Why poetry? There are so many reasons out there. It is perfect for reading aloud. Like music, the rhythm and beauty of it taps into something in the human soul. It will help your child recognize patterns and increase their vocabulary. It sometimes breaks the rules, but you have to understand the rules (of grammar) to break them. It may also give them the words to express an emotion they have experienced.
Here are two of the main reasons I enjoy reading poetry with my children:
- Poetry is fun. If taught to enjoy it as it is meant to be enjoyed at a young age, children will not think of poetry as boring.
- Poetry makes you think. It often plays with an idea or makes you see something in a way you have never seen it before. Growing up today, kids are constantly bombarded with media they are watching passively, or they are actively participating in a virtual world that can make them forget the real world and people around them. I want sometimes to slow my kids down, have them hold a book, and notice the world in a new way.
Many children’s books are written in verse, of course, but sometimes the rhythm seems really forced and unnatural because it can be really hard to write well in verse.
01. Board Books
For toddlers, it’s hard to beat Sandra Boynton. I have Belly Button Book! and The Going to Bed Book memorized; we read them so often. Other favorites include Happy Hippo, Angry Duck (about emotions) and But Not the Hippopotamus (for those times when your child is feeling left out).
“And she just doesn’t know -
Should she stay? Should she go?
But YES the Hippopotamus!”
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. This cute story (with a few animal noises thrown in) is about friendliness, even when others are less than kind to you. It is accompanied by gorgeous, autumnal illustrations from Jill McElmurray. The rhythm is also spot on:
“Horn went ‘Beep!’
you ever heard.”
There’s also a sequel called Little Blue Truck Leads the Way in which Blue breaks up a traffic jam in the big city by getting everyone to work together.
02. Picture Books
I first stumbled across Iggy Peck, Architect in a toy store years ago. It caught my eye because of my fascination with architecture and because of David Roberts’s awesome illustrations. Then, on the second and third pages, I read these words:
“'Good Gracious, Ignacious!’ his mother exclaimed.
‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!
But her smile faded fast as a light wind blew past
and she realized those diapers weren’t clean
‘Ignacious, my son! What on Earth have you done?
That’s disgusting and nasty! It stinks!'
But Iggy was gone. He was out on the lawn
using dirt clods to build a great Sphinx.”
And I said to myself, “I have to buy this book.” Iggy builds structures with everything he can find, whether that’s food, chalk, shoes, or dirty diapers. The fun of the story is echoed in the bounce of the words: “He built churches and chapels from peaches and apples….” Beaty’s best-selling book was soon followed by two more. Iggy and his classmates and neighbors, Rosie and Ada, all follow their dreams with passion and determination. The second two celebrate women in science, but Iggy is still my favorite.
03. Poetry Books and Collections
As a kid, I read Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein over and over again. Silverstein’s silly, irreverent poetry has great appeal for children. There are jokes throughout the poems, like a knock-knock joke gone wrong (reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy’s famous “Who’s on first?” routine), and lessons as well, where kids learn what happens when a little girl never takes the garbage out or what happens when a girl who is never satisfied gets to Heaven.
Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems by Bob Raczka
These poems are short, making them ideal for reluctant readers. But they are also very clever word puzzles. To read some of them you have to think for a moment to figure out where to begin. There are poems shaped like a clock, hopscotch, a crossword, dominoes, a maze, and more. They teach kids how fun it is to play with words.
These books combine Eric Carle’s illustrations with a variety of poems compiled by Laura Whipple. The poems are all short and include bible verses, haikus, and American Indian proverbs, as well as short poems by poets ranging from Shakespeare to Jack Prelutsky.
The second book includes a lot of mythological creatures and even gods and frequently plays with the ideas of existence and possibility. I think it is only fair to mention that there are a couple of nude mermaids and centaurs in that book (in Carle’s usual art style, though, so not highly explicit). There are notes in the back about each creature.
All of Calef Brown’s book are great for kids, but these two are our favorites. When we saw Calef Brown at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., we already had a copy of his best-selling Flamingos on the Roof for him to sign. He gave his presentation almost entirely in verse. He spoke of his fondness for the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear (in whose tradition he follows) and his fondness for combining disparate things, as he does in the poem “Allicatter Gatorpillar” (which of course turns into an “Allibutter Gatorfly”). When he signed my daughter’s book, he asked her what she wanted him to draw, and so we have a Monkey-flower from Calef Brown. This signature speaks to his abundant imagination which is present in all his books.
Hypnotize a Tiger has an entire section of “Word Crashes” with words like “condescendinglue,” “ostentatiousalamander,” and “beatnikangaroo.” His poetry is full of jokes and wordplay that appeal to a wide audience, but also appeal to that group so often full of reluctant readers, six- to eight-year-old boys. Here is just the first part of “Icarus Delivered”:
“Before there was Christmas
and Old St. Nicholas,
the legendary Icarus
flew from the Acropolis
to every town and metropolis,
delivering pickled licorice
to the fickle populace.”
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
Susan Jeffers uses mostly white, greys, and browns to capture the peace, calm, and mystery of the snow-covered woods. She shows an old man (who looks slightly like Santa Claus) in a horse-drawn sleigh, delighting in the woods, being watched by hidden animals, and leaving them gifts. It’s wonderful for Christmas or winter, even if you live far from snow like I do, a marvelous compliment to Frost’s mesmerizing poem.
I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups by Chris Harris (without William Shakespeare)
This book is similar to Shel Silverstein’s style of writing. The book is full of jokes, from the dust jacket flap to the dedication page to the index, outdex, acknowledgements, about the author and illustrator page, and the bickering between the author and illustrator Lane Smith. I love the visual play and lessons these books teach, particularly the lessons in “The Last Time I Ever Went Down to Breakfast Without Making My Bed” and the last lines of “Grown-Ups Are Better”:
“But children are gooder and grown-ups are badder
At just about all things that matter.”
For those of us who are shy or introverted, there’s the irony of “I’m Shy on the Outside”:
“I’m shy on the outside, but inside my head?
I’m not at all shy – I’m outgoing instead.”
And the irony of “I Love Quiet”:
“(And on we’ll go, just shy of violence,
Shouting in the name of silence.)”
Poetry Speaks to Children (book and CD)
The book contains 95 poems from 73 different poets, and on the CD you can hear 50 of those poems from 34 different poets read aloud. Many of the recordings are read by the poets themselves. The book indicates the track number for each poem on the recording. The poets include a wide variety. Here are just a few: Christina Rossetti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ogden Nash, Jane Yolen, Wallace Stevens, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexander Pope, Nikki Giovanni, E.E. Cummings, A.A. Milne, Roald Dahl, William Blake, Sonia Sanchez, and X.J. Kennedy. The following is from Richard Wilbur’s More Opposites:
“What is the opposite of pillow?
The answer, child, is armadillo.”
The book contains 51 poems from 42 different poets, and on the CD you can hear 30 of those poems read aloud. As editor Nikki Giovanni explains in the introduction, genuine hip hop is supposed to be bold and public but not cause shame or embarrassment or glorify bad behavior.
The list of writers includes many you may be used to thinking of as poets – such as Langston Hughes, Calef Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Walter Dean Myers, and Maya Angelou – but also includes many you may not be used to thinking of as such – such as A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, Sugarhill Gang, Queen Latifah, Mos Def, Common, Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is one recording that is repeated on both this CD and the Poetry Speaks to Children CD (Langston Hughes’s famous 1920’s poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”), but as it is a great recording of a great poem by a great poet, I do not mind the repetition. The following is from Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Dat Dere” about the questions his son was always asking:
“Hey, daddy, what dat dere
‘N’ why dat under der
‘N’ oh, daddy, oh, hey, daddy hey look it ober dere.”
Poetry for Young People series
Most of the books in this series introduce young people to an individual American or British poet. (There are, however, a couple of compilation books in the series, such as one on American Poetry and one on African American Poetry). The book begins with an introduction about the life of the poet. Each poem is accompanied by illustrations and a couple of sentences providing context for the poem. Difficult or unfamiliar words are explained below the poems. One of the notes from the Edgar Allan Poe book made me laugh. “This poem should encourage young poets. It proves that even a great poet can write a not-too-great poem.” These books are a great way to help your kids dive deeper into the poetry of one poet.
Any or all of the books above can help show your child that words can be fun and powerful, that life can be wondrous and beautiful. And that’s really what poetry is all about.
For further reading, here are some interesting articles on the web about kids and poetry: