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Barbara Juster Esbensen


The rooms in a pencil
are narrow
but elephants castles and watermelons
fit in
In a pencil
noisy words yell for attention
quiet words wait their turn
How did they slip
into such a tight place?
gives them their
From a broken pencil
an unbroken poem will come.
There is a long story living
in the shortest pencil.
Every word in your
is fearless ready to walk
the blue tightrope lines
to teeter and smile
down Ready to come right out
and show you

Barbara Juster Esbensen was born on April 28, 1925, in Madison, Wisconsin. Throughout her life, it was the center of her personal universe.

Barbara began to think of herself as a writer when, at age ten, she realized she could not stand to be without a book to read.

Her first book, Swing Around the Sun, a book of poetry for the seasons, was published in 1965. This spring, it was republished by Lerner, using four illustrators, one for each season of the year.

The biggest influence in Barbara's life of writing was her high school English teacher, Miss Eulalie Beffel, herself a published poet and journalist. In 1941, under the tutelage of Miss Beffel, Barbara read the poetry of Amy Lowell, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Sara Teasdale. The way these writers used words astonished her. Thomas Wolfe had her in a state of shock!

From that point on, she was off and running with language.

Said Barbara, "The way words looked when placed next to each other was deeply important to me. When put together in fresh, unexpected ways, they could generate quiet explosions of delight for the reader. Whether it was poetry or prose, placing images in the minds of my readers became a central focus of everything I wrote. I wanted to find those word combinations that make sentences catch fire and shower down sparks!"

Barbara was an excellent teacher. Her book, A Celebration of Bees, was written for teachers and parents who want to help children write creatively.

As she often told her students, children and adults alike, you can't just think. It doesn't do any good just to think. You must see your words.

Barbara once wrote a poem called "PENCILS" which puts it this way:

As a teacher, Barbara practiced what she preached.

Here is an example of her work with a group of sixth graders as they wrote a poem called APRIL. It emerged from a clutter of words written helter-skelter on the blackboard as discussion raged concerning the characteristics of that blessed season we call spring.

Here it is, just as the children wrote it and approved it:

All winter long
I have kept the trees
in the broom closet
Now robins announce
the rain
Restless, the trees
scratch at the locked
This key of thunder
lets them out
to sweep the open sky

How, time after time, and with such apparent ease, Barbara was able to get this kind of stuff from her students, seemed to be a minor miracle. And yet she did, and believed she could teach others how to do it too.

At the time of her death, Barbara had published twenty-one books.

Swing Around the Sun
illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee, Janice Lee Porter,
Mary GrandPré and Stephen Gammell
Lerner Publications, Carolrhoda Books, 2003 (Orig. 1965)
all ages, school and library binding
ISBN 978-0-87614-143-4

Reading Guide available from Minnesota Storytime

Four renowned children's book artists—Cheng-Khee Chee, illustrator of Old Turtle; Janice Lee Porter, illustrator of Hope; Mary GrandPre, illustrator of the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter series; and Stephen Gammell, winner of the Caldecott Medal for Song and Dance Man—join to depict the beauty of the four seasons in this new edition of the poetry collection Swing around the Sun, originally published in 1965 by Barbara Juster Esbensen (see orginal cover at left). Sure to captivate readers of all ages, this powerful combination of poetry and artwork will bring each season to life—year after year.

The Night Rainbow

The Night Rainbow
illustrated by Helen Davie
Orchard Books, 2000
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0-531-30244-6

Since ancient times the northern lights—those celestial displays also known as the aurora borealis—have astounded all who have witnessed their dazzling formations. The peoples of the far north even spun legends about them—imagining animals, ghosts, dancers, and raging battles in their shimmering illuminations.

Barbara Esbensen too was fascinated by the astonishing shapes and colors of the magical lights. What finally triggered her resolve to write about them? She dedicated this book to "my son, Kai, who brought me to the old farm road one cold midnight to see the aurora flaring against the dark sky."

The Night Rainbow

Echoes for the Eye:
Poems to Celebrate Patterns in Nature

illustrated by Helen Davie
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1996
ages 8 to 12, ISBN 978-0-06-024398-2

A collection of poetry and full-color illustrations demonstrates the similarities that exist in the wonders of nature, such as the veins of a leaf and the veins in the body, while at the same time exploring the interconnections among the worlds of science, math, language, and art.

Echoes for the Eye

Swift As the Wind: The Cheetah
illustrated by Jean Cassels
Orchard Books, 1996
ages 6 to 9, ISBN 978-0-531-09497-6

Striking full-color illustrations and an informative text offer a close-up portrait of the cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, along with details about the characteristics, habitat, life cycle, and behavior of this endangered big cat.

Swift as the Wind

A Celebration of Bees:
Helping Children Write Poetry

Henry Holt & Company, 1995
ISBN 978-0-8050-3764-7

This book has not lost any of its freshness and usefulness for helping guide teachers and parents to help create the right environment for children to explore poetry. Contains great wordplay activities and lots of poetry ideas and examples.

A Celebration of Bees

Dance with Me
illustrated by Megan Lloyd
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1995
ages 7 to 10, ISBN 978-0-06-022793-7

A joyous collection of poems celebrates many kinds of traditional and original dances, from the classic waltzes and tap dances to a dance with the wind and a gardener's dance with her hoe.

Dance with Me

The Dream Mouse
illustrated by Judith Mitchell
Little, Brown Co., 1995
ages 4 to 8

This book draws on traditional Latvian verses to tell a tale about a mouse who, traveling across a magical landscape, delivers fantastic and colorful dreams to sleeping children's rooms.

Winner of the 1995 NCTE Award for Poetry

The Dream Mouse

The Great Buffalo Race:
How the Buffalo Got His Hump: a Seneca Tale
illustrated by Helen K. Davie
Little, Brown & Company, 1994
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0-316-24982-9

A retelling of a Seneca legend about the rivalry in the Tribe of Buffalo between an old leader and a new upstart. The consequences of their actions result in the Great Spirit punishing the buffalo by bestowing its now characteristic hump.

The Great Buffalo Race

Baby Whales Drink Milk
A Let's-Read-&-Find-Out Science Book

illustrated by Lambert Davis
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1994
ages 4 to 8, Library Binding ISBN 978-0-06-021552-1

Learn how whales differ from the fish they seem to resemble and share characteristics with other mammals. A full range of information about whale anatomy, development, and behavior in simple and clear text.

Baby Whales Drink Milk

Playful Slider
illustrated by Mary Barrett Brown
Little, Brown & Co., 1993
ages 9 to 12, ISBN 978-0316249775

Children who have been fascinated with watching playful otters at the zoo will enjoy this marvelous illustrated book that follow otters through the seasons.

Playful Slider

Sponges Are Skeletons
A Let's-Read-&-Find-Out Science Book
illustrated by Holly Keller
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1993
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0-06-021034-2

Sploosh! Splash! Dribble! Did you know your bath sponge once lived in the sea? Sponges come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Barbara Juster Esbensen and Holly Keller have paired an engaging text with funny, kid-friendly illustrations to reveal that a sponge is not just a bath toy.

Sponges are Skeletons

Who Shrank My Grandmother's House?
Poems of Discovery
illustrated by Eric Beddows
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1992
grades 3 to 7, ISBN 978-0-06-021827-0

Houses shrink, garden hoses form rainbows, apples hide stars—each of the poems in this magical collection examines an ordinary observation that may yield a most unexpected discovery, glowing with the simple yet extraordinary perceptions of childhood. Contains 23 radiantly illustrated poems.

Who Shrank My Grandmother's House!

Tiger with Wings: The Great Horned Owl
illustrated by Mary B. Brown
Orchard Books, 1991
ages 7 to 9, ISBN 978-0-531-05940-1

The straightforward text describes the owl's characteristics and habits, focusing on hunting and raising young; fascinating facts include their soundless flight (a result of soft-edged feathers) and, despite the "wise" cliché, their relative lack of intelligence: not as smart as crows, or even geese. Unusually beautiful, finely detailed illustrations; handsome and informative.

In flowing prose, Esbensen imparts basic information about the owl: its hunting, mating, appearance, feathers, eyes and ears, and young. The writing is clean and clear, with an occasional colorful simile or metaphor. The final paragraphs deal with the interaction of humans and great horned owls. Although no index is included, the book is short enough to read for reports and glean ample information. However, it will also have wide appeal to general readers, even those not usually drawn to nonfiction, because of its outstanding writing and illustrations.

Tiger with Wings

Great Northern Diver
978-0316249775 by Mary Barrett Brown
Little, Brown & Co., 1990
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0316249546

All about a favorite bird, the loon .

Great Northern Diver

Ladder to the Sky: How the
Gift of Healing Came to the Ojibway Nation
illustrated by Helen K. Davie
Little, Brown & Company, 1989
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0-316-24952-2

This recounting of an Obijway tale takes the reader back to a time when there was no sickness or death. Earth was connected to heaven by a magical vine which spirits would use to visit them in human form. Through jealously the vine is broken and the people begin to experience sickness and death. The Spirits don't abandon the Ojibway but provide knowledge of the healing powers of nature to the medicine men.

Star Maiden: An Ojibway Tale
illustrated by Helen K. Davie
Little, Brown & Company, 1988
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0-606-00771-9

An American Ojibway tale about a bright star that falls to earth. The star is a maiden who asks to live among the people—she requests that they tell her what form she may take. The maiden chooses a to be a water lily and she and her sisters light the lake. The mystic illustrations are bordered by beautiful native designs.

The Star Maiden

Words with Wrinkled Knees
illustrated by John Stadler
HarperCollins, 1986
reissued in paperback, Boyds Mills, 1998
ISBN 978-1563976827

Poetry using the names of animals as the animals themselves. For example, the word ELEPHANT would be a word with wrinkled knees.

Words with Wrinkled Knees

Cold Stars and Fireflies
illustrated by Susan Bonners
HarperCollins, 1984
ages 4 to 8, ISBN 978-0690043624

A collection of poems about nature and the changing seasons.

Cold Stars and Fireflies

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