Sterling Publishing will release a pop-up version of Puff, the Magic Dragon this November 15th. Master paper engineer Bruce Foster, who created the bestselling Harry Potter pop-up book, animates Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton’s timeless song via nine lavish spreads, gatefold pops, and enchanting special effects. In the magnificent finale, a fully dimensional Puff greets readers, presenting them with the book’s accompanying audio CD, which features four songs recorded by Peter Yarrow.
Ruth Gerson: What was your original inspiration for “Puff, The Magic Dragon”?
Peter Yarrow: My inspiration for the song was Lenny Lipton. He wrote the original poem, it was only half completed, it didn’t have the element in it that you would have expected me to insert, “The dragon lives forever, not so little boys.” I wrote about half of the words, but really it was Lenny’s inspiration for the song and his idea.
RG: Is it true he had left it sitting in your typewriter?
PY: Yes. It was finals at Cornell, he was letting off steam, and he just didn’t think much of it, like somebody draws, leaving a sketch, and not thinking much of it and you’re saying, Hhmmm, I Iike the smile on this girl’s face, I think I’ll call her Mona Lisa.”
RG: “Puff, The Magic Dragon” must be one of the most covered songs of a generation. What is it like to have so many other great artists such as Dolly Parton, Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers to Bonnie Prince Billy and Jason Mraz cover something you wrote? Was there ever a performance of the song that made you hear it in a different light?
PY: The fact that other people sing it is always lovely, but the real compliment comes when I’m on stage and I will call kids on stage (and I encourage the audience to take pictures and videos), inevitably there are three and four-year-olds and they’re actually singing the words, they know the words all the way through — and this song is celebrating its 50th birthday — that’s pretty remarkable. What parts of life that establish themselves culturally that long ago still exist, not because they’re marketed, but because they’re in the homes, the churches the synagogues, summer camps? I continue to ask myself why did this song sustain?
RG: You have talked about “Puff, The Magic Dragon” as a song that provides a positive force for kids, that fosters hope as opposed to cynicism, specifically you’ve been working on the issue of bullying in schools with Operation Respect. How did this specific issue of violence become of interest to you? How have you seen folk music act as a resistance against violence, especially for children?
PY: The work of Operation Respect, which unlike other programs, seeks to make environments for children, particularly schools, that are welcoming, loving, environments in which children feel empowered to make a difference, know that they matter, that they are respected. To create environments that are devoid of bullying, ridicule and mean-spiritedness, the first order of business is to open the hearts of the children so that they can exchange and receive the message, not just through their brains and their intellects but through their emotional and social sensibilities — that is their hearts. How do we do that? We do that by inspiration and creativity. Most of us have a very effective mechanism for disregarding and separating ourselves from something that contradicts what we already believe to be the case. So, how for instance, do you engage the empathy of a child? Indeed the empathy of the citizenry?
We are living in a time when we have an enormous amount of bullying, disrespect and violence so intense that kids are contemplating or attempting suicide. This is not the way it used to be. Bullying is not a rite of passage! There is a shift here. It is a societal problem that has a painful manifestation amongst children. In reality TV, there is a sensibility, frequently based on shaming and humiliation and adults watch it like it’s entertainment — it’s people humiliating others and that’s supposed to be funny and that’s supposed to be engaging and children view this and take it into their innocent, sweet perspective and translate it into cruelty. Commercial TV is this source and there is plenty of it, it is a virtual training ground for what has become a huge breakdown of our ethical and moral perspective in the United States in terms of the way we treat each other personally, and the way we act frequently as a country in regard to policies that are integral to our relationship with other countries, and the reality is “Puff” moves people, adults — it’s not a children’s song; it was not written for children — but it has a special appeal for children. “Puff, The Magic Dragon” relies for its strength on its heart, on the fact that it elicits from the listener something that ennobles them — empathy. We care about Puff, we are sad to see Jackie Paper leave, we are confused about this, but most important we have our hearts opened, and opening the heart is essential to creating a space for kids to accept each other, respect each other, embrace each other and learn at the root of it, the social dimensions of caring that lie at the heart of what democracy is founded on. So that if we want a country in which we savagely try to grab whatever piece of the pie is left with little interest or feelings for those who are suffering, who are hungry, who are sick, who are left out, we lose.
Not just our goodness, we remain a country with a bruised heart and and we fail to educate our children in ways that would allow them to foster the very basis of what democracy is about and what America is supposed to be about. We are supposed to be about caring, justice, generosity of spirit, equity and yet we see our culture descending into selfishness and greed. We are astonished at people who say, I don’t care about these people who are sick, let them die.
We see kids, who, with no motivation save for this habit of cruelty, cyber-bully a child so that she/he considers suicide or acts on that horrific unimaginable impulse. We are astonished when we see this, but others are saying, “So what, I’ve got my money, I’ve got my fame (Paris Hilton, not Nobel Laureate fame), I’ve got my power” — not the power of statesperson, but the power of a person to intimidate and act in a rude, dismissive, cruel fashion. What has happened to our humanity? Our humanity has lost the very thing, not entirely, but lost a great deal of what Puff gives us: compassion, empathy. And so when we see these children singing the song — and I see the parents bringing the children and they sit down on the floor — what I feel is, this is my America. “Puff” is not just — it’s not about a dragon — it could of been “Puff the Magic Badger.” It’s about a relationship, the humanity a boy and a creature share together. “A dragon does live forever” — these fabulous mythologies stay, but we grow up.
If there’s one thing I can do in my life before I have to say I can’t do this work anymore — that I gotta leave it to other people — it’s to establish the effort to create for children a way of life that frees them from this legacy of hatred and fear so that they can do a hell of a lot better than we have. We cannot break this legacy with the intellect alone, we cannot give this to the next generation unless we touch their hearts and “Puff The Magic Dragon” — that’s it — it’s part of that legacy. Puff is not about a dragon. It’s about caring. And a relationship. But, if we grow up and we want our dragons to be strong than we have to believe that the impossible or the improbable – what does that mean? That means a peaceful world, so our dragon becomes our grown up ideals and our pursuit of these ideals is what emanates from a mature love of our dragons.
RG: “Puff” is connected to the childhood of millions of people. Have you ever had a time, almost as written in the song, where you grew out of the song for awhile? You have sung it thousands of times, tens of thousands, how have you kept connected to the song? How do you stay in the moment with it, as the kids who will hear it for the first time when they read your new book and listen to the CD?
PY: Because I don’t sing in a vacuum, because it’s a relationship between me and the audience, all of my songs are about feeling the feedback of what they feel. How do you not get bored with hugging your child? What keeps you interested in doing that? “Puff” is a hug, it’s heart-fulling hug.
RG: What was it like working with Bruce Foster who has created such a beautiful and inspiring depiction of Puff, The Magic Dragon? What was it like to open the finished book for the first time and see the images pop-up?
PY: I was astonished at some of the ways in which he created not just a stage set, but actual movement within it. My favorite thing is the movement of the pirate, I play with it like a child, moving it back and forth, up and down, again and again, some of these moving images are astonishing.
RG: When did you learn to sing and play guitar? Have you focused on making sure music was part of your children’s and grandchildren’s lives?
PY: I studied the violin when I was young for a couple of years. I grew up with folk music in the house and I went to the High School of Music and Art.
RG: Oh, I went to Performing Arts, now they are combined and it’s LaGuardia School of the Arts at Lincoln Center.
PY: Yes, I was at the original up on 135th Street — the castle — and it was the world towards which I wanted us to move. I went as an art major.
I have 4 illustrated books of traditional songs published with 12 songs a piece, and a Puff boo and also a Day Is Done book. I wanted to make sure that all of these songs could be made available free for any educator working with children. At