Jack Prelutsky: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Colleen Bramucci

Colleen has taught secondary school and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you will learn about the life and work of American children's poet Jack Prelutsky. You will learn about the characteristics of his work, and take a quiz to test your understanding.

A Poet Just for Children

A pizza as big as the sun. A dragon who is tired of always being the 'bad guy.' A mystery food stuffed deep in the recesses of the refrigerator, forgotten by the entire family. What do all of these intriguing images have in common? They are all the subjects of poems written by Jack Prelutsky, the imaginative and inventive children's poet whose work has been delighting children (and their parents and teachers) for more than 40 years. With titles such as 'My First Best Friend' and 'I Wave Good-bye When Butter Flies,' Prelutsky quickly engages even the youngest and most reluctant of poetry-readers, while the poems in their entirety introduce his young audience to sophisticated poetic devices.

A Poet Who Doesn't Like Poetry?

Jack Prelutsky was born on September 8, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up with his parents and younger brother in a working-class Bronx neighborhood. Prelutsky says he always enjoyed playing with language, but as a youngster he hated poetry. He found it boring, inaccessible, and irrelevant to his life. Why bother with poetry that didn't seem to make sense and was about things that held little interest to the kids in class? It wasn't until Prelutsky was in his twenties that he rediscovered poetry, and realized that it doesn't have to be something school children despise.

Unsurprisingly, Prelutsky didn't expect to become a writer, much less a poet. He even failed English class three times at Hunter College in New York City, which he attended for two years before dropping out. Prelutsky worked several odd jobs - piano mover, photographer, cab driver - but he had hoped to become an opera singer, after some time studying classical music. He spent a few years in the 1960s in the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene as a folk singer, where he befriended American folk legend Bob Dylan. But it would be a set of illustrations and hastily scribbled poems that would launch Prelutsky's career as a professional poet.

After having spent nearly six months making sketches of imaginary creatures, Prelutsky decided to show his work to an editor in children's publishing, hoping for perhaps a career as an illustrator. Before submitting them, he added a few quickly-written, silly verses to each illustration. The editor, Susan Hirschman of Macmillan, believed that it was his poems, and not his drawings, that revealed true talent. This collaboration led to the publication of Prelutsky's first book of poems, A Gopher in the Garden, in 1967.

Books and Honors

Since then, Prelutsky has produced more than 50 books of children's poetry, including The New Kid on the Block (1984), The Dragons are Singing Tonight (1993), and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant (2006). In addition to his books of poetry, Prelutsky has served as an anthologist and compiled several collections of children's poetry, such as The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983) and The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury (1999). Perhaps one of his greatest honors came in 2006, when he was appointed the first Children's Poet Laureate of the United States by the Poetry Foundation. This 2-year appointment honors a living poet whose career has been dedicated to children's poetry.

Features of Prelutsky's Poetry

Jack Prelutsky has proven through his work that poetry for children is an art form in itself, and while it should be about topics that interest and intrigue children, it can still feature poetic devices such as figurative language and rich vocabulary. While he may delve into silly, somewhat wacky subject matter, Prelutsky never 'dumbs down' his work. In 'A Pizza the Size of the Sun,' he delights in the idea of an enormous pizza, and imagines it 'resplendent with oceans of sauce.' While many youngsters may not know the word 'resplendent,' they can use context clues to learn it, and meanwhile an unforgettable image of oceans of sweet, red sauce has been cemented in their minds.

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