The Writing Life 2015: Remembering a Mentor
Last week, the world lost one of its finest advocates for children’s literature, Bernice “Bee” Cullinan. Bee’s nickname was apt—she buzzed from project to project, pollinating each with her unique mixture of wisdom and enthusiasm. Her contributions to the field of reading are too numerous to list in full, but here is a sampling.
- Professor emeritus at New York University
- President of the International Reading Association (recently renamed the International Literacy Association)
- Creator of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, a best-selling book now entering its fourth edition. The success of the first edition of this book, by the way, ushered in a period of unprecedented growth and success for IRA’s book publishing program.
- Founder and first editor of the Wordsong poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press
- Editor of A Jar of Tiny Stars, a best-selling anthology of poems by NCTE-Award-winning poets
I had the extreme good fortune to collaborate with Bee in two capacities. During my long tenure at the International Reading Association, I worked with more than 30 IRA Presidents on their President’s Messages for Reading Today. I respected all of them and formed personal friendships with many of them. Bee, who served from 1984-1985, was one of my all-time favorites. I admired her scholarship, her passion for children’s literature, and her vision for expanding its role as an integral part of the reading program.
About 10 years later, when my children were very young, I had an idea for a children’s book. Eager to encourage fathers to become actively involved in reading to and with their children, I conceived the idea for a book of Daddy Poems—poems about dads designed for dads to share with their children. One day I shared the idea with Bee, who was then serving as the head of Wordsong, the poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press. Her reaction: “That’s a great idea, John. Go do it.”
It was then that I had to admit to her that I had no idea how to go about compiling a poetry collection. Like the great mentor she was, Bee patiently guided me through the process of how to find poems and poets, how to gather permissions to use selected poems, and how to balance the collection between new and previously published material. Gradually, the manuscript took shape, and finally I submitted it, certain that it was the greatest poetry anthology ever compiled.
Imagine my shock when the manuscript was returned a couple of months later. The reviewers said they loved the idea but thought some of the previously published poems I had selected were too dated. They also thought the poems I had written needed some more work. They encouraged me to revise and resubmit the piece.
I should have been encouraged by this response and gotten right to work. After all, the reviewers had said they loved the idea and had given me specific advice for revising the manuscript. Still, I was crushed by what I saw as rejection. I literally stuffed the manuscript under my bed, and there it sat for months. Then Bee called one day and asked how the revisions were coming. I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t worked on them. She paused for a moment, then asked what my dream was. I replied that I dreamed of a poetry book with my name on it—a book dads could share with their children. She paused again, then asked if that dream could ever come true if the manuscript sat under my bed. No, I replied, I needed to get to work on the revisions. “Go do it,” she commanded.
Once again, Bee mentored me throughout the process. She paired me with author and educator Allan De Fina, who helped me with poem selection and permissions issues. She even invited me to spend a weekend at her house on Long Island, where I immersed myself in her vast poetry collection and bounced wording for my own poems off her for feedback. The day Daddy Poems was published in 2000 was one of the proudest moments in my life.
But Bee wasn’t done mentoring me yet. As I basked in the glow of Daddy Poems, she asked me a simple question that changed my writing life forever: “What’s next, John?” I had never thought beyond that single book, but with Bee’s encouragement, Daddy Poems was followed by Mommy Poems, Grandparent Poems, and No Boys Allowed: Poems About Brothers and Sisters. My success with those books opened doors for me to approach other publishers with other ideas, and I’ve now published more than 20 children’s books.
So it is with a heavy heart indeed that I say farewell to my colleague, friend, and mentor Bernice Cullinan. She made the world a better place for many people, and I count myself fortunate to have been one of them.