Kate Coombs may be known for her middle-grade fantasies (The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon) and picture-book fairy tales (Hans My Hedgehog, illustrated by John Nickle, etc.), but as it turns out, poetry is her first love.
Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems, her fifth book and first poetry collection, includes 23 delightful ocean poems—some serious, others brilliantly playful and light—set alongside Meilo So’s suggestive watercolors just teeming with the hues, movement, and wonders of sea and shore. Though she now resides in Utah, Coombs says some of her fondest childhood memories come from time spent at the beach near Los Angeles.
Splash around in other picture books about water.
Is this collection at all nostalgic for you?
Yeah, to me the beach is just sort of beloved. There’s something about sitting on the shore, watching the waves go in and out, that’s hypnotic and concerns something about the universe. I don’t know—it’s a powerful piece of nature. I’ve spent some time at the Long Beach Aquarium, watching the jellyfish, for example. There’s something extremely beautiful and strange about jellyfish and, really, sea life in general.
And I have good memories of the shore. We would go boogie boarding and make sand castles, and the inhabitants of these castles were these little weird things called sand crabs. I remember the sensation of being out on my boogie board, past the surf line, and kind of lying on my stomach with my feet dangling down in the cold water while my back was totally burning—it was a strange combination of sensations. I have to say I would try not to imagine the creatures that might be swimming down around my helpless legs. But no shark attacks or anything like that—kelp on occasion, kelp attacks. There are some memories there.
What inspired these poems?
Well, I started with the jellyfish poem, and as a poetry person it was clear to me that with children’s poetry you have to have a theme. They like to have a narrative arc in some cases, so I was shooting for that. I remember when I was writing my middle-grade fairy-tale stuff, talking to an agent who said, “You’ve got to stop writing poetry because it’s just a terrible market.” I was like, I don’t think so—I love this stuff, so I’m going to keep trying.
Also, I started collecting seashells as a child. When I was 9 or 10, a neighbor gave us a bread box full of shells that her great aunt had collected living on the beaches in Tahiti—what a way to go, right?! It’s a really marvelous collection. In California these days, you can’t find much. You don’t get big perfect univalves because first of all, they don’t wash up often, and second, there are so many people there that it’s hard to find anything but fragments. I’ve since collected other shells by buying them and once in a while picking them up, and so I’ve put up a gallery of some of the shells that I own on my website. I found out recently that Pablo Neruda had one of the best private seashell collections.
What age did you envision these poems for?
As a children’s-book writer, I write mostly for myself. I sort of never grew up, but as far as an age group from a teaching standpoint, I would say this is about second through fourth grade. I feel sometimes people say, “But you used a hard word on page 16,” and I’m like, “Yeah, well, tell the kids what it is; they like that sometimes. They’re like, ‘Wow: a big word!’ ”
So you weren’t thinking about that when writing the poems?
Well, I’m a complete bookworm and collector of children’s books, and I have an extensive blog. I’ve read dozens of children’s books and children’s poems over the years, so I’m tuned into that and sort of know if I’m going too high. Some of the animal names are tricky, but much of the language is accessible, and I just sort of think middle grade when I write anything!
The other thing is I take kids seriously. To me, a child is a thinking person, and I have a great respect for children, so I make a point of not talking down to them—whether I’m talking to them in person or in a poem or book. I expect a lot from kids because they’re not mentally inferior. They just lack a certain amount of information, sometimes vocabulary—not everybody gets that. I think about that when I write.
Today many poetry volumes for kids include a glossary or notes to lend other avenues of access or additional context to the poems. You have a few obscure names here. Were you tempted or pressured to add some notes?
No. You know those teachers who tell you to go look it up in the dictionary? I feel like the teacher is the walking dictionary and should embrace that. I’m pretty casual about that sort of thing because I feel like kids advance in language because they come across words that surprise them. If you’ve ever heard children say a big nice new word that makes them think O listen to this one, then you realize it’s part of the process. I’m really comfortable with that actually. Most of the language here is very accessible, and then you get an occasional word that surprises. I’m not fazed by that—we’re teachers.
What did you think of Meilo’s watercolors when you first saw them?
I already knew her work and have to admit I am beyond excited about how gorgeous these illustrations are. They’re stunning. Too bad she lives off the coast of Scotland, or she’d be up for a Caldecott.
So what do you hope your readers take from this?
Not just with the ocean, but in general, I am in love with the world. That’s why I said I didn’t really grow up. It’s like kindergarteners. I’d walk 20 kids down the sidewalk, and one would go, “Look; a ladybug,” and all 20 kids would circle in awe.
I never really did get jaded about the world. I’m amazed by how beautiful and how weird it is. Like there’s this octopus called a mimic octopus that assumes predator shapes when it sees something that’s going to eat it coming its direction. It actually poses in the shape of something that’s going to eat what’s coming after it. Things like that just amaze me. I’m excited about the world, and I’m excited to show these animals. I want kids to get in there and say, what an amazing world, and o how fun, and isn’t it beautiful and funny and intriguing, and, you know, be into it.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.