friday feast: a chat with author and poet frances h. kakugawa (+ a giveaway!)

“What would happen if all the poets in the world wrote poems to save our forests, rivers, animals, earth, air and oceans? Wouldn’t that be something?” ~ Wordsworth the Mouse Poet

Frances and Wordsworth plant a koa tree at Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods in honor of their new book, Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer! (photo by Tammy Antonio)

Happy Poetry Friday!

I’m delighted and honored to welcome back award-winning author, poet and educator Frances H. Kakugawa to Alphabet Soup!

You may remember when I shared her beautiful and poignant poem, “Emily Dickinson, I Am Somebody,”  (written in the voice of an Alzheimer’s patient), and we learned more about how writing poetry can help ease the heavy burden of caregiving.

Today, Frances is here to tell us a little about her heartwarming, award-winning series of children’s picture books featuring Wordsworth, the poetry-writing mouse. All three stories, a unique combination of poetry + prose, celebrate the power and wonder of poetry, the enduring value of friendship, and the primacy of the imagination.

I’m sure many of you can relate: because poets spend a lot of time alone and see things differently, this can cause a lot of problems in everyday life.

In the first book, Wordsworth the Poet (Watermark Publishing, 2003), Wordsworth gets teased for being different by the other mice in the Hawaiian rain forest and struggles to remain true to himself. In Wordsworth Dances the Waltz (WP, 2007), writing poetry helps Wordsworth express and understand his confusing feelings about his grandmother’s behavioral changes and memory loss.

In the newest book, Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer! (WP, 2012), Wordsworth is devastated when he finds the koa grove where he thought up new poems all but destroyed. When he and his friends befriend Akiko, a new student from Japan, she teaches them about Japanese poetry and comes up with a clever idea. Can poetry really help save the endangered trees?

It’s easy to see why Wordsworth has captured the hearts of children everywhere. Not only is he a gifted poet, he cares deeply about other human beings and our endangered planet. Each of his stories encourages and inspires kids to try writing their own poems by stretching their imaginations, while reminding them how important it is to have a friend and be a friend.

Here’s one of Wordsworth’s poems from the first book:


A silver dewdrop
On a taro leaf
Runs and rolls
From edge to edge.
He leaves nothing
Of himself,
Taking all he is
Around the leaf,
Gathering as he runs
All speckled drops
To make him one,
Bigger than what
He was before.

I was curious to find out more about Wordsworth’s beginnings and Frances’s own journey as an author and poet. How long would you wait to find the right publisher?

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When and why did you first start writing poetry?

I was six years old when I first learned about books in first grade. I spoke Hawaiian Pidgin growing up so I was entranced that people in books spoke differently. I fell in love with language then and knew I would learn to speak like those children in books.

One day the teacher read a poem and in my head, I could see the flowers smiling with eyelashes and lipstick and told myself, “Wow, words can make pictures in my head. Someday I’m going to write a book, too.” Throughout my entire life, I held on to that dream and thought I would publish a book after retirement.

My first four books of poetry were published when I was in my 30’s so I thought I was up for a very short life and was having my dream met then. Those books came to be written without plan. I thought I was going to write the great American novel. But my heart got broken and poetry became my savior.

Frances talks to a young fan (photo by Watermark Publishing)

What inspires you?

The need to write. I need to have something to write about; that is the most joyous time, to know there is something here that needs to be put into words.

Is Wordsworth your alter ego? Why did you decide to write a children’s book that combines poetry with prose? Which came first, the poems or the story?

In reflection, you’re right. Wordsworth is created out of who I am. I wrote the first Wordsworth book for a children’s writing contest in Hawai’i. I took a few published poems and wrote a story around it. It won third prize and a $100 check from the Honolulu mayor.

I put the story away, thinking it wasn’t good enough. A few years later, a publisher wanted to publish it. He got the contract and illustrator and we sat down in a restaurant to discuss publication. To get the attention of the waitress, he motioned her with his hand and yelled, “Hey you, come here.”  I thought, “The only difference between that waitress and me is our occupation.” I knew then I could not let someone who was so opposite from Wordsworth publish that story.

from Wordsworth the Poet

Part of me wanted my first published children’s book, the other part said, “He stands for everything Wordsworth is not.” The next day I took my story back. Thirty years later I read the story to my new publisher and he is everything Wordsworth is, and the rest is history. Wordsworth the Poet will be going into its 3rd printing and is the best seller of my 11 books.

“Emily knew Wordsworth could see an entire castle in a piece of driftwood buried in the sand.”

Years ago, I published a story with both prose and poetry and the reviewer said, “By rules, this can’t be done but by golly, she did it.” So that stayed in my mind. Sometimes, it’s so much easier to bring a message across through poetry.

Which came first? With the first Wordsworth story, the poems came first and I worked the story around it.

from Wordsworth Dances the Waltz
from Wordsworth Dances the Waltz

In Wordsworth Dances the Waltz, the theme of the story came first so I wrote the prose and poetry simultaneously.

In Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!, I saw the illustrations first and worked the story around them. The story is very different from the original manuscript.

Was writing the second and third books in the series easier or more difficult (in what ways)?

It becomes more difficult because the themes are getting more complicated and how to bring this at the child’s level of understanding becomes challenging. I’m more knowledgeable about language, too, so I need to work harder.

Please tell us about the Plant a Tree Society and why you feel so strongly about sharing the message of environmental preservation with children.

I grew up in a village without electricity and a water system. We were poor so nature was our playground. It scares me to see concrete taking over our environment. It scares me that monetary profiteers are being blind to our environment.  I feel  adults are a lost cause so maybe we can save our planet through the young children. And children need to know they can make a difference by becoming aware of the world around them. And this is how poets are born. So readers are encouraged to plant a tree, take a photo and send it to the publisher and they will receive a certificate specifying they are members of the Wordsworth Plant a Tree Society.

from Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!

Based on your many years as a grade school educator and poetry workshop leader for both kids and adults, what advice would you give to those who are intimidated by poetry (reading, writing, or teaching it)?

Read to them. Help them become aware of how language works. Connect images to language. Read poems that are fun and relevant. Help them appreciate the wonder of poetry, then when they write their own, the wonder of being a poet, brings joy and awe.

Teachers need to remember that the source of writing is each individual child. We write best when we tap our own experiences, feelings, ideas and thoughts.

And once writers release their writing, it’s no longer theirs but it becomes the readers who in turn will make sense and bring meaning to that written work through their own experiences, feelings, thoughts and ideas. A nice process.

Wordsworth and his best friend Emily (photo: Watermark Publishing)

Your favorite:

Poetic Form: any poetic form

Poet(s):  I still enjoy the old poets from my school years: Blake, Frost, Tennyson, Wordsworth, etc. You know, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…..”

Poem(s): Still love the oldies but enjoy any current poetry that connects to me.

Food-related memory: We had kerosene lamps with those wicks and glass chimneys. At night as we did our homework, we would get those whole smoked abalone, slice them and roast them over the kerosene lamps. I’m surprised we didn’t die from kerosene poisoning. Another memory: We took the largest pot to a store where they made shaved ice. We all stood around the pot at home, on hot summer days, put the shaved ice in rice bowls, poured strawberry syrup and condensed milk over the ice and had our treats.

Food that Inspires Your Best Work: I use certain foods to help create the aura of being a writer. I go to the same coffee shop, order a latte or mocha in a real cup, maybe some chocolates, and sit and stare and drink my coffee. I am being a writer. No one else.

Then I take what’s already in my head and put them down on paper with my fountain pen. It’s always writing on paper first before going to the computer.

What’s the next Wordsworth book about?

The next Wordsworth was written a few years ago. Title: Wordsworth! It’s In Your Pocket!

Okay, readers, the first person to guess what’s in his pocket gets an autographed copy of Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!

Theme is this: Wordsworth brings back his friends from the electronic world that is engulfing them.

Frances with the awards Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer! recently received from the Northern California Publishers Association.

* * *


written by Frances H. Kakugawa
illustrated by Andrew J. Catanzariti
published by Watermark Publishing, 2012
Picture Book for ages 4+, 36 pp.
Cool themes: Conservation, Environmental Awareness, Trees, Friendship, Poetry, School (Includes free verse, tanka, and haiku)
*Available in hardcover and ebook formats
**2013 First Place Winner for Best Children’s Book and Third Place Winner for Best Cover & Design (Northern California Publishers Association)

Just as Frances said, the first commenter to guess what’s in Wordsworth’s pocket wins a signed copy of this book! Winner will be announced here next Friday.

(If no one guesses correctly by midnight (EDT), Sunday, June 2, 2013, a winner will be chosen at random.)

Good Luck, and thank you, Frances, for donating the book and visiting today!!

photo by Tammy Antonio

* * *


* * *

poetryfriday180The lovely and talented Betsy is hosting today’s Roundup at Teaching Young Writers. Waltz on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week.


*Spreads from Wordsworth the Poet reprinted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2003 Frances H. Kakugawa, illustrations © 2003 Scott Goto, published by Watermark Publishing. All rights reserved.

*Spreads from Wordsworth Dances the Waltz reprinted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2007 Frances H. Kakugawa, illustrations © 2007 Melissa DeSica, published by Watermark Publishing. All rights reserved.

*Spreads from Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer! reprinted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Frances H. Kakugawa, illustrations © 2012 Andrew J. Catanzariti, published by Watermark Publishing. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


26 thoughts on “friday feast: a chat with author and poet frances h. kakugawa (+ a giveaway!)

  1. What a wonderful publication story, Frances. I can’t wait to read those beautiful books.
    Thanks, Jama.


  2. Great photos! Wordsworth and Frances are both very photogenic. I love how patient Frances was, waiting for the right publisher. Does Wordsworth have a pen in his pocket?


    1. I agree, both are VERY photogenic :). Cornelius is actually jealous and thinks he should write poetry too. He also wants to change his name to Cornelius Cummings.

      A pen is a good guess. We’ll see what Frances says 🙂 . . .


  3. I don’t know why, but missed the earlier post about Wordsworth and the Waltz, Jama. What beautiful books these are. I enjoyed both posts very much. Poetry certainly has been important to me these past few years. I think a poem is in Wordsworth’s pocket! And it may be in the shape of something in nature, like a rock or an acorn! Just imagining! Thank you!


    1. Glad you went back to read the other post too — Frances’s caregiving poetry workshops are amazing.

      A poem in his pocket — maybe he invented Poem in Your Pocket Day :). I like the nature object guess too. Good luck!


  4. “I need to have something to write about; that is the most joyous time, to know there is something here that needs to be put into words.”
    I just loved reading this interview and learning more about Frances – especially about her joyous attitude towards writing, which is clear in the quote above as well as in her books. Thanks for this gorgeous post, Jama.


  5. Both Frances and Wordsworth are inspiring! I’m excited to read all of these books – and the illustrations are beautiful.
    I was thinking Wordsworth had a poem in his pocket, too (Linda and I were on the same wavelength), but my guess will be a seed…to plant an idea.


    1. A seed to plant an idea — great guess, Bridget! Hope you see the books soon and also check out the Activity Guides — so many great suggestions to get kids excited about poetry.


  6. How sweet is this: “Emily knew Wordsworth could see an entire castle in a piece of driftwood buried in the sand.” Makes me fall in love with him a little bit more!

    I adore his spectacles and I am curious whether Frances wrote them into the story, or the illustrator suggested them?

    I believe there is a seed in his pocket. 🙂


    1. To have a good friend like Emily, who didn’t laugh or tease, but understood Wordsworth, made a big difference. I really like the humanistic themes that run through this series. Nothing more important than how one treats other people, and a little kindness goes a long way.


  7. I sent your last post about Frances Kakugawa to a friend whose mother has Alzheimer’s. I’m glad to read more about her. I think Wordsworth has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his pocket. 🙂


    1. Hee — I like your guess, Ruth. That would be what *I* would have in my pocket. That or chocolate.

      Good to hear you forwarded the last post to your friend!


  8. Thanks for this interview, Jama! I’ve always felt intimidated by poetry, I think because I was never exposed to it as a child. My son, on the other hand, loves it and writes it! So I love that Wordsworth is spreading the “word” about poetry to young people.
    The first thought that came to mind was that a key was in his pocket, but it seems pretty random….!


    1. Lots of people are intimidated by poetry for various reasons. So glad to hear your son loves and writes it. Yay!

      Hmmm, yes it could be a key . . . 🙂


  9. Jama, what a jam packed post of so many yummy bits. These books look great and I will be looking. The Dewdrop poem is a little gem too.


  10. I’ll make a wild guess and say that it is a pencil in his pocket, ready for him to write something that will stop the destruction!


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