Tribute to a National Poet Laureate: TED KOOSER, More Than a Local Wonder + interview with debut author Carla Ketner AND GIVEAWAY!

Want to write a picture book text worthy of a poet laureate? This is how you do it.

Since Carla and I have an in-depth chat about her book below, I’ll simply share the book’s synopsis from the publisher:

Ted Kooser: More Than a Local Wonder, a biography of poet, picture book author, and essayist Ted Kooser, is a celebration of the power of stories and of finding oneself through words. Long before Ted Kooser won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, served as United States Poet Laureate, wrote award-winning picture books, and became the perennial best-selling author in a small-town Nebraska bookstore, he was an unathletic child growing up in Iowa, yearning to fit in. Young Ted found solace in stories, and one specific book, Robert McCloskey’s Lentil, inspired him to become a writer. Ted’s life is an affirmation of pursuing one’s passions. Ted Kooser: More Than a Local Wonder celebrates the power of stories and of finding oneself through words.

Sounds intriguing, right? If I had to choose the one thing I find most impressive about Carla’s book, it would be … well, I address that in our chat, too. So please read on!

JE: Welcome to Picture Book Builders, Carla!

CK: Thanks for much of inviting me to your blog! I am a regular reader and have found many wonderful new picture books through your posts. It’s an honor to have Ted Kooser: More than a Local Wonder featured here.

JE: Thank you! As long-time followers here know, I especially love chatting with debut authors. I’m so excited for you, Carla! And I have to say, you’ve certainly started off with a bang. So what compelled you to write Ted Kooser’s story?

CK: For those who aren’t familiar with Ted Kooser, he is a Nebraskan with Iowa roots who served two terms as United States Poet Laureate in the early 2000s. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and has won many other awards for his poetry, essays, and children’s books. He’s also just an all-around likeable person, very gracious and humble, with a sharp sense of humor.

I’ve known Ted for twenty years, since I opened Chapters Books & Gifts, an independent bookstore in his hometown in rural Nebraska. In the summer of 2004 Ted agreed to be featured at my store’s grand opening. Then, just days after I talked to him, he was named United States Poet Laureate. Our event was one of his first after that announcement—and it was huge. Since then, Ted has been a great supporter of the store, and we of him.

By 2019 I’d been writing fiction picture books for several years when, in a fit of frustration, I decided to attempt a picture book biography. My misguided hope was that plotting is hard, and if I chose a real person and stuck to true events in that person’s life, the story would practically write itself. I quickly learned, that’s not how it works, but it turned out to be a good decision, anyway.

One afternoon I was researching potential subjects for my biography. My son walked through the room and said, as if it were obvious, “You should write a book about Ted.” 

My second thought was, yes, of course I should write a book about Ted. Why didn’t I think of that?

My third thought was, I could never write a book about Ted! How could I, a pre-published author who couldn’t even catch an agent’s interest, write a book worthy of such a skilled poet? It was too intimidating to even consider.

JE: This made me laugh out loud, because that “I could never do it” feels so familiar!

CK: A few days later, while the idea was still percolating in my mind, a customer came into my store and asked for a biography of Ted Kooser for her fourth grade daughter’s school project. I told her there weren’t any. In my head I added the word “yet” to my answer. I took that request as a sign, asked Ted for his blessing and an interview, and got to work. After countless revisions and much angst, the book found a home with University of Nebraska Press, which publishes many of Ted Kooser’s poetry collections. Omaha artist Paula Wallace agreed to illustrate it, and it released last month.

JE: A serendipitous moment, for sure. Your portrayal of his childhood feels so warm and close. Who hasn’t been the odd kid out, at some point — or at least felt that way? Of course, looking back, that’s a huge part of what made Kooser a writer (and how many of US can relate?). Tell us how you decided that examining his childhood was the “best” way to usher readers into his story.

(This photo from the book and the next are taken by me. Apologies for the quality, but I wanted you to see the fine art feel of the images by Paula Wallace. Some really cool artistic choices throughout!)

CK: I knew from the start that I wanted to write a picture book biography that would appeal to both adult fans of Ted Kooser and children who don’t know who he is. To do that, I needed to find something universal to draw kids into the story. As I listened to Ted, I kept hearing him say that as a child, he felt like he didn’t fit in and was determined to find a way to belong. It soon became clear that Ted and his search for his identity should be the focus of the story. I think all of us, of any age, can relate to that and hopefully will find inspiration from Ted’s story to follow our own dreams. 

JE: Agreed! Which part of writing this biography was toughest for you, Carla?

CK: One of the hardest parts was finding a way to infuse enough tension into the story to keep young readers turning pages. Ted’s a quiet person, as am I. This is a quiet book, and I had to make the story compelling in spite of the fact that it’s not an action-packed adventure. I tried to uncover the obstacles that could keep Ted from achieving what he wanted most in the world, which was, at least at first, to fit in and belong. The stakes—reaching his potential and finding his place in the world or forever feeling like an outcast—are high, but maybe not the stuff of the typical blockbuster.

JE: *silent-but-heartfelt cheers for quiet books*

CK: I also wanted to emphasize that he didn’t succeed because he was born with a talent for writing. He had to discover his passion for books and stories and work hard at his craft all his life. 

JE: Your lyrical text alludes to many of Kooser’s poems. THAT, I think, is the book element I’m most impressed with, and I LOVE that a few of those are included in your back matter. What a great way to introduce readers to his style and, hopefully, send them off to search for more. How did you decide which poems to include?

CK: Ted’s poetry is filled with vivid imagery and metaphor. I chose child-friendly poems that convey concrete images of animals or experiences to which children can relate, and poems I thought might have curricular connections. Some of the poems were about subjects that appear often in his writing.

I chose the poem about the great blue heron for its illustration potential, though we didn’t include its full text; I envisioned a great blue heron soaring from Ted’s typewriter, just as it does in Paula’s illustration. A real-life heron lives on my family’s pond. “Herry” is one of my favorite wild creatures, and I love that a bird like him is in the book. I also selfishly found ways to incorporate some of my favorite poems in the text. The final poem, “Finding a Reader,” is my all-time favorite Kooser poem.

JE: What other projects do you have in the works, Carla?

CK: When people ask if I’m going to write any more books, my answer is yes, I already have, and I hope to find publishers for them. I have several picture book manuscripts, including another biography and some fiction stories, in various stages of completion. I’m currently revising a middle grade historical novel and plan to query it soon. 

JE: Best of luck with those, and thanks again for letting me feature your book!

Guess what else, folks? Chapters Books & Gifts is generously donating a copy of Ted Kooser: More than a Local Wonder, to one lucky reader. As usual, simply leave a comment below by December 22nd, and you’re entered! Carla will notify you if you win. GOOD LUCK!

Last month I featured Jody Jensen Shaffer’s CREEP, LEAP, CRUNCH! A Food Chain Story. The winner of that book is Shirley Ng-Benitez. Congratulations, Shirley!

Wishing you all a joyous holiday season!

Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Bird Girl - Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature With the World, Parrotfish Has a Superpower, Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Sea Turtle Swims, Kangaroo Hops, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, We Love Babies!, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2025: Polecat Has a Superpower!, It's Corn-Picking Time!, Giraffe Runs. She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at


  1. Joyce Patricia Uglow

    I can see that “Ted Kooser: More Than a Local Wonder” will find its place on teachers’ read aloud stacks and used to inspire students. I’m inspired already!

  2. How fun…thank you for sharing!

  3. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    This book, and Ted, sound amazing. Can’t wait to read it! Congrats on your debut!

  4. I am excited about this book. I am a writer, a poet, and a former teacher who has loved teaching poetry to K-3 and still loves using poetry with grandchildren and others.
    This book would be SO useful and fun to share with the many children I know.
    Thank you for writing about Ted Kooser;)

  5. Sounds like a great book! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Wow! This book sounds amazing! Great interview. Thank you!

  7. Jill and Carla, thank you for a beautiful and illuminating interview. So much resonated. That feeling of, I can’t do this to the joy of discovering that you could. And what a wonderful subject–someone in your community!!! Congratulations Carla!!! I’m looking forward to getting to know Ted and his work. He sounds like a treasure!

  8. Jane Heitman Healy

    I am so excited about this book, because I have long been a Kooser reader and appreciator. Thank you, Carla, for listening to your son’s idea! Thank you, Paula, your editors and U of Nebraska Press for bringing it to beautiful life! Thank you, Jill, for featuring this book and giving us the back story!

  9. I’m so happy for Carla that she wrote that biography and found a home for it! As someone who writes them, I’m always excited about biographies. As well, like James Holzhauer, I know many Jeopardy! answers by reading PB bios. LOL!

  10. I love Ted Kooser’s poetry. His children’s book House Held Up By Trees, illustrated by Jon Klassen! is so intriguing. I’d love to read this book and learn more about his life. Congratulations!

  11. Robin Brett Wechsler

    This book sounds beautiful, important, and inspiring. I’m excited to read it and I hope a lot of others (kids and adults!) read it too.

  12. I loved the “yet” that popped into your head — a definite sign, along with your son’s sweet idea. Congratulations, Carla! You were the perfect writer to write this story. I also love your title and the delightful illustrations by Paula Wallace.

  13. I love Ted Kooser’s work. What a great subject for a PB biography. – can’t wait to read it!

  14. I enjoyed reading about how the idea to write about Ted came to be–first your son suggesting it and then to have a customer ask for a biography is stars aligning. Congratulations on your book!

  15. Books like this are inspiring to read. They need to be written and thanks that we somebody like Carla who took the honor to write it. Congrats and more to come.

  16. Many of us writers grew up trying to fit in. I know lots of future writers will be encouraged by this book.

  17. Thanks to Jill and Carla for this interesting look at Ted Kooser More Than a Local Wonder. I enjoyed learning about how this book came about. I would love to win a copy!

  18. Thanks for the great interview! Ted certainly sounds like someone kids can relate to and should know all about! I look forward to reading about Ted’s life and creative talents!

  19. I love picture books that teach kids–and me–something! Congratulations on such a lovely book.

  20. I have always enjoyed Ted’s poetry – this picture book about his childhood looks lovely.

  21. Congratulations on the launch of this beautiful book! I’ve requested that our library purchase copies.

  22. I’m so looking forward to reading this! This man is amazing, and I love his poetry (Marshmallow Clouds, most recently); his books for writers (The Poetry Home Repair Manual; Writing Brave and Free); and his devotion to his writing career/life, writers, and readers.

  23. Congrats, Carla. So happy you chose to write this book honoring Ted and his work. And thank you, Jill, for sharing the interview with us. Would love to win a copy.

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