With the rise of self-published books, it’s hard to know which books are worth buying. So when I find one I think is excellent in its class, I like to give them and their authors a shout-out. One such is Monster In My Lunchbox, an illustrated book of family-focused rhyme. The poems are by Leslie Chess Feller and the illustrations by her late sister, Shelley. I asked Leslie how the book came about and her answers were quite unexpected. Read on to find out why.
GC: Can you tell us something about the book?
LCF: Monster In My Lunchbox is a collection of light verse that celebrates family. It includes simpler poems for early readers and others for kids in elementary school and beyond. But it’s also for Moms, Dads, Grandmas and Grandpas. I like to say that anyone who has ever been a kid will get a laugh out of these poems. They are meant for the whole family to enjoy together. Here’s a sample:
GC: How long have you been a poet?
LCF: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, the second of five siblings. My sister Shelley, older by 15 months, was the alpha sibling and with three younger brothers there was never a dull moment. Our father was a physician who loved the poet Ogden Nash. Whenever he had something to say to our mother, a psychologist, he would do it with a clever Ogden Nash-ian rhyme. And my mother would rhyme right back.
You could tell anybody anything in my family, even our father, if you did it with a poem. Every occasion became a poetic roast. Like my siblings, I began to rhyme as soon as I could write. So when my daughter Dania brought home Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic in the fourth grade, I looked at it and said, “I can do that.”
GC: How did you get your first poems published?
LCF: In 1985, a few of my Kidstuff poems ran in a local newspaper and attracted the attention of editors at a Westport, CT, magazine, Profiles. As soon as I found out they wanted me to do a monthly column and were open to me bringing in an illustrator, I called Shelley. By then, she was the world’s best middle school science teacher. But as a student, she used to get in a lot of trouble for cartooning all over her schoolwork. “Hey, Shelley,” I said. “I’m getting these poems published! Maybe you could do some cartoons?”
GC: Did you continue to publish poetry?
LCF: I did two other light verse columns for Profiles. Both Rhyme or Reason and Poetic License won Connecticut Press Club awards, but ran without illustrations. Soon my editors started assigning me articles which put my writing career on a different track. I went from local articles to the New York Times to national magazines as a freelance journalist for almost thirty years. Writing in light verse became something I enjoyed doing for family events.
GC: What made you decide to publish your poems now?
LCF: This book is also a celebration of a very special sisterhood. Over decades, my sister and I cheerfully perfected the art of never, ever agreeing with each other – except that we didn’t want to fight. Agreeing to disagree was our solution, the catalyst for what became an extraordinary friendship. Shelley died of leukemia two years ago. It was a terrible loss.
Six months afterwards, I was standing in my living room feeling very black. For no reason, I opened a cabinet door. Something fell on the floor in front of me. It was a xerox copy of fifty of my poems with fifty illustrations done by my sister. I had forgotten ever writing them. The fifteen Kidstuff poems in my writer’s portfolio were what I remembered. But at some point, decades ago, I had given more to Shelley and she had chosen to illustrate them.
I felt her right beside me. “Publish these,” Shelley said. The words were sweet. I threw everything out of that cabinet in a mad search for the pen and ink cartoons. Eventually I found 110 of my poems, each with the perfect cartoon. My sister and I disagreed about everything, but clearly we shared the same sense of humor. Monster In My Lunchbox is a collaboration that includes eighty of my favorites.
GC: How are you promoting your book?
LCF: Monster In My Lunchbox was published in November, 2015.
The website is http://www.monsterinmylunchbox.com On the website, you can listen to me read the title poem. Then click links to videos of other poems in the collection.
And I’ve been giving talks and readings at libraries, and for parent groups among others.