Poetry for Children

girl-reading-poetry
image from Poetry Center Clip Art,

The arrival of a first grandchild is always a big event in any person’s life, and when that person is a writer, then a lot of the amazing and often unexpected emotions that are triggered by this joyous event find release and expression in what we find as natural as breathing—writing.

But it can be surprising how it comes out, and in my case, the arrival of beautiful little George, my daughter and son in law’s first child, has triggered two forms of writing that I’m not really known for: poetry and picture-book texts. Hardly surprising you might think, given that George, at nearly four months, is already loving being read to (how can he fail to grow up to be a reader, with a literary agent mother and author grandmother?). But in fact though I have already got one one picture book out, and working on others, the rebirth of my poetry instinct is what’s been most unexpected for me.

I say rebirth, because as a teenager that’s practically all I wrote, aside from short stories—I didn’t start tackling novels till I was well out of school. I filled exercise books and notebooks with lots of poetry, with varying results—some I can still read without wincing, others I can hardly bear to look at! But that was then—the poetry was full of angst and romantic adventures (or lack of them) and also attempts at writing in the style of poets I admired, such as WB Yeats and John Donne. What I’m writing now is very different—a return to the patterned, fun, rhymed forms of children’s poetry.

I’ve always loved reading and listening to poetry—my parents read us a lot, we had a lot at school, and as kids, we often spoke in rhymed sentences, just for fun. As a teenager I would often buy poetry books, as well as write my own, and when I had my own kids, I bought lots of poetry books specially for children, to read to them: wonderful collections like the Oxford books of poetry for kids, and lovely single books of poetry, from the classics like Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, AA Milne, to more modern but equally wonderful poets like James Reeves, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Max Fatchen, Michael Rosen, William Hart Smith and many many others too numerous to name!

We all loved sharing these poems, and many of them we can still recite, such as James Reeves’ wonderful “Cows”: with its hilarious, true-to-life cameos of cows grazing in the water-meadows “in the lazy month of May.” Look it up: it’s one for all the family!

I don’t quite know why writing my own poetry for children didn’t enter my mind then; maybe because I was busy writing novels, or because I was reading so much good kids’ poetry to my kids that I felt disinclined to try my own. In several of my books, I did have the odd verse or two, but it was nothing sustained. Not like what’s happening now.

Now, all kinds of lines of poetry keep coming into my head. The inspiration just seems to flow. Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write three poems to be set to music—and they came perfectly formed, the composer loved them, the commissioning body (a music conservatorium) loved them too. I keep seeing poetic images everywhere, even in the most unexpected of places: building sites, a signpost, a school bus. And they are most definitely children’s verses; not serious, but tricky, fun little flashes of surprising image, allied with rhyme and rhythm and humor.

It feels like playing; it feels like back when I was a kid and making up silly words with my brothers and sisters. It feels like the most fun I’ve had in quite a while. Writing novels is wonderful; but it is a different kind of wonderful. This is me really  letting go, being a kid again, revelling in sheer enjoyment of captured moments. And yet writing very much as an adult, delighting in the challenge, the clarity and distillation of words.  And it seems to work with other people too, for the poems are finding favor with magazines as well as conservatoriums! The poems are also lending strength to the picture-book texts, for picture books, especially for the very young, are clearly allied to poetry. As to George—well, he seems to approve!

Here’s a few bits of advice based on what I’ve learned both in the reading and writing of poetry for kids:

  • Don’t obsess about rhyme; rhythm is more important. Rhyme is great but shouldn’t be strained, and the right rhythm will give that nice pattern and flow anyway;
  • Have a single clear theme as the focus—for example, Reeves’ focus on a group of cows in the meadow;
  • Don’t be afraid to be unexpected with image and idea, but don’t strain after effect;
  • Keep the poems relatively short;
  • Don’t moralize;
  • The natural world is a wonderful source of inspiration, but you need to be imaginatively observant in order to avoid cliché;
  • Always keep your kid self in mind!
  • Read as much poetry for kids(and for adults!) as you can;
  • Have a look at specialist children’s poetry sites, like the brand-new Australian Children’s Poetry site, or the Children’s Poetry Archive, the Poetry Foundation site, and many others–explore!

Over to you: who were your favorite poets in childhood? And if you’re a writer of poetry as well as a reader, what’s your favorite thing about creating it?

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    I had two big favorites as a child. The feisty old lady who lived next door to us would thrill us with the dramatic way she would read Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” to my brother and me, something we begged her to do again and again.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171940

    And I always loved Hilaire Belloc’s mini-epic, “George, Who Played with a Dangerous Toy, and Suffered a Catastrophe of Considerable Dimensions.”

    http://holyjoe.org/poetry/belloc3.htm

    I performed this in a few English classes over the years, once with an elaborately spliced together soundtrack culminating in the cannon-firing finale of the 1812 Overture. Good times…

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    • says

      Yes, they’re gorgeous poems, each in their different ways! The Highwayman thrilled me too so much as a child, and I read it to my kids-we also bought the beautiful illustrated edition of it(illustrated by Charles Keeping). Loreena McKennitt has also set it to music, producing a spine-tingling sung version..And Belloc is great, appealing to that sense of the absurd in all kids–indeed all people!

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  2. says

    As fast as I could I went straight to the Doc,
    I ran in excited and did not even knock.
    “Poetry!” I said, “I need some real quick.
    My kid’s in his bed and he’s feeling quite sick.”

    “No worries,” said Doc, with a mischievous smile,
    “I’ve got just the thing if you give me a while.
    I’m working on something that rhymes tit-for-tat.
    It’s about two bored kids and a cat in a hat.”

    “Oh dear, my dear Doc,” I said with a frown.
    “Can’t you make it a dog, or maybe a clown?”
    “Oh no,” said the Doc, “It must be a cat.
    “There’s nothing as funny as a cat in a hat.”

    Doc was quite right, I’m glad to report.
    My kid loved the cat and his wild cavorts.
    “Did that really happen?” asked my kid with a sigh.
    “Oh yes,” I told him, “The Doc doesn’t lie.”

    “I hope it rains soon,” my kid said super quick.
    His eyes were shining, he didn’t look sick.
    “Cause then I can wait for that cat to come by,
    what trouble we’ll make with his friends, he and I!”

    Morals aren’t good in poetry they say,
    but the point of the story you picked up on the way.
    Don’t ask Doc for rhymes because he’s got a neat trick.
    His poems turn the tables and make parents quite sick.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Starred Review: Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

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    • says

      Oh say can you say
      The Doc’s more than okay!

      Thank you Donald for such a fabulous response–great fun! Brought back many memories both of my own enjoyment reading the Doc, and my kids’! Can’t wait to introduce George to the Cat, the Fox in socks, Horton, Hooey, and all the crew!

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  3. says

    Don you had me smiling at that tribute to Dr. Seuss!

    Sophie, how lovely that the poems are flowing for you. I cannot for the life of me make poetry happen, but they do come at odd moments and that’s when I write them down. I find wordplay a wonderful way to switch between different projects, and some of those little poems have made it in print. What I love best? The illustrations that go with it.

    Congratulations on your new grandbaby and the rebirth of your poetic self.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Lenten Fasts and Feasts

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  4. says

    I’m like you – I used to write mainly poetry, and only turned to novels later in life. When I decided to start writing “seriously” again, I actually wrote a children’s poem based off of some pictures my nephew drew, and have plans for another one for the “series.” I don’t really know what to do with them, but they’re fun and definitely have the sense of play about them.

    What I love most about poetry is catching imagery with words, in a very visual manner. Some of my favorite poets are the nature focused poets like Hardy and Frost. I also love Shakespeare, because all his works are like poetry and talk about catching imagery! I also have a real appreciation for rhyme. I am an iambic pentameter kind of girl!

    This was a great post! And writing the comment even made me happy, so apparently thinking of poetry is good for me! :D
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Funny Friday Photos

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  5. says

    I can’t write, I can’t draw. I can read. But one of my grandchildren is 3,000 miles away. The other 2 are close by. A letter monthly would be SOOO boring. So I started writing a story a month. Then I had to add pictures (stick figures. You should see my flying horse!). Well, they are all under 3. So it’s a continuing story of 3 cousins having adventures in Magic City. I print a story out, add the pics, copy the pages, and put them in plastic folders that go in their notebooks so they can “read” to themselves as often as they want without the pages falling apart. The babies are happy with their books written just for them and don’t care that I can’t write or draw.

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  6. says

    I’ve always written mostly prose, with a deep respect for poetry. I think it can really help wordsmiths capture images with words, as Lara pointed out above. As a mother, sometimes lines of poetry flash into my head, like the way my daughter’s hair glows in late afternoon as we walk on the farm. The snippets are jotted down in various spots- perhaps I should get more organized!
    I like having my children read poetry aloud- Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstine, Jack Prelutsky (sp?). It’s a great way to practice expressive reading, and yet the pieces are short enough not to wear them out.
    Thanks for this!
    Julia Tomiak´s last blog post ..A Runner’s Lexicon

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