Lee Bennett Hopkins is “one of America’s most prolific anthologists of poetry for young people,” according to Anthony L. Manna in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. The compiler of numerous children’s verse collections, “Hopkins has spent his career trying to make the crystal image accessible to children,” noted Manna. His collections encompass a variety of topics, including animals, holidays, the seasons, and works of noted poets like Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Poetry, Hopkins stated in Instructor magazine, “should come to [children] as naturally as breathing, for nothing—no thing: can ring and rage through hearts and minds as does this genre of literature.”
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1938, Hopkins grew up in a poor but close family. At age ten, his family moved in with other relatives to make ends meet, and he spent most of his youth in Newark, New Jersey. The oldest child in the family, Hopkins had to help out with the family finances, often missing school so he could work. Though the family was able to get on its feet again and rent a basement apartment, relations soon deteriorated between Hopkins’s parents, leading to separation. The circumstances of his youth would later play a prominent part in his fiction writing for young adults.
Early reading encompassed everything from comic books and movie magazines to the occasional adult novel, and in spite of frequent absences, Hopkins maintained passing grades in school, excelling in English classes. Then a schoolteacher reached out Lee and helped change his life. “Mrs. McLaughlin saved me,” Hopkins wrote in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). “She introduced me to two things that had given me direction and hope—the love of reading and theatre.”
After graduating from high school, Hopkins was determined that he would become a teacher. To pay his way through Newark State Teacher’s College a teacher’s training college which later became Kean University, he worked several jobs. Taking a job in Fair Lawn, NJ, a suburban, middle-class school district, he taught sixth grade for three years after which he became the resource teacher, gathering and organizing materials for the other teachers. It was during this time he came up with using poetry as an aid in reading. However, it quickly became apparent to him that poetry could be expanded to introduce all subject areas. In the late 1960s, after receiving his Masters of Science degree at Bank Street College of Education in NYC, he became consultant at Bank Street, where he again used poetry as a learning tool. In 1968 he became an editor at Scholastic, a post he held until 1976 when he became a full-time writer and anthologist.
U.S. history, geography, and biography are presented in other anthologies by Hopkins. Hand in Hand includes over seventy verse selections that offer “a singular out-look on American history as viewed by some of America’s foremost poets, past and present,” according to Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book. As Vasilakis concluded, “This well-conceived anthology should be a welcome supplement to any study of American history.” Noted Americans are celebrated in Lives: Poems about Famous Americans, an anthology with many poems specially commissioned for inclusion. Thomas Edison, Sacagawea, and Rosa Parks are among the fourteen featured Americans. “Teachers looking for poetry to enhance social-studies units will find several good choices here,” noted Carolyn Phelan in a Booklist review. My America is a geographical description of the country in verse form, focusing on eight regions. Barbara Chatton, writing in School Library Journal, concluded that “this volume will enrich literature and social-studies units.”
Wonderful Words: Poems about Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening deals with the language arts. “Hopkins’s selection of poems about words will delight both readers and children,” said Publishers Weekly. Corrina Austin commented in School Library Journal that “all of the selections are excellent.”
Hopkins has compiled several books about holidays. among them the comprehensive compendium Days to Celebrate: A Full Year of Poetry, People, Holidays, History, Fascinating Facts, and More providing short bits of information about each day of the year. School Library Journal called the volume an “imaginative compilation — a beautiful, useful, unique almanac.”
The multi-talented Hopkins has also penned his own works, including autobiographies, classroom materials, poetry, picture books, and novels for young adults. Two of his novels, Mama and Mama and Her Boys, tell about a resourceful single mother and her two sons. In Mama, the reader is confronted with a chatty, shoplifting single mom. Narrated by Mama’s older son, the story presents Mama going from job to job while the family barely keeps its head above water. Reviewing Mama, a contributor to Publishers Weekly called the work a “not-to-be-missed first novel.” “You’ll remember Mama,” wrote Zena Sutherland in a Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books review, noting that the mother is “tough, cheerfully vulgar in her tastes,” but “passionately dedicated to see that her two sons whose father has decamped have everything they need.” Mama makes a curtain call in Mama and Her Boys, in which the boys are now worried that their mother might marry her boss, Mr. Jacobs; a better match, as far as they are concerned, is the school custodian, Mr. Carlisle. Reviewing the sequel Publishers Weeklyconcluded that Hopkins “packs the ensuing incidents with merriment and an understated lesson about different kinds of love and companionship.”
Hopkins explores the alphabet through poems in Alphathoughts: Alphabet Poems. Each poem focuses on a subject that starts with a particular letter of the alphabet, and some feature alliteration or tongue-twisting phrases. Called “a clever and child-friendly book of pithy poetry” by Ilene Cooper of Booklist, Alphathoughts features poems in a variety of lengths, some of which a Kirkus Reviews contributor found “memorable and will likely show up in anthologies later.”
Hopkins’s original poetry has won high praise; a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that “Hopkins brings freshness and immediacy to his subjects” and “deftly depicts a sense of delight and wonder in everyday experience.” Been to Yesterdays: Poems of Life is a gathering of poems that look at the psychology of Hopkins at age thirteen, when his parents separated. “This autobiographical cycle of poems is a rare gift, a careful exploration of one life that illumines the lives of all who read it,” wrote Kathleen Whalin in School Library Journal.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reading poetry or working on a poem of my own.” This simple work ethic has made him one of the most popular and best-known anthologists of poetry at work today. He has compiled more anthologies for children than anyone has in the history of children’s literature. He has helped make poetry accessible to young readers in over a hundred volumes of his own writings and in his compilations. As a reviewer for Juvenile Miscellany concluded, “Hopkins’ immersion in poetry, past and present, text and illustration, places him at the heart of children’s literature.”
In addition, Hopkins’ books received a host of honors including five ALA Notable Books.