Choosing High Quality Children's Literature/Poetry
Poetry is easy to recognize but hard to define. Let's start with Webster's definition, "The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." As lovely as that sounds, it may already say too much about this unique and unpredictable art form. Rhythm is important, perhaps the only element in poetry we can truly count on. Rhymes are optional, but some sort of rhythm to the reading of quality poetry will always almost exist. We can experience poetry through our eyes or our ears. It is usually meant to excite pleasure but it can also reflect sorrow or regret; meaningful but not necessarily pleasurable. That brings us to "beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts." Poetry often contains these things, but sometimes it can just be silly and simple. So, while Webster's Dictionary defines poetry in words far better than I could have come up with, it still may not include the full picture of what poetry is.
Types of Poetry
There are many types of poems and more types are just waiting to be invented. Maybe you or your children will be the ones to create a whole new style of poetry.
You write one word vertically and use the letters in that word as the first word in words you write horizontally. This is a fairly easy type of poem for kids to create and they can use their own name as the starting word or another word that they want to tell about.
These poems have five lines. The first and last lines are the same single word which will be the title (the last line could be a variation of the word). The second line is two words that describe the title. The third line is three words long and includes an action. The fourth line is four words long and express a feeling. These are also relatively simple poems for students to create and again they can use their own names for the titles.
Usually about nature, this style from Japan consists of three unrhymed lines. The first and last line contain five syllables and the middle line has seven syllables. These are easy in theory to fill in the syllables, but it can be hard for the students to actually make them meaningful.
There is no fixed pattern and it can, but does not have to, use rhyming words.
Lyric poems focus on feelings and visualizations rather than on a story.
Narrative poems tell a story.
While the structured style of Cinquains, Acrostic, and Haiku are easier to teach and have students replicate, there is more creativity, choice, and excitement (to my mind) when you can lead your students to free verse, lyric, or narrative poetry.
What Should We Do With Poetry?
Poetry should not be a chore. If kids have to memorize and recite a poem the teacher selects or determine the underlying meaning of a poem according to their teacher's interpretations, poetry ceases to be fun. Like anything else, kids need to explore poetry. They should be exposed to poetry, in many different forms, throughout the year. It should not just be part of a special poetry unit that we then leave completely behind. Poetry is great for transition times or when you finish something with just a few minutes to spare.
"Poetry needs to be performed and dramatized. Take some chances and try out different effects (using different voices, elongating words, singing, shouting, whispering, pausing dramatically, and so on) as you read poems aloud. Your voice is a powerful tool: You may change it from louder to softer to only a whisper; you may start at a deep, low pitch and rise to a medium and eventually high pitch; you may speak very quickly in a clipped fashion and then slow down and drawl out the words." (Lynch-Brown/Tomlinson: Essentials of Children's Literature. p.70)
Have students find a poem they love and share with the class. As teachers or parents, we can create lots of opportunities to share poems we like and think our children will like, but kids should have that opportunity as well. Let them read a poem to the class that is special to them. Let kids discover their own meanings in poetry and discuss those meanings without making them conform to an understood critical meaning. Some poems would lend themselves well to having the students act them out. Kids need to discover that poetry can be sweet or silly, short or long, fun, thoughtful, or personal. It can have more than one voice. Help them find connections to their lives. Tie poetry in to other areas. You could introduce a Science lesson by reading a related poem.
When you are ready for children to create their own poetry, make sure you have introduced them to several different forms and then let children choose a style to create their poem in. Have fun! If you do not enjoy poetry, try some different kinds. Keep looking until you find something you like and then expand upon that. If you yourself are not excited about the poems you are reading, it will show through to the children and they will have little reason to get excited themselves.
Selecting High Quality Poetry Books
The best way to tell if you have a good poetry book is simply to try it out. Read a few poems. Most poems are relatively short and it doesn't take long to read a few. Don't just read the first couple poems, flip to the middle and the back too. Do you like them? Do they make you smile, laugh, or cry? If you can't answer yes to any of those questions, you probably want to find another book.
Poetry should sound good when it is read aloud. It should have a rhythm to it. It should use language that is interesting and non-repetitive unless the repetition serves a strong and effective purpose. Because poetry can exist for so many reasons, the use of language is hard to define into one set criteria. It might be beautiful, flowing language with impressive words or it might be cute, simple words that are fun.
Illustrations can be a terrific added bonus, but you can find good poetry without illustrations (or with mediocre illustrations).
There is so much freedom with poetry, it doesn't have to be accurate or realistic unless it claims or implies that it is. When you are dealing with real people or places in a realistic way, then poetry has the same obligation that other genres have in providing accurate details. It also has an obligation, as does all literature, to avoid harmful stereotypes (culture, gender, disabilities, etc.).
If you simply don't know where to start, try some of the books I recommend below - or ask a librarian, a teacher, or a friend. Someone will be glad to help get you started. Once you've begun, follow authors you love and seek out more of their work.
Reaching Out to Boys
I wrote this poem to address the reluctance of boys when it comes to poetry and how we, as teachers or parents, can overcome this problem and show even little boys the pleasures of poetry. The work of Jack Prelutsky is one great way to penetrate the guarded shell that boys may have put up and offer them images far from what they expected to find in poetry, such as the fantastically awful beings that inhabit Monday's Troll and The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (both of which are referenced in the poem).
Some Terrific Poetry Books to Check Out
Rainy Day Poems
2012. Poems and artwork by James McDonald. A fantastic collection of new poems from a relatively obscure poet whose first foray into the published word has released a collection of poems revolving around the adventures of two kids, Sami and Thomas, that take place in the Pacific Northwest. Other books by James McDonald are: Through the Milky Way on a PB&J.
1996. Poems by Jack Prelutsky. Pictures by Peter Sís. This is my favorite book by Prelutsky. It begins and ends with great poems about wizards and there are all kinds of delightfully dreadful creatures in between. He uses some great language in this book. "I escalated my harangue, and blared triumphantly." These are advanced words that many poets would leave out of children's poetry, but it will sound great to kids and they may even add some very impressive words to their vocabulary along the way. Other Prelutsky books I highly recommend: The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, The Gargoyle on the Roof, Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast.
A Light in the Attic
1981. Poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein. Silverstein's popular work is loaded with small, silly, fun poems. Some are fabulous and you'll pick your favorites. My favorites include Nobody, Messy Room, and Homework Machine, as well as the sweet introduction to sign language Deaf Donald. There will be other poems you are less fond of, but there are so many great ones, you'll ignore the occasional dud. Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends is another terrific collection very much like this one.
Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888
2000. Poem by Ernest L. Thayer. Illustrated by Christopher Bing. This poem originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888 and is a treasure in and of itself. Christopher Bing, however, has enriched the poem with spectacular illustrations in the style of newspaper clippings of the day with terrific details scattered throughout. Christopher Bing also does a magnificent job of illustrating The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
If Pigs Could Fly... And Other Deep Thoughts
2000. Poems by Bruce Lansky. Illustrated by Stephen Carpenter. A terrific collection of fun poems that will leave you smiling. I Like My Nose is a terrific little poem about what would happen if our noses were upside down. What I'd Cook For My Teacher would be a fun treat for kids to hear. Out of Control, where the TV station keeps getting switched after a quick catchphrase, would be so much fun reading in parts - in fact, I plan to try that tomorrow. (I have now tried it twice, with 3rd and 5th graders, and it worked splendidly both times, exciting both the performers and the audience).
1998. Poems and paintings by Douglas Florian. Really cool poems all about bugs with great illustrations. Highlights include The Hornet, The Whirligig Beetles, and The Army Ants.