An author of more than 25 books and winner of multiple awards, Santa Barbara’s Lee Wardlaw’s most recent achievement is the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for her children’s book Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku. This award, established in 1993, is presented each year to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding new book of children’s poetry published in the previous calendar year. Books are judged by a panel of nationally recognized teachers, librarians, and scholars.
Won Ton, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, tells the story of a wary shelter cat and the boy who takes him home. “Haiku poetry and cats have a lot in common,” explained Wardlaw. “Elegant, simple, they say a lot with a few words. If cats could talk, I’m sure it would be in poetry haiku.” The book is a compilation of 34 haiku, all written from the cat’s point of view; surprisingly, it was rejected by seven publishers before finally being accepted by Holt Books for Young Readers. “Even though it’s a children’s book, it’s geared for people of all ages,” said Wardlaw. “It’s more than just a picture book — it works on a lot of different levels. That’s the way a good book should be — everyone should be able to enjoy it.”
Wardlaw started writing poems and stories when she was in second grade at Cold Spring elementary school. The first book she wrote was titled Teena Belle and was about a one-inch tall girl who went on adventures with her pet grasshopper. “I’ve always known that I was going to write children’s books,” said Wardlaw. “My teachers at Cold Spring were incredibly supportive.” Wardlaw then went on to Santa Barbara High School, where she was the captain of the dance team, the Donnettes. Wardlaw earned her BA in education from Cal Poly, SLO, and recently received her AMI-Primary Diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego.
In 1979, Wardlaw attended her first Santa Barbara Writers Conference, where she met her agent and linked up with a number of other children’s book authors. She has been meeting locally with a group of these authors since 1984. “ We cry on each others shoulders when we get rejected or when our books go out of print,” said Wardlaw, “and we celebrate with each other when we get good reviews. Writing is a very solitary thing; sometimes it’s lonely, and you just need somebody to talk to who really understands your work.”
When asked why she chooses to write books for young adults and children rather than for an adult audience, Wardlaw stated, “I just really have a lot more to say to children. They haven’t become jaded yet. and they don’t think they’re wise and sophisticated. Young children and even middle schoolers are embarking on life —they’ve just started living. There’s something so special about being able to write for this group who is very excited about being alive. They really want to gobble down life and books and everything that’s new and fresh, and I love that.”
Wardlaw demonstrates a true love and appreciation for Santa Barbara, “It’s like no other place,” she said. “ It has everything that you could possibly want.” Warldaw enjoys beach-combing for sea glass with her husband, reading, and also spending time with her son, who is a sophomore at Santa Barbara High School. She and her husband also own a small area winery called Jaffurs Wine.
Wardlaw feels that Won Ton may have been so successful because of her longtime love of cats. “For a lot of people who are writing or want to be writers, write about something that’s really important to you — write about the things that you really care about,” she said. “I’ve had two dozen cats. I know cats. I think that’s why Won Ton’s won so many awards — because it speaks to me, it is able to speak to other people.”
Wardlaw will receive a handsome plaque and a $1,000 honorarium at the PSLA conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on April 13 for Won Ton: A Cat Tale in Haiku.