PORTLAND — Phillip Hoose admitted that his own commencement speaker, B.B. King, was a bit of a bust, possibly because he only offered up a song, rather than some sage advice, for the new graduates.

The blues great “wasn’t a helpful role model to me,” Hoose told nearly 900 University of Southern Maine graduates Saturday. “I remember he dragged a folding chair to the lip of the stage, plugged in Lucille (King’s guitar) and played our school’s fight song …. I’m not sure he ever said a word.”

That experience didn’t dissuade Hoose from singing part of his commencement address, but he did manage to offer some advice as well.

Hoose, who lives in Portland and said his two children have taken courses at USM, was given an honorary doctorate by the school, recognizing his literary success with books primarily for young readers, such as “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” and “Hey, Little Ant.”

The former won the National Book Award for young readers last fall — the first nonfiction book to ever take that honor — and the latter has sold a million copies.

Hoose used the example of “Hey, Little Ant,” to encourage the graduates to persevere in the face of rejection.

The book grew out of watching his daughter, Ruby, stomping on ants on the family’s driveway. He gently suggested she might want to put herself in the ant’s place, and as soon as she thought her father was out of sight, Ruby stopped.

Later, Hoose asked his oldest daughter, Hannah, to help him write a song about the experience and they came up with a conversation between an about-to-be squashed ant and the child about to do the stomping. The song premiered at a New Year’s Portland event and prompted a lot of discussion by children in the audience.

Hoose played it for USM grads, some of whom may have heard it as children, since Hoose and his daughter sang it often at events in Maine.

Hoose and his daughter figured there was a book in it, as well, but publisher after publisher said no. Too violent, they said, or too somber because of the life or death theme or too inconclusive, because it leaves the young reader pondering what they might do, rather than telling them the solution.

He finally found a publisher that, after much debate, put the book in print. The story has since been printed in 10 languages and eclipsed 1 million copies two years ago.

“No project ever taught me so much about how to work,” Hoose told the graduates. “To succeed, I had to be tenacious and adaptable.”

Hoose ended his address by encouraging the graduates to unplug occasionally, to ditch the iPod, iPhone, iPad and laptop and leave the office behind to explore the world.

He ended with a song: “Bring Back the 8-hour Day,” written by Charlie King, one of Hoose’s friends, which provides a suggestion that the graduates not be so consumed with working toward success that they forget to have a life.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]