NEW YORK - Beginning work a few years ago on her latest book, an anthology of poems for young people, Caroline Kennedy found herself looking through one of her mother's scrapbooks. She burst into laughter, she says, as she came across a poem that her brother John, as a youngster, had picked out and copied as a gift to their poetry-loving mom.
"Willie with a thirst for gore, Nailed his sister to the door," went the poem, by an unknown author. "Mother said with humor quaint, 'Careful, Willie, don't scratch the paint!' "
The poem "brought back memories of our relationship," Kennedy told a bookstore audience this week. "I laughed so hard."
But for Kennedy, now 55 and a mother of three grown children, there's a deeper meaning to that irreverent ditty. Poetry was a central part of her home life growing up. She and John regularly copied out and illustrated poems for their mother, Jackie, upon birthdays and Mother's Days. Sometimes, they'd recite them too, "if we were feeling competitive." And at family gatherings with their grandmother, there were frequent challenges to recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous (and famously lengthy) "Paul Revere's Ride." Only Uncle Ted, it seems, was able to recite it in its entirety.
Now, with her 10th book, Kennedy wants to share with young readers the love for the written word that she feels her poetry-filled childhood helped instill in her (even though her own son, she quips, hates reading and only likes two poems.) Hence the title: "Poems to Learn By Heart."
"It was a combination of remembering my own childhood and thinking about gifts I'd been given," she said in an interview last week at her husband's downtown Manhattan design firm, explaining the genesis of the latest book. "And working in schools and seeing the role that poetry can play in kids' lives."
It's also an effort to promote literacy, a cause Kennedy has supported in a number of ways. "Fourteen percent of American adults can't read," Kennedy says. "It's a slow-motion disaster." She believes poetry can help. "Kids need a way in," she says, "and reading needs to be fun. Poetry can give them that - with the current emphasis on poetry slams, and these other open mic events. That's actually why I think poetry has a chance."
Kennedy's current book - a collection of poems from various authors, with introductions by her to each section, and vivid illustrations by John J Muth - is her fourth to focus on poetry. Her earlier books, especially "The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," have been huge sellers, pulling in numbers unheard of for poetry anthologies.
"She's committed to becoming an advocate for the written word and poetry in particular," says Gretchen Young, who edited all of Kennedy's poetry books at Hyperion, working with the author to cull down huge numbers of beloved poems. "And she knows she can do that."
As to what else Kennedy can do with her high profile - and the unique and powerful celebrity status she's held since she was a little girl in the Kennedy White House - that is a question that people never cease to ask. The latest rumor has her up for an ambassadorship, perhaps to Japan, perhaps to Canada. Asked about those rumors during a recent TV appearance, she responded with typical restraint: "I'd love to serve in any way." She added that she hadn't been asked yet, and her response is still "No comment."
But many expect Kennedy, who considered seeking an appointment to the Senate from New York in 2009 but then withdrew her name from contention amid a flurry of publicity, to take up some high-profile position in the near future. She was an important and avid supporter of President Barack Obama, both in the 2008 and the 2012 elections.
"I'm really glad he's president," she says now when asked how he's doing, giving him high marks particularly in the field of education. "He can't do all the things he'd like to. We have a lot of problems. That's why I want young people to get engaged."