Essay on Children's poetry

Dragons Pulling Wagons

The Children's Poet Laureate on Karla Kuskin's children's poetry.

by Jack Prelutsky
When the Poetry Foundation named me the first Children’s Poet Laureate, I was delighted and astounded. I’d never expected anything like this. I was delighted because of the recognition for my work, and astounded because there are so many other fine poets writing for children today.

Once the news sank in, I wanted to find a way to share these poets and their poems with everyone. Every month during my tenure, I’ll select a poet whose work I admire and enjoy. I’ll tell you a bit about them, feature several of their poems, and list some of their books. I expect that I’ll enjoy this, and hope you do too. –Jack Prelutsky


In 1964, I showed my first children’s poems to an editor named Susan Hirschman (who remained my editor for more than 30 years). Even though she recognized my talent, she told me flatly that my first efforts were not ready for publication and showed me several books by Karla Kuskin. She said, “This is what you should aim for.” I took her words to heart and read everything of Karla’s that I could find, captivated by her delightful imagery.

Her poems, deceptively simple, are largely based on personal experiences, especially those of her childhood. She writes about things as diverse as hugging bugs, dragons pulling wagons, and a radish rising in the nighttime sky. Karla makes every word stand out in sharp relief. Some of her poems have fewer than ten words, and the way she compresses her thought makes you look carefully at each word, as if it’s as valuable as a diamond.

Karla was born in New York in 1932, and started writing poetry when she was a child. She was fortunate that her parents and teachers appreciated her aptitude and encouraged her. She’s written more than 50 books, and since she’s also a gifted artist, she has illustrated quite a few of them herself.


Here are three poems by Karla Kuskin. You will find all of them in Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin, published by HarperCollins in 2003.
The terrible cat of black velvet fur
will leap at your legs
with a thunderous purrrr
flash through the air
to a lap
or a chair
nibble your dinner
and probably stare
at your face and your frown
as she daintily tears
the chop you were eating
and swallows it down.

* * * * * * * * * *

Write about a radish
too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
the stars are small and high
the clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
hills gleam dimly
distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

* * * * * * * * * *

A bug sat in a silver flower
thinking silver thoughts.
A bigger bug out for a walk
climbed up that silver flower stalk
and snapped the small bug down his jaws
without a pause
without a care
for all the bug’s small silver thoughts.
It isn’t right it isn’t fair that big bug ate that little bug
because that little bug was there.

He also ate his underwear.

* * * * * * * * * *


What I Like About These Poems

“The Terrible Cat of Black Velvet Fur” — The structure of this poem mirrors both the quickness and the deliberateness of a cat’s movements. The poem is shaped like the antics of a cat — longer lines juxtaposed with two short three-word lines in the middle of the poem. The rhyme scheme uses simple words in a seemingly random order that mimics the unpredictable actions of a cat: fur/purr, air/chair/stare, frown/down. It’s not easy to take a commonplace subject, such as a black cat, and within a few lines imbue this creature with a personality of its own . . . but that’s what very good poets do.

“Write About a Radish” — Karla is making a little joke about sentimental poetry that flogs hackneyed phrases, such as the image of a “moon in the sky.” She breathes new life into this overused conceit. Even though she surrounds the moon in this poem with typical associations, such as stars, an unwinding clock, dark hills, and night-flying birds, she provides her moon with an unexpected metaphor by calling it a “radish.” It makes you look at the moon in a new and surprising way, as if you just “got” the punch line of a joke.

“A Bug Sat in a Silver Flower” — Karla is having lots of fun in this poem. First of all, she relies on short, mostly one-syllable words that evoke little bugs: “a bug sat in a . . . ,” “. . . bug out for a walk . . . ,” “for all the bug’s small . . . ,” “it isn’t right it isn’t fair that big bug . . . ,” and so forth. Notice that when she describes the “bigger bug” eating the smaller bug, she employs words that are longer in length, which reinforces the larger presence of the “bigger bug.” I also love all the “b” sounds she uses in the poem. Poets are quite aware that the sound of words in a poem is often just as important as rhyme and meter. That’s why poetry should be read out loud or heard in recitation.


All poems from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin. (HarperCollins, 2003) Copyright by Karla Kuskin.
Originally Published: April 13, 2007

COMMENTS (15)

On April 18, 2007 at 1:49pm maura wolf wrote:
These poems of Karla's are delightful. I can't wait to introduce her to my grandchildren! Thanks for the wonderful comments on them too.

On April 21, 2007 at 5:09pm DAniel Hoffman wrote:
I hope Mr. Prelutsky enjoys and will share with readers William Jay Smith's book "Laughing TIme," a collection that will entertain everyone who reads it, of whatever age.

On April 24, 2007 at 4:29pm Trevor wrote:
I wish I had this book.

That's why that

the page does not

like to be found.

It hates to be found.

Now we'll have a dose

of a behind-breaker. I'm busted.

I think the house is ridged.

On May 8, 2007 at 10:53pm Brad wrote:
Congratulations on your being chosen children's poet laureate. Having watched a lot of children choose poetry that they enjoy, I am convinced that you are one of the most beloved poets of the preteen set. Your idea of introducing other well loved children's poets through this column is also a winner. For me it was X. J. Kennedy who first introduced me to, and made me love poetry. I don't know if he is on your list or not, but I wouldn't be surprised.

On June 1, 2007 at 2:22pm Judith Zukerman wrote:
The joy and freshness of these poems

made me say, I will buy that book of poems and

have the fun of sharing it with my four year

grandson.

On June 7, 2007 at 1:09pm sophie pamelson wrote:
this website is terrible. Karla kuskin wrote a beautiful poem which is Where would you be and is is nowhere in sight. disgraceful

On June 10, 2007 at 11:41am Tatiana Meza wrote:
I just read an article in the current Time

Magazine where Lev Grossman writes about

poetry as a dying art. As soon as I finished the

article I looked up the Poetry Foundation and

John Barr on the internet. I am a Sarah

Lawrence College alumnus and there I took my

first ever Poetry Workshops. One was taught

by Lucy Greeley and the other by Marie Howe.

It was a challenge taking these classes and so

was SLC for that matter especially because of

where I am from: Paterson, NJ.

The information I found on your website has

helped me realize something. The importance

of poetry for children. In the Time article there

is a big quote: "In the 20th century, poems

became less like pop songs and more like math

problems. They started to feel like homework."

Could this be why it is so absent in our public

schools? Why, poetry kind of makes its

appearance in high school and by then kids are

kind of set in their ways. Their brains don't go

"that way." I have a 17 yr old niece who I am

legal guardian to and when she had an

assignment on analyzing an Emily Dickinson

poem she was clueless. What a struggle for

her. I have a 6 yr old daughter and I am going

to exploit your website. I am going to teach her

poetry to the best of my own abilities and

make it a part of her life. I am raising a thinker

and although changing the public school system

may very well be out of my reach I am going

to change what is within my reach: my home.

Thank you and good luck w/ your work.

Tatiana Meza

Weehawken, NJ

On June 11, 2007 at 8:05am Denise wrote:
Like Tatiana, I read the same TIME article and am now looking around poetry sites. I am a third year middle school LA teacher and want to teach poetry better than I have been. I would like my students to learn to appreciate (and not fear) poetry. Most of the teaching materials out there have to do with formulaic writing exercises, but that always feels more like a worksheet than developing an appreciation. I am looking for suggestions and perhaps some ideas about who to use for "Poet of the Month" type format for middle schoolers. Thank you.

On June 25, 2007 at 5:07pm Yo Elena wrote:
Yo Elena:

Wonderful poems. I like also poems of Prelutsky.

I am 9-y old girl and wrote short poems about artists and their paintings. I want to show them to a professional who could correct them or give me some advices. How can I contact Mrs. Karla Kuskin or Mr. Jack Prelutsky, or any other professional who could agree to look through my poems before I publish them.

I will appreciate for this help.

Sincerely,

Yo Elena

Boston, MA

On September 3, 2007 at 7:21am rebecca bay wrote:
cool poems the best one is the one about the bug it's so cute !

On September 26, 2007 at 2:00pm Joseph "Silly" Sottile wrote:
I have a poetry site that is designed to encourage and inspire children to write poetry. Please check it out: www.joe-sottile.com.

On May 21, 2008 at 7:54am IESHA SIMMONS wrote:
IT WAS A NICE POEM

On June 16, 2008 at 1:20pm cesar lopez wrote:
could you please help me with poetry for a 15yr old girl(birthday), my nieces daughter, as i have no extra money, to buy and send gift.

cesar

On July 21, 2008 at 10:25am George Busby wrote:
I thought Karla Kuskin poems are delightful ! I like writing short shorties for children of all ages and working with them too. Thank's for sharing with us !

On August 14, 2009 at 9:10am Kathy Ball wrote:
I have been inspired by Karla Kuskin and Jack Prelutsky. Their works are so
wonderful. Truly both poets are a
blessing to me and to others. I thank
them both for sharing their wonderful
gifts with the rest of us.

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 Jack  Prelutsky

Biography

Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, and when he was young he studied classical music; though he gave up pursuing a career as an opera singer to concentrate on writing, he continues to sing.

In a Scholastic.com interview, when asked where his ideas come from, Prelutsky said, . . .

Continue reading this biography

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