friday feast: kate coombs on water sings blue


Big heartfelt congratulations to Kate Coombs, everyone’s favorite Book Aunt, on the official release this week of Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems (Chronicle Books, 2012)!

This book is an absolute stunner — perhaps you’ve already read Marjorie’s fine review at Paper Tigers, or have seen the *starred* reviews from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, which praises Kate’s “surprising personification and unexpected imagery.” This wholly captivating, gorgeously illustrated collection of lyrical, whimsical, and wistful poems will charm and delight readers of all ages, and is easily my favorite poetry book of 2012 thus far, and I dare say, one of the finest themed poetry collections for children ever. It’s a superb example of poetry as art, art as poetry.

We’ve got a real treat today, because Kate has graciously agreed to tell us about the genesis of Water Sings Blue, as well as share a little backstory for six sample poems. So,  get comfy under your beach umbrella, listen to the waves breaking on the shore, dig your toes in the sand, and let the wonder of these poems wash over you.


KATE: This book started off with a poem called “Jellyfish Kitchen,” and I eventually wrote an entire ocean collection from there. It had become clear to me that publishers wanted collections with themes! So I listed all of the sea creatures and ocean components (sand, waves) I could think of and then did Internet research to find many more. I wrote some 80 poems that Chronicle editor Melissa Manlove and I later whittled down to 23.

I’ve lived most of my life in Los Angeles and we used to go to the beach fairly often — I remember boogie boarding as a child, for example. My favorite memory is of swimming out beyond the surf line and lying on my tummy on my board, which was short and made of styrofoam. My back would be warm in the sun and my legs would hang down in the cool water. I usually got a sunburn!

Anyway, my first poetry sale to Chronicle was actually a different collection, but that project got canceled because of marketing considerations, so I sent Melissa, my new editor, the ocean poems instead.


The prim bell jar
with ruffled rim
my grandma used
to cover cake
has learned to swim.

Where bundts once lay
in sturdy rings,
this dome conceals
a frosted sting.


You’re not really jelly,
you’re not really fish —
you’re free-floating noodles
escaped from a dish,
all slither and jiggle
and tremble and squish.


Deep water shimmers.
    A wind-shape passes,
kimono trailing.

As you might have guessed, the jellyfish is my favorite ocean animal. This is not because it’s approachable, but because of its alien beauty. I once went on a tall ship day cruise and saw by-the-wind sailors, which are jellyfish that act like little sailboats thanks to a small stiff protrusion like a sail on their backs. I also recall watching a tank of moon jellyfish at the Long Beach Aquarium and being enchanted. Yet jellyfish can be just plain squishy! The three jellyfish poems in my book are a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offering different perspectives on this strange creature.

The smallest jellyfish poem is actually a haiku, but I took the word out of the title so I wouldn’t get letters from kids and their teachers who are purists about the 5/7/5 syllable count concept. It’s actually a bit different in Japanese — not precisely about syllables. I consider the whole thing rather conceptual, especially considering we’re translating a form from one language to another.


There’s a wide green map
on Sea Turtle’s back.
Currents? She knows
their flows, never slows,
needn’t stop for directions
wherever she goes,
flapping her elegant
paddle-shaped toes.

“Sea Turtle” almost didn’t make it into the book. I had tinkered with a sea turtle poem at one point and given up. Rather late in the game, I was talking to a friend of mine about the project, and when she heard I was doing ocean poems she said her little boy would love it. “Benjamin is crazy about sea turtles!” So I went home and tried again. I spent hours on a particular concept that just didn’t work. I threw up my hands in disgust and tried something completely different — which popped almost at once. So Benjamin gets some credit for that sea turtle poem. The only thing I kept was the idea of a map on the sea turtle’s back, a metaphor I connect to a poem by Pablo Neruda about a seashell, though that wasn’t the only inspiration.

Did you know Neruda collected seashells? In fact, his collection was extensive, considered one of the best private collections in the world. He once wrote, “The best thing I have collected in my life are my shells. They gave me the pleasure of their prodigious structure, the lunar purity of their mysterious porcelain.” That’s pretty much how I feel about seashells!


The famous author hesitates
        to pick his pen up.
    He is shy. But wait!
 He autographs the water
   with a single word —

“Octopus Ink” is a writing joke, of course. I use the idea of the ink to compare an octopus to a painfully shy author who doesn’t really want to sign autographs. I’m not that shy, personally!


     Shimmer and run, catch the sun,
Ripple thin, catch the wind.

     Shift and splash, drift and dash.
Slow and gray, foggy day.

     Whisper hush, murmur shush.
Swell and sigh, otter lullaby.

     Journey on with a yawn.
Swirl and swish, play with fish.

     Roll green, rise and lean —
wake and roar and strike the shore!

“What the Waves Say” originally had four couplets, and the poem wasn’t quite succeeding. It came together after I added a fifth couplet in the penultimate spot: “Journey on with a yawn/Swirl and swish, play with fish.” I love seeing the many faces of the sea, and Meilo did such a great job of showing them in that spread. There’s a slight narrative structure to the poem as the waves do different things before finally arriving at their destination: “Roll green, rise and lean-/wake and roar and strike the shore!”

Kate keeps a case of shells and stones on her desk.

I will just add that although my previous books are picture books and middle grade fantasy, poetry is my first love, something I’ve been writing since I was a child. I remember the thrill of writing my first sonnet at age 12, and I wrote a lot of poetry during high school and college before working on short stories and novels for children.

I prefer free verse, but I deliberately wrote most of the ocean poems in rhyme because kids just really love rhyme, something I learned from being a first grade teacher about 10 years ago. My caveat when rhyming is that rhyme cannot distract from the language. I won’t include words to force a rhyme, and try to ensure that the lines flow naturally, not with an overly stiff, perfect meter. I explained to my editor that I wasn’t going for a precise meter, but rather for a musical feel created by counting downbeats. Fortunately, Melissa was pretty accepting about that!


Thanks so much for all your interesting remarks, Kate!

There are so many things I love about Water Sings Blue, but knowing that it started with “Jellyfish Kitchen” makes me love it even more ♥. Truly, I literally had to catch my breath when seeing Meilo So’s vivid, evocative, and exquisitely detailed watercolors for the first time. They complement Kate’s poems perfectly, heightening emotional resonance, deftly capturing tenor, echoing rhythm, meter and essence. From the moment we push away from the pier with “Song of the Boat,” till the final lingering ebb and flow of “Tideline,” we are treated to an unparalleled feast of the senses, an ocean celebration that will stay with the reader for a long time.

I’m certain children will enjoy meeting each and every one of Kate’s ocean-y “characters,” turning over each precious poem like a favorite shell, marveling at its uniqueness. I predict more accolades (hello, Cybils, LBH Poetry Award!) for Water Sings Blue, and am happy to give it my highest five spoon rating!!

Moon Jellyfish

♥ Kate Coombs official website and uber cool blog, Book Aunt. Click here to see Kate’s brand new Seashell Gallery, which includes a couple of things from Hawaii! Read some outtakes from Water Sings Blue here.

♥ Meilo So’s official website.

♥ Kate recently visited Jules at 7-Imp, who promises an interview with Meilo So in the near future.

♥ Related Post: Kate Brings a Hot Dish to the 2011 Alphabet Soup Poetry Potluck.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted by the always charming Greg Pincus at GottaBook. Check out the full menu of poems and reviews being served up in the blogosphere this week!


*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2012 Kate Coombs, illustrations © 2012 Meilo So, published by Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

28 thoughts on “friday feast: kate coombs on water sings blue

  1. What a delight! It was great being introduced to this book by Jules, but I loved reading poems here and learning that memory of a sonnet written at age 12. Yes, that truly sounds thrilling. Besides liking the poems, and an hearing about an editor-writer relationship that sounds so good, I liked the tray of shells. I can see why you’re raving about the book, Jama, and look forward to reading it myself.


    1. Don’t forget to check out Kate’s Seashell Gallery — she’s got quite a lovely collection.

      I found it interesting to hear how she and her editor winnowed down the collection to 23 poems from about 80. The final selection, arrangement and layout of the poems are brilliant. There’s a wonderful harmony in this blend of wistful and whimsical. “Unexpected” and “surprising” are spot-on assessments.


    1. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, Elaine. Chronicle publishes such fabulous books, always been one of my favorite publishers, and I’m SO excited they’re publishing your poetry book!!


  2. This is on my wish list for sure. I just bought Hans My Hedgehog which is wonderful in its own way, but this ocean book-marvelous. I don’t live near the ocean so I need all the vicarious experiences I can get. Thanks Jama for sharing so much of this. Hearing Kate talk about it is an added bonus.


    1. I’m anxious to see Hans My Hedgehog :).

      The integration of poetry and art in this book is absolute perfection. Kudos to the entire team that put this together. Beautiful layout and design.


  3. Congratulations to Kate (and Meilo), and thank you, Jama! I’ve read about this collection but not gotten it in my hands yet – thank you for this thoroughly wonderful extended peek. And – “kimono trailing” – is that a glorious image or what?!


  4. We live by the sea and I am enamored of everything to do with it. This looks so lovely – what a great collaboration.

    This just reminded me that the first poem I ever wrote, at age 7, was “Whale in the Sea,” followed immediately by “Jellyfish, Jellyfish” — I guess I was on to something and didn’t know it! 🙂


  5. Hi Renee,

    Yes, you were definitely onto something. This book also contains a blue whale poem, as well as poems about some creatures new to me. Lots of good information here.


  6. What a treat! I love Kate’s blog, too…definitely a selection for my classroom. Thanks for the introduction, Jama!


  7. Oh what a fabulous interview – yes, I love the book (and thank you for linking to my review). It’s great to hear about the background here -and I’d love to see the other 57 poems! Also noteworthy what Kate touches on about poetry in translation… Thank you, Kate and Jama. Oh, and Jama, don’t eat the jelly 😉


    1. LOL! How you know me, Marjorie. I *was* thinking about strawberry jam and guava jelly when reading this book.

      Maybe they’ll do another book with some of the other 57 poems? Yes, Kate made a good point about poetry in translation. 🙂


  8. Jama! I looooove your review and I love the book. Kate Coombs is one of our kidlit inspirations! Like what Marjorie noted, boy, would I love to see all the other 57 poems as well.

    My favorite lines from your review, dearest Jama:
    “They complement Kate’s poems perfectly, heightening emotional resonance, deftly capturing tenor, echoing rhythm, meter and essence”
    — see, even the way you write your reviews is poetic!

    Among the poems generously shared by Kate, my favorite is “What the Waves Say” – I can fall asleep instantly with just this sound and their mystery and their whisperings. Will look out for this book!


    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Myra. The stars (and starfishes) were aligned for the creation of this book. The sequence of wave paintings is sublime, isn’t it? Kate captures the sounds and movements of those waves with such grace and clarity. Love how she’s given the ocean and the creatures a personality and soul all their own.


  9. Love the “free-floating noodles” and the map on turtle’s back! I can’t wait to meet this book in person! Congrats, Kate and thanks, Jama!


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