Essay on Children's Poetry

“Never Poke Your Uncle With a Fork”

Just what is it that makes Jack Prelutsky's poems such a hit with young children?

Five Poems NOT to Read before Eating

Jack Prelutsky’s poems can be frightening or funny. Sometimes they can be both. But these particular poems come with a caution: Don’t read them before breakfast, lunch, or dinner! They could curdle your stomach or lure you into tasting strange and dangerous things. The consequences could be quite cruel . . .

1. “Herbert Glerbett”
Admittedly, eating 50 pounds of lemon sherbet could be considered excessive. But does poor Herbert Glerbett deserve what happens to him? You decide.

2. “Deep in Our Refrigerator”
What’s the longest you’ve ever kept leftovers? A month? A year? How much fungus is in your freezer? Can you compete with the family in this poem? If so, keep that spoon out of that strange-smelling mayonnaise!

3. “Twickham Tweer”
Talk about weird. Twickham Tweer takes the cake—or, rather, the banana peels, the empty jars, and the candy wrappers. It’s not much of a diet, and the human body—even Twickham’s—has its limits. This poem proves it.

4. “The Creature in the Classroom”
It’s a monster all right, and it eats blackboards, erasers, pens, paper, notebooks, homework, and even the teacher’s desk. Can you guess what it gobbles for dessert?

5. “Pumberly Pott’s Unpredictable Niece”
This girl definitely has an eating disorder. She chows down on carburetors, windshields, spark plugs, and fuel pumps. After reading this, we have just one piece of advice: Don’t try this at home. We will not be held responsible.

AUDIO
Listen to poems by Jack Prelutsky
Be Glad Your Nose is On Your Face
Suzanna Socked Me Sunday
Deep in our Refrigerator
 


For years Jack Prelutsky has been known informally as a poet laureate for kids. Now the Poetry Foundation has made it official, naming him the nation’s first Children’s Poet Laureate and putting a prestigious stamp of approval on the man and his work. So just what is it about Prelutsky that compels this respect? Why do kids write him letters and hug him when he turns up for school visits? Why do adults take his work seriously?

For a hint, consider some of the actual words that critics have used to describe his (almost countless) poetry books for children: zany, charming, irreverent, gothic, tongue-in-cheek, surreal, rich, varied, rib-tickling, silly, playful, wacky, inventive, whimsical, preposterous, frivolous, hilarious, and pure fun. Not to mention WEIRD and BIZARRE!

Then think about the ways that reviewers and interviewers have described the 66-year-old Prelutsky himself: a child in an adult’s body, a boy who never grew up, a daydreamer.

Yes, as all this implies, Prelutsky writes what kids like, whether it’s scary poems about trolls and bogeymen, or funny ones about worm puree and bananacondas. Yes, he knows how to have fun and makes boatloads of puns, but Prelutsky is more than a tall, clever child. He is a real poet who knows as much about form, rhythm, and rhyme as he does about burned meatloaf, umbrellaphants, and preposterpusses. He also knows about feelings and, for lack of a better word, soul.

“Jack is never predictable. He’s always fresh, surprising, and different,” says Susan Hirschman, the editor who discovered him and has worked with him for 37 years. “He’s always original and never repeats himself. He’s like a beach. Every day the ocean comes and washes everything clean.”

So let’s check out some of the top reasons to love Jack Prelutsky, author of instant classics from The Dragons Are Singing Tonight and A Pizza the Size of the Sun to It’s Raining Pigs and Noodles and Something Big Has Been Here. Warning: Your own reasons may vary!

Prelutsky for Kids

1. Prelutsky knows what kids like. He has the skills to reach them. “He’s never coy or sentimental,” says Hirschman. “He never writes down. He’s never winking at the parents over the heads of the children.” He remembers what childhood was like and what kids like to do. He understands kids’ interests (animals, ogres, family, school, friends, dinosaurs), and he writes the poetry that he wishes had existed when he was young. His zany approach means that it was no accident that he was the poet chosen to complete Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, the unfinished manuscript of his close antecedent, Dr. Seuss.

2 . He’s funny, just plain everyday funny. He takes ordinary situations from home and school and exaggerates them. Kids can relate. As absurd as they are, they are almost something that could have happened to them or their friends. In “Never Poke Your Uncle with a Fork,” he writes about a nephew who does just that. In “My First Best Friend,” he muses about a child’s seven best friends, all of whom are mean to him, a too common childhood complaint. In his ironic closing, he notes:

My seventh best is Monster Moe—
he often plays too rough.
That’s all the friends I’ve got right now—
I think I’ve got enough.

3. He’s funny—funny strange. An unusual number of eccentric characters stalk his poems, from Twickham Tweer—who eats “uncommon meals” such as “cottage cheese containers” and “cellophane from caramels”—to “Pumberly Pott’s Unpredictable Niece,” who has a very rare type of eating disorder. (Hint: It involves automobiles.)

His humor is also full of surprises. He twists things around in ways the reader would never expect. In “I Found a Four-Leaf Clover,” the good-luck charm brings him only bad luck, from burnt toast to broken glasses. Wham! And then another wham, as he concludes:

If I ever find another,
I will simply let it be,
or I’ll give it to my brother—
he deserves it more than me.

4. He’s funny—scary funny. Kids love to be scared, and Prelutsky sometimes obliges while simultaneously letting them off the hook. For example, if “A Wolf Is at the Laundromat,” that could be scary. But not when:

It combs its hair, it clips its toes,
it is a fairly rare wolf,
that’s only there to clean its clothes—
it is a wash-and-wear wolf.

5. Yet he has the power to be truly frightening as well. There is a reason why one of his books is called Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. These poems delight youngsters who enjoy screaming and hearing their hearts pound. For instance, in “The Bogeyman,” the title character . . .

. . . skulks in the shadows, relentless and wild
in his search for a tender, delectable child.
With his steely sharp claws and his slavering jaws
oh he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.

This bogeyman is no pushover, the poet makes clear as he concludes:

For oh! . . . what he’ll do . . . when he gets you!

Prelutsky for Adults

Kids aren’t the only ones who love Prelutsky. Adults—parents, teachers, librarians—cherish him just as much. Their reasons are slightly different.

6. He writes real poetry, both formal and informal. He’s got rhythm. He’s got rhyme. He’s even got onomatopoeia, as curious creatures “honk and quack and squawk.” This is not pretend poetry, gutted of its elements. It’s the real thing, filled with alliteration and music—not surprising when you learn that Prelutsky is a musician who, when young, wanted to be an opera singer. Luckily for the poetry world, he heard Pavarotti and thought better of it. Still, armed with his guitar, Prelutsky continues to check out his metrics by singing them. “In a lot of children’s poetry,” says Hirschman, “the rhythm is off. You know what the rhyme is going to be. That’s never true with Jack.”

Although he’s been compared with Shel Silverstein and Edward Lear, he has said that his earliest influences were actually Dylan Thomas, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe. Like them, he knows all about form. He writes rhyming couplets. He follows strict rhyme schemes. He writes sonnets—not that kids would ever know it! His poetry is not like spinach, but like chocolate cream pie. He’s written concrete poems, such as “I Was Walking in a Circle,” which circles around on itself without ever ending. He has written backward poems and mirror-image poems and poems that wander all over the page. He even wrote a book of haiku, If Not for the Cat. The title poem, below, is told from a mouse’s point of view:

If not for the cat,
And the scarcity of cheese,
I would be content.

As you’d guess, it has the requisite 17 syllables, divided between the three lines in a perfect 5/7/5 count.

7. He’s extremely literate. That is not unexpected in an anthologist who personally owns more than 5,000 books of children’s poetry. What’s more, he has a great vocabulary. What other children’s poet uses words like incalculable, carburetor, despicable, happenstance, relentless, cacophonous, malodorous, pedestrian, and arabesque? If you want children to learn context clues or dictionary skills, this poetry will inspire them.

In that sulphurous, sunless and sinister place
he’ll crumple your bones in his bogey embrace.

Sulphurous and sinister will soon add to the word power of new Prelutsky fans. What could be better than voluntary vocabulary—without tears?

8. He makes kids think. His poems are imaginative, full of what-if’s and strange points of view. For example, what if your nose were someplace other than where it is? In “Be Glad Your Nose Is on Your Face,” he ponders various possible locations:

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.

Or what if someone crossed a radish with a shark (an evil radishark!)? Or a lion with a broccoli (the interesting broccolion!)? Or a porcupine with a pineapple (well, what do you think its name would be?)?

Prelutsky also takes up unusual points of view, including that of 17 (no accident) different animals in his haiku book. What would you expect from someone who collects miniature frogs? Frog viewpoints show up in his poems as well.

9. He acknowledges emotions. Children often find their feelings difficult to cope with, but in Prelutsky’s poems they discover that others experience the same things they do. Of course, the beings involved may be a little . . . odd. For example, in “Song of the Baby Gargoyles,” three little monsters sing of their love for their mother, while begging her to let them stay up during the day. In “Lament of a Lonely Troll,” a scary troll is tired of being alone and cries tearfully that he is desperate for company. Even Prelutsky’s funniest poems, such as “My Sister Is a Werewolf,” deal with topics such as the consequences—and sometime necessity—of being different.

10. He hooks kids on poetry—and reading in general. Even the most reluctant readers love Prelutsky. In this age of violent videos and ever declining standards on TV, millions of children happily sit down with his books and read his poetry over and over and over again. With any luck, reading Prelutsky will encourage them to read other authors and even, someday . . . who would have thought it . . . other poets.

Could there be a more important reason for picking Prelutsky to be our country’s first Children’s Poet Laureate?

Related

  • Karen Glenn is a poet and freelance writer in Colorado. She has been the editor of several classroom literary magazines for Scholastic, the educational publisher, as well as the writer for Parade Magazine’s newspaper-in-education program and the judge of its annual nationwide teen poetry contest. She has worked as a...

Essay on Children's Poetry

“Never Poke Your Uncle With a Fork”

Just what is it that makes Jack Prelutsky's poems such a hit with young children?

Related

  • Karen Glenn is a poet and freelance writer in Colorado. She has been the editor of several classroom literary magazines for Scholastic, the educational publisher, as well as the writer for Parade Magazine’s newspaper-in-education program and the judge of its annual nationwide teen poetry contest. She has worked as a...

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