The world of children’s literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.
When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?
In this series we will explore the world of children’s books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this fifth part we enter the magical world of children's poetry.
‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.’ (Lewis Carroll)
Why we love children's poems
Can you remember the first rhyme you learnt? Do you know where and when you first heard it? It's very unlikely you can do either of these. The first rhymes we hear are lullabies and short rhymes which are often hummed and sung to us when we are infants. We rarely remember learning them, but can invariably chant or sing them as soon as we hear them. These first encounters with poetic language belong to the oral tradition which we all have knowledge of. These rhymes have practical functions, ranging from soothing the crying baby to playing with and teaching words. They initiate us in the idea of playfulness within the rules of language. As Iona Opie writes, 'they are narratives which pack a whole drama into four or six lines' so they are like memorable stories in a condensed form (Hunt, 2004). At the same time rhymes can also be nonsensical, giving children the real power to play with language, the language, which cannot always express all our thoughts and feelings, and which is sometimes difficult to use or understand.
These rhymes are the foundations of our relationship with poetry, and this relationship develops through lullabies, nursery rhymes, school chants, conventional and less conventional poetry. We turn to them when we are with small children, and through them respond to the changing of the seasons, celebrations, important events and natural observations. As a result of this, as adults we often read poems to grasp a feeling or enjoy the beauty of language. A fascinating description of the power of poetry is given in the book Understanding Children's Literature (edited by Peter Hunt), when Hunt quotes the sixteenth-century humanist educationalist Juan Luis Vives (1913:126):
poems contain subjects of extraordinary effectiveness, and they display human passions in a wonderful and vivid manner. This is called energia. There breathes in them a certain great and lofty spirit so that the readers are themselves caught into it, and seem to rise above their own intellect, and even above their own nature.
Where can we find children's poems?
Children's rhymes and poems are easy to find as they come in many forms: nursery rhymes, dongs, skipping rhymes, folk poems and chants and classic verses. Some children's poetry is intentionally written for children, and some of it is written for adults and also suitable for children. There are famous examples of verses and chants in classic children's fiction, just think of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Some of the most famous children's poets are Edward Lear, Dr Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Jacqueline Woodson, Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Rosen, and classic writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Roald Dahl and Ted Hughes.
Here are two lists of poems we can recommend:
- 'Our favourite poetry books' compiled by BookTrust
- What are your favourite children's poems? - article on the Guardian Books Blog
Why should we read more poetry with children?
As great researchers of children's literature, like Morag Styles, Evelyn Arizpe and Abigail Rokison point out in the Routledge Companion to Children's Literature, poetry is an innovative and thriving form of art and it should be part of everyday educational practice. They refer to a 2007 study in the UK which claims that poetry is less well-taught than other subjects in English. They, just like us, invite you to read and teach more poetry in school and read more poetry (if possible, aloud) at home, too.
The Poetry and Memory Project, a recent research project run at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge investigated the impact of poetry on our memory. The researchers found that certain aspects of the verse form has found that 'even in fragments, memorised poetry appears to constitute a personal language capable of articulating deep emotional currents and subtle perceptions that cannot be communicated in any other form' (Pullinger & Whitley, 2016). They also explain that 'the distinctive qualities of poetic language – rhythm, rhyme, line length, image and rhetorical patterning – are sympathetic to the functioning and constraints of working and long-term memory.' The language teacher can also take advantage of these aspects of poetry. Through rhyme, rhythm and repetition they create memorable and playful resources which will motivate students to memorise short or long bodies of texts. We recommend you start a 'Poetry by Heart' project or start organising a poetry recital day for nursery, elementary and even secondary school students.
Apart from these benefits, the practical functions we discussed above also have a beneficial influence on learning. Poems do not only soothe the crying baby, but they also teach us things about the world and entertain us through their distinctive poetic functions, which let them condense complex feelings in a single verse.
Some fun ideas for poetry lovers
1 Start organising a Poetry Reading or Recital Day. These days can be successful even in nursery schools. Reading poetry aloud will also give your older students confidence once they realise it is okay and fun to play with language.
2 Give a poem as a gift. Poems make wonderful gifts. You can print and frame them, or you can write them in a card.
3 Choose poems for each month, important even or season and read them out loud to your students.
4 Look for famous people reading poems on YouTube or Vimeo.
5 Teach rhymes to older students as well. You can also write rhymes together. Here is an idea. During my lessons I like collecting words which are either new or difficult to pronounce for my students. At the end of each lesson I write a rhyme or a short poem with them and get all my students read them out loud.
Here are some more ideas to use poetry in the classroom:
- Debbie Pullinger & David Whitley (2016) Beyond Measure: The Value of the Memorised Poem, Changing English, 23:4, 314-325, DOI: 10.1080/1358684X.2016.1203248
- Iona Opie (2004). Playground Rhymes and the Oral Tradition. In. Hunt, P. (Ed.) (2004). International companion encyclopedia of children's literature. London: Routledge.
- Hunt, P. (2009). Understanding children's literature: Key essays from the second edition of The International companion encyclopedia of children's literature. London: Routledge.
- Rudd, D. (2012). The Routledge Companion to Children's Literature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Check out our post about picture books here: