Award-winning author’s playful pandemic poems help kids understand and manage emotions

“Welcome to Monsterville” encourages creative play and grief healing

Clarksville, MD – Poetry educator Laura Shovan’s latest project, “Welcome to Monsterville” (Apprentice House Press, April 25, 2023) began when her friend, fellow poet Michael Rothenberg, sent her illustrations of monsters that he created as a form of art therapy during the pandemic. In response, Laura sent him back poems, one for each monster, telling their story. Born out of pandemic-related grief, confusion and fear is this gentle, therapeutic book that doubles as a playful way for kids to develop social-emotional skills. 

As an educator, Laura feels passionately about the value of social emotional learning and how creative play supports children’s development. She hopes that fellow educators will use “Welcome to Monsterville” as a springboard for classroom conversations about sitting with strong emotions.

About “Welcome to Monsterville”:

With an introduction from former president of the American Art Therapy Association, Dr. Mercedes Ballbé ter Maat, this quirky collection of illustrated poems is a celebration of friendship, emotional intelligence, and creative play as a form of healing.

Did you know monsters can be friendly, thoughtful, and shy? Much like their human neighbors, the residents of Monsterville have strong emotions. They can be joyous, angry–even afraid. Readers will meet a monster house who plays hopscotch and makes the sidewalks quake, cry with a monster called Sadness, and laugh at a bubblegum-headed monster’s epic tantrum. 

“Welcome to Monsterville”

Laura Shovan | April 25, 2023 | Apprentice House Press | Children’s 

Paperback | ISBN: 978-1627204774 | $17.99

“A delightfully surprising collection of poetry and art that is sure to inspire its readers to pick up a pen and explore their own creativity.”

—Jarrett Lerner, author-illustrator of the EngiNerds series

“With perfect personification (monster houses that dance), colorful characters (Bubblegum Head), lively language (Dockaboodlecoo!), and a whole range of emotions from gratitude to shyness to anger to sadness, children will easily see themselves in the world of Monsterville. And they’ll want to visit Monsterville again and again.”

—Janet Wong, author of “You Have to Write”

Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her work appears in journals and anthologies for children and adults. Laura’s award-winning middle grade novels include “The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary,” “Takedown,” and the Sydney Taylor Notable A “Place at the Table,” written with Saadia Faruqi. An honors graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (BFA Dramatic Writing) and Montclair State University (Master of Arts, Teaching), Laura is a longtime Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education, conducting school poetry residencies. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. To learn more about her life and work, visit: 

Follow Laura Shovan on social media:

Facebook: @laura.shovan.poet | Instagram: @laurashovan

In an interview, Laura Shovan can discuss:

  • How “Welcome to Monsterville” turned pandemic-related grief, anxiety and fear into a tool for kids to better understand and manage emotions
  • The value of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in the wake of the pandemic
  • How being an educator influences her approach to writing for kids
  • The story behind Michael’s lively and colorful illustrations
  • How the book was born out of a sense of creative play, and why adults should make art with a “process over product” mindset
  • Why she values collaboration with other authors and artists 
  • What it was like working alongside publishing students at Loyola College 
  • Why writing poetry a positive outlet for big emotions 

An Interview with Laura Shovan

1. In your author’s note, you mention that creative play helped you and Michael cope with grief. What made “Welcome to Monsterville” such an important outlet for those emotions?

One of the joys of working on this project together was that it was a “no judgment” zone. Through his art therapy, Michael was learning to trust his creative impulse–to go with whatever idea bubbled up for a monster without labeling it “strange” or worrying that a creature was too out-there. He wasn’t editing his emotions, but letting them flow freely into his art. I had a similar experience writing poems in response to the illustrations. In order to write the monsters’ stories, I had to get out of my own way and follow my creative impulses, no matter how weird. Grief, on some level, has to do with loss of control. Giving up the controlling mind and trusting the creative process was healing for both of us.

2. “Welcome to Monsterville” is a collection of ekphrastic poems written in response to Michael’s art. How was this different from your other writing for kids?

Michael’s monsters are enigmatic and I had to approach them as if they were puzzles to be solved. Though I wasn’t aware of it when I was writing early drafts, I was asking myself questions about each creature: What emotions do I feel when I look at this image? Does it have a personality or facial expression that I can reflect with my words? What is this monster’s story? There was some freedom in not having to compose a traditional narrative with a plot. Instead, the poems and illustrations take readers on a sort of guided tour through the imagination.

3. How can adults stay in touch with their sense of creative play, and why should they?

Michael valued – as I do – having a creative practice that’s disconnected from our work as writers. For Michael, art was the outlet for creative play. Before his death, he had been creating abstract pieces, often full of color and wild forms, for several years. When I need a break from writing books, I make other things: I bake bread, garden, and doodle robots, which I post on Instagram. The goal with creative play isn’t to monetize or polish the work for publication. The point is the act of creativity itself, to be in the practice of making something. Many adults are taught that creative play is for children. They learn, in their teens, to abandon making art if they’re not planning to become (or “good enough” to become) a professional artist, musician, writer. But art–even art we make for no one but ourselves–can be a powerful way to work through strong emotions. It can be a place to record observations, advocate for empathy, and understand who we are. It’s also fun! Sometimes I go back to the Ed Emberley books from my childhood, which show you step by step how to turn your thumbprint into a mouse, a robot, an elephant. There’s great joy in simply allowing yourself to create for the sake of play.

4. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has become increasingly important in schools since the Covid-19 pandemic. How does “Welcome to Monsterville” support SEL?

As Dr. Mercedes Ballbé ter Maat writes in her introduction to the book, monsters, like human beings, “come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, filled with ideas, thoughts, and emotions.” They, and we, are “perhaps strange and weird, beautiful, and kind, also filled with ideas, thoughts, and emotions.” I hope this book acknowledges that children are emotional creatures who “laugh and talk, play and cry, sing and dance, think and feel… hide when they are afraid, cry when they hurt, kiss and hug when in love.” And I hope that educators will use “Welcome to Monsterville” as a springboard for classroom conversations about sitting with strong emotions, rather than pushing them aside.

5. How has being a teacher influenced the types of books you write?

Being an educator influences everything I do, including my writing for children and teens. When I visit classrooms as a poet-in-the-schools, I am inviting children to describe the hobbies and interests they are passionate about, their hopes, concerns, and favorite traditions. “Welcome to Monsterville” reflects the stories and feelings of children I have worked with over many years.

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