Please welcome author, educator, and poet Laura Shovan to Frog on a Blog! Laura is perhaps best known for her award-winning middle grade novels, including A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. But today we celebrate the publication day of her new children’s book Welcome to Monsterville, which is perfect for Poetry Month and features 16 poems she wrote to accompany artist Michael Rothenberg’s whimsical monster illustrations. Welcome to Monsterville is a “celebration of friendship, emotional intelligence, and creative play as a form of healing.” Laura and Michael’s collaboration began during the pandemic as just a sharing back and forth between friends before it morphed into this special book that can help kids cope with all sorts of feelings. Let’s hear more from Laura.
A monster bought the house next door…
Imagine that this is the first sentence of a poem, or a story. What happens next? This was the question I asked myself a few years ago, when my dear friend Michael sent me this picture:
A poet and artist, Michael Rothenberg had been working with an art therapist since the death of his son. Most of his illustrations were abstract, so I was surprised when this creature appeared in our message thread. With its fishy red lips, slick purple hair, and tail of flames (or bacon, depending on your perspective), this being seemed to emerge straight out of Michael’s imagination.
Inspired by the playfulness of Michael’s artwork, I started writing. I didn’t think too hard, but followed my friend’s lead, incorporating details from the drawing into my poem.
A monster bought the house next door.
When it moved in, I wasn’t sure
just how this creature, tall and wide,
would squeeze its blobby form inside.
Its lips went first, then purple hair,
then six pink feet climbed up the stair.
It wore a jumpsuit, denim blue.
I called out, “That looks great on you!”
Within minutes, I had a draft. I wasn’t concerned about polishing. This was a casual gift from one friend to another. I made a recording of the poem and sent it off to Michael, hoping it would bring a smile to his face.
“This is fun,” he wrote back. “I am already curious what monster might reveal itself tomorrow.” What revealed itself was this:
Once again, I began with a sort of story-starter.
Monsters don’t have birthdays.
I think that is unfair!
I trusted my gut. As with the first poem, the narrator here is a child faced with a problem. “What do I do when…” a monster moves into my neighborhood, or I find out my monster friend doesn’t celebrate birthdays? The solution here seemed obvious. The kid-narrator plans a surprise party for Monster, of course!
The end of my first draft for this poem reads:
Surprise! The guests all shouted,
but Monster wasn’t scared.
He laughed and hugged each friend
and said, “I never knew you cared.”
This was how our two-year-long collaboration began. Michael would lead off with a monster illustration. Sometimes he’d send me the initial pencil sketches and we’d discuss details or color options. In response, I’d send a poem. Michael thought of the poems as a form of translation. I became an interpreter, putting words to the creatures living in his imagination. He shared feedback on phrasing and musicality—we revised several of the poems together.
Our resulting project is Welcome to Monsterville, a book of sixteen illustrated poems for young readers. Michael approached the monsters with such creative abandon that I was encouraged to take similar risks in my writing. Partnering on this project helped us both stretch, learn, and grow as artists. Whether you’re working with an illustrator, another author, or a musician, that is the joy of creative collaboration.
Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her work appears in journals and anthologies for children and adults. Laura’s award-winning middle grade novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. An honors graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (BFA, Dramatic Writing) and Montclair State University (Master of Arts, Teaching), Laura is a longtime Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education, conducting school poetry residencies. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. To learn more about her life and work, visit: www.laurashovan.com.
Follow Laura Shovan on social media:
Facebook: @laura.shovan.poet | Instagram: @laurashovan