friday feast: chatting with natalie s. bober about papa is a poet: a story about robert frost

The last time I was in New Hampshire, I visited Frost Place in Franconia. I regret not also seeing Derry Farm, where Robert Frost found his literary voice, developed his poetic style, and garnered a lifetime of inspiration from his surroundings and the interesting people he met.

Derry Farm (via Wikimedia Commons)

I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry Village toward Lawrence. The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn’t have figured on it in advance. I hadn’t that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor’s prescription.

(From: Selected Letters of Robert Frost, Lawrence Thompson, ed. New York: Holt, 1964)

I love Natalie S. Bober’s new picture book, Papa is a Poet: A Story About Robert Frost (Henry Holt, 2013), which describes Frost’s crucial years at Derry Farm as told through the eyes of his oldest daughter Lesley.

We come to know Frost as a loving husband and father, an impoverished poultry farmer, and a word lover who not only instilled a love of reading and writing in his children, but who also taught them how to look carefully at the natural world, to make comparisons, and “to bring on what he called ‘metaphor'”.

Young readers will enjoy reading about the Frost family all-day Sunday picnics, how they wandered through fields and woodlands learning the names of flowers and birds, how they watched the sunset and studied the stars at night, how the children were encouraged to tell stories and record what they saw and felt on paper.

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When listening to the speech of his farmer neighbors, Frost “heard the words that had the ring of pure poetry,” inspiring him to “make music out of words.”

While Frost’s passion for writing, his family and their rural lifestyle are clearly celebrated in Lesley’s narrative, she also mentions how her father struggled to make a living as a poet, how he felt like he was a “disappointing failure” to family and friends. She explains why, despite a life “filled to the brim” even when the “cupboard was often bare,” they eventually left the farm and moved to England.

Her Papa had courageously made the difficult, “reckless choice” to pursue the life of a poet. Despite years of poverty and rejection, he’d chosen the road less traveled by.

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This beautifully written introduction to Frost’s life and work is illustrated in pencil, ink and watercolor by Rebecca Gibbon, who has depicted the Frosts’ free-spirited, creativity-nurturing rural New Hampshire lifestyle in a warm, spritely style.

After finishing Papa is a Poet, I simply had to read Natalie’s brilliant young adult biography, A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (Holt, 1991), which made me feel as though I finally “knew” this famous poet as a living, breathing human being and understood, for the first time, the painful sacrifices he made to pursue his passion for writing poems.

(via Wikimedia Commons)

Natalie drew from A Restless Spirit as well as Lesley’s childhood journal for this new picture book biography, a stunning example of how Frost’s literary accomplishments were an outgrowth of the singular life he lived, a noncomformist through and through.

It’s such an honor and delight to welcome Natalie to Alphabet Soup today. I can’t recommend Papa is a Poet and A Restless Spirit highly enough.

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What is it about Robert Frost that continues to capture your fancy, inspiring you to write about him yet again?

Robert Frost’s life-long love affair with the craft of writing is the quality about him that speaks most eloquently to me. It is the deceptive simplicity of his style that intrigues me. His poetry appears simple, but the writing of it must have been anything but simple.

How and when were you first introduced to his poetry? Do you have a favorite poem?

I was probably first introduced to him as a child in elementary school, either by a teacher there or by my mother, who loved poetry.

I particularly love “The Pasture,” which says so much about his love for Elinor in so few words. Years ago, we named our sailboat “Restless Spirit” and our dinghy “You Come Too!”

One of my granddaughters was married a few years ago in an outdoor ceremony that took place on a glorious October day. Several months before her wedding she had asked me if I could suggest a few lines of a poem that would have some meaning for the occasion and that she could tuck into the gift baskets that her guests would find in their rooms. Almost immediately, RF’s “October” came to mind. Also very quickly – she decided to use the entire poem.

To me, “October” is a meditation that includes the sounds and also the colors and smells of an October day – with just enough words repeated to equal the refrain, and the whole of it tugging at a yearning heart. For a young bride it becomes the exquisite expression of her yearning heart wanting to hold on to every minute of this glorious moment, to keep the day from ending.

“October” was carefully and beautifully contrived by a most sophisticated mind listening to the voices of nature, making readers feel the preciousness of time.
It is a song in itself, without being set to music.

Could you please share a few noteworthy things about Frost’s personal life or work that you discovered in the years since A Restless Spirit was first published?

Some years ago, when I was researching a second book on Frost, we visited Frost’s house in Franconia. There we saw a piano that Frost had purchased for Elinor when he could ill afford it. But he wanted her to have it. When I first saw it, it instantly reminded me of the piano my mother had purchased for me when she could ill afford it.

Also – Robin Hudnut, Robert Frost’s granddaughter, described her grandfather to me as an Olympian. “Only an Olympian,” she said, could be “one-half farmer, one-half teacher, and one-half poet”.

What was the most exciting part about researching Frost’s life? Was there a specific document, poem, photograph, place, anecdote, a particular “aha” moment that enabled you to really tap into his psyche?  

The poem “The Runaway” about a little colt that was, Frost speculated, afraid of the snow, and was running away. Frost had written the poem for the boys at Amherst, but they knew, and Frost knew, that the colt was really the runaway in Frost. He had run away from Dartmouth and from Harvard – and now he was about to run away from Amherst so he could have more time to write poetry. We found the poem in Frost’s handwriting – with a sketch of the colt at the top of the page –   when we visited Amherst on a research trip, and my husband was privileged to photograph it.

How did Papa is a Poet come about? What was it like creating a picture book biography after having already written about Frost for young adults?

I had developed a serious problem with my eyes and found that I could no longer do the kind of research necessary for the books I had been writing. My agent, Liza Voges, asked if I had ever considered writing a picture book for younger children. I wouldn’t have to do the difficult research that strained my eyes, she said. Indeed, I had done most of it already, she pointed out.

I replied that I wasn’t sure that I could write in the necessary voice, but I would try. I love a challenge. And so it came! I found that I loved writing in the voice of a young girl.

Why did you decide to focus on Frost’s life at Derry Farm?

I focused on the Derry Farm because that is where so much of the poetry was born.  All the years that Frost was living there, much of the poetry that was contained in the two books that Holt initially published had been growing inside him. The pattern of farming, teaching, and writing began there, and would continue for the rest of his life.

Please tell us a little more about Lesley and her “travel and adventures” journal. 

Her Journal, which she began to write when she was five years old, is called, New Hampshire’s Child. She began to write it at the urging of her parents. The farm became to the family “The Gift Outright” (their grandfather had bought it for them): “The land was ours before we were the land’s” and for Rob and Elinor it became “the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

In her “Introduction” Lesley writes: “Our farm has interesting places to travel to, just like the world….”

What do you like most about Rebecca Gibbon’s illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?

She perfectly captures a moment in Robert Frost’s life in a way that children will love.

I have several favorites: Her opening page is masterful, with the huge black boat tied up at the dock, juxtaposed against the Frost family, dwarfed by it, walking and carrying their old-fashioned luggage. Two other wonderful ones for me are the double spread pages depicting the family at the newsstand as they discover the “New Republic” magazine on a typical New York City street. The third reflects Rebecca’s version of “Papa thought that any book worth reading twice was worth owning. So instead of buying desserts, we bought books.”

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You said in your Author’s Note that Frost “loved to talk, he loved to listen and he loved gossip.” How do you think he would feel about our current obsession with electronic devices and social media?

His feelings about “the sound a sentence makes” would be completely negated by our use of e-mail and text messaging. He would undoubtedly be very distressed by them.

He wrote to Sidney Cox from England: “We value the seeing eye already. Time we said something about the hearing ear – the ear that calls up vivid sentence forms.” He loved to listen to people talking. His ear for speech might be compared to the “perfect pitch” of a musician.

Will you be writing picture books about Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams next? 

Yes! I have just completed a picture book biography about Abigail Adams.

Fabulous news! Thank you so much, Natalie.🙂

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PAPA IS A POET: A Story About Robert Frost
written by Natalie S. Bober
illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon
published by Henry Holt, 2013
Picture Book Biography for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Frost Quotations, Bibliography and 12 Frost poems
** On Shelves October 15, 2013

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♥ Visit Natalie S. Bober’s Official Website to learn about all her critically acclaimed books. In addition to A Restless Spirit (Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award), she’s published YA biographies of Thomas Jefferson, William Wordsworth, Marc Chagall, Louise Nevelson, and Abigail Adams (Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Winner), and a book on pre-Revolutionary American history. Her books have been cited by the New York TImes Book Review as among the best of their genre being written today. She’s also compiled an anthology of children’s poetry called Let’s Pretend: Poems of Flight and Fancy (Viking, 1986). 

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poetryfriday180The spritely and immensely talented Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is hosting today’s Roundup at The Poem Farm. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. In honor of Robert Frost, why not go apple picking this weekend?


*Spreads from Papa is a Poet posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2013 Natalie S. Bober, illustrations © 2013 Rebecca Gibbon, published by Henry Holt BFYR. All rights reserved.

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

49 thoughts on “friday feast: chatting with natalie s. bober about papa is a poet: a story about robert frost

  1. I’d love to see this book close-up – it looks superb! Growing up here in the Derry, NH – Lawrence, MA area, Frost was always “the” poet people thought of and talked about, and as I’ve grown older I’ve gained more and more of an appreciation for him and his work. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Yes, I feel the same way. My appreciation for him and his work has increased tenfold because of Natalie’s books. I’ve always been fascinated by the backstories of writers I admire.🙂


  2. Jama, this is a beautiful post, with so much interesting information. I love having picture books about poets to introduce them to younger children, and this is going to be a favorite. I’ve read several biographies about Frost, and know I will love these too. Thank you!


    1. Hey, let’s meet at Derry Farm sometime🙂. You’ll love the book. You can’t see too much of the details in the illustrations from these samples, but the art is also really lovely.


    1. I learned so much from A Restless Spirit that I never knew before — not only was he impoverished early on, but he suffered from terrible bouts of depression. Also had many sad things happen — oldest son died in childhood, other son committed suicide as an adult, youngest daughter died from childbirth, etc. For some of his life’s tragedies, Frost blamed himself. There was also a degree of guilt for the sacrifices his wife Elinor had to make so that he could continue to write.


  3. Thanks so much for introducing these books–I’d love to get my hands on both of them. My fifth grade teacher made our class memorize “Stopping by Woods.” I think that experience (which I’m sure I grumbled about at the time..and really it’s not my favorite Frost poem) helped fire my love of language.


  4. I think “Stopping by Woods” is the seminal poem we all remember from school days, when we first learned about his work. Pretty cool that he’s one of a few American poets who’s still taught in grade school all the way up to college.


  5. I am a long time Frost fan myself. We live in NH, just outside Derry for a little while. I grew up on his poetry even before that and love it still. So full of wisdom and joy! I so admire him for the balance he achieved and all he accomplished. Thanks for posting about these great books!


  6. Hi, Jama.. Great interview. This looks like a lovely book and a great way to introduce children’s to Frost’s poems. I must say, though, my daughter did a biographical report in 6th grade and we were surprised (shouldn’t have been) to learn that Frost had a very dark side. They weren’t always a happy family — but that story is more appropriate for a MG/YA novel than a picture book!


    1. Yes, I was surprised to learn about his dark side when I read A Restless Spirit. For a PB, I think Natalie’s mentioning Frost’s struggles to earn a living makes him accessible and shows kids that not everything was purely idyllic at Derry Farm without going into his depression, etc., which is definitely more suitable for an older audience.


  7. I should read more biographies about poets– so interesting! This one sounds like a good place to start. I love the tender moments like “Then Mama let us cuddle up and go to sleep in whichever bed we chose” and “Papa thought that any book worth reading twice was worth owning. So instead of buying desserts, we bought books.”


  8. Perfect, Jama. I love Robert Frost, but have zero idea of the man behind the poet. I shall look out for this picture book and try to find it here. Restless AND courageous spirit indeed. Boldly traversing uncharted paths.🙂


    1. It feels good to learn more about Frost after all these years of hearing bits and pieces about his life. With this new insight, his poems take on new meaning.🙂


  9. Oh, my…I must have both these books right away! Thaks especially for this thoughtful interview, Jama. I’ve visited Frost’s Stone House in Arlington, Vermont – and the walls spoke to me there, too.


  10. Wow! What a lovely post. I really knew / know nothing about Robert Frost’s personal life and the illustrated book looks like such a beautiful introduction. And then I think I need to read Restless Spirit too.


    1. Learning more about his personal life has certainly made me appreciate his poetry in a different way. I do like Rebecca’s art and the way she captures Lesley’s feeling that their lives were rich in immeasurable ways despite hardship. It was also interesting to get a feel for Rob and Elinor’s unconventional parenting methods.


  11. Reading this post just makes me want to learn more about Frost – and to spend more time outside too. Thank you for these recommendations and this interview – I have two new books to purchase and share with my family. Off to pin this post for future reading too. Happy Poetry Sunday!


  12. Thank you for the sneak peek into these books! I am looking forward to PAPA especially.

    Here is your trivia tidbit for the day…Alan Shepard was born in Derry NH in 1923. His birthplace is not far from the Frost farm. Can you imagine what conversations Alan and Robert might have had at the Derry General Store?


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