Essay on Children's Poetry

Dragons Pulling Wagons

An introduction to Karla Kuskin's poetry for children.
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 13th, 2007

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...

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  1. April 18, 2007
     maura wolf

    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.

  2. April 22, 2007
     DAniel Hoffman

    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.

  3. April 25, 2007
     Trevor

    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.

  4. May 9, 2007
     Brad

    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.

  5. June 1, 2007
     Judith Zukerman

    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.

  6. June 7, 2007
     sophie pamelson

    this website is terrible. Karla kuskin wrote a beautiful poem which is Where would you be and is is nowhere in sight. disgraceful

  7. June 10, 2007
     Tatiana Meza

    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

  8. June 11, 2007
     Denise

    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.

  9. June 26, 2007
     Yo Elena

    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

  10. September 3, 2007
     rebecca bay

    cool poems the best one is the one about the bug it's so cute !

  11. September 26, 2007
     Joseph "Silly" Sottile

    I have a poetry site that is designed to encourage and inspire children to write poetry. Please check it out: www.joe-sottile.com.

  12. May 21, 2008
     IESHA SIMMONS

    IT WAS A NICE POEM

  13. June 16, 2008
     cesar lopez

    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

  14. July 21, 2008
     George Busby

    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 !

  15. August 14, 2009
     Kathy Ball

    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.

  16. September 9, 2016
     Rev. J. Roland Cole

    Dear Jack, September 9, 2016

    Jack Prelutsky—you!--have been one of my favorite people for a long time—at least 26 years! I never thought I’d be writing you one day.

    I first discovered you in a wonderful book of Dinosaur poems that my young, three/four-year-old son and I loved—and loved to read together! Over and over! Shannon loved to look at each kind of dinosaur your illustrator drew as I read the kinds of sounds it made, described it, etc. “Clankety, clankety, clankety clank. Ankylosaurus was built like a tank.” I loved your incredible cleverness and outstanding sense of humor and how you wrote to be understood and enjoyed. So for decades, if I saw/see the name “Jack Prelutsky” pop up somewhere, I will pause to check it out and enjoy your creativity, intelligence, sense of humor often, and your insight, once more. You more than deserved the Poet Laureate post and title—and much more! I believe all children—starting young-- should get to hear and enjoy Jack Prelutsky’s many varied and wonderful poems with illustrations. Then, our world would have many more children and adults who appreciate and enjoy poetry, who write poetry and listen to poetry read aloud, and who thereby live more enriched and joyful, more meanings-full and meaningful, happier lives.

    I used that dinosaur book (can’t remember the name after 25 years)and your poems very creatively to reach some special education kids in 4th-5th grades in Del Rio, Texas.

    I was “subbing,” replaced a teacher who quit, and I was assigned to 2 groups of 7 or 8 children with supposedly very low IQ’s who frustrated teachers because they were difficult to teach, easily distracted, and seemed to learn so little. I like kids, enjoy sharing-teaching anything I know that others would like to no matter their age, and I like challenges. So I enjoyed “throwing out the curriculum” (since using it was unproductive) and I just worked at how to engage them and get and keep their attention at first. I thought of your book and how most kids find dinosaurs fascinating. Not without difficulties, it worked! We’d read some altogether, a number of times. Sometimes we’d spend a whole class period or two on one animal/poem. I did whatever I could to make it fun, and asked them what they thought or felt. We turned a few needed rules into a poem and sang that every day for a while, to keep chaos and disruption-distraction down. I loved seeing them smile as we talked about rules and how they actually help us learn and enjoy class time (and our lives) more! I was only with them about a month, but one group was writing their own poems and reading and talking about them with their classmates when I left! They missed some important content, I’m sure, but I felt great about exciting a number of the kids about learning, introducing them to some fun and educational poems/dinosaurs, and helping them tap into their own creativity and discover they could write poems that meant something to them and that were enjoyed by their classmates. So, thank you, Jack Prelutsky!

    Truly and sincerely,

    Rev. J. Roland Cole, a nearly eighty-year-old, retired UMC pastor-preacher. colejr78@gmail.com

    P.S. I just remembered something. The first day I was there, to a person the kids all told me how they “hated” or didn’t like “poetry!” They were surprised to learn that songs they liked were really p-o-e-m-s set to music. So, “Thanks again, Jack!” For helping me change some minds and some lives a bit. And for adding some FUN and joy-in-learning to my, my son's. and some Del Rio, Texas, school kids' lives!

  17. September 19, 2016
     Rev. J. Roland Cole

    Denise, I note your post is nine years old. IF you are not retired and you still “want to teach poetry better” than previously—and if many others might be looking for an excellent, wonderful, guide book with many suggestions, examples, stories of challenges answered, and opportunities fulfilled—I highly recommend to you Mary Kenner Glover’s A GARDEN OF POETS: Poetry Writing in the Elementary Classroom, published in 1999 by the National Council of Teachers of English (www.ncte.org).

    A GARDEN OF POETS: Poetry Writing in the Elementary Classroom is 135 pages chock full of examples and illustrations of her children’s poems showing how her students have written poetry in so many ways and for many reasons, including getting their feelings out and discovering the joy of expressing one’s own thoughts about an animal, a bird, an object, or a matter. She shares the many poets and their books to which she exposes her kids to give them an idea of the huge range of the possible, including books of the funny, rhyming poets, Prelutsky and Silverstein. She teaches one how to involve the parents wonderfully, the goodness of involving slightly older student poets as teachers directly and by reference, and she will urge and inspire you to be a poet to better teach your students to be poets and use poetry! In the back, she lists the books she has used as references in her book, then lists for you books and collections of children’s general poetry, bilingual and multicultural poetry, music for inspiring poetry writing, and, surprisingly, an excellent, introductory two pages of deep, high, wide, fine, and moving “Poetry for Grown Up Readers!” Through-out the book as different topics are mentioned, Glover often lists a “mini-collection” for you/your students to check out. “Human Rights,” for example, has five or six “black” poets and their works listed to entice you and your charge. What a wonderful, inspiring, “how-to” of a book!

    Denise, I wrote a thank you letter to The First Children’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation, Jack Prelutsky. (See above.) Some of his forty books would give you good ideas; much help, probably, could be derived from the articles Jack wrote as Laureate about a different children’s poet each month. He describes their poetry, gives many excerpts, etc. You could find them easily at this site. And I recommend to everybody and anybody the book my 4 year old son and I have enjoyed forever (he’s 28 now), "Tyranosaurus Was a Beast." I found it very useful to excite kids and helped them to learn to love poetry and enjoy writing (many) their own poetry and talking about it. On Amazon I discovered something else about the wonderful-funny poems of Prelutsky. By LaCuervaon, September 13, 2013: Prelutsky writes fun poems for children; he has a few dozens of book out. This one is by far the best - a combination of funny dinosaur poems with illustrations by Arnold Lobel. And the songs can be sung to the familiar tunes of nursery rhymes! Try the first one, "Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast," to the tune of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Your kids will love it - mine are in their 20s now, and still remember various poems!

    Best to you and all who want to give children a great “gift that keeps on giving” all their lives--enriching them and adding meaning, joy, delight, awareness, intensity of feeling, and a greater ability to express their feelings and thoughts for the rest of their lives!