For kids, anytime is a good time to rhyme

Mary Ann Hoberman has been writing rhyming stories for children for more than 50 years.

Joan Russell
Plants galore: Children's book author Mary Ann Hoberman loves her garden. One of her picture books is about gardening.

Reading rhymes can be a lot of fun, but writing verse might be even more entertaining. Just ask Mary Ann Hoberman. She's been writing books of poems and rhyming stories for children for more than 50 years.

Her first book, "All My Shoes Come in Twos," was published back in 1957. She got the idea from seeing how fascinated her kids were with their shoes when they were little. Like many young children, they found it amusing to take off their shoes and play with them.

Since that first book came out, Mrs. Hoberman has published more than 40 kids' books.

A lifelong storyteller

So how did Mrs. Hoberman grow up to become a kids' book author?

Well, she got an early start. She began making up stories when she was only 5 years old! She would tell them to her younger brother and an imaginary friend.

It was a game to them – she and her brother just liked drawing pictures and telling stories.

When she was a little girl, Mrs. Hoberman also loved to read classic fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Some of her favorite novels were "Heidi" and "Mary Poppins." And, of course, she always especially liked poetry books.

Dr. Seuss inspired her, too. In fact, she wrote some of her first kids' books based on his style.

"We all like this kind of verse. Even adults like it," she says.

Still, it was a long time before Mrs. Hober­man thought of writing for children.

She always wanted to be a writer, but she started out writing and editing more grown-up material.

First, she wrote for the newspaper at her junior high school. One year, she was editor of her high school's yearbook. And when she attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass., she wrote for the newspaper there.

During the time that she and her husband, Norman Hoberman, lived in Harrisburg, Pa., she wrote feature articles for the women's page of a local paper. And in Washington, D.C., she worked as a proofreader. (That means she looked for mistakes in the work of other writers.) She really enjoyed her early career after she had children because she could write and edit from home and stay with her kids.

As a young mother, though, Mrs. Hoberman found herself making up poems for her children when they were still in the baby carriage. The ideas for many books would just pop into her head when she walked.

"Ideas often came to me when [I was] lying in bed at night or walking," she says. She believes the rhythm of walking helps the ideas come naturally.

"If I am walking and don't bring a pad [of paper] with me, I have to rush home to write [the idea] down before I forget it," she adds.

And so Mrs. Hoberman began writing for kids instead of grown-ups. Even though at first, her books of children's verse did not sell well, Mrs. Hoberman kept at it – with her husband's help.

He worked as an architect and artist, so he drew the pictures for the first four of his wife's books. He illustrated "All My Shoes Come in Twos." And he even gave his wife the idea for one of her early books, "How Do I Go?" It's about the different ways kids can travel – on a tricycle, on a bike, in a car, or on an airplane. Mr. Hoberman drew the pictures for this book, too, as well as for "Hello and Good-by," Mrs. Hoberman's first collection of children's poems.

The Hobermans live in a house that he designed, and they have two dogs, Pico and Maria. When Mrs. Hoberman isn't writing, she likes to spend time in her gardens. Gardening even inspired one of her books. "Whose Garden Is It?" shows that even though a garden may belong to a person, it is also shared by many different creatures, such as moles and bees.

All those books

Over the years, Mrs. Hoberman's success as a children's author has grown. Her book "A House Is a House For Me" was published in 1978. In 1983, it won a special prize: an American Book Award (now called the National Book Award).

The story describes all kinds of houses that people or animals live in. Here is an excerpt of the rhyme:

A hill is a house for an ant, an ant.
A hive is a house for a bee.
A hole is a house for a mole or a mouse...

She got the idea for another zany story, "The Seven Silly Eaters," from observing the funny or strange eating habits of her children and grandchildren when they were young.

In 2003, Mrs. Hoberman received the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. And she continues to write splendid children's verse today.

Her newest book series, "You Read to Me, I'll Read to You," is designed to help children learn to read. One of the series, "Very Short Scary Stories to Read Together," builds on kids' interest in monsters.

Another recent book, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," is based on an old song telling the story of the great Chicago fire of 1871. Supposedly, the blaze started when a cow knocked over a lantern in a townswoman's barn. Here's a bit of the verse:

The cow looked out
And started to moo.
We got up
And wondered what to do;
And when the smoke poured out,
We started yelling, too,
There'll be a hot time
In the old town tonight!

Reading, writing, and kids

Mrs. Hoberman's rhyming verse for children focuses on rhythm, language, and visual imagery. She writes for kids who are between 1 and 9 years old. Although a 1-year-old baby cannot read yet, his parents can read to him. And Mrs. Hoberman thinks this is a marvelous thing to do.

She feels that parents should not only read to their children, but that they should also make up their own stories or poems and share them with their kids.

She even suggests that parents sing some of the poems they know to their boys or girls.

But Mrs. Hoberman doesn't believe in pushing kids to learn to read too early.

"Some children are not ready at an early age. It's OK if they are ready, but the majority of children are not ready for the high standards that schools now set for reading," she says.

Whether boys and girls learn to read by themselves at an early age or later on, reading can be a joy from early childhood through adulthood. And Mrs. Hoberman does her part to make reading exciting.

She often goes to elementary schools and talks to the students about her books. She introduces her books to children by reciting poems and having the kids read and memorize the poems in class.

"It should be fun," she says. "Poetry is fun."

If you want to be a writer like Mrs. Hoberman, she advises you to write, of course, and to read and make up stories.

"Tell your stories or poems; recite them orally to friends, pets, or even dolls," she says. "Go to the public library and take out books. Collect stories and poems. Try to memorize some of the poems and stories. Memorization is an important skill to learn."

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