Essay on Children's poetry

A Highly Subjective Guide to Kids’ Poetry

Are there some poems children should read?

by Bruce Lansky
A Highly Subjective Guide to Kids’ Poetry
Image courtesy of Keith Davenport

When most people think of children’s poetry, Shel Silverstein, Judith Viorst, Jeff Moss, Jack Prelutsky spring to mind. The poetry I read as a kid predates those poets’ work, so what fun it was for me to read three new anthologies—An Illustrated Treasury of Read-Aloud Poems for Young People edited by Glorya Hale, A Family of Poems edited by Caroline Kennedy, and Poetry Speaks to Children edited by Elise Paschen—all of which include few poems by the “Fab Four” of contemporary children’s poetry. These editors’ selections prompted me to think of children’s poetry in the following ways:

Poetry written for children B.S. (before Shel), including poems such as “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, and “The Purple Cow” by Gelett Burgess.
Significant poems children should know, including poems such as “Fog” by Carl Sandburg, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, “Hurt No Living Thing” by Christina Rossetti, and “The Tyger” by William Blake.
Significant poets whose work children should be familiar with, including poets such as Rita Dove, Robert Bly, Nikki Giovanni, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, E. E. Cummings, and Maya Angelou.

I find these categories useful. When I’m editing an anthology of children’s poetry, I search for poems I think will tickle kids’ funny bones the most. The editors of these anthologies favored poems adults believe children should read. Though this is not my approach, the results returned me to several poems I loved as a child and a number of other poems well worth sharing with children.

An Illustrated Treasury of Read-Aloud Poems for Young People
Edited by Glorya Hale
Illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory, Marguerite Davis, Kate Greenaway, and Jessie Willcox Smith
Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers; $14.95

I liked this book because my mother read so many of these wonderful poems to me as a child, and I read them to my own children. (I suggest you read them to your children, too!) It includes poems such as “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe, “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, and, of course, “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer: “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.” Every kid wants to know what happens next.

A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children
Edited by Caroline Kennedy
Paintings by Jon J. Muth
Hyperion/Hyperion Books for Children; $19.95

In these pages, I enjoyed rereading many poems I think children will like and appreciate. These poems range from Christina Rossetti’s timeless “Hurt No Living Thing” to an excerpt from Taylor Mali’s charming “Falling in Love Is Like Owning a Dog”: “First of all, it’s a big responsibility, / especially in a city like New York.” That’s a witty poem and a real find for those who have never read it before. Many kids will memorize “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket” by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers after just one reading: “Keep a poem in your pocket / and a picture in your head / and you’ll never feel lonely / at night when you’re in bed.” And Jon J. Muth’s paintings are beautiful. They bring the poetry to life.

Poetry Speaks to Children
Edited by Elise Paschen
Illustrated by Judy Love, Wendy Rasmussen, and Paula Zinngrabe Wendland
SourceBooks; $19.95

There are a lot of gems in this book your child won’t discover in other anthologies. C.K. Williams’s “Gas” is full of giggles, and “The Land of Counterpane” by Robert Louis Stevenson is sweet: “When I was sick and lay-a-bed / I had two pillows at my head.” My mother read this to me when I was home sick from school. The witches’ spell from Macbeth is captivating: “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Children like spooky stuff! And “Lies, All Lies” by William Cole—“There is no ham in hamburger” . . . “And sweetbreads aren’t sweet”—is a clever little poem that kids will enjoy.

All these anthologies can remind us what fun it is to share the poems you love with your children. And, if you’re lucky, maybe your children will take a book from the bookshelf to share some of their favorite poems with you.

Originally Published: August 1, 2006


On February 20, 2007 at 10:49am Trevor Russel wrote:

On March 5, 2007 at 4:38pm SWING wrote:
This article stinks.Quit selling books and give us some free poems.

On March 29, 2007 at 1:11pm ren watson wrote:
i agree with swing !!!!!!!!!!

On April 12, 2007 at 2:57pm ag wrote:
I found information I needed in this article. I suggest SWING and ren watson consider taking a refresher course on basic good manners.

On November 11, 2007 at 7:10pm Brad wrote:
I enjoyed reading the review of new books and Bruce's categories of poems for kids to know. Though I too, like free (good) poems, I didn't think this what this article was about. We need to introduce children to poetry early and often, in order to inculcate a love of powerful forms of expression. It's part of what makes us human. This review serves that end.

On April 5, 2013 at 12:16pm Miarno wrote:
I love Piping Down the Valleys Wild by Nancy Larrick. Read it when I was a kid, and I read it now to my daughter.

While looking for it, I found this list that the rude posters might enjoy as it has a number of the poems recommended here on it.

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Bruce Lansky is an internationally known poet and anthologist. He has a passion for getting children excited about reading and writing poetry. Lansky's poetry books—including Mary Had a Little Jam; Peter, Peter, Pizza-Eater; If Kids Ruled the School; and Rolling in the Aisles—are currently among America's best-selling children's poetry books. He is also the editor of the middle-grade fiction series Girls to the Rescue and . . .

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