Interview with Connie Wanek, winner of the CLiPPA 2023

Last month, Connie Wanek won the CLiPPA award for children’s poetry, along with former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and illustrator Richard Jones, for Marshmallow Clouds. We sat down with Connie to find out more about winning the award, what inspires her and writing for a younger audience.

Congratulations on winning the CLiPPA! How did you feel receiving the award?

Ted and I were tremendously honored when our book was named as a finalist for the CLiPPA, and we felt we had our illustrator, Richard Jones to thank for that. When we tuned in to the awards ceremony, we were so impressed with the other four books! So, when Marshmallow Clouds was announced as the winner, I nearly fell out of my chair! To be singled out by CLPE, an organisation that’s doing so much good for literacy, for teachers and children—well, we absolutely could not be more gratified. I just love their “shadowing scheme” and the way the children interpret the poems. It’s so joyful!

Can you tell us about your writing background? When did you first begin writing?

When I was young, I lived with my family on the remains of an old farm in a hand-built farmhouse, with a barn and five acres, in Wisconsin. My sisters and I spent many hours reading, writing, and drawing—a very different childhood without television or the internet. So, I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil.

I didn’t start publishing in any serious way until I was in my 40s, as I had jobs and kids and 28 hours of work stuffed into each 24. It was a late start. Now I’ve published five books of poetry for adults, but this is my first try at one for children. It seems, however, that I never did grow up, or maybe I did and found it a bit colorless, so I’ve returned to the imaginary playground at an advanced age. What drew me to poetry is the freedom it allows for my deepest thoughts and feelings. Plus, it’s short and I don’t like typing long things!

Can you tell us about Marshmallow Clouds – what was the inspiration for it and what did you set out to achieve with it?

Back in 2005, when Ted was US Poet Laureate, he did a lot of traveling across the country, and he drove up to Duluth, Minnesota where we met and became fast friends. Ted felt our poems had a lot in common: a love for metaphor and figurative language, which makes sense as he has always been a hero of mine, and I’ve learned a great deal from him.

Then a few years ago, he suggested we try writing a book of poems together for younger readers. Poems for grown-ups (which is what we usually write) skew toward “serious” and even “severe,” and gosh, some of them are no fun at all. We wanted to write something lighter. Clearly, we also love and take inspiration from the natural world. The result, Marshmallow Clouds, includes 15 of Ted’s poems and 15 of mine. Ted felt that we should not put our names on the poems, as it would work against a unified impression, and simply get in the way, which I thought was a great idea.

What was it like working with Ted Kooser and Richard Jones?

Ted is so generous and fluid, working with him was deeply gratifying (and a little nerve-wracking!). Our correspondence was almost all by old-fashioned letters! He is quick to praise and very decisive.

The lovely people at Candlewick Books gave us several options for artists to work with. We agreed right away on Richard. Ted recognised Richard’s wonderful use of color and composition, and his versatility. The poems really flourish within his paintings. I just stared at some of them in wonder!

You usually write for adults, do you have to adapt your approach when writing for a younger audience?

As I mentioned earlier, I think in some ways I never grew up, and that may be true of many of us. I’m as full of urgencies as a five-year-old. I want the world to be so much fairer than it is. Once I wrote in a poem for grown-ups: “One knows the world, yet is continually astonished.” Remembering how astonishment feels is particularly useful when writing for children. I had a fantasy when I was a young girl that maybe I could ride a deer like a horse. I still kind of think… maybe?

Kids are more willing to suspend their disbelief. They like to laugh at jokes, but they don’t like being teased. The are brave, too. Some subjects I don’t find suitable for children, but I don’t find them suitable for myself either. I’m honest, though, about what I do say. I love and trust children. When I write, I feel like I’m talking to them, and I try to hear what they are saying back.

You can read more about Connie and her works here.