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Ralph (J.) Fletcher Biography (1953-) - Sidelights

review writing poetry poems

Ralph Fletcher is the author of a number of well-received volumes of fiction and poetry for young readers. An educational consultant, he has also written extensively on the craft of writing. His first few published titles appeared in the early 1990s, but it was his 1994 volume of poetry for young adults, I Am Wings: Poems about Love, that garnered him solid reviews and established him as a popular writer with adolescent readers. I Am Wings consists of several short, unrhymed poems coupled with black-and-white photographs of teens by Joe Baker. The poems chronicle a romance, told by a boy named Lee, from start to finish. Divided into two sections, "Falling In" and "Falling Out," Fletcher's verse attempts to capture the gamut of feelings that many young teens struggle with and find bewildering: the crush, the kiss, the betrayal. It is written in the vernacular of teen speech, and for this Fletcher won recurrent praise from reviewers for creating accessible verse for an age group that is usually not expected to gravitate toward poetry. Diane Tuccillo reviewed I Am Wings for Voice of Youth Advocates and found the verse "romantic and pensive, but not mushy."

Fletcher's next book of poetry, Ordinary Things: Poems from a Walk in Early Spring, was also geared toward teen readers, consisting of thirty-three brief poems with pencil drawings by Walter Lyon Krudop. The verses serve as a tutorial for the reader on how to leave the house and become an observer of the magic of nature. "Fletcher reminds young people that such a walk can be mind-clearing and therapeutic," remarked Sharon Korbeck in School Library Journal.

His third volume of verse returned once again to the subject of love, but tied in observations of the natural world outside with the inner turmoil of ardor. Buried Alive: The Elements of Love was published in 1996 and again interspersed poetry with photographs. Sectioned into four parts—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—the thirty-one poems with almost as many narrators each recount a tale of love or love's woe: the magic of mutual attraction; a secret crush on the baby-sitter; a gay girl ostracized but still proud, though her yearbook contains no signatures. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Fletcher for creating "articulate, intense poems that treat the subject of love with dignity and compassion." School Library Journal reviewer Marjorie Lewis wrote that Buried Alive, as a whole, puts Fletcher "a step above" some of the other poets who write for adolescents. "Plainspeaking but lyrical, Fletcher makes poetry accessible while still keeping it, well, poetry," commented Roger Sutton in a review of the work for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

Fletcher has also penned Twilight Comes Twice, another volume of verse. Illustrated by Kate Kiesler with drawings of a young girl and her dog out for a walk, the poems are structured around a twenty-four-hour period. Fletcher begins with the coming of night in a somewhat rural, though still populated setting, and picks up again with the arrival of daylight, hence the title. Observations of commuters, children playing, and animals and their activities make up parts of the verse. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found it somewhat "cerebral," but granted "both art and text are filled with sumptuous detail." A Kirkus Reviews contributor termed Twilight Comes Twice "a quietly alluring mood piece" that might entice "readers to move beyond the page" and explore dusk and dawn's special quietness for themselves.

Another notable book of verse from Fletcher is Hello, Harvest Moon, a companion volume to Twilight Comes Twice. It is "as atmospheric as its companion," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, and "makes peaceful reading either in season, or on any moonlit night." The poems in Hello Harvest Moon trace the path of a single night, from the rising to the setting of the moon. Many people observe the light of the moon as they go about their lives; a girl and her cat play by it, a pilot flies by it, luna moths dance under it, and turtle hatchlings follow its reflection to the sea. Fletcher describes all of these activities with "lyrical, child-friendly images [which] will linger in readers' minds," thought a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Fletcher is also the author of several acclaimed novels for late-elementary readers. The first of these was Fig Pudding, published in 1995 to excellent reviews. Its When the substitute teacher doesn't show up, a sixth-grade class runs itself for the day, coming to terms with the recent death of a classmate in the process. (Cover illustration by Ben Caldwell.) narrator is Cliff Abernathy, III, the oldest of six children in a pleasant and close-knit family. Fletcher structures the narrative around a year in the life of the Abernathy family, beginning at Christmas one year and ending with the subsequent holiday season. Each chapter revolves around a family member, and through Cliff's tale, which encompasses everything from daily events to the tragic death of a sibling, readers come to know the characters and their very different personalities. "Written with humor, perception, and a clarity of language, the book resonates with laughter and sorrow," declared Alice Casey Smith in a review of Fig Pudding for School Library Journal. Chris Sherman, assessing the work for Booklist, termed the hero of Fletcher's story "a sympathetic and thoughtful narrator." The author writes about the tragedy and the way in which the family deals with its grief "with remarkable restraint and understatement," thought a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Fletcher created yet another likable kid for the title character of his 1997 novel, Spider Boy. Seventh-grader Bobby loves his pet tarantulas and is fascinated by spiders in general. This never seemed to be a problem until Bobby's family leaves Illinois and moves halfway across the country. Bobby is suddenly known as the new kid in school with the bizarre hobby. Furthermore, his beloved tarantula Thelma has stopped eating, probably because of the stress of the move. So has Bobby, who still keeps his watch set on Illinois time. Coming to terms with the bully at school, who derisively names Bobby "Spider Boy" and then is responsible for the death of one of his tarantulas, is the great trial of his life and one that resonates with its intended audience. Candace Smith, writing in Booklist called Spider Boy an "appealing story." Smith wrote that "Fletcher portrays the new-kid-on-the-block syndrome honestly by making Bobby a sympathetic but not perfect character." A Kirkus Reviews contributor said of the book, "Creating and guiding a winning cast with a light, sure hand, Fletcher puts a fine, fresh spin on a familiar premise."

As Fletcher once told SATA: "I have always loved words. As a little boy I used to ask my mother about the difference between 'read' and 'red,' 'bear' and 'bare.' It fascinated me that two words could sound the same but mean completely different things.

"I've always treasured books, too. Books opened my eyes. They moved me from the inside out. At some point, I dreamed of becoming a writer. Today, when I write, I'm trying to put the reader through a powerful experience. I want to move my readers in the same way other authors have moved me with their books. My novel Fig Pudding has been translated into Dutch, German, and French. It gives me a thrill to think that children in other countries can enter the world of my books.

"I didn't plan to write books for children. In 1983, I earned a master's degree in writing at Columbia University. That year I took a job in New York City, teaching teachers new ways of teaching writing. I did lots of demonstration teaching and lugged around a huge bag of children's books to give children ideas for their writing. Surprise: I fell in love with many of these books! I began trying to write books for children."

Fletcher drew upon his classroom experiences to create a novel that details a fantasy day in the life of any young school-goer in his novel Flying Solo. The day the substitute teacher never shows up, a classroom of smart sixth-graders seize the opportunity and take charge of their own education for a day, while struggling to keep others at the school in the dark regarding the situation. Fletcher introduces a host of students as lead characters, each with their own personal travail to resolve: Bastian is moving to Hawaii with his family the next day and must decide whether he will leave his dog with a family here or force it to undergo a long period of quarantine; Rachel has not spoken since a classmate who had a crush on her died several months earlier; Sean, a boy with a troubled family life, has a crush on her now; Karen emerges as a natural leader, while Jessica shows herself as too uptight to learn from the experience of having a bit of responsibility for once. In the end, Rachel finally talks, Bastian's dog finds the right home, and all the students learn more about themselves in one day than they expected—including how to rely upon, trust, and forgive one another. The author, noted Kathleen Squires in Booklist, "expertly balances a wide variety of emotions, giving readers a story that is by turns sad, poignant, and funny." Writing in Horn Book, Susan P. Bloom stated: "This kaleidoscopic novel is more thoughtful and poignant than most school stories, while still appropriately leavened with comic moments."

Another novel by Fletcher is Uncle Daddy, described as "a reassuring picture of forgiveness and acceptance within a family" by School Library Journal reviewer Heide Piehler. Ever since his father abandoned the family without warning when he was three, Rivers has been raised by his mother and his great-uncle, whom the boy calls "Uncle Daddy." Then, six years later, when Rivers is nine, his father returns. Although Fletcher avoided the cliches that readers might have expected from this situation—for example, Rivers's father and Uncle Daddy do not try to force the boy to choose between them—Rivers still faces a difficult adjustment. "With uncomplicated sentences and plenty of dialogue, Fletcher makes Rivers's dilemma immediate and real," commented a Horn Book critic.

Fletcher has also written several nonfiction works focused on the writing process, including the 1996 title Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer's Notebook. He begins the book by positing that it is not altogether necessary for a writer to keep such a journal, and then moves on to provide guidelines for those who decide they would like to. He explains such a tool can help one learn to write without fear of judgment, and thus develop a clear voice. Such journals are also excellent ways for writers to find their inspiration, and Fletcher provides examples of how insignificant details, rhetorical questions, lists of oddities, and even the conversations of strangers can spark fire to the creative process. Compared to most "how-to" works for aspiring writers, "this one is refreshingly varied and undogmatic in its approach," noted Jeffrey Cooper in Kliatt.

Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out, a guide for middle-grade students, is written in a similar style. Described as "chatty, but never condescending" by Booklist's Hazel Rochman, Poetry Matters "packs in a wealth of information without a word of jargon." In addition to writing about the components of poetry—images, rhythm, voice—Fletcher also includes interviews with three other children's poets. Fletcher's points are illustrated with numerous excerpts from his own and others' works, which "embody the author's advice by showing how writing techniques actually function in poems," explained Kristen Oravec in School Library Journal.

Fletcher once told SATA that he has a passion for nurturing young writers. In addition to Breathing In, Breathing Out and Poetry Matters, Fletcher has also produced other writing books geared specifically to Nine-year-old Rivers has conflicting feelings about the reappearance of his real father and how it will affect his relationship with Uncle Daddy, who has cared for Rivers for six years. (Cover illustration by Andy Newman.) budding authors—A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You and Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Words among them. A Writer's Notebook offers realistic advice on how to keep notes and use them to create stories and poems. Live Writing instructs young writers on how to use words, imagination, ideas, and a love of books to create written works that "live and breathe."

Of his own working style, Fletcher once said: "My habits are simple. I get up, make school lunches, get my kids off to school, make coffee, and write. I have learned that I need to devote the best hours of the day to my writing. I work about three or four hours daily. Fortunately, I work quickly. Often my editors push me further with their suggestions for revisions. I have been lucky to work with excellent editors . . . who continue to stretch me as a writer."

When asked about who were some of his inspirations, Fletcher was forthcoming about his influences: "Cynthia Rylant has inspired me with her honesty, and the Offering selections from his own notebook, Fletcher explains the importance of a notebook to a writer, what a writer's notebook contains, and how writers use it. (Cover photo by Jay Paul.) stirring beauty of her language," he once told SATA. "William Steig writes and illustrates great books with wonderful word play. And many, many other authors—Katherine Paterson, Byrd Baylor, Jane Yolen, Gary Paulsen, Jon Sciescka, Gary Soto, John Steptoe, Bill Martin, Jr., Lois Lowry, Aliki, Richard Margolis to name a few—have profoundly influenced my work."

To aspiring writers, Fletcher once commented: "There's no one single way to write. Everyone has to find his or her own way. I think it begins with your uniqueness. Sandra Cisneros says: 'Write about what makes you different.'"

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Audubon, November-December, 2001, Christopher Camuto, review of Twilight Comes Twice, p. 86.

Booklist, March 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of IAm Wings: Poems about Love, p. 1345; May 15, 1995, Chris Sherman, review of Fig Pudding, p. 1645; May 1, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Buried Alive: The Elements of Love, p. 1500; April 15, 1997, Karen Morgan, review of Ordinary Things: Poems from a Walk in Early Spring, pp. 1421-1422; June 1-15, 1997, Candace Smith, review of Spider Boy, p. 1702; October 15, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Twilight Comes Twice, p. 414; August, 1998, Kathleen Squires, review of Flying Solo, p. 1998; July, 1999, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Relatively Speaking: Poems about Family, p. 1940; March 15, 2000, review of Relatively Speaking, p. 1360; August, 2000, Todd Morning, review of Tommy Trouble and the Magic Marble, p. 2138; December 15, 2000, Lauren Peterson, review of Grandpa Never Lies, p. 825; May 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out, p. 1593.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1994, p. 318; July-August, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Buried Alive, pp. 370-71.

Educational Leadership, March, 1991, Brenda Miller Power, review of Walking Trees: Teaching Teachers in the New York City Schools, pp. 84-85.

English Journal, April, 1993, Tom Romano, review of What a Writer Needs, pp. 93-94.

Horn Book, July-August, 1994, Nancy Vasilakis, review of I Am Wings, pp. 466-467; July-August, 1997, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Spider Boy, pp. 454-455; November-December, 1998, Susan P. Bloom, review of Flying Solo, pp. 728-729; July, 2001, review of Uncle Daddy, p. 450.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1996, review of Buried Alive, p. 601; March 15, 1997, review of Spider Boy, p. 460; September 1, 1997, review of Twilight Comes Twice, p. 1388; February 15, 2002, review of Poetry Matters, pp. 254-255; September 15, 2003, review of Hello, Harvest Moon, p. 1174.

Kliatt, September, 1997, Jeffrey Cooper, review of Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer's Notebook, p. 25.

Language Arts, April, 1992, review of Walking Trees, p. 304; March, 1994, review of What a Writer Needs, p. 230; May, 2003, Junko Yokota, Mingshui Cai, and Theresa Kubasak, review of Poetry Matters, p. 396.

Library Journal, November 15, 1990, Nancy E. Zuwiyya, review of Walking Trees, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly, April 24, 1995, review of Fig Pudding, p. 72; October 27, 1997, review of Twilight Comes Twice, p. 75; February 2, 1998, p. 91; May 3, 1999, review of Relatively Speaking, p. 78; April 23, 2001, review of The Circus Surprise, p. 77; September 15, 2003, review of Hello, Harvest Moon, pp. 63-64.

Reading Teacher, December, 1997, Bonita L. Wilcox, review of Breathing In, Breathing Out, pp. 350-353.

School Library Journal, June, 1994, Judy Greenfield, review of I Am Wings, p. 154; July, 1995, Alice Casey Smith, review of Fig Pudding, p. 78; May, 1996, Marjorie Lewis, review of Buried Alive, p. 138; May, 1997, Sharon Korbeck, review of Ordinary Things, p. 144; July, 1997, Adele Greenlee, review of Spider Boy, p. 93; October, 1997, Virginia Golodetz, review of Twilight Comes Twice, p. 95; October, 1998, July Siebecker, review of Flying Solo, p. 135; April, 1999, Kristen Oravec, review of Relatively Speaking, p. 146; November, 1999, Ginny Harrell, review of Fig Pudding, p. 64; September, 2000, Steve Clancy, review of Tommy Trouble and the Magic Marble, p. 196; November, 2000, Alicia Eames, review of Grandpa Never Lies, p. 119; December, 2000, Timothy Capehart, review of How Writers Work: Finding a Process That Works for You, p. 160; May, 2001, Heide Piehler, review of Uncle Daddy, p. 149; June, 2001, Bina Williams, review of The Circus Surprise, p. 112; August, 2001, Lauralyn Persson, review of Have You Been to the Beach Lately?, p. 194; February, 2002, Kristen Oravec, review of Poetry Matters, p. 143; September, 2003, Shawn Brommer, review of Hello, Harvest Moon, p. 178.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1994, Diane Tuccillo, review of I Am Wings, pp. 106-107; October, 1996, p. 228.

ONLINE

Ralph Fletcher Home Page, http://www.ralphfletcher.com/ (November 10, 2003).*

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