Poetry Power

Collecting Poetry A Few Great Poets Poetry Breaks Performing Poetry

Someone told me once, when you find a stone on the beach, it took about a million years to get there; stones don't have legs and feet, after all. A rock depends on all the forces of the universe to make it what it is and take it where it needs to go. It's the same with a poem. I open a book, and there is the poem, a poem in a book of a hundred poems, a book on a shelf of a hundred books, a shelf in a library of a thousand shelves. Like a stone on a shore, it is amazing that it made it there, it is amazing that it landed where I would pick it up...it does not exist to be recognized, it exists because it must exist, but in the reader there is the act of examining a poem, admiring the poem, or discarding the poem. When I read a poem, will I carry it with me, will I share it, or will I close the book and maybe the poem will drift in on the tide of time to the feet of another reader? A good poem, like a good rock, is a diamond and a miracle, in both it's creation and it's location. I never understand people who say they hate poetry and then turn around and say they love God, in any form. It's easy to believe in the power of something big, but when you can believe in something small, that's pretty divine.

This is why poetry is especially suited to children. If you think about the promise of reading as something that will help a child never to be lonely, you need to give a child poems to keep tucked away, to take out for warmth on a long walk to school across the snow or counting the minutes until you return home from work or waiting on the stairs in secret for a postman to deliver a package; those little moments of anticipation and vastness overwhelming to a child's spirit. Those moments need poems the same as a balloon needs a wrist to weigh it down, same as a pocket needs a penny. Poems are the cousins of songs, and are as necessary in the family of joy. How can they be included in daily life, and how can they be made special and celebrated?

Collecting Poetry

Kids love to collect baseball cards, beanie babies, rocks, autographs, Crazy Bones, chewed bubble-gum specimens...so why not poems? Anthologies are collections of poems by all different authors, and are great places to hunt. My most dog-eared are Talking to the Sun compiled by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell, Wider Than the Sky; Poems to Grow Up With compiled by Scott Elledge and Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child's Book of Poems selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers. Collections like these offer very general samplings and classic fare, but there are also smorgasbords suited to very specific tastes. For instance:

seasonal poetry anthologies...
Winter Poems selected by Barbara Rogasky
The Sky is Full of Song selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer
Ghost and Goose Bumps...Poems to Chill Your Bones selected by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray (one of my all-time favorite collections, pages loose from use)

cultural poem anthologies...
Cricket Never Does : A Collection of Haiku and Tanka collected by Myra Cohn Livingston, ilustrated by Kees De Kiefte
Pass It On: African American Poetry for Children selected by Wade Hudson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

anthologies about the environment...
The Earth Is Painted Green : A Garden of Poems About Our Planet selected by Barbara Brenner, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Earthways, Earthwise: Poems on Conservation selected by Judith Nicholls

anthologies about animals...
The Beauty of the Beast selected by Jack Prelutsky
Eric Carle's Animals, Animals selected by Eric Carle

anthologies about friends...
You And Me: Poems of Friendship selected and illustrated by Salley Mavor
Very Best (almost) Friends collected by Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Christine Davenier
I Like You, If You Like Me : Poems of Friendship collected by Myra Cohn Livingston

anthologies just for being a kid...
Oh, Grow up! Poems to Help You Survive Parents, Chores, School and Other Afflictions by Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott
Ten Second Rainshowers: Poems by Young People compiled by Sandford Lyne, illustrations by Virginia Halstead (outstanding!)

See what I mean? Dinosaurs...sports...pets...weather...space...travel...love...loss, you name it! There's an anthology and a poem for every person, place and thing; all the themes that exist within children's fiction and non-fiction exist within poetry, as do all the opportunities for interest and integration. Say, for instance, you're going to a dude ranch. Read Home on the Range: Cowboy Poetry selected by Paul Janeczko, ilustrated by Bernie Fuchs. (If you live on a ranch, read the poems to the horses.) Or say you are too tired to cook, and you order Chinese food. While you're waiting, share a few from Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty collected by Minfong Ho, illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng or Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes selected by Robert Wyndham, illustrated by Ed Young.

Once children have been exposed to both general and thematic anthologies and collections by individual authors, children can simply decorate a box, a large jar, a photo album or a notebook to keep their favorite findings, or they can compile and illustrate their own anthology, creating a volume that really reflects their own tastes and favorite themes and that they will want to return to again or again. Explore illustration with your aspiring anthologist by asking questions: should pictures be colorful, take up a whole page, or do such illustrations detract from the poems, are simple line illustrations more complimentary? Are photos more suitable, can I take them myself of cut them out of magazines? Explore choice and order: do I want to alternate long and short poems, what sort of mood do I want to evoke with the first poem, or with the last? There are no right answers, only judgement calls. Children will soon discover that besides the skill that goes into writing or reading poems, there is a certain talent to anthologizing poems.

A Few Great Poets (and Poetry Anthologists) for Children:

Shel Silverstein
Does he really need an introduction? He is the author of some of the most popular children's poetry ever written, compiled in his classic collections Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic and, his final collection, Falling Up. Baby boomers may also recognize his name from the bestselling parable The Giving Tree, which just recently celebrated it's 35th anniversary in print. He set the standard for children's poetry for a long time, with his shrewd and irreverent rhymes that spoke to the subversive and silly sides of children.

Jack Prelutsky
Prelutsky provided a new generation with fresh collections of verse. Following in Silverstein's footsteps, The New Kid on the Block (containing the classic poem "Homework! Oh, Homework!"), Something Big Has Been Here and A Pizza the Size of the Sun are generous volumes, sparsely illustrated in pen-and-ink by the gifted cartoonist James Stevenson. Prelutsky, however, is lighter in tone and is more prolific than Silverstein, adding to the shelf thematic tomes such as Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, The Dragons Are Singing Tonight and various holiday collections. His rhymes are impeccable, if at times repetetive and predictable. His kid-appeal is off the charts. Prelutsky's great and underrecognized strength, though, is as an anthologist. Take, for instance, his collections of anonymous poetry in Poems of A. Nonny Mouse and A. Nonny Mouse Writes Again, or the tribute to the animal kingdom, The Beauty of the Beast, benevolently illustrated in brush strokes by Meilo So, or the lively collection of poems "to tickle your funnybone," For Laughing Out Loud.

Jeff Moss and Douglas Florian
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?Obviously influenced by the poetic elite aforementioned, these fellows each had published thick volumes sparsely and cunningly illustrated in pen and ink, but like chickens and eggs, they have managed to maintain flavors all their own. Jeff Moss was a famous unknown poet before his first bestselling book The Butterfly Jar; he was the lyricist behind Sesame Street's hit song "Rubber Duckie." Douglas Florian exploded on to the children's poetry scene with his cymbal crash of a collection, Bing Bang Boing, and then with slimmer collections which pay tribute to beasts and birds such as Mammalabilia, Insectlopedia, On the Wing, In the Swim and his recent Lizards, Frogs and Polliwogs. Florian's word play and wit are truly original and makes for a nice bridge for children who never tire of "punch line" poetry yet are ready for a more literary flavor. (I said literary. Not stuffy. See his latest, Laugheteria, to see what I mean.)

Colin McNaughton
Perhaps a better name for this poet would be Colin McNaughty, as he is Prelutsky's talent with Dennis Rodman's testicles. Only British. (Do they play basketball in England much?) His poetry and zany artwork remind me of the "Wacky Packages" bubble-gum spoof cards of my childhood...do you remember them?...at once gross and strangely inspired. Children love his poetry as much as they love a poop joke. And that's a lot. Add sass to a poetry collection with Making Friends with Frankenstein, There's an Awful Lot of Weirdos in Our Neighborhood and Wish You Were Here (And I Wasn't).

Iona and Peter Opie
The Opies are renowned folklorists and smarty-pantses who compiled the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and a number of scholarly works, but children not yet attending the Ivy Leagues will thank them for collecting the schoolyard rhymes found in I Saw Esau, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Since Peter's passing in 1982, Iona gathered Mother Goose's finest feathers and nested them in the two volume set, My Mother Goose Library, illustrated by Rosemary Wells. While there are many lovely editions of Mother Goose available, this is the collection I have come to depend on and if you share only one or need a perfect baby shower gift, this is the set I recommend.

Mary Ann Hoberman
I was first awed by Hoberman's book-length poem A House is a House for Me because of the unrelenting brainstorming that occured within the poem. No, not brainstorm. Brain squall. Brain typhoon. The kind of creative thinking that I have really only seen in kids and geniuses. Hoberman's poems are each small testaments to the sensory and imaginative life of children, and a hundred of them are collected in The Llama Who Had No Pajamas, illustrated by Betty Fraser. Her collection of family poems, Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers illicited as much spirited recognition and discussion from fourth graders as well-written fiction. Hoberman is also a great justice-of-the-peace between poetry and the picture book form, creating perfect marriages in her books And To Think That We Thought That We'd Never Be Friends and One of Each.

Judy Sierra
I have had so much success with reading every single one of Judy Sierra's poems aloud that I have to say she is one of my very favorite poets. "I Am Looking for My Mother" in Sierra's book of penguin poems, Antarctic Antics, inspired cheers, laughter and requests for four re-readings from the second grade . Equally enjoyed was There's a Zoo in Room 22, a collection of class pet poems from A to Z, a feat that for most poets looks good on paper, but in Judy Sierra's case, actually looks good on paper. Her poems are polished kid-pleasers.

Paul Fleischman
Fleishman won the coveted 1989 Newbery Award for his inventive Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, a collection of verse from a entymologist's POV and illustrated by Eric Beddows. The poems are carefully scripted so two readers can share them aloud at once, indeed, making a joyful noise. More poems for two voices (bird voices, this time) are found in I Am Phoenix, and a small symphony for four pre-teens is composed in Big Talk, illustrated by Beppe Giacobbe.

Lee Bennett Hopkins
Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems; Extra Innings: Baseball Poems; Dinosaurs; Blast-Off! Poems About Space; School Supplies: A Book of Poems; My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States...with over seventy anthologies, mostly thematic, is it any wonder this premiere writer and collector of poetry is a favorite among teachers? It is somewhat ironic, since Hopkins himself didn't like school growing up. Perhaps this contributed to his unique flair for finding poetry that speaks to the reluctant reader, and in particular, he has the poetry skeleton key to little boys' hearts. One collection I share the most is Through Our Eyes: Poems and Pictures About Growing Up. It only contains sixteen poems, but it is a great example of the art of the anthologist, choosing just the right poems that work individually to create a new whole, like a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

Dennis Lee
Grab your jump rope! Lee captures all the rhythms of schoolyard chants and ties them up in poems. Among his many collections, Alligator Pie written in 1974 won the Canadian Library Associationšs Book of the Year and won a Hans Christian Andersen honor, and almost thirty years later, Lee proves hešs still got rhythm in his picture book collection Bubblegum Delicious. Even Mother Goose herself would find Leešs verse unflappable.
David McCord
McCord's book Every Time I Climb a Tree, illustrated by Marc Simont, is one of the most personally satisfying books of poetry I have ever read...or shared. It wins the "Poetry Book I Would Take With Me If I Was Trapped on an Island in a Lord-of-the-Flies-Type-Situation" award, because it has everything I need to keep children poetically engaged. For instance, children love to chorally scream to "Bananas and Cream," they memorize "The Pickety Fence" with the same vim that they memorize gangsta rap and become reflective with each line of "This is My Rock."

X.J. Kennedy
Move over, Edward Lear...Kennedy's "X" must stand for eXtra funny. Though Kennedy's own work from Brats, Fresh Brats and Drat These Brats is widely anthologized and his recent collection Exploding Gravy is no exception to his excellence, he and his wife demonstrated their own anthology aplomb with their collection Talking Like The Rain: A First Book of Poems and Knock at a Star : A Child's Introduction to Poetry.

Bruce Lansky
If you're not sure what poems your child will like, call on Lansky's collections. He works with hundreds of kids to rate thousands of poems, and uncovers specifically the ones that children ask to be read over and over again. He compiles these treasures into troves titled Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, A Bad Case of the Giggles, Miles of Smiles, Poetry Party, and No More Homework! No More Tests!: Kids' Favorite School Poems. Even the surliest sixth graders bare their braces in a smile when presented with Lanky's poetry prescriptions.

James Stevenson
The art of this accomplished cartoonist was made famous in The New Yorker magazine, but Stevenson eventually turned his attentions to younger audiences. He used his talents to create particularly droll picture books, chock full of clever dialogue and situations, often in comic book form. The big surprise came later in Stevensonšs career, when he proved himself to be a formidable childrenšs poet. His series of collections all with "corn" in the title, Just Around the Corner, Candy Corn, Sweet Corn, Cornflakes, Popcorn and Corn-Fed are all self-illustrated in his signature loose, sketchy style. The poems themselves are humble free verse observations, and will go far to show children that 1) poems donšt have to rhyme and 2) poems donšt have to be flowery and snooty. Children will look at the world in a new way after reading Stevensonšs poems, and begin to see that inspiration for their own poetry is in the simple things all around them. If I were to help you create a guest list for a poetry collection in your home, I would suggest that you should invite Arnold Adoff, Hilaire Belloc, Sylvia Cassedy, John Ciardi, William Cole, Walter De La Mare, Nikki Giovanni, Karla Kuskin, Myra Cohn Livingston, Eve Merriam, A. A. Milne, Lilian Moore, Ogden Nash, James Stevenson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Christina G. Rosetti, Stevie Smith, Judith Viorst, and Clyde Watson. For starters. If you prefer not to entertain such a large crowd in your home, they graciously await to make your acquaintance at the at the library at your convenience, along with these verse-filled volumes:

  1. Nonsense! He Yelled byRoger Eschbacher
  2. If I Were in Charge the Rules Would Be Different! by James Proimos
  3. Fairyland in Art and Poetry edited by The Metroplitan Museum of Art
  4. Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art edited by Belina Rochelle
  5. Hey You! C'Mere: A Poetry Slam by Elizabeth Swados
  6. Doodle Dandies by J. Patrick Lewis
  7. The Tamarindo Puppy and Other Poems by Charlotte Pomerantz
  8. A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me: A Book of Nonsense Verse collected and illustrated by Wallace Tripp
  9. Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
  10. Wider Than the Sky selected by Scott Elledge
  11. A New Treasury of Children's Poetry selected by JoAnna Cole
  12. Poems that Sing to You selected by Michael R. Strickland
  13. A Child's Calendar by John Updike, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
  14. Zoomrimes and Roomrimes by Sylvia Cassedy
  15. Poetry By Heart compiled by Liz Attenborough
  16. Days Like This by Simon James
  17. To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: A Child's Book of Rhymes by William Shakespeare, illustrated by James Mayhew
  18. Something Rich and Strange: A Treasury of Shakespeare's Verse illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
  19. Around My Room by William Jay Smith, illsutrated by Erik Blegvad
  20. The Book of Giving: Poems of Thanks, Praise and Celebration collected and illustrated by Kay Chorao
  21. In Every Tiny Grain of Sand: A Child's Book of Prayers and Praise collected by Reeve Lindbergh
  22. Love's a Sweet and Father Fox's Pennyrhymes by Clyde and Wendy Watson
  23. It's About Dogs by Tony Johnston
  24. Granny Will Your Dog Bite and Other Mountain Rhymes collected by Gerald Milnes, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (oh, I love this one! I use it with babies whenever I need a break from Mother Goose.)
  25. Dragonfly on My Shoulder translated by Sylvia Cassedy and Kunihiro Suetake, illustrated by Molly Bang
  26. In A Spring Garden edited by Richard Lewis, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
  27. I'm Small and Other Verses by Lilian Moore
  28. What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye
  29. A Rocket in My Pocket : The Rhymes and Chants of Young Americans collected by Carl Withers
  30. Lunch Box Mail by Jenny Whitehead
  31. Little Dog Poems by Kristine O'Connell George (check out her great poetry site!)
  32. A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems selected by Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka
  33. Splish Splash by Joan Bransfield Graham

Poetry virgins, gather ye children's trade collections while ye may! Poetry books can go out of print very quickly, but they can be rescued and re-loved through a used book search at Addall.com. Don't forget, new and outstanding poetry releases are always found in Don't Miss and the Don't Miss Non-Fiction Archives. And really, don't miss! People go to all sorts of lengths to share the best of books with children. But if I could only have one shelf of books from only one genre and still meet that goal of a life-long love of language and literature, that shelf would be POETRY!

Poetry Breaks

Poems given as presents, rolled and tied with pretty ribbon are easy to sneak into children's coat pockets and lunch bags. Haiku fit very nicely into fortune cookies (click here for a great recipe). As a teacher, I also made a "poem of the week" poster that I hung in the room with a file attached that I filled with copies of a favorite poem. This is also something a parent can make and take on as a volunteer task in a classroom. Some children came to look forward to the "poem of the week." So much of what we do as adults is with the vim of a Seventh Day Adventist pounding on the child's door with a hand full of pamphlets, and then we wonder why children sometimes hesitate to answer the door. I think there was something nice about making the word of poetry available and letting that be the end of it, freeing children from the overbearing dreadfulness of adult suggestion and allowing them to choose to take one.

But as adults, we are bigger than they are (ha ha) and so we can bang on their doors if we see fit; the trick, I guess, is doing it with panache. The legendary librarian Caroline Feller Bauer suggested knocking softly and carrying a big sign that says "Poetry Break," and interrupt all sorts of mundane activities and routines by holding up the sign and reciting poetry. Bauer generously granted permission for people to non-commercially reproduce the illustrations from her book The Poetry Break (expensive, but also available at the library) for use in non-commercial, educational activities, so you can get the drawings enlarged at the copy shop, color them in, put them on poster board and voila! Attach a clear pocket to the back of the sign so you can slip a poem in and read it. I often used my poetry break sign when I was teaching math, so children would think of poetry as an interruption of math skills and therefore be forever enamored with it. As a librarian, I played the wandering poetry minstrel, briefly popping in to classrooms for a poetry break...this is another great job for a parent volunteer. Keep in mind that poetry breaks also work great ouside of school: pop in at bathtime, defer dinner or hop in front of the t.v. Encourage your children to do the same. Poetry breaks are also exciting in the supermarket checkout line...the airport...the bank...the playground. Too embarassed? Too shy? Worried people will think you rhyme with "crazy"? Let's call "fun" an approximate rhyme for crazy, and admit that we all could use a poetry break (and as usual, if it's going to get done you're probably the one who is going to have to do it). Don't worry, your children will love you for it, especially if you do it before they hit puberty. After they hit puberty, Poetry Patrols can be initiated at the high school level through literary clubs, to make sure poetry is infused in every nook and cranny. Through the "Poetry Break," verse can serve as a public attention-getter, hopefully in lieu of a painful body piercing.

Performing Poetry

Explore poetry as entertainment! Less involved and equally fun as a storytelling festival is an evening of poetry recitations, in which children step to a mike in turn to share verse from memory. Many of the same elements of storytelling come into play: pacing, expression, voice projection, body language, eye contact and text recall. The difference is really in the memorization as opposed to the looser interpretations in storytelling; in poetry, every word was chosen with care by the author, and must be remembered and recited to honor the literary integrity. I found bed or trampoline bouncing or rope-jumping to be helpful when memorizing poetry. Children may bounce or jump as long as they correctly remember the poem (I learned Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" this way when I was eleven, and it still works). Just make sure some rehearsals are spent with both feet on the ground, or children will still be bouncing as they present you may have a very seasick audience. Of course, you can cheat and have a poetry reading, where the poems aren't memorized. Sometimes this is fine, especially if you have a long or erudite poems like Rudyard Kipling's "If," Robert Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin," Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" or Colderidge's "Kubla Khan." Consider a "reader's theater" approach to such ventures in verse, but I still maintain at least some of the presentations should be from memory. Why? It's the difference between margarine and butter. There's something really rich about a kid looking you in the eye and hitting you with iambic pentameter. I remember in particular torturing a small class of behaviorally disordered and underachieving sixth grade boys by making them memorize a poem every week, but it started to grow on them after the villain's anthem, "The Ballad of Captain Kidd." One morning soon after, one of the boys brought the rest to tears with his recitation of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. I don't remember the boy's real name. After the recitation, he was known as "Miles To Go."

A Few Favorite Poems for Poetry Performance
(found in collections recommended here and/or found in the Poetry Archives):

Best book about
teaching poetry to kids!
"I Am Cherry Alive, The Little Girl Sang" by Delmore Schwartz
"Juke Box Love Song" or "Harlem" by Langston Hughes
"The cockroach who had been to hell" by Don Marquis
"The Night Will Never Stay" by Eleanor Farjeon
"Cynthia in the Snow" by Gwendolyn Brooks
"This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams
"Too Many Daves" by Dr. Seuss
"Bats" by Randall Jarrell
"Incident" by Countee Cullen
"Some Things Don't Make Any Sense at All" by Judith Viorst
"My Heart Leaps Up" by William Wordsworth
"The Tyger" by William Blake
"Obedience" by A.A. Milne
"The 1st" by Lucille Clifton
"17 Kings and 42 Elephants" by Margaret Mahy
"Hiawatha's Childhood" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Great fiction about
a boy who comes to
love poetry!
"O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman
"My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke
"Homework! Oh, Homework!" by Jack Prelutsky
"Ode" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy
"From a Childhood" by Rainer Maria Rilke

A poetry reading or recitation is a lovely program to deliver to older audiences (or poetry performances can be intergenerational if you invite young and old to participate). A local coffee shop would probably oblige to sponsor it, especially if there's media involved; call the community paper a week in advance for coverage. Dress your storytellers as beatnicks for added java flavor, daddy-o. Or, for an evening of refinement (and a great Valentine's Day fundraiser), make it a formal affair. Invite everyone to get those fancy gowns and tuxes out of mothballs, break out a mirrored ball and toast love poetry with sparkling white grape juice. Or recite poems by Anonymous wearing mystery masks. Remember, though, you don't need a theme; for an eclectic program, mix the sad with the funny and the shocking with the sweet, and warn the audience to buckle their seat belts for a ride on and off the track of the rhyming rollercoaster.

And be sure to e-mail me with your success stories. Yes, they can be in free verse.

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