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Barry is interviewed by Stefan Shepherd of Zooglobble.

Barry Talks Back

When did you begin writing?

I've been writing ever since I was in elementary school. My first story was called The Ten O'Clock Alarm Clock that Would Not Stop and I wrote it when I was eight years old. It was about a man who kept getting fired from all his jobs because his alarm clock always rang late --at ten o'clock. I didn't write that story to be published--I didn't even write it for school. I was writing for fun. And you know what? Even though I make my living as a writer, I still write for fun. I love all the different ways we have to tell the stories of our books, songs, poems and film. Since that first story, I've written hundreds of songs, poems and books. You can read my first story in the "Other Writings" section...if you promise not to laugh!

Where were you born?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My family moved to the Washington, DC area when I was about eight years old and I've lived in Maryland ever since.

Did you have any favorite books?

Yes. One is a picture book called Five Pennies To Spend and it's about a boy who is sent to the store for some bread and is given five pennies to spend on himself (back when five pennies could actually buy something!) On the way, he meets many desperate animals who need basic, simple things just to survive. When he gets to the store he eyes the lollipop he really wants but instead buys food and supplies for those animals he encountered en route. He distributes it to all the animals on the way back and when he gives his mother the bread, she finds the lollipop for her son at the bottom of the bag from the shopkeeper. It's a great story and I never forgot it.

Any other Favorites?

My other favorite is The Party Pig, a story about a little pig who is having a birthday party. When his mother leaves for the store to pick up some last minute things, he is visited by many different animals from the farm and each has a sad tale to tell; the hen will be slaughtered if she doesn't give eggs; the cow will be taken away if she doesn't give milk. Of course, the party pig empties out his entire pantry and invites them all to his party that afternoon. When his mom returns, she discovers that he has given away all the food and there is no way to have a party for him. But when the guests arrive, they have each made food with part of the ingredients they had borrowed from him.

And you remember these stories?

Actually, I saved these books and still have them. I read them to my kids when they were little and I am sure they influenced me when I was young. In fact, I think the book Ferdinand The Bull probably influenced an entire generation. It's about a bull who refuses to fight in the arena and all the bullfighters keep trying to provoke him but all he wants to do is sit and smell flowers. Eventually they return him to the fields. Another story I remember was about Scuppers, the Sailor Dog. The illustrations were really vivid.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I liked to read and to write, but I never thought I would make my living as an author or songwriter for children. I went to college to be a teacher and while I was in college, I was invited to a school to perform. I sang some songs I had written and the kids nearly fell out of their seats with laughter. When the show was over, a dozen kids came up to me and wanted to know how I wrote my songs and where I got my ideas from. Within minutes, a teacher came up to them and began yelling at them, telling them to be quiet and to get back in line. "Wipe those grins off your faces," she said, "you're acting just like children." I quickly wrote down everything she said and went home that night and wrote a song about a mean teacher. I sang the song at another school a week later.

Is that how you began your career?

Not long after I wrote the song about the mean teacher, my phone started ringing. "Is this Barry Louis Polisar?" I would hear. "Is it true you wrote a song about a mean teacher?" "Yes," I would say sheepishly. "Well, I'm a teacher and I want to know if you can come to my school and sing that song." I never expected that would happen, but it's a true story and led to my career. I don't sing that song too much anymore because--as everyone knows--they don't make mean teachers anymore!

So hearing a teacher yelling was the start?

When I wrote that song about the teacher, something else happened. I realized that I could write about everyday experiences. I could write about my younger brothers and sister, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. I would be over my family's house for dinner and my mom would try to get my younger brother to eat his food by comparing his plate with mine. "Look," she would say, "Barry ate all his vegetables, why can't you be that way?". I remembered being compared to the older boy that lived next door and I went home that night and wrote another song --He Eats Asparagus, Why Can't You Be That Way?

Where do you get your ideas for your songs and stories?

I write a lot about my own family and friends. I like to find the humor in everyday life and write about it. With an uncle who lived in a tent and a mother who owned twenty-seven cats, I figure I know how funny everyday family life really can be. People think I make a lot of this up, but I really do get many of my ideas from my own family.

Art: Radioactive Cats copyright by Sandy Skogland

Do you write about your own kids?

When my kids were younger, I wrote many songs about them. One song I wrote when they were babies is called Diaper Rash. When they got a little older I wrote another song based on our lives at the time; it's called Potty Training. I think it's important to know that you can use the creative process to write about anything from your own experience.

How long does it take to write a book or a song?

Sometimes it takes years. I spend a lot of time working on my books and songs. I don't just write the first thing that comes to me; instead I write and re-write and revise my stories, poems and songs over and over.....In my school programs I talk a lot about all the rough drafts I do on my work.

Do you travel around the county visiting schools?

Yes. My job as a performer and author takes me all over the country--and even to Europe. I've played at The White House, The Smithsonian Institution, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in hundreds of schools just like yours.

Where do you live?

I live in Maryland with my wife, my daughter, my son, a dog, and a cat. Our kids are older now--all grown up! My daughter did the funny artwork for the cover of my last CD when she was in fifth grade. My son began playing clarinet when he was in elementary school and joined me on my last CD, playing clarinet and saxophone. When I'm not writing or performing, I like to ride my bike along the bicycle trails near my house and since we live next to the Patuxent River, I enjoy kayaking next door.

Do you live in a mansion?

No! A few years ago, we bought a house on 16 acres near the Patuxent River --but it wasn't a mansion. In fact, I spent a few years fixing up the house and cleaning the land; hauling away over two hundred old tires, a dozen junked cars, half-buried trash, rusty scrap metal, and collapsed and rotting buildings. My kids thought I had a new job; driving around in a beat up old pick-up truck hauling away junk every day. You can read about this project and see "before and after" pictures in the "Tireless Efforts" story in my "Other Writings" section. Kids always want to know if I live in a mansion. The real story is even better.

Are you working on any new books now?

Yes! I recently finished three new books now -- one is a new poetry book on fish. I wrote a chapter book about the Amistad slave rebellion that I started twelve years ago and I also published a 2-CD recording of my worst songs...that's right: The worst of Barry Louis Polisar! It was fun taking my failed songs and rewriting them into totally new and different works.

Where can we hear your songs?

You can listen to all my songs right on my web site. I hope you can find my CDs and books right in your local library--or maybe even in your own school.

More interview questions: Barry talks about movies, books and music