NEW YORK - Beginning work a few years ago on her latest book, an anthology of poems for young people, Caroline Kennedy found herself looking through one of her mother's scrapbooks. She burst into laughter, she says, as she came across a poem that her brother John, as a youngster, had picked out and copied as a gift to their poetry-loving mom.
"Willie with a thirst for gore, Nailed his sister to the door," went the poem, by an unknown author. "Mother said with humor quaint, 'Careful, Willie, don't scratch the paint!'"
The poem "brought back memories of our relationship," Kennedy told a bookstore audience this week. "I laughed so hard."
But for Kennedy, now 55 and a mother of three grown children, there's a deeper meaning to that irreverent ditty. Poetry was a central part of her home life growing up.
She and John regularly copied out and illustrated poems for their mother, Jackie, upon birthdays and Mother's Days. Sometimes, they'd recite them too, "if we were feeling competitive." And at family gatherings with their grandmother, there were frequent challenges to recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous (and famously lengthy) "Paul Revere's Ride." Only Uncle Ted, it seems, was able to recite it in its entirety.
Now, with her 10th book, Kennedy wants to share with young readers the love for the written word that she feels her poetry-filled childhood helped instill in her (even though her own son, she quips, hates reading and only likes two poems.) Hence the title: "Poems to Learn By Heart."
"It was a combination of remembering my own childhood and thinking about gifts I'd been given," she said in an interview last week at her husband's downtown Manhattan design firm, explaining the genesis of the latest book. "And working in schools and seeing the role that poetry can play in kids' lives."