What's Wrong With Poetry Books for Children: A Teacher's Lament
Recently I spent 10 weeks as a classroom teacher again, after a long hiatus. One night, I stayed late at school to prepare the shelves for our cross-genre reading unit. My six-year-olds were going to hunt through baskets of books to find fiction, nonfiction, and poetry related to a topic of interest to them. I ransacked the shelves and filled the baskets with books about math for a boy in my class named Evan, about U.S. presidents for Deana, and old-fashioned automobiles for Eliana.
Over the course of the week each child would pick a topic and read for information about it from different genres, so I'd spend prep time making it easier for them to get the books they needed. But when it came to poetry, I hunted around and was pulled up short. All the poetry books were unwieldy and hard to categorize by topic. They were also oddly shaped: I had to place them between our book baskets because they were too big, too fat, and too wide to go inside. One of the metal bookends I was using bent and the books clattered to the floor like the dominoes the children set up in snaking rows around a table at indoor recess.
Take a perennial favorite, Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends. Because poetry lends itself to being read aloud, most teachers of young children (myself included) keep a copy of this beloved book on a shelf by the daily schedule, cover faced out, or tucked into a larger basket of read-aloud books on the rug where the class gathers for morning meeting.
Unfortunately, at 176 pages, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a heavy book, so for the most part it remains in the hands—and the power—of the adult. I'm not saying the kids in my class couldn't or didn't browse through it on their own but they were generally less inclined to pick up this book and other classroom poetry books because they were big and occupied a separate space.
Children's poetry lends itself to collections and weighty titles: Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose, The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry, and The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury, to name a few. A good number of anthologies have "100" in the title, like poetry is an Olympic weight-lifting event: 100 Best Poems, 100 Best-Loved Poems, 101 Poems for Children. Put 100 or more poems together, add illustrations, and you've got a too-big book, by most kids' standards. Yet it's precisely the smallness and portability of a poem that appeals to a child. All by itself, a poem is a kid-sized bite.
One could argue, of course, that a 32-page picture book is a poem in itself. Marjorie Flack's Angus and the Cat is the most perfect read-aloud book ever. I love the cadence, the typography and the subtle tension between dog and cat. I read it over and over to my young son and each time he and I responded anew with delight. Like a good poem, each reading deepened our appreciation.
And smaller poetry books do exist. One of my favorites is Roar and More by the late Karla Kuskin, known for her poetic, alliterative style. Written in 1956, Roar and More is a simple book of rhymes with big, bold colors, yet small enough to hold. It's a step in the right direction: a medium-sized poetry book.
The master of tiny poetry books is that great pioneer of children's books, Maurice Sendak. Many of his early books are small in size, and poetic, and some are, in fact, books of poems, like the classic Chicken Soup With Rice from the four-book Nutshell Library series.
Putting Poetry in Kids' Grasp
An entire book of poems about chicken soup with rice! That's nice, but many children, like my students, are also keen to search out poems on topics like cars, presidents, numbers, and dogs. Poets, or at least their publishers, heavily favor lyrical poetry themes: the moon, the stars, the snowy woods. I only wanted a little book of easy-to-read poems about cars. Of course, poems on such topics exist, but they have to be found for the most part in anthologies. The best single-topic book with child-friendly poems I was able to locate for my purposes were Douglas Florian's charming, medium-sized Insectlopedia and Beast Feast. (Later, after my project, I discovered his Poem-Mobiles, written with J. Patrick Lewis).
Not only were poems on the topics my students cared about hard to find, they were also difficult to categorize by reading level and topic. Most teachers today sort books by increments of difficulty so kids can read at their "just right" reading level and thus progress as readers. I don't mind, in theory at least, that poetry defies easy categorization and reading-level systemization. Such things can be overdone. But, to address the problem of topic, I did have to spend a few hours after school searching through anthologies for poems to run off on cardstock. Then, to address the problem of book size, I laminated the cards and placed them in the baskets for the children to find next to the fiction and nonfiction books.
If a child cannot be in charge of the poem, how can she make it her own? How can she grasp poetry if the size and shape of the books are literally hard to grasp? Perhaps we send a message to our youngest readers that poetry is a difficult genre from the start when the classroom poetry books are heavy, separated from other books, or buried on the shelves. The kids in the classroom where I recently taught often brought me broken books to repair, including paperback versions of their favorites, The Magic School Bus, The Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones. But the books never included poetry, because the poetry books had not been built for small hands, skinny arms, little laps—and therefore, hadn't been handled to the point of breaking down.