Essay on Children's Poetry

More than Mother Goose

From William Shakespeare of Francisco X. Alarcón, 20 great books for your children to read over the holidays.
By Julie Danielson and Eisha Prather
Image of second-hand children's books on a bookshelf.

For the holidays, we asked the experts at the center of the kidlitosphere—the bloggers of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast—to browse our Essential Collection (compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Bernadette Nowakowski) and pick books for the holidays. Here are their 20 choices, ranging from audio collections to classics to contemporary anthologies.

Poems to Dream Together / Poemas para Sonar Juntos by Francisco X. Alarcón, illustrated by Paula Barragan. (Lee & Low)

This collection by Francisco Alarcon presents poems in both English and Spanish that celebrate nature, community, family, and the power of a child’s dreams. Barragan’s illustrations, with two-dimensional shapes and bright colors reminiscent of Matisse, are a perfect match for the deceptively simple poems.

Sing to the Sun: Poems and Pictures by Ashley Bryan. (HarperCollins)

The poems in this collection by renowned author/illustrator Ashley Bryan celebrate nature and our connection to it. The mosaic-like illustrations glow like stained glass windows with the sun behind them. Sadly, this gem is no longer available in hardback, so grab it in paperback while you can.

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch. (Kids Can Press)

Illustrator Stephane Jorisch brings one of literature’s great classics to life with a darker slant, making it a perfect gift for any teenage fan of the more dreamlike works of Dave McKean or Shaun Tan. Jorisch re-envisions this nonsense poem as a commentary on contemporary life, particularly warfare, making it a provocative take on a poem usually interpreted as upbeat.

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You by John Ciardi, illustrated by Edward Gorey. (HarperTrophy)

When John Ciardi and Edward Gorey collaborated, the result was always something special—and hilarious. This collection features alternating text colors to be read either by children to adults, or by adults to children, especially beginning readers. The darkly humorous poems, which deal with such topics as sharks’ teeth and bird brains, are complemented by Gorey’s deadpan pen-and-ink drawings.

Joyful Noise / I Am Phoenix by Paul Fleischman. (Audio Bookshelf)

These companion collections were written as verbal duets, so it’s fitting that Audio Bookshelf released a CD of performers animating the poems. Both anthologies celebrate the natural world: Joyful Noise, winner of the 1989 Newbery Medal, covers the realm of insects; I Am Phoenix, the world of birds.

Winter Eyes by Douglas Florian. (Greenwillow)

Douglas Florian’s verses capture the child’s-eye view of winter: snowball fights, wool sweaters, sleds, and runny noses. His primitive watercolors evoke the muted palette of bare trees and snow, with occasional bright flashes of winter clothing. And since no mention is made of holidays, any child can celebrate the season with these poems.

Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems by Mary Ann Hoberman. (Harcourt)

Mary Ann Hoberman, a critically acclaimed poet and National Book Award winner, was first published 50 years ago, and she’s still going strong. This outstanding collection puts many of her out-of-print poems in one place. They cover a wide range of moods (from silly to contemplative) and topics (from family to animals, and don’t forget waiters, insects, and applesauce too).

A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms edited by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka. (Candlewick)

Do you know a budding poet in your house? Would you like to? This is a great introduction to 29 poetic forms, from couplets to pantoums. Paul Janeczko chooses examples by a broad spectrum of poets, from Shakespeare to J. Patrick Lewis. Chris Raschka does a fabulous job with mixed-media collages of torn rice paper, ink, and watercolors. This one is sure to inspire children to create their own poems and illustrations.

Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. (HarperCollins)

Karla Kuskin has been a reigning queen of children’s poetry for more than 40 years, and this hefty collection reveals why. Her poems, grouped according to themes such as pets and seasons, veer from slapdash and silly to poignant and even melancholy. Sergio Ruzzier provides wryly comical pen-and-ink illustrations. This is a lovely choice for both reading aloud and reading alone.

Please Bury Me in the Library by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. (Harcourt)

J. Patrick Lewis excels at writing kid-friendly verse that incorporates clever wordplay and pure silliness. This title celebrates books and reading with such poems as “What If Books Had Different Names?,” “The Big-Word Girl,” and “Reading in the Dark.” Kyle M. Stone’s rich acrylic/mixed-media illustrations capture the whimsy and wonder of each piece.

Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Ashley Bryan. (Greenwillow)

Naomi Shihab Nye has culled her favorite student poems from 25 years of teaching children and teens to create this unusual collection. The poems are grouped thematically into four divisions (The Self and the Inner World, Where We Live, Anybody’s Family, and The Wide Imagination), with a bright tempera illustration by Ashley Bryan opening each division. This is an inspiring choice for an aspiring young poet—or poetry teacher.

This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World by Naomi Shihab Nye. (Four Winds Press)

“[W]hat lovely, larger life becomes ours when we listen to one another?’’ writes Naomi Shihab Nye in the preface to this anthology featuring more than 100 poets from 68 countries, spanning regions including the Middle East, Asia, Africa, India, and South and Central America. Trust Nye, a self-named “wandering poet,” to take armchair adventurers on a journey through the natural world, its inhabitants, and their poetry.

Here Comes Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie, illustrated by Rosemary Wells. (Candlewick)

Mother Goose brings out the best in illustrator Rosemary Wells, with her playful, colorful depictions of time-honored characters (Old Mother Hubbard on a motor scooter, anyone?). Iona Opie, a leading authority on children’s folklore, has compiled a lighthearted, cozy collection of traditional children’s verse, best paired with its companion anthology, 1996’s My Very First Mother Goose. Expect this one to quickly become worn out from repeated handling.

For Laughing Out Loud: Poems to Tickle Your Funnybone edited by Jack Prelutsky. (Doubleday)

“If you have got a funnybone, / and I’ve no doubt you do, / then this completely silly book / is sure to tickle you,” opens Jack Prelutsky in this eclectic collection of nonsense verses from Shel Silverstein, Ogden Nash, Judith Viorst, Karla Kuskin, Arnold Lobel, and others. Poems about rattlesnake meat, jellyfish stew, the ghoul-oshes of ghouls, and other outrageous topics will satisfy the youngest slapstick-lover.

Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beckie Prange. (Houghton Mifflin)

Joyce Sidman highlights her twin passions, natural science and poetry, in 11 poems that depict a pond-dwelling plant or animal and include informational text in a variety of poetic forms. The pond and its creatures are rendered in woodcut-and-watercolor illustrations by Beckie Prange. This is a winning pick for nature enthusiasts.

A Light in the Attic (20th Anniversary Edition Book and CD) by Shel Silverstein. (HarperCollins)

For 26 years, children and their parents have reveled in the nonsense poetry and cartoon line drawings in this anthology by Shel Silverstein. “Standing Is Stupid,” “Meehoo with an Exactlywatt,” “Poemsicle”—they’re all here. This anniversary book-and-CD edition lets fans hear Silverstein read 11 of the poems, including “Backward Bill” and “The Dragon of Grindly Grun.”

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, illustrated by Christopher Bing. (Handprint Books)

Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic 19th-century ballad about baseball legend “mighty Casey” from the fictional town of Mudville, creatively designed by Bing as a scrapbook, is a keeper for baseball fans of all ages. With details ranging from a vintage font to superimposing the poem on what looks like old-time newspaper, Bing’s use of baseball memorabilia will delight fans of the sport. Casey may still strike out, but Bing hits a homer with his respectful rendition of the classic poem.

Free to Be You and Me: A Different Kind of Book for Children and Adults to Enjoy by Marlo Thomas. (Running Press)

Parents feeling nostalgic for the 1972 album Free to Be You and Me (who know all too well to never dress their cat in an apron) can share with their own children Running Press’ 2002 release of this story- and songbook, with a gallery of pictures. Let Marlo Thomas and her friends celebrate diversity and challenge gender stereotypes for a new generation.

This Next New Year by Janet Wong, illustrated by Yangsook Choi. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

A Chinese-Korean-American boy shares his excitement about the coming Lunar New Year in this exuberant collection. The narrator describes the holiday in child-friendly terms, while mentioning his non-Asian friends and how they celebrate. Yangsook Choi’s bright, cheerful paintings have a retro feel and capture the festive atmosphere of the poems.

Sky Scrape, City Scape: Poems of City Life by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Ken Condon. (Boyds Mills)

Celebrate city living with poets from Langston Hughes to Carl Sandburg to Lilian Moore to Lee Bennett Hopkins. For the child who loves jump-roping on crowded sidewalks, the ledge-sitting pigeons of a busy city, the “lullabies” that only Manhattan can offer, and the neon signs and skyscrapers, here’s the perfect anthology, complete with Ken Condon’s dynamic illustrations.


Originally Published: December 13th, 2007
  1. December 17, 2007
     Susan Thomsen

    What a great roundup! Thanks for all these suggestions.

  2. December 17, 2007
     Little Willow

    Nice variety - and yay, Jabberwocky!

  3. December 18, 2007
     Elaine Magliaro

    There are some great books listed here, including older titles like John Ciardi's "You Read to Me, I'll Read to You." My young students loved his poetry--as well as Douglas Florian's Mary Ann Hoberman's, and Karla Kuskin's.

  4. December 20, 2007

    Thank you for celebrating poetry for children. If I could recommend a few of my latest favorities: "This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology" by Joyce Sidman and "Hey There, Stink Bug" by Leslie Bullion. Plus all the wonderful children's chapter books in verse, starting with the always popular "Love that Dog" by Sharon Creech, a veritable celebration of poetry!

  5. March 26, 2009


    It took me a while but I've managed to achieve a score of 739,835 in [url=]Tetris[/url]!

    Let's see if you can beat me! :-)

    Good luck!

  6. July 18, 2009
     Jack Griner

    Poetry Foundation certainly makes poetry fun
    Because their aim is to please everyone
    If you were not familiar with poetry before
    It's only natural you are back for more
    Now that you are aware Poetry Foundation
    is so good,try your hand writing poetry.
    We all think you should.

  7. July 30, 2009


  8. November 8, 2009
     gretchen stahl

    The day after the Ft. Hood shooting, I brought in candles, tea lights, enough for each of my seven classes of high school students. I started class telling the news of the shootings and explaining how we were going to have ceremony to honor the passing of the soldiers shot down and those who were injured. I turned off the fluorescents and asked a student to light a candle and then share the light with the one beside him/her, and so the light was passed around the room, and so it went for each of the classes. And while the light was passed, I read, "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye and extended the invitation for anyone who wanted to, to write. After the reading, I played "Latika's Theme," "Becoming" by April MacLean, and "Inspiration" by Classified, and for the rest of class we sat together with the candles, the sounds of some still writing, of cries muffled in a mouth buried in arms cradled on the table, and the touch of a gentle hand on a sleeve. When it was time to leave, I asked that they take the light and the poem of that moment with them into the day.

  9. January 27, 2010

    thank you or yall for all of this

  10. May 21, 2010

    Your work is amazing.