I am constantly asked about poetry for children. What is there besides Shel Silverstein? My child loves to write poems, but where can he or she learn more about it? I am not a librarian, but I am more than happy to share a little of what I know is out there.
Let me begin by stating that children understand the essential elements of poetry much more than we realize. Babies learn to speak by repeating sounds, and they love to hear rhyme. Most children's first words are repeated over and over again, they love listening to repetitive sounds. It also seems to delight their listening parents. Children quite literally play with sound. Even the most accomplished poets are doing the same thing in a more sophisticated way.
Have you ever taken a toddler by the hand and tried to walk a few blocks? They notice everything: the sound of every passing car or insect, the smell of jessamine blooming on the neighbor's fence, a coin shining on the sidewalk. Children's senses inform them as they move through the world.
This is exactly how poets experience the world, too; which is why, when you read a poem, you can picture the images described or repeat a line over and over in your head, just to hear the sheer beauty of the sounds that the words make. These words, when strung together in a particular way, bring you joy. In some ways, it is that simple. Poetry must be enjoyed at this primal level. Children know and understand this without being told. Obviously, I am not talking about the subject or meaning of the poem.
Adults need to understand that children must maintain this joyful feeling about language if we want them to succeed as writers and readers in school and beyond. Poetry is a pretty easy way to maintain an essential appreciation of words and their meaning.
I think that Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and all the great children's writers who came before them, those whose brilliant methods of using rhyme to tell a story, will continue to teach and delight generations of young children. To celebrate National Poetry Month, one of our most esteemed publishers, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, has released a number of new books of children's poetry that warrant attention.
A contemporary poet for young children with whom some of you may be familiar already is writer Jack Prelutsky. He has two new illustrated books of children's poetry on the market: "Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing and More" and "Me I Am! Me I Am!"
The latter is a playful celebration of the individual and contains a subtle message about self-esteem with lines such as, "No other ME I AM can feel/the feelings I've within/no other ME I AM can fit/precisely in my skin."
What about a child who is a little bit older and looking for something more complex? The choices are numerous and excellent.
I recommend a new book called "Animal Poems" by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. These poems are written in the free verse style of much contemporary poetry. The poem "Wasp," for example, begins with the following stanza:
Like a dark
At the puddle's
The poems are not as profound as the poems about animals by a poet such as Mary Oliver, but they contain wonderfully exact imagery and will appeal to older children.
Farrar, Strauss also has published a collection of children's poems by the late Ted Hughes, who was the poet laureate of England. Hughes wrote poetry for children throughout his life. The collection, called "Collected Poems for Children," is usefully arranged: poems for very young children are placed at the beginning of the book, and the more sophisticated poems are placed at the end.
Caroline Kennedy has edited a couple of fantastic collections of poems. "A Family of Poems, My Favorite Poetry for Children" is an illustrated collection that I strongly recommend to every family with children. Kennedy, whose parents instilled a love of poetry in her as a young child, has carried this tradition over with her own family. In her introduction to "The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," Kennedy writes "One of the greatest gifts my brother and I received from my mother was her love of literature and language." This may the most important lesson of all: If we love something and we share that love with our children, chances are they will love it, too.
If you have a young aspiring poet who wants to learn more about writing poems, I suggest you sign him up for one of Jonathan Sanchez's writing camps. Write of Summer is in its fifth year, with a total of five different sessions in two locations for children ages 3-17. For further information, see www.beingsanchez.com. Click on the writing icon for details or talk to Sanchez at his new store, Blue Bicycle Books at 420 King St.