Books of Poetry I'd Want in My Classroom

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Remember when we thought poems for children had to be whimsical things about fairies and elves or saccharine things about swings and kites? Apparently, poets assumed that they should write about small things for small people and if they pretended that childhood was a time of gazing pensively at clouds, kids would do more of it. Adults (some of them) read those things aloud with a flutey tone that made our heads snap up the first time we heard it and made us glaze over after that.

Often they made us memorize the stuff. This made other adults smile and most of us kids gag. Then along came Shel Silverstein (Shel Silverstein's website). He wrote poems about picking your nose and selling your baby sister and adults (some of them) winced and kids guffawed and kids' poetry was changed forever. Now we've got the gamut of emotions and subjects in kids poetry. There are many great anthologies and collections of works by single poets. Some are gorgeously illustrated and others just give a sketch or two for illustration and rely on the poems to carry the book.

Poetry, of course, be it for child or adult (and the distinction is not always clear) is very much a matter of perception. Poems speak to the individual, even more than stories do, and some are not speaking to you -- at least not right now. The rules of poetry selection are the same as for the selection of any kind of literary material that you're going to use with your kids. It must speak to you as the living breathing adult you are before you can help it speak to kids. If it's supposed to be funny, it should make you laugh or at least smile. If it's supposed to be sad, it should choke you up a bit. If it's a description of a thing or a feeling, it should help you see it or feel it in a new way. Otherwise, it's not for you. Put it aside. Maybe later you will hear it but not now.

So, which of all the books of poetry will you choose for your classroom? Every one you can afford. Since that probably doesn't make for many. Let me tell you what my choices would be. I'll have to cheat a bit, of course, because it depends on what grade you teach. I'll try for some with the broadest levels of interest but you can be more choosy than I can. Here we go.

My first choice will surprise you because it's not a book for kids at all. Probably most of the poems in it will go right over their heads. It's Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992 ISBN 0807068187. Hardcover, Paperback.). Oliver's poetry is simple and direct. Most of the poems are about nature but she uses an element of nature as a metaphor for the human condition. These poems speak to me. They may not be your cup of tea at all. The point is, make one of your choices a poet for yourself not for the kids. One of the reasons you use poetry with kids is to show them the wonders of that sparsity and choice of words and the beauty of the form. You've got to practice what you preach so, when you have sustained silent reading, sometimes you should select poetry for your reading pleasure. Have one book of poems you like to read.

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Then I want some children's poets I like. Valerie Worth's poems remind me of slow motion film. The simple act of a dog lying down is described by Worth in such careful detail that, the next time you see Old Tray about to take a nap, you see it as beauty in motion. She writes about small things with small poems and they open your eyes. Most of her poems don't rhyme and they may give some kids courage to try to observe as carefully as she did and write about it. My choice for number two? All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth with illustrations by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar, 1994 ISBN 0374302111. Hardcover, Paperback.).

Eve Merriam was a wonderful woman. I loved her poetry before I met her and then was so charmed by this articulate, worldly woman with the heart of a wise child that I regretted all the years I hadn't known her. She's no longer with us but her poetry is. I'd want a collection of her poems. My personal favorite is Fresh Paint (Macmillan, 1986 ISBN 0027668606. Order Online.). It's currently out of print but you can find it in many libraries.

David McCord was another favorite. He was a very proper Bostonian who lived at the Harvard Club, no less, but he treasured words and kids. Many of his poems are about nature and many involve word play and puzzles. His collected works are in One at a Time (Little Brown, 1986 ISBN 0316555169. Order Online.). Unfortunately, it's also out of print right now, but they'll bring it back in print soon. They have to. In the meantime, grab the library's copy.

I want a Shel Silverstein in my collection too, partly because of the way he revolutionized poetry but mostly because his work will keep reminding me that I mustn't wax too lyrically with kids or I'll lose their interest. Shel brings me back to the real world quickly. I'll take his first book of poems Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, 1987 ISBN 0060256680. Paperback, Hardcover.) but you take your favorite.

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My next choice is one of many wonderful anthologies of poetry compiled by Paul B. Janeczko, The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Work (Atheneum, 1990 ISBN 0027476715. Library Binding.). Janeczko's selections tend to be for older kids and this one gives you both the poems and the words of the poets who try to explain what they were trying to do in a particular poem or what inspired them to write it. If you work with kids from 4th grade up, you need Janeczko.

My seventh choice is one you probably have on your desk already. It's the wonderful anthology done by Jack Prelutsky and Arnold Lobel, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 1983 ISBN 0394850106. Hardcover.). Here you will find your old favorites and some new ones, five hundred of them and they're categorized by subjects like seasons and home. That makes it easy to find related poems. You'll have Post-its sticking all over it.

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Another anthology that should be right where you can lay your hands on it is Beatrice Shenk de Regniers' Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child's Book of Poems (Scholastic, 1988 ISBN 059043974X. Library Binding.). It's a dynamite collection of poems illustrated by illustrators like Maurice Sendak, Leo & Diane Dillon and Arnold Lobel. The multiple artists make each turn of the page an adventure in viewing as well as listening. These categories are less objective than in the Prelutsky collection: spooky poems, mostly nonsense, and the like. Biographical information is included about poets and illustrators. You'll like it.

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For a fun look at using an unusual viewpoint for the voice of the poet I love Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes by Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Petra Mathers. (2008, Harcourt. ISBN 9780152050504. Order Info.) Individual clothes are the first person narrators in this collection of charming poems. Titles include "Bob's Bicycle Helmet," "Jack's Soccer Jersey" and "Jamelia's Dress-up Clothes."

My last choice is the hardest one of all to find. In fact it may not even exist yet, but it will and it must. You need your own hand-made, hand-chosen anthology of poetry. In it will be poems you found in a magazine, your favorites from your own childhood, and dozens and dozens from every other poetry source imaginable. No published anthology can hold a candle to the one you create yourself. If you're really smart, that anthology is in a notebook on your desk, but it's also on your computer. It's the sections, the grouping, you see, that makes it so useful. In your notebook you may have put "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" under winter but you need a poem about a horse and you'll never think to look for it there. On your computer, however, you can make a database that will let you type in "horse", or "sleigh", or "snow", or "death" and up will pop Frost -- just what you were looking for.

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My next choice is not a single book but a whole series of anthologies that come from England. John Foster is the anthologist and the books have titles like Another First Poetry Book (Oxford, 1988 ISBN 019917119X. Paperback.), Another Fourth Poetry Book (Oxford 1989 ISBN 0199171254. Paperback, Hardcover.), Another Second Poetry Book (Oxford 1988 ISBN 0199162298. Paperback.) and on and on they go. They're thin volumes -- about 128 pages -- and the irreverence of some of the poems will remind you of Jack Prelutsky's work, but the beauty of these volumes is that, since most of the poets are English, the poems are not overly familiar to most of us. They're breezy and fun and, picking up a volume and browsing through it will almost certainly guarantee you of one delight you haven't heard before.

Those of you who've ever heard Ashley Bryan bring his exuberance and love of life to the reading of poetry will never forget it. Certainly I have not. I pick up any volume he has touched with his voice singing in my head. His latest effort Ashley Bryan's ABC of African-American Poetry (Atheneum, 1997 ISBN 0689812094. Library Binding.) is wonderful. He uses pieces of poems, verses and whole poems to speak the words and sounds of African American poets. The selections will make you want to hear more so alert the librarian to expect kids in search of more poems and more by Hughes, Brooks and their brother and sister poets after you've shared this volume. Add Ashley Bryan's vibrant art work and you've got a book that will sing its way off the bookshelf and into any open heart.

Look! There's a kid dragging his sister down the street. It's suddenly begun to rain! And I have just the poem for us right here in my hand.


More Great Poetry Books

Jack Prelutsky's many books of poetry are all great for classroom use.
Listing of Prelutsky's Books


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