Poetry for Children: Getting Started

Poetry for Children: Getting Started


GeekLady asked me about recommendations for poetry for children. How do you get started with introducing children to poetry? I’m not an expert, just a poetry-loving mother for five, but here is the list of books we own and a bit about what I like and dislike about them. And a few observations about what seems to work for us. Your mileage may vary because of course all children are different and what will appeal to one will leave another cold.

Nursery Rhymes

First, if you haven’t already got a Mother Goose collection, acquire one or two good volumes of nursery rhymes and read them over and over again until they had them all almost perfectly memorized. This is wonderful to do with a two or three year-old. At least all of my kids have adored nursery rhymes at about that age. If your child is older than two or three, never fear, it’s never too late to start with poetry.

I do prefer to start with nursery rhymes, however, unless your child is too old to enjoy them. And by that I mean not that you think the child is too old but that the child refuses to sit through them. And even then I’d try to find some sneaky way of getting them in. Read them to younger siblings, memorize them and recite them to yourself, something. Anything. In my not-so-humble opinion, all children, all people should know a bunch of nursery rhymes by heart. And many experts agree with me.

I loved reading through books of nursery rhymes long after I was an independent reader and even later in high school and college. And you know you appreciate a lot of adult literature much, much more if you know the nursery rhymes they are riffing on: Orwell plays with “Oranges and Lemons” in 1984, Eliot with “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” in his poem “The Hollow Men,” Huxley with “Georgie Porgie” in Brave New World, to name just the first three examples that popped into my head. I’d venture to say that you aren’t fully literate in the English language if you don’t know a good selection of nursery rhymes.

I tend to recite my stock of them at random times through the day. When it rains I chant: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.” And when I spot the moon: “I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me.” They just are a part of the way I experience the world and it’s fun to share that with my kids now.

We have several different nursery rhyme books. I prefer the ones with just one poem or two per page. The ones that cluster half a down on a page give me a headache. Otherwise, I like to choose by the quality of the illustrations. Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose is a nice collection. So is Michael Hague’s Mother Goose. I’m not such a big fan of the Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells one, Here Comes Mother Goose , but Ben loved it to death. Literally. I think I need to buy a new copy for Lucy. (Anthony didn’t seem to go through as much of a nursery rhyme phase as the others did. Bella, Sophie, and Ben all had long periods of nursery rhyme glut.) Finally, I really love Little Songs of Long Ago illustrated by Henriette Willebeek Le Mair. The pictures are tranquil and delicate and the layout, the font, everything about this book is restful and almost dreamy.

I’ve got a few more collections, but those are the favorites. I prefer my Mother Goose with one or two poems per page instead of the sprinkled approach. It means fewer poems in the anthology, but the pages feel much less cluttered. Plus not all Mother Goose rhymes are as good. I do have one fairly completist collection in our library with many poems scattered over each page so we have a sense of the breadth of nursery rhymes, but for every day use I prefer a more selective anthology.

Also, I like Tomie’s Little Mother Goose board book just because it is sturdy. The other day Bella and Sophie were reading it aloud in the car.

Poetry Anthologies

After acquiring and reading nursery rhymes, you’re ready to move on to more meaty poetry. There are so many good books, I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with too many suggestions, but I also don’t want to skip any good ones. Let’s start with poetry anthologies. Just one or two of these is really all you need to have in your home library. Read them over and over and let the poems settle into your bones. Decide which are your favorites and which are your child’s favorites. Try to memorize one and recite it for your child. Repeat it until they have it memorized too.

1. The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems

This anthology is just gorgeous. The illustrations are some of my favorite in any picture book. The selection is quite good. These are not poems written explicitly for children so much as poems that children may enjoy.

I want to read this book as much as the kids do if not more. And I have a tendency to pull it out and inflict poetry on them. In my opinion that alone makes it worth its weight in gold. I am so very glad I bought it.

2. Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant illustrated by Barbara McClintock

This is an odd idiosyncratic anthology of poems, but I like it. These are the poems Natalie Merchant shared with her daughter. I don’t know f she used to sing them to her daughter or if the songs came later, I suspect the former. But the book came with a cd of Merchant singing the songs. (You can also buy just the music without the book: Leave Your Sleep (2CD)) And it’s delightful. For a child who is resistant to poetry, these songs might help bridge the gap. I love everything Barbara McClintock does. Her illustrations are delightful. My children have enjoyed both book and cd.

3. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

This isn’t one of my favorites because it suffers from the disease of cluttering the page with too many poems. But we dip into it occasionally and I do like the selection. Many poems grouped by theme. But there’s nothing in this collection to allure the reader, to seduce you into picking up the book and diving in. It’s the kind of book I’d probably have read from cover to cover as a child just because it was there, but as an adult I skip over it without even thinking about it. And I don’t find that my children often pull it off the shelf.

Poetry Collections

Collections by a single author. Oh there are so many good ones.

1. When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne. (Or you can buy them both in one volume, which is what I have: The World of Christopher Robin: The Complete When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six (Winnie-the-Pooh))

Both volumes are essential for the well-stocked library. As essential as the complete Winnie the Pooh stories. (You can’t miss those for Pooh is himself a poet, and one that the child can easily relate to.) Milne’s verse is delightful to the ear, whimsical. Very appealing to children and adults too. Oh and the Ernest Shepard illustrations are wonderful too. I also have an audio recording of a selection of the poems.

2. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Eliot’s collection of cat poems is really a must-have. It’s whimsical and delightful as are Edward Gorey’s illustrations. And it’s Eliot! What’s not to love? Eliot has this knack of making you feel something profound is lurking just below the surface, even in his nonsense verse. I’m more than half convinced you can read them as allegory.

And if Cats is your thing (I apologize to Andrew Loyd Webber fans but detest it) then the added bonus is listening to the soundtrack and watching a performance. I will try not to rant about how I think it’s an abomination, but I can’t hold back entirely.

3. A Child’s Calendar by John Updike illustrated by Trina Schartt Hyman

This is one of my favorite poetry books ever. The poems, one for each month, are beautiful and each perfectly captures the season. Trina Schartt Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators. The pictures are just perfect, following four children from two families as they move through the seasons.

4. When Daddy Prays by Nikki Grimes illustrated by Tim Ladwig

This is a great anthology for fathers to read with their children. (Mothers can read it too, of course, but I think it will really hit fathers in a special way.) All of the poems are written with child as narrator. A child trying to understand the world through his father’s eyes. A child who observes his father praying in all sorts of situations and absorbing quietly various lessons. Dom really likes this one. My kids love it too. Tim Ladwig’s illustrations are lovely.

5. A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

I don’t own copies of these and I need to get them at some point. These were beloved anthologies when I was a child. Funny, melancholy, and delightful by turn.

6. If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky

A collection of haiku about animals. Delightful. And the kids have fun trying to guess the animals.

Poetry Picture Books

A single poem illustrated beautifully can lead to long, lingering meditation and to memorization. A collection of poems on a theme is a delight.

1. Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost illustrated by Susan Jeffers

2. Psalm Twenty-Three illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Psalms are poetry. This is perhaps the best known and most beloved psalm and it’s one that speaks to children, who are naturally drawn to the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In this version Ladwig’s illustrations follow a little boy and girl through their day from morning wake up to school and home again to nighttime slumber. They live in a gritty, inner city neighborhood with their grandparents and on their walk to and from school confront fierce looking characters and protective crossing guards and scary trucks. They play in a park and an abandoned lot and a water filled gutter and pass by a church with a lovely Good Shepherd window. The pictures are thematically linked with the verses of the psalm.

3. Hist Whist by e.e. cummings illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

This is an absolute family favorite. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but the poem has grown on me and Isabella, Sophia, and I have all memorized it. Cumming’s language is delightful and oh it’s so fun to recite. It’s especially topical for Halloween. This book might seem like it could be scary and on the first read it is a bit, but at the end the devils and witches and other spooks are revealed to be little children in costumes.

4. Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas illustrated by Murray Kimber.

I don’t own this but it’s on my wish list. I love the poem and while it’s in the Barefoot Book, I’d love to have this book as well.

Poetry for Young People

An excellent series of books about a single author. I understand there are some books in the series that are more topical and anthologize multiple authors, but I haven’t seen them.

Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost is my favorite

We also have Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson

Poetry for Young People: Edward Lear, which to be honest I don’t actually like very much.

Poetry for Young People: Edgar Allan Poe

Poetry for Young People: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There are a whole bunch more. Definitely worth adding to your library.

Books about Poetry

The books in this section are not poetry books per se, but story books about poetry. Children learn better through stories than through textbooks. Each of these stories introduces various elements of poetry in a way that small children can grasp and older children can ponder and even adults can appreciate.

1. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell and Maurice Sendak

This is more for slightly older kids. A story about a little bat who stays awake during the day and falls in love with the mockingbird’s song and decides he wants to try to do that. He’s a poet who has a hard time finding an audience for his verse and therein lies a great deal of the charm. The prose story is punctuated by the bat’s lyric verse. The poems are beautiful word pictures. Just as delightful are the various conversations about what poetry is as the bat tries to understand this strange impulse and to communicate his love of poetry with the other animals. It’s a good book for introducing children who might be a little bit resistant to poetry because it happens in the context of a story. It’s a great book for beginning to talk about what poetry is, what poets do. Also, the illustrations by Sendak are delightful. I’d buy the book for them alone.

2. Emily by Michael Bedard illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Like The Bat Poet, I think this is a good one for talking about what a poem is, what a poet does. The little girl who is the narrator has just moved into the house across the street from famous reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. Her mother is invited to come and play piano for Emily, also known as “The Myth.” The girl meets Emily, of course, and starts to learn a little about poetry. What I really love is how the prose narrative is infused with images and phrases that echo Dickinson’s poetry, as if the girl were somehow inside a poem.

3. The Mouse of Amherst is a longer book about Emily Dickinson. Its more of a short chapter book with illustrations than a picture book. Instead of the point of view of a girl, the narrator is a mouse. It’s a little reminiscent of the Bat Poet, the mouse discovers a vocation to poetry by imitating Dickinson.

4. A Snow Story by Melvin J.Leavitt, illustrated by Jo Ellen McAllister Stammen

This book is one of my favorites. There is no poetry in it at all, but the whole book is a sort of prose poem. The main character, Johnny, goes out on winter days when the snow is thick and even on the lake and he writes poems in the snow with his boots. No one in his very down to earth farming family understands him at all, even his wife just laughs. But everyone can see the effects of his poems. The book enters the realm of magical-realism as the snow melts and the runoff is swept into the river and then into the sea, various animals go crazy. Evidently they can read Johnny’s poems and the poems make them dance and appear crazy to everyone but Johnny.

What is poetry? It is rhythm and repetition. This book is episodic and the language is repetitive. It moves slowly and deliberately through each iteration. It is mystery and wonder. It can also be a little isolating to the poet or lover of poetry and the book acknowledges that Johnny seems to live in his own world and isn’t really understood. But he is loved and if his poems are not understood by his family, they are appreciated in a way.

My first review of this book is here.

Please chime in with your favorite poetry books in the comments.

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  • We started girls at age four memorizing a four-line nursery rhyme every week or so. Went through a whole book of them over the course of a year or two. From there, short children’s poems. And a couple of years they were reciting Wordsworth and James Whitcomb Riley. If you are patient and spend a lot of time having fun with short rhymes (“Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub, and who do you think they be? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – turn them out, knaves all three!”) then a few years later you can do quite a bit. I think the key is not to go too fast. A lot of confidence and skill is built with those simple nursery rhymes — keep going until you run out of nursery rhymes!

    • For me memorizing nursery rhymes has something of an organic, unplanned quality to it. We read them obsessively and I recite them unconsciously and somehow they seem absorbed by osmosis. Actually, I’m only sure that worked with Bella who has an excellent memory and a mind like a little sponge, I haven’t really ever bothered to check if the other kids know them or not. I suppose I should see if they likewise know their nursery rhymes, huh?

  • Oh, hey, that’s the copy of Fern Hill that’s upstairs on Miriam’s bed! I want The Barefoot Book, and I hope to get it quite soon. We read A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Loius Stevenson, quite often. some of the poems are pretty old-fashioned, but Nat loves ‘The Land pf Counterpane” and “My Shadow”.

    • Kyra, Fern Hill wouldn’t be on my radar if not for you. I added that one because I recalled you recommended it and I wanted to get it. But even more so now that I’ve read it a few times out of The Barefoot Book.

  • We love Stevenson’s book of poems, and the version with Tasha Tudor’s illustrations helps hold my four year old boy’s attention. We just borrowed Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere from the library and that has been a big hit! May have to buy that one…also borrowed Hiawatha but we haven’t read it yet.

    Thanks for all the books you share here! I think you’ve mentioned the Natalie Merchant one before, and we love Barbara Cooney so that is going in the cart!

    Also on the nursery rhymes, we loved Truckery Rhymes, by Jon Scieszka. Takes the classic rhymes and makes them about trucks, perfect for truck obsessed little boys, and very funny!

    • You know I think I might even own the Stephenson book, I have to check. Yes we do but we almost never read it. Somehow it doesn’t really grab me and so it tends to just get left of the shelf. The illustrations in our edition are a collection of classic illustrations by a variety of artists.

  • Melanie, we grew up on a Child’s Garden of Verses, the Milne volumes and one you haven’t listed here but which is terrific: Poems to Read to the Very Young by Josette Frank & Eloise Wilkin. My aunt gave it to us when we were…uh, Very Young, because one of her college friends was the illustrator. Loved it as a kid, my kids loved it, and we often recite our favorites still. Fantastic volume for read-alouds.

  • We had one, now sadly deceased after much loving, called Marguerite Go Wash Your Feet, by Wallace Tripp. It was . . . for people with a weird sense of humor . . . but that’s us, so we adored it and memorized the whole thing, and lines and whole poems from it are still part of our family language.

    “When I sat next the Duchess at tea,
    It was just as I’d feared it would be.
    Her rumblings abdominal
    Were something phenomenal,
    And everyone thought it was me.”

    We have also loved Richard Wilbur’s Opposites books. I think now they’re collected into one volume, but we have old copies of the very slim Opposites and More Opposites. These are remarkable little poems based on what was apparently a real dinner-table game in the Wilbur household, where one person would think of a word, and everyone around the table would try to come up with the best opposite for it.

    The one I can think of off the top of my head:

    “What is the opposite of _string_?
    It’s _gnirts_, which doesn’t mean a thing.”

    Really little children don’t get these so much, but ours began to catch on to the joke around first grade or so. Again, now part of our family language.

  • The first book of poetry my kids loved was Animals Animals, poems selected and illustrated by Eric Carle. Five years later, it’s still probably the family favorite. They also love Tomie de Paola’s nursery rhymes and poems. My older kids laughed out loud through most of It’s Raining Pigs and Noodles by Jack Prelutsky. We also read lots of picture books that are poems, like The Seven Silly Eaters. I love to read my favorite poems aloud to the kids, even if they don’t understand them. They will one day, and they will remember I loved them.

    • We do have Animals, Animals. And Dragons, Dragons as well. See how I forgot books! I didn’t mention all the little kids books that are poems like Goodnight Moon and Seven Silly Eaters, but of course those do introduce children to rhyme and rhythm and narrative poetry.

  • I got a number of good anthologies for a quarter each that were being discarded at the library, including a fat one edited by Louis Untermeyer, Rainbow in the Sky. I also have some books that i loved when I was little, including Prayers from the Ark, and Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, which I used when I was in third grade in a special poetry unit study and is really excellent.

    • Oh I do have Prayers from the Ark! We binged on it a few years ago and I read most of it to Bella. But I’m not sure where the book is now. It might be shelved with the Rumer Godden books instead of with poetry.

  • This is just perfect Melanie! Thank you! Hey, do you have a poetry anthology you recommend for adults?