Barbara Juster Esbensen, a writer who paints nature with words, describes herself as a person who loves language and the world around her. Her writing pushes language to unexpected limits. These unusual word combinations allow her to transfer striking images into the head of the reader.
Esbensen, now a 68-year-old mother of six children, is a poet, a writer of prose, an artist, and a teacher. Of her 12 published books, 10 are in print. Her works include "Who Shrank My Grandmother's House? Poems of Discovery" (1992), a School Library Journal Best Book of 1992, "Great Northern Diver: The Loon" (1990), an NCTE 1991 Teacher's Choice Award winner; and "Tiger with Wings: The Great Horned Owl (1991), an NSTA Notable Children's Book in the Area of Science. Characterizing herself as a late bloomer, Esbensen has four books forthcoming and five books in progress.
In addition to interviews (June 30, 1991, and December 12, 1992) and attendance at a formal presentation by the author, this profile is based on original manuscripts and pieces of correspondence contained in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. All quotations are from the two interviews.
BEGINNINGS AS A WRITER
Barbara Juster Esbensen was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and spent the first 20 years of her life there. Her father, a doctor, encouraged her to examine her environment with an artistic eye. The Juster family lived on Lake Mendota, and her father would often call her downstairs to see a sunset, declaring, "Get down here! This sun isn't going to wait for you!"
"If you were going to paint those clouds, what colors would you use?" he would ask. Esbensen said, "He wanted me to be observant, and I wanted to know everything. I was the kind of child who wanted to soak it all up and remember everything. My parents encouraged my interest and ability in art, and I even took art lessons from a neighbor."
Esbensen's mother often referred to her daughter as "Barbara, our little artist!" In love with the sounds of words as much as visual images, Barbara would often hop to school saying "Catalpa tree, catalpa tree." But when she settled down with friends to write, Esbensen always felt they would be the writers and she the artist.
In the fall of 1939, Barbara Juster encountered the influence on her writing development. Miss Eulalie Beffel, at that time Barbara's 10th-grade journalism, English, and creative writing teacher, introduced her to the poets of the 1920s and 1930s. Esbensen was surprised to discover that poems didn't have to rhyme and that she was free to put together incredible combinations of words.
Miss Beffel took time to respond to poems and other writing that Esbensen put on the teacher's desk day after day. Her little notes on the margins, especially "Barbara, you are a writer!" encouraged and strengthened the young student's progress. Miss Beffel, herself a poet and former journalist, was the perfect mentor.
Esbensen originally planned to major in journalism at the University of Wisconsin, but her father told her, "You're always going to write. You don't need someone to teach you." She completed a program in her other interest, art education.
After college, she taught art in Grades K-12 and was a third- and fifth-grade classroom teacher. "Swing Around the Sun" (1965), a collection of poems that celebrates seasons, was written while she was on summer break from her third-grade teaching position. She wrote the book in the Eureka, California, Public Library. This quiet place inspired her to write because she was surrounded by books that had been successfully completed. Every day she refused to come home for lunch until she had written something that pleased her.
WRITING AND REVISING
Esbensen begins to write by putting words and phrases down on paper or a computer screen. For "Playful Slider: The North American River Otter" (1993) she thought of words like "sleek," "speed," and "cut" to describe the vision she had of the otter swimming underwater and exploding on the bank. She "just messes around with it until it seems right."
Even selecting a title for a book often requires persistence. Possible titles for "Words with Wrinkled Knees: Animal Poems" (1986), for example, included "Poems: Tracking Animal Wordprints" and "How Many Legs in the Word Centipede?" The title "Who Shrank My Grandmother's House? Poems of Discovery" (1992) came easily when her 20-year-old daughter Jane declared that "someone cut down the banisters" in the house they once lived in when she was a child.
Because she is such a visual person, Esbensen wants to make images come alive. The poem "Wolf" (1986) is an example of how she sometimes thinks she is saying something clearly, when it has not really come across to the reader. When her editor complained about not "seeing" the poem, the author realized that in her head the wolf was walking through snow, which the poem never mentioned. Further revisions yielded the new opening line,
As soon as you say this word,
snow begins to fall
W O L F.
For Esbensen, real writing is revision, a process to polish and clarify. She doesn't dislike revision, but she does find it especially difficult to rewrite a poem she thinks is finished. For example, "Hummingbird" (1986) went through numerous revisions because her editor felt that the poem was weak. Esbensen watched hummingbirds at a feeder and came up with stronger words and phrases: "Intersection," "zigzag stitch," "whirr," and "clockwork bird."
There is a blur
on the page. HUMMINGBIRD
a buzzing jewel
so small it can
from the painted
[This original poem was reshaped into the following 12-line poem:]
Glimpse this word its clockwork
parts where blossom
intersects with air A tiny
feathered engine HUMMINGBIRD
the name and the whirr
are one its colors
blur on the page
stitcher of sky to flower
hemming the edges of gardens
sewing the honey
She feels it's much easier for an editor to tell a writer what is wrong when editing prose. "This is too long" or "wordy." Editors may only critique a poem with something vague like "This isn't working for us." Five poems, including "Hummingbird," were rewritten for "Words with Wrinkled Knees: Animal Poems" based on editors' comments. According to Esbensen, "Those new poems were 1,000% better than the poems I thought were just fine when I originally sent them in."
WORK WITH CHILDREN
Writing and children are both joys for Esbensen. She recalls with delight some of the wordplay from her own young children. One day her son Georgie reported, "Mommy, there's a celebration of bees outside!" This image of color, sound, and busywork was filed away until later when it became the title of her second book, "A Celebration of Bees: Helping Children Write Poetry (1975). Young children's ability to look at the world in new ways is exciting to her. She recalls Georgie shouting, "Your petunias are foaming down the walk!" and 2 1/2-year-old Kai calling out, "The fire is roaring like a tiger. It's blowing like a flag."
Esbensen believes that the quickest way to kill creativity is to tell children there is only one right way to do things. She emphasizes that exciting language is what gives a poem life and that rhyme is a trap because a poem should be surprising and rhymes are predictable.
In a typical session with children, Esbensen tells them that writing is hard work. She wants children to know they can do anything with language; they can even turn it upside down. She also speaks of the power of words: "When a word is said, it stays in the room with you as if it were alive." Esbensen tells children all good writers "tell lies" when writing imaginatively. "When you describe something in an exciting way, your reader will believe it, and it becomes true."
Esbensen encourages children to experiment with language. She believes in choosing words because of the way they "go past the ear." Elephant is a heavy word. The first person to see an elephant would not have named it "pippity-pipper" because that word is too light. But they might have called it a "glump-glump." Her goal is to show children how to transfer images in their heads directly into someone else's head using only strong, colorful words.
Several techniques help children find words that capture their feelings and impressions. Esbensen often asks children to call out words related to a suggested topic: a season, a mood, perhaps a violent storm. These words are written randomly on the board along with words describing how things move and "the names of everything in the world." The children then make wild connections from all of this. Sometimes children select two unrelated words from a mystery box and write a poem that magically connects them. One third grade boy came up with a startling image. After a period of laboring with the words "wrinkled" and "gown," he wrote "Under the snow, the river freezes like a wrinkled gown."
Another technique that encourages a free-flying attitude toward words is to add sentence parts to the tapestry of words on the board. For example she might write "Bring me _______ and I will _______." She encourages the children to play with these fragments.
CLASSROOM USES OF ESBENSEN'S BOOKS
As part of a writer's workshop, various poetry selections could be read and considered in relation to Esbensen's thoughts about looking at the world in new ways, making images come alive, and the power of words. Teachers may also wish to start young minds percolating with ideas by using several techniques. Esbensen has described encouraging children to use daring language and unusual images.
Whether prose or poetry, the work of Barbara Esbensen is fresh and new and certain to create an enthusiastic response to words and to the world.
[Rasmussen teaches courses in reading, language arts, and children's literature at North Central Bible College, 910 Elliot Ave. South, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404, USA.]
More information on the life and work of Barbara Juster Esbensen can be received by sending an email request to the following address:
Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial