“Whatever you do, find ways to read poetry. Eat it, drink it, enjoy it, and share it.”
Poetry is terribly misunderstood. Most of us were introduced to complex, often incomprehensible poetry when we were in school and learned quickly to dislike it. But poetry doesn’t have to be a jungle of symbolism and metaphor, heavy with hidden meaning.
Poetry can be incredibly accessible and enjoyable. In fact, poetry is often the first encounter our children have with literature. Didn’t most of us recite “Little Miss Muffet” and “Humpty Dumpty” to our little ones? Don’t we chant “Star bright, star light, first star I’ve seen tonight” when we look out at the night sky? Children have a natural ear for poetry. Let me encourage you to nurture the love of poetry in your children rather than skipping poetry altogether because of a bad experience you may have had in school.
Before I discuss some of my favorite books written specifically for children, let me emphasize that you don’t have to stick with “kids’ poetry” when reading to your children. In other words, some poets write specifically for a younger audience—much of Jack Prelutsky, for example. But poetry doesn’t have to rhyme and be about cute kitties or dog poop to appeal to children (although rhyming bodily functions certainly can heighten a child’s appreciation of poetry).
Along those lines, I highly recommend A Treasury of Poetry for Young People. This contains poems selected with a younger audience (5th grade and up) in mind by some of the best-known poets: Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There is a two or three page introduction of each author before his/her section of poetry. The illustrations are simple and beautiful. Notes at the bottom of each page give a very brief commentary on each poem. For example, at the end of the familiar Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” the note simply states: “We all know the feel of a cool autumn day, when we can shuffle our feet through fallen leaves and kick up the smells of the season. This is a poem about such a walk, about coming to a fork in the path, and about making choices in our lives.”
For a wider variety of poets, I recommend the Poetry for Young People Series. These books are also published by Sterling Publishing, like the one above, but each books features a different poet. Scholastic often has these titles in their monthly sale flyers for home or school. Featured authors include: Robert Browning, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and all the ones mentioned above.
One more collection I really love for kids: The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children’s Poems, edited by Donald Hall. This one takes a chronological approach to American poetry, beginning with the Native American cradle song, “Chant to the Fire-Fly” and ending with the contemporary poetry of Sandra Cisneros and Janet S. Wong. I love the diversity offered in this collection. And one of my personal favorites is included in this anthology: Nikki Giovanni’s “Knoxville, Tennessee.” Even if you don’t live around these parts, you and your children can surely relate to Giovanni’s ode to the pure bliss of summertime.
Of course, you can get out your old copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and just pick out age-appropriate poems from some of the world’s best poets of all time. What? You don’t have an old Norton’s Anthology? Run to your nearest used bookstore or Goodwill and pick one up. Please. You should be able to pick one up for a couple of dollars, and you’ll have hundreds of poems at your fingertips.
Moving on to poetry written specifically for children, I present my four favorites: Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Eve Merriam, and Valerie Worth.
Does anyone not know Shel Silverstein‘s works? Silverstein, who died in 1999, is the king of children’s poetry. His website is great fun, and you can read all about his works there. You local library will have every book; better yet, buy at least a couple. No family library can possibly be complete with A Light in the Attic or Where the Sidewalk Ends. If your kids hear the word “poetry” and cover their ears, try reading “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out’ to them. They will want to hear more.
Jack Prelutsky also has a gift for luring children in with the absurd. He knows how to engage children with the silly, absurd, and irresistibly disgusting:
you’re luscious and succulent
any old time,
there’s hardly a thing
that is nearly as grand
as a dollop of slime
in the palm of my hand.
Prelutsky also has a great website, where you can read all about him and his books and get teaching ideas, too.
The poet Eve Merriam loved language—loved the sound of words alone and in combination with other words. When I read her poetry, I imagine how carefully she chose each word. From her widely anthologized “Lullaby”:
Purple as a king’s cape
Purple as a grape.
Purple for the evening
When daylight is leaving.
Soft and purry,
Gentle and furry,
I have a cassette tape of Merriam reading some of her poetry; when my oldest was little, this was one of his favorites. Check out your local library or amazon.com for poetry by Eve Merriam, including You Be Good and I’ll Be Night and A Sky Full of Poems.
One last poet who might be less familiar but who also takes great care in crafting poetry: Valerie Worth. In the wonderful All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Worth turns every day things—animal, vegetable and mineral—into exquisite works of art. This is a fantastic collection for teaching personification, metaphor and simile, and for emphasizing the power of observation and the craft of language.
is a leaping fire
to go near,
But it will still
in warm yellow squares
on the floor
lie a flat
the cat can curl
This is just a tiny taste of the wonderful feast that is the world of poetry. Surf the internet and shuffle through the library bookshelves. If you had a bad experience with poetry in your own schooling, try again—with your child. I promise, you’ll both find something you love.
Sarah Small has her master’s degree in creative writing and enjoys writing and reading poetry. She writes about homeschooling, family, and life in general at SmallWorld at Home. She also offers SmallWorld’s WordSmithery, an ongoing series of free creative writing lessons. (Photo credit: Catnip Studio.)