Essay on Children's Poetry

No Nightmares, Please

Why is so much children's poetry full of sadism and doom?

One day it dawns on you that your kid has watched too many episodes of Dora the Explorer. Every time the Dora character known as “Map” shows up on screen and sings, “I’m the Map I’m the Map I’m the Map I’m the Map,” you entertain private fantasies of dousing him in lighter fluid, torching him with a match, and giggling uncontrollably while he flails in agony. If a cartoon inspires this much raw hatred before you catch the train to work, it’s probably not a good idea for your kid to watch a ton of it.

So maybe you want to expose your children to fine poetry instead. Which is great, except that you live in a country where some moron makes way more money than you do by writing lyrics like “I’m the Map I’m the Map I’m the Map I’m the Map,” so you’re sort of on your own. And when you come right down to it, reading poems to your adorable offspring is, like breastfeeding, much harder than you think.

When I first tried to introduce my daughter to the wonders of verse, I thought I would kick things off with a couple of haikus, mostly because they are super-short, so she wouldn’t have time to run away. I picked up a collection by Basho, the magnificent Japanese poet of the 17th century, opened the book at random, and flipped to this:

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

Ummm. Gosh, I thought . . . impermanence, death, a melancholy beauty—couldn’t we wait until kindergarten before we got into all that? (Now, if only it was the Map who was about to croak . . . ) I flipped around, and up came this little gem:

Whore and monk, we sleep
under one roof together,
moon in a field of clover

Uh, no. Won’t be reading that one.

I like to think I’m an open-minded person, so it was distressing to find myself playing Official Household Censor. If you don’t happen to have kids, maybe you consider me a wincing prude for steering clear of dying bugs and concubines, but I’m pretty exhausted at the end of a working day, and the idea of trying to explain to anyone, let alone a little kid, why the whore and the monk can happily coexist—well, look, I’m not even sure I understand what that monk is up to.

See, the idea of “reading poems to children” sounds really sweet in the abstract, but a surprising number of poems turn out to be too dark and twisted for tots. I love Yeats as much as the next guy, but trust me, you don’t want a kid running down the hallway at four in the morning howling in fear about a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem. I get too little sleep as it is.

Yeah, sure, you can throw in the towel on Yeats and Basho. There are plenty of books written specifically for children. The problem is, they won’t necessarily blow away the clouds of doom and despair, either. In fact, when you become a parent you learn pretty fast that a lot of the most popular and poetic books for children are the grimmest, saddest, nastiest, scariest, most soul-crushing things you will ever read in your life.

Take The Lorax. Do you know it? No, really, have you read it lately? Penned by our beloved rhyming uncle of the absurd, Dr. Seuss, The Lorax is a parable of environmental catastrophe so savage and hopeless that it makes Al Gore’s movie look like a Union Carbide infomercial. The book begins with a little boy wandering around an apocalyptic wasteland. He meets up with the Once-ler, a Charles Foster Kane–like tycoon who has holed himself up in a mansion because his greed has turned him into a bitter, shriveled wreck.

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads. . . .

The Once-ler tells the boy a story about how the wasteland used to be a blooming psychedelic paradise, but then the Once-ler went off and cut down all the Truffula Trees, which left the Brown Bar-ba-loots with no Truffula Fruit to eat, and then his massive factories caked up the air with smog, so the Swomee-Swans couldn’t sing their beautiful songs anymore, plus the poison goo from the Once-ler’s machines polluted all the ponds and gummed up all the gills of the Humming-Fish, and . . .

. . . and, well, the only person who tried to stop this ecological nightmare was an orange-mustached guy called the Lorax, but nobody listened to him, so everything was ruined. The end!

Now look. If my kids grow up wanting to do something about protecting the environment, I will be very, very proud of them. But really, I don’t think this Lorax stuff is going to do the trick. I can’t speak for my daughter, but I know for a fact that reading The Lorax scarred me for life. It did not rouse me to positive action. It traumatized me. As soon as our reading time was done, I tucked my daughter into bed, went down to the kitchen, opened the freezer, and grabbed a bottle of Stoli.

And don’t even get me started on The Giving Tree. It was written by poet Shel Silverstein, but if you told me that its real author was the Marquis de Sade, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked. In fact, there’s a photo of Shel Silverstein on the back of my hardcover copy of The Giving Tree in which he looks utterly evil. He’s got a shaved head, a dark beard, a chipped front tooth, and the kind of piercing stare that you’d expect to get from the leader of a prison gang on Rikers Island. When someone first sent this book to me and my wife as a present for our daughter, I couldn’t comprehend why any publishing house would put such a menacing picture on the back of a happy book for preschoolers.

Now I get it, because The Giving Tree is a tale of bottomless woe and horror, and the publishing house was obviously trying to warn us. In short, it’s about a little boy who loves a tree. He climbs the tree, he eats apples from the tree, he’s happy, but then one day he starts to grow up.

“I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy.
“I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money.
Can you give me some money?”
“I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money.”

Huh? Wait. Here I was halfway through the book, reading it out loud to my daughter and wondering, What the hell is going on? This is not a nice book! Why has the boy suddenly turned into such a scumbag?

It only got worse.

The grown-up boy gathers some apples and sells them, and then he gets older and chops off the branches of the tree to build a house, and then he gets even older and crankier and chops down the entire trunk of the tree to build a boat.

“I am too old and sad to play,”
said the boy.
“I want a boat that will
take me far away
from here.”

Jesus! Maybe I’m overprotective, but isn’t three or four years old a bit early for a kid to be introduced to the grisly concept of a midlife crisis? At the end of The Giving Tree, the “boy” has become a wrinkled, whiny, soulless husk, and there is nothing left of the tree, so the boy sits down on the stump to rest his arthritic joints. The end!

You know what? Screw that. I’d rather read Tropic of Cancer to my kid than take another spin through The Giving Tree. At least Henry Miller seemed to be having a little fun. Believe me, I’m a civil libertarian to the core, but the next time some wacko right-wingers in Kansas want to burn a pile of books, I will happily toss them our copy of The Giving Tree.

Some poems are just too sad, and therein lies the problem: Yeah, I would love to see my daughter grow up and become a lifelong reader of poetry, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I want her to grow up and become Sylvia Plath. (Well, considering “Daddy,” I suspect most fathers feel the same way.) I don’t want her to be cosmically bummed out all the time.

I would like her to be a reasonably happy and well-adjusted person, and sometimes I can’t help wondering—guiltily, and usually at the very back of my mind, where I also nurture a secret fondness for the music of John Mellencamp—whether too much early exposure to poetry actually winds up working against that goal.

Whether we’re talking about Emily Dickinson or Dr. Seuss, poetry often rises to real greatness when it gets at a core truth about human misery, and how much misery can a tiny brain take? Will too many sad poems turn my kid into a hopeless head case? Has anyone, like, looked into that? Isn’t it about time that we had a bunch of expensive, confusing, contradictory studies about the effect of poetry on toddlers?

Not long ago I picked up the Poetry Speaks to Children anthology and quickly learned from it that one of the great poems in the English language, a poem that in our suburban household has risen to a literary status equal to that of “The Waste Land” or “Song of Myself,” is Mary Ann Hoberman’s “Rabbit.” Here is how it begins:

A rabbit
bit
A little bit
An itty-bitty
Little bit of beet.
Then bit
By bit
He bit
Because he liked the taste of it.

Believe me, this poem never fails to leave my kid in stitches. Just seeing the cartoon picture of the rabbit is enough to make her fall out of bed laughing. When she’s older, my daughter and I can sit down together to contemplate environmental disasters and existential despair. For right now, laughter will do.

Cover illustration by Karen Kirchhoff.

  • Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food...

Essay on Children's Poetry

No Nightmares, Please

Why is so much children's poetry full of sadism and doom?
  • Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food...

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