The first thing you might think is, What? A sports writer wrote a book of poems for kids? A skeptical belly laugh might reasonably follow.
After that . . . well, let me explain. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Really. There actually is thought and reason behind this project that now has taken me, let’s see, 31 years of my life to start, pause, struggle with, delay, renew, almost give up on, and at last finish in rough, unedited form. Then get it arranged with the illustrations I’d secured through the years — a different one by a different artist for each of the 42 poems. And then figure out what the cover should be, front and back. And then find somebody in the children’s literature biz to read the book and maybe offer a review. And then — dear God — to hopefully at long last find a publisher.
The book is titled ‘‘Sweet Dreams: Poems and Paintings for the Child Abed,’’ just out from Skyhorse Publishing, and if you have a few minutes and are interested, I’ll explain why and how the book came into being.
To start with, I was sick. Not just sick, but really in bad shape. I was in a hospital bed as nauseated as I ever hope to be. I had an intestinal infection that nobody seemed able to diagnose.
I was feverish, weak, headachy, with tubes everywhere, including down my throat and in my stomach, and I didn’t eat for 2½ weeks. But I had no desire to eat, because the nausea was that bad. It disoriented me so much that I couldn’t tolerate watching TV, reading a book, painting, looking at the wallpaper, or even smelling the nurses’ handwash or hearing the hospital intercom. Everything was an irritation, a pain that circled and grew.
I thought I might go nuts. I thought about others in bed like me. And I thought about kids going through stuff like this, maybe on their own, terrified, uncomprehending, sad. And I thought of the kid I once was, the little boy who needed comforting before bedtime, who never found it easy to make that strange transition from the waking world to what was poetically called the Land of Nod. Was there a monster in my closet? Would my nightmares return? I’m not really tired, Mom, can I play a little more? What if I never fall asleep? I’m afraid of the dark, will you read me a poem?
So it wasn’t just sick kids I began thinking about. I thought of ordinary kids who might be resting in bed, or taking a nap, or going to bed each night, or confined to bed for any reason. Illustrated poems in books had comforted me when I was little, whether healthy or sick. I wondered if they could still do that for kids in the era of technological wonders.
One of the books I loved at bedtime was ‘‘A Child’s Garden of Verses,’’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was an old book even then, but it had a magical resonance that helped me drift away, even when I was too young to read. My mother or even my older sister would take care of that. In particular I liked the poem, ‘‘The Land of Counterpane,’’ in which a little boy who is sick looks out over his bedspread — for that’s what a counterpane is — and surveys his tiny kingdom in pleasure. The last stanza was the best:
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
That was such a different reality, so nice, because it posited that being sick and alone in bed could be, in its way, almost enjoyable. All you needed was imagination and a belief in the power of fantasy and words.
So as I lay in that hospital bed so long ago, wondering when I’d get back to covering the athletes and games I loved, I started writing poems in my head. It was my counterpane spread before me. It was all I could do. It was all I had. Indeed, I needed to ask a nurse to disconnect wires and tubes just so I could stagger down the hallway a few feet, dragging the IV pole along like a severed street sign. It pained me even to write poem words down after I’d memorized them. It makes me cringe to remember how miserable I felt.
Finally, I had exploratory surgery, the abscessed part in my abdomen was at last removed, and I slowly regained my health. I’ll never forget that when I came back to ‘‘The Sportswriters on TV’’ show set after a long absence, fellow panelist and show co-creator, Bill Gleason, silently rose from his seat and kissed me on the forehead.
Like those vows you make in moments of crisis, I felt a moral obligation to continue my poem book and its good intentions even though I was healed and no longer living alone in my head. To be honest, maybe this was a project I had always subconsciously wanted to undertake, a test of sorts. I had studied English Literature and poetry at Northwestern, after all, and even had written some poems for class back in the day. But above all there is this: If writing is your passion and your craft and your job, and printed words are what you believe in and have always believed in, you should be able to write about anything, in any form or style you truly put your mind to. So you only write about sports? Well, you’re writing about events and drama and principles and, above all, people. What else is there?
I also knew the main appeal of this book would be the illustrations. I talked to a couple of terrific artists in the Chicago area, and they agreed to illustrate a poem apiece for me. One of them was Mark McMahon, who turned me on to other artists such as John Rush and John Sandford. Tony Fitzpatrick told me about a Pittsburgh tattoo artist named Nick Bubash and also about album and book designer Al Brandtner. Al would become the most critical part of this entire venture. He stuck with me for three ridiculous decades, designing what I believe is truly a beautiful display of art.
I found the other illustrators slowly, by looking at magazine covers, scouring advertising client books, taking recommendations, browsing art museums, and researching online sources. I looked for accomplished artists whose individual style and presentation would work for each poem — using different media, including oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, colored pencils, pen-and-ink, collage. Almost every artist I contacted said yes to the project. Some I cold-called the way some telemarketers like to call me.
Four different countries are represented by the artists in the book, and the Americans come from East to West. One person who helped me immensely and deserves a shout-out is professor Rich Kryszka, the chair of the American Academy of Art in Chicago. One of the early artists told me about Rich, and when I got in touch with him the good prof alerted me to former Academy students Samantha DeCarlo, Jill Thompson (who does Wonder Woman for Marvel Comics), and Doug Klauba.
You’ll recognize poem painters like Owen Smith and Anita Kunz from covers of The New Yorker magazine. If you travel to California you might recognize the work of Moses X. Ball from the murals he paints on walls in Los Angeles. Louise Popoff will be familiar to anyone who remembers the evocative Chinaberry Books catalog covers. And the legendary Chicago neo-surrealist and Andy Warhol protégé, Ed Paschke, who did a whimsical painting for the poem, ‘‘Fever,’’ about a kid enjoying a feverish hallucination with his room upside down and his Teddy bear floating through space, is world-renowned. He has a museum dedicated to his work in Jefferson Park.
One thing pains me deeply: Paschke, who was one of the nicest, most generous men I’ve ever met, died suddenly in 2004, a sad testament to the glacial pace of this book. Not only him, but Julian Allen (1998), Nick Bubash (2021), and Jozef Sumichrast (2023) — all great artists and good souls who illustrated a poem apiece — are gone. But, like boats against the current, we beat on.
So here are some thoughts about being a sports writer and taking a shot at poetry.
Above all, I wanted my stuff to be rather old-fashioned, with meter and beat and stanzas and rhyme and topics of universal interest and with some poems no deeper than nursery rhymes. There’s a poem, for instance, called ‘‘Pill,’’ illustrated by Nancy Drew, that goes like this:
Is a hill,
A plateau in between.
Is the will
To eat one—
Thrice daily lima bean.
It’s silly, but it rhymes and whatnot, and who doesn’t know about pills? The theme comes back 50 pages later with ‘‘Pill Again,’’ with another little girl in bed surrounded by stuffed animals in a lovely watercolor by Ken Call:
I do know this about the pill—
You take it when you’re feeling ill.
And if you take it when you’re well—
Well, why do that, pray tell?
So here’s a friendly tip from me—
Please down your pill most carefully.
Here’s to your health and here’s to mine—
Mine? Why, I’m nearly fine!
Repeating the words ‘‘well’’ and ‘‘mine’’ in lines three and four of each stanza is just a fun embellishment. Hope kids dig it.
I varied the length of lines and the rhyme scheme and length of the poems themselves throughout to keep things from getting repetitious or dull. The poem ‘‘The Rooster,’’ for example, goes 8-6, 8-6, 8-6 in beats all the way through its 40 lines. It also rhymes a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, and so on throughout. Here’s the start:
The nights are warm in old Key West,
The trade wind blankets all.
One thing alone disturbs my rest:
The sidewalk rooster’s call.
“Morning Glory,’’ illustrated by Wende Caporale, is quite different, going 10-10-5-5-10 in beats in each of the three five-line stanzas. Its rhyme scheme is: a-a-b-b-a, c-c-d-d-c, e-e-f-f-e. Here’s the beginning:
Oh, little girl in the wakening dawn,
Do you see the jewels that sparkle the lawn?
Do you see it glow,
Do you see it grow,
Do you see the colors the angels have drawn?
Naturally, there are a couple of sports-themed poems. One is ‘‘The City Game,’’ about urban summertime basketball, illustrated by Mark McMahon. Another is ‘‘Boys of Summer,’’ illustrated by oil painter Bill Williams, whose work hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The poem describes a kid in bed playing a mock game with trading cards as he watches a real baseball game on TV:
Then out I’ll bring my wooden box
With Reds and Yankees, Cubs and Sox—
Pretty little paper sluggers,
Hurlers, twirlers, stealers, pluggers—
A card for every man afield,
An All-Star gang with bats to wield.
Since I did this book with no help from an agent (she died, too), editor, publisher, or PR department, everything is exactly as I wanted it, with Al Brandtner putting it all together. This also means I have no one to blame for anything that is bad! That’s a tough thing. Doing it alone meant years of delays, lots of handwringing, loads of rejection letters and the handling of certain duties most writers never will. For instance, I knew how I wanted the cover to look, so, yup, I painted it myself.
I’ve always loved luna moths — that’s a life-sized one I painted on the cover, modeled after a luna I caught and mounted many years ago and still have, faded almost to transparent white from its original lime green. The painted one is there in that purple, starry sky, chasing the moon, the Big Dipper to its right, representing an earlier time.
The thing about lunas, gentle nighttime creatures that they are, whose name literally means ‘‘moon,’’ is that you don’t see them much anymore. Nor do you see equally large cecropia and polyphemus moths, or so many butterflies that once were plentiful. I used to catch them all as a kid. This was something I thought about as I fished for topics for more poems. I did one called ‘‘Seasons,’’ brief, four beats per line, extolling the virtue of the unpredictable, but wonderful outdoors:
Summer is hot,
Winter is not.
Fall works both ways,
Spring rains for days.
I like them all,
Sun and snowfall,
Drizzle and sleet,
Hailstones and heat.
Why is it so?
How could I know?
Comfort take wing,
Change is the thing.
That poem is illustrated by Chicago artist Tim Anderson. Tim and I talked about novel ways to represent the seasons, and he came up with the idea of a bird, or birds, for each: a hummingbird in summer, crows in fall, an owl in winter and cardinals in spring. The painting is three times the size of the full page it takes up in the book, and when I look at it in my home office, I just smile. Maybe it’s just because of Anderson himself, a cheerful, gregarious man whose masterly work graces the walls of U.S. embassies in Moscow, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Zimbabwe.
I told him I was looking for an artist who was good at painting extinct animals, dinosaurs to be precise, and Anderson immediately suggested a friend of his, Peggy Macnamara.
‘‘Is she local?’’ I asked. ‘‘Yes, indeed’’ he replied. ‘‘At the Field Museum.’’
What a find, Peggy was. Not only is she the Field Museum’s artist-in-residence, a watercolor guru who agreed to illustrate my poem, ‘‘Dinosaur Time,’’ but she also took me on a second floor tour of the off-limits ‘‘Insect Room’’ there at the Field. It’s a place where thousands of bugs are laid out in drawers, scientists come and go, and the bones of exotic animals needed for research are placed in a huge, reeking terrarium behind double doors where multitudes of dermestid beetles strip the bones cleaner than boiling water ever could.
Maybe stuff like that is not for you. Understood. But Peggy’s T-Rex and velociraptors surely will be for you if you read the poem she illustrated, the action one that starts, ‘‘Dinosaurs roam through my room/They came again last night…’’
As I said, the artists I found everywhere. I snagged a magnificent one, Chris Dunn, when I happened upon a freshly illustrated edition of the classic English children’s book, ‘‘The Wind in the Willows.’’ Badger, Ratty, Mole, and Mr. Toad never looked more detailed, more authentically old-school British and fantastically humanesque than they did in those paintings. Yet they all somehow retained their pure animal essence. I searched and searched online until somehow I found an email address for this Chris Dunn fellow, a chap who lived somewhere, it seemed from what I could glean, in the country north of London.
Long story short, I actually talked to the young artist on the phone, emailed him a poem, then a rough sketch, and he agreed to do the painting of, as he envisioned it, a young blackbird asleep in a nest high in an oak tree in a forest. There would be the mother blackbird curled beside the chick, looking on in peace, with the father blackbird perched on the branch above, alert and watchful like a sentry. The name of the poem is ‘‘Tree Top Melody,’’ and Dunn actually traveled to England’s Lake Country to take photos to use for his modeling. In the background of his painting, far beyond the rugged oak trunk in the foreground is the 19th-century stone mansion that was the original model for Toad Hall.
I threw in some small literary allusions in a couple poems, just for kicks but also for the deeper resonance they might add. The poem ‘‘The Garden,’’ for instance, is a nod to Kafka’s ‘‘The Metamorphosis,’’ the tale in which Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find he apparently has turned into a giant insect (though Kafka is unclear about what kind of bug). Gross, no matter what. My poem envisions a young person waking up to find he or she has turned into an earthworm, ‘‘and through the muddy world must squirm.’’ Being a worm means looking out for hungry robins and having the goal of making it to the distant garden, ‘‘with furrows lovely, dark, and deep.’’ That’s for you and your ‘‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’’ Mr. Frost.
My ‘‘Tiger and Lamb’’ is a direct steal from William Blake, and the last poem in the book, ‘‘The Land of Good Night,’’ echoes the bedtime campfire song my father used to sing to me, which ended, as my poem does, with the sleepy child rolling ‘‘on to the deep blue sea.’’
Lastly, there was a donor who enabled hundreds of ‘‘Sweet Dreams’’ to be printed independently a year ago for charity. With his check and then money from an increasing number of donors, nearly 1,500 books have now gone out to Ronald McDonald Houses and other children’s hospitals in Chicago, Peoria, Springfield, St. Louis, Washington, and soon New Orleans. Thank you for that, John Rogers, head of Ariel Investments. You donated when you weren’t even asked.
So that’s the story. Oh, there’s more I could tell, like how I discovered an unknown distant cousin, the artist Todd Telander, when I read an online account of how a careless driver had crashed through the Telander Art Gallery in Walla Walla, Washington, destroying the entire front of his building. I got Todd on the phone a short time later — just Googled the gallery — asked if it was him I was speaking to, said I was sorry about the wreckage, but in the meantime would he, my dear relative, like to illustrate a pastoral poem called, ‘‘Down in the Valley’’? ‘‘Sure, why not?,’’ that Telander said. Done.
I am just a sports writer. I fancy myself no more or less. I’m certainly no Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, or even Dr. Seuss. But I put everything I had into this poetry venture, and I find it interesting how a good thing can come from such a messy, painful start. I would never want to go through that hospital stay again, with that infection, but in a way — no, for sure —I’m glad it happened. I hope readers are, too.