April is Poetry Month!

Generally, when I bring up poetry to my classes I get a lot of groans and sighs and general looks that translate as “oh please no! Read us something fun like you did the last time! Please!” But I’m a stickler. Every April I rev up for poetry programs with every class that comes to visit me-- first through fifth grade. And the reason I’m a stickler is that by the time I’m done, most of my listeners race to the poetry section, eager to discover more. Or, at least they realize that poetry is not always a groan-worthy boring exercise.

Now, to be perfectly fair, poetry can be boring. Teachers tend to focus on the mechanics of it and how to write it and like any lessons that can be hard work to learn. I don’t have to worry about that bit. I’m not there to teach kids how to identify, classify or create poetry. I’m there to teach them how to enjoy it, and some of the stuff out there that they can find. I’m a firm believer that poetry in large part is meant to be read aloud. Most poems on the page are dead and lifeless until they are heard. So that is what I do.

But what to read them? Years ago, it was difficult to find any kind of children’s poetry other than nursery rhymes and a few authors who wrote poetry that was sort of okay for children. Nowadays, there’s a whole section featuring authors who specialize in children’s poetry. And there's a range of poems to suit just about any reader and theme. The list I’ve compiled here are my personal favorites that I use annually with my students. It’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to poems, but hopefully it will give you some surefire winners, some inspiration and some excitement for poetry this April.

My first two additions to the list are masters of the field. Their whole body of work is worth looking through and sharing.

Shel Silverstein – Probably the best known author of children’s poetry in the last century, the late great Silverstein has published several volumes of delightfully deviant, funny, thought-provoking and outrageous poems. (Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light In the Attic, Don’t Bump the Gump, Falling Up) Silverstein’s stuff has been considered controversial—he doesn’t write sweet gentle poetry. What’s great about it is he doesn’t talk down to kids, instead he’s like a big kid himself with the kind of personality that you can imagine got him in trouble quite often! Some adults may be taken aback by his poems (I love reading “Dreadful” to my listeners. The first line opens with “Someone ate the baby . . .” and gets worse from there). For a real treat, find the audio of Silverstein reading his own poems aloud. He’s magnificent at it!

Jack Prelutsky—slightly less well known than his counterpart, Prelutsky has a wide range of titles under his belt and you’re sure to find some of his work in any library. Like Silverstein, he can be outrageous and gross, but tends to a wider range of poetic style. He writes story-poems and concrete poems, creature poems and spooky poems. Poems for new readers and creative, imaginative poems for older readers. Some of his volumes of work include A Pizza the Size of the Sun, Something Big has Been Here, and the New Kid on the Block. What Prelutsky does really well is create poems that relate to the world that kids are growing up in, with just a touch of absurdity and mayhem. He’s great for reading aloud or for demonstrating concrete poetry. And he’s a great template for helping kids write their own stuff. A spooky treat, if you can find it is one of his oldest works The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. It’s out of print, but worth a read, especially round Halloween!

Prelutsky also has had a hand in the first specific title I’m going to add to my list:

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, paintings by Ted Rand. – This is my secret weapon for poetry programs—and it hasn’t let me down yet. You might be surprised to find it isn’t funny, it isn’t gross and all the poems in the book are haiku format. How can this be my secret weapon? Well, because these aren’t traditional haiku, but riddle haiku. Each 2-page layout has a 4 line poem with the correct number of syllables per line and then a picture of the animal they describe. I read the poems without turning the book around, so the kids can’t see the picture. Then I let them guess. Some of these riddles are more difficult to guess, and usually I’ll pick and choose according to the ages and their ability, but I’ve found every first thru fifth grade audience is happy to participate in this guessing game.

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Other stories you're sure to like, Because they're all about Monsters, and Some of them are also about Food by Adam Rex—every arsenal needs a few purely silly books. Here’s mine. This book is loaded with some rather mediocre poetry, but it’s extremely silly, and as such, kids just love it. Of course, my own favorite bit is The Phantom of the Opera Can’t Get It’s a Small World out of His Head which becomes a running gag throughout the book. This is usually my anchor read at the end of the program—since kids are anxious to hear something from it and I can use it as a “treat” at the end. Adams has created a follow up book entitled Frankenstein Takes the Cake which is more of the same silliness.

Another useful book is the Random House Book of Poetry for Children selected by Jack Prelutsky and Illustrated by Arnold Lobel.—This I use for memorizing short poems to recite to my kids, since the pictures are small and monochrome. But it contains a wealth of bite-size poems just right for recitation! My personal favorite is Edward Lear’s “Sing me a Song of Teapots and Trumpets” which is nonsense verse at its finest. I like to use it to demonstrate how words can be combined for sound rather than sense in a poem.

Sometimes, it’s worth a look at a poem that spans one entire book. A great example of this is Hurry, Hurry Mary Dear by N. M. Bodecker, illustrated by Erik Blegvad. A poem that is brief, but amusing as the narrator heckles his wife to get ready for winter. And the illustrator has the last laugh.

Okay, so now I’ve spoken about a lot of funny and outrageous stuff. But what about the more formal poetry? The stuff that our mothers and fathers had to memorize and can still recite if asked? Well, I include a bit of it here—but only a bit. I’ll often mention how sound can play a huge role in poems, and recite the first stanza of The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe to demonstrate. I also usually like to talk about how poems can tell an entire story and how it can talk about historical or legendary events.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is by far my favorite choice for this discussion. Most older grades know who Paul Revere is and what he did, so introducing a poem about his exploits isn’t completely unfamiliar to them. I usually only read up to the end of the stanza where Revere relates “one if by land, two if by sea/ and I on the opposite shore will be/ ready to ride and raise the alarm/ through every Middlesex village and farm/ for the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Another option in this vein is not a real historical event, but is historical is Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 by Ernest L. Thayer and Christopher Bing. This famous poem of a folk-hero baseball star who ultimately fails is a great way to discuss how poems can be historical without being quite so archaic in language and subject. This particular adaption of the poem is great as the illustrator has gone to great pains to make the entire thing look like newspaper pages from the late 1800s.

For older readers I often sneak in The Tyger by William Blake. I have a fabulous picture book version of this poem with stunning pictures that capture the audience and lead up to a big reveal at the end. I like to discuss with my listeners how this was written a long time ago, but people are still inspired by it. And even if they don’t understand all the text and meaning, they can start to get the feeling of the poem.

If you have more than one reader with you for the performance, also look for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman. These poems all call for two readers at once and the poetry is created by the two voices weaving together.

For something different, try Beyond the Great Mountains: a Visual Poem about China by Ed Young. Young is a consummate artist when it comes to picture books, and this one offers a visual page turning combined with words that is likely to intrigue older readers—especially any audience that has some familiarity with Chinese character writing.

There are so many options for poetry these days. So you many easily find your own list of great poems and poetry collections to share. I think the main trick is show enthusiasm for poetry yourself and enjoy reading these aloud, whether you have a large audience or are reading one on one, poetry can be a rewarding experience!

Happy Reading! ^_^ Shanshad