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  • Writer's pictureLittle Thoughts Press

Interview: Helen Zax


A photograph of Little Thoughts Press Issue Four: Autumnatopoeia with a sneak peek of the poem "Let it Rain!" by Helen Zax. A white page with black text and an image of a person in a yellow raincoat holding a green umbrella.

 

Helen Zax loves to write poetry, especially poems that rhyme. She was co-winner of the 2021 YorkMix International Children’s Poetry Prize, the 2018 MG Katherine Paterson Prize winner, and a 2019 Finalist. Her poetry appears in these anthologies: Imperfect II, Things We Do, Things We Wear, What is a Friend? Hop To It, Chasing Clouds . . . adventures in a poetry balloon, the Austin International Poetry Festival di-verse-city 2021, Ghostly Ghouls and Haunted Happenings, and Dear Tomato. Hunger Mountain, Cricket, High Five, Hello, The Caterpillar, Touchdown, Launchpad, Pegasus, Better Than Starbucks, The Dirigible Balloon (including its Anniversary Flight,) The Feisty Beast, Little Thoughts Press, and Berry Blue Haiku have published her poetry. Her poems will also be published in the upcoming Two Fibs and a Lie and the Fly Heroes anthology.

Helen received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won the Critical Thesis prize for “Learning to Feel: Practicing Empathy in Coming-of-Age Novels.” She has taught writing at all levels, from elementary to post-graduate. She is a member of SCBWI and Poets Garage. Helen lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband Leonard and their crazy Aussie-doodle Huckleberry Finn. See more of her work at www.helenzax.com and on Twitter @HelenZax.

 

Little Thoughts Press: Rain, unlike say snow or cold temperatures, happens year-round. But your poem, "Let it Rain!" evokes such a specific sensation of autumn rainfall, which I think of as being very distinct from spring and summer rain. When writing for a particular season, how do approach capturing the qualities of that season? What guidance would you offer to new and young writers when it comes to choosing images and descriptions that will enhance the specificity of their writing?


Helen Zax: It’s funny you ask about writing about seasons because I’ve been thinking about it a lot the past few days. I’ve just started reading Ali Smith’s season quartet. And talk about a master. She captures the exact feel of whatever season she is trying to portray, even as she plays with sensory images depending on the mood she’s trying to capture.


It’s important to consider how your senses react differently in each season. Summer can be, for example: heat that makes swimming in the coldest lake feel like heaven; sun so bright it dazzles; the fragrant mix of rose, honeysuckle and wisteria in the garden; the sound of busy, buzzing bees; the sweetness of watermelon on a blistering day. But it can also be: days so hot you can’t breathe; sun so bright it burns your eyes; the stink of fruit rotting in a parched garden; the sighs of a grandmother fanning herself endlessly on a squeaky, broken porch swing; cloying lemonade that does nothing to quench your thirst.

So, there are at least two things to think about when trying to make your writing come alive. Use sensory images to show, not tell. And remember to try to capture the mood you hope to create in your piece of writing.



Little Thoughts Press: Issue 4: Autumnatopoeia celebrates the sounds of the fall season. What is your favorite onomatopoeia? And what is your favorite thing about autumn?


Helen Zax: Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite onomatopoeia is in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.” I mean, it doesn’t get any better than:

the tintinabulation that so musically wells From the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells— From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


I loved playing with all the different sounds of fall in my poem “Let It Rain!” Words like “plipitty-plop-plop, “tippety-tap-tap,” and “splishety-splash-splash” are evocative . . . but they are also just plain fun.


My favorite thing about autumn? I love the fabulous colors of the leaves, the brisk cool air, the smell of wood smoke drifting from chimneys, the crunch of dry leaves beneath my feet, the sweet taste of fresh cider from the farmer’s market. Must I choose?



Little Thoughts Press: What initially drew you to writing kid-lit and what do you find most challenging and rewarding about writing for a young audience?


Helen Zax: I began writing poetry for children when my children were young. I’ve always been drawn to rhymed, metered poetry. I love the puzzle of forming an idea into a structure that makes a poem a perfect little whole. I always gravitate to writing for children. From the time I was very young, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I taught fourth grade for three years a long time ago. Since then, I’ve had other careers. But when it comes to writing, I always return to my love for working with and having fun with children. My biggest challenge writing for children right now is the fact that my children are grown, and my husband and I don’t yet have grandchildren. So, I’m not around children as much as I’d like. I don’t get to experience in real time the kinds of things that thrill little children every day.



Little Thoughts Press: Which kid-lit authors and books were your favorites growing up?


Helen Zax: I loved Eleonore Estes—everything she wrote. But my mother was an elementary school librarian, so I was brought up on the Newbury-winning classics. I remember three books I loved, all of which I doubt anyone reads today: At the Back of the North Wind, Hitty Her First Hundred Years, and The Pink Motel. I remember that Caddie Woodlawn was the first book to make me cry at the end.



Little Thoughts Press: And what about today? Any kid-lit writers you love and want to shout out?


Helen Zax: Two of my absolute favorite children’s books that I’ve read as an adult are The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. I love to read novels in verse, and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down is simply extraordinary. And of course, there is always The Little Prince.


Little Thoughts Press: What advice would you give to young writers?


Helen Zax: Write. Butt in chair. Every day.



Little Thoughts Press: Is there anything else you wish I had asked? Any upcoming projects, publications, or other news you'd like to share?


Helen Zax: While I write a lot of poetry for children and have been lucky to have my poetry published in many anthologies and magazines, I spend most of my writing time (butt in chair) writing novels. I’m currently writing a novel in verse that I hope will someday make its way into the world.









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