egita.
Mr. Hopkins was widely considered an eminence of children’s poetry, a genre that he cultivated for decades as a teacher, writer and anthologist. He held the Guinness World Record for “most prolific anthologist of poetry for children,” with 113 titles to his name when the record was declared in 2011. By the time of his death, the count had crept past 120.
But before Mr. Hopkins was a creator and collector of children’s literature, he was a child himself — one in dire need of the emotional sustenance that can be found in books and particularly, he believed, in books of verse. Poetry, he remarked in Instructor magazine, “should come to [children] as naturally as breathing, for nothing — no thing — can ring and rage through hearts and minds as does this genre of literature.”
Growing up in the projects of Newark, Mr. Hopkins recalled that he was “out of school more than [he] was in” as he helped raise a younger sister while their single mother worked. He wrote in a biographical sketch that he was uninterested in “anything but survival” until a teacher introduced him to the marvels of literature and theater.
“She turned my life around,” he told the News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla. “She saw something in me I didn’t know existed.”
Inspired by her, Mr. Hopkins became a teacher. His experiences in the classroom, including teaching poor African American and Hispanic children in Harlem during the racial tumult of the 1960s, exposed lacunae in the canon of children’s literature that he later sought to fill as an anthologist.
When Langston Hughes, the celebrated black poet, died in 1967, Mr. Hopkins hurried to the library in search of a collection of Hughes’s works to show the students. The only children’s title he could find was “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems,” a 1932 volume illustrated with artwork Mr. Hopkins described as “minstrelesque.” Aghast, he could not bring himself to show it to his students.
The next day, he said, he called the Knopf publishing house and persuaded a children’s editor of the need for a new collection of Hughes’s poetry for young readers. And so was born “Don’t You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes” (1969), with works selected by Mr. Hopkins and illustrations by Ann Grifalconi.
That book, according to Mr. Hopkins, set him on his course as an anthologist. For collections of 20 or so poems, he said, he would read thousands of verses in search of the finest ones. He commissioned new poems from authors he admired and sometimes included in his compilations verses of his own.
Many of his anthologies centered on themes, such as the seasons (“The Sky Is Full of Song,” 1983), space (“Blast Off!,” 1995), holidays (“Days to Celebrate,” 2005), insects (“Nasty Bugs,” 2012, answering the question about stink bugs) and history (“Lives: Poems About Famous Americans,” 1999).
If much poetry for adults seeks to resolve timeless questions of love, requited or otherwise, and mortality, Mr. Hopkins collected poems that addressed equally timeless quandaries bedeviling children.
“With a giggle or a sigh, children will recognize the childhood concerns evoked” by the poems in the volume “Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems” (2005), wrote a reviewer for School Library Journal. “Whether it’s missing a fly ball, a friend’s moving away, or the death of a pet, these selections open doors so that kids can acknowledge their feelings as real and important.”
Collections of Mr. Hopkins’s poetry included “Been to Yesterdays” (1995), drawing on his often difficult upbringing as child of divorce and poverty, and “City I Love” (2009). His goal, one he pursued with nearly single-minded fervor, seemed to be to write and collect poems for any question that might arise in the life of a child, so he or she might have somewhere to turn for help, or at least for company.
“Today, there are poems about everything one can think of,” Mr. Hopkins told the News-Press in 2018. “There are poems about dinosaurs and dreams. There are poems about spaceships and divorce.
“Children can find poetry about any topic today, as they can in children’s literature today. It’s a very diverse field, and it’s out there for children who need it.”
Lee Bennett Hopkins was born on April 13, 1938, in Scranton, Pa., and moved to Newark when he was about 10. His father, a former police officer, did construction and other work before leaving the family when Mr. Hopkins was in his teens. Mr. Hopkins’s mother supported her children by working at a supermarket and in a factory, and by cleaning houses. At times his family was unable to pay their gas and electric bills.
After graduating from Newark State Teachers College (now Kean University) in 1960, Mr. Hopkins became a teacher, working first in Fair Lawn, N.J. His principal there helped arrange for a scholarship that allowed him to receive a master’s degree from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.
As a teacher, Mr. Hopkins discovered that poetry was especially helpful for children with reading difficulties. It “was short, the vocabulary usually simple, often it was repetitive, and I’ve always maintained that many times the right poem can have as much impact in ten, twelve, or fourteen lines, that an entire novel can have,” he wrote in the biographical sketch.
Mr. Hopkins later worked for the Scholastic publishing company before becoming a full-time writer and anthologist. Among his early books were three novels — “Mama” (1977), “Wonder Wheels” (1979) and “Mama and Her Boys” (1981) — inspired by his early life. The first book centers on a mother who shoplifts to provide for her children.
“You’ll remember Mama,” Zena Sutherland, a reviewer of children’s literature, observed in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. The mother, she said, is “tough, cheerfully vulgar in her tastes,” yet “passionately dedicated to see that her two sons whose father has decamped have everything they need.”
Mr. Hopkins wrote nonfiction books including “Let Them Be Themselves: Language Arts Enrichment for Disadvantaged Children in Elementary Schools” (1969) and “Pass the Poetry, Please!” (1972). In 2013, he donated his collection of 18,000 books, as well as his correspondence with hundreds of children’s authors, to Penn State University Libraries. At the time, the university announced that the collection was worth $3.25 million.
Mr. Hopkins and Egita, who were partners of five decades, married in 2014. In addition to his husband, Mr. Hopkins’s survivors include a brother and a sister.
Mr. Hopkins recalled with delight the questions he received from children awakened to the joys of literature. “Are all authors dead?” one second-grader asked him, he recalled in his biographical sketch. He assured anyone who wondered that, no, “they are very much alive,” indeed that “many remain alive even after they pass away.”