Poetry for Children

I hate what passes for children’s verse these days.   Not only does it lack anything that might approach the poetic, preferring instead to take awkward prose and make it even more awkward by forcing it into artless rhymes, but it has no sense whatsoever of rhythm or metre.

Now, I am not of the opinion that all children’s poetry needs to be rhymed and metred, not at all.  Just as with any poetry, a regular metre is in no way necessary to good poetry.  The problem is that so much children’s verse, and virtually all of the children’s verse that is published in picture books, clearly attempts to be metred.  It most often takes the form of the ballad stanza (xaxa rhyme scheme with lines alternating between iambic tetrametre and iambic trimetre) or rhyming couplets of iambic pentametre, but whatever the form it takes, it is clearly written with little or no understanding of the metrical principles underlying whatever form has been chosen.  The result is in most cases is a completely unreadable rhythm. Let me give a few examples.

The zipper has two sides.
They both fit in.
Just zzzzzzip all the way–
Right up to your chin.
(Snap! Button! Zip! by Abigail Tabby)

His Drawers were of Rabbit-skins;– so were his Shoes;–
His Stockings were skins,–bit it is not known whose;–
(The Old Man and the Suit by Edward Lear)

Down by the river bank, Crocodile was trying to nap,
when Mungo jumped out of the trees and gave his nose a tap.
“Want to play?” Mungo asked. “I know a good game.”
“Really said Crocodile suspiciously. “What’s its name?”
“Funny faces,” said Mungo. “What do you say?”
“I’m not sure said Crocodile. “I don’t know how to play.”
“Easy,” said Mungo. “All you have to do,
is pull a funny face. Look, I’ll show you.”
And he pulled on one jaw, and pushed on the other.
Then he jammed them both together.
Hey, Croc!” he giggled. That’s a really funny face!”
Help!” choked Crocodile, “How do I get out of this?”
(Lost and Alone by Jillian Harker)

These examples are not the worst of their kind.  I chose them because they were the first that came to hand off my kids’ bookshelf, and I could have given many others, some much worse.  The problem with this kind of verse is not so much technical, though they very often display a serious lack of technical poetic knowledge, and though a little technical knowledge would probably improve them to no end.  The problem is that they have a complete lack of rhythm.  Their authors, for whatever reason, fail to hear the music, the movement, the cadence of the language.  They fail to hear the stresses and accents of the words, fail to hear how they should transition from one to the other in a way that is musical and poetic.  The problem is that they lack all poetic sensibility of any kind and that publishers either fail to recognize this lack or fail to think it important in writing for children.

Of course, not all recent children’s verse fails in this way.  The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler is one example of metrically and rhythmically sound verse, as is Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, and most books by Sandra Boynton, and just about anything by Dr. Seuss .  There are also some children’s books that take great care to maintain a strong sense of rhythm without any formal metre at all, like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown or Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  Here are some examples by way of comparison:

Jack was getting sleepy,
Father read with Kate,
Jack needed singing to,
So Nora had to wait.
“I’m leaving!” shouted Nora,
And I’m never coming back!”
And they didn’t hear a sound
But a tralala from Jack.
Father stopped his reading.
Mother stopped her song.
“Mercy!” said her sister,
“Something’s very wrong.”
No Nora in the cellar.
No Nora in the tub.
No Nora in the mailbox
Or hiding in the shrub.
“She’s left us!” moaned her mother
As they sifted through the trash.
“But I’m back again!” said Nora
With a monumental crash.
(Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells)

We hippos love our belly b’s.
They’re round and cute and funny.
And there’s a place we take them to
When summer days are sunny.
Ah! Look at all the hippos
With a belly button each.
Do you wonder where we are?
It’s Belly Button Beach.
Where tons of hippos stand around
In bathing suits too little
Because they hope you will admire
The buttons on their middle.
(Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton)

In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of–
The cow jumping over the moon
And there were three little bears sitting on chairs
And two little kittens
And a pair of mittens
And a little toyhouse
And a young mouse
And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush
And a Quiet old Lady who was whispering hush.
(Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown)

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
and another
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew–
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max
And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.
(Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)

These kinds of books, even when they are not formally metred, pay such close attention to the rhythm and the music of their language that the reader never stumbles or labours over a phrase.  The movement of the words draws the reader along and creates a reading experience that is simply not possible when a misplaced syllable or an awkward phrase or a poor rhyme or a jarring metre interrupts the verse.  Unfortunately, these kinds of examples are by far the minority.  In far too many cases children’s verse means only phrases of roughly similar lengths that are arranged awkwardly in order to arrive at forced rhyming words.

As you can likely tell, all of this is more than a little frustrating for me, and I have been enduring it for at least as long as I have been reading books to my kids, but I reached my limit with it this morning.  My two boys and I were walking downtown, picking up my wife’s boots from the repair shop and buying baking supplies from The Flour Barrel, and we decided to stop in at The Bookshelf on the way home.  We do this sometimes, not because we intend to buy anything, since I hardly ever buy new books, but because my kids like to have me read any newly arrived books to them.  Both boys picked three books, and I saw something interesting myself, so we had seven new books to read, which should be a good day any way you look at it.

Unfortunately, five of the seven books were in verse, and all five were so poorly metred that I could hardly read them.  One of them, an ABC’s hockey picture book had to be paraphrased because I could no longer bring myself to read the actual words.  How, I want to know, have we as parents come to accept this trash for our children?  At what point did we stop caring whether the books written for our children were even readable?  How on earth do we expect to encourage our children to read when this is what we put in front of them?  When will we stop sticking random rhymes together and start taking the time and expending the effort to write real poetry for children?

I am so frustrated that I am tempted to try my hand at some children’s verse myself, and I may still be forced to that extremity, but I am first taking the step of removing from our house every children’s book that is not worth reading, whether because of its verse or for any other reason, because I am no longer willing to spend our time reading poorly written books.  Secondly, I am asking you to share with me your favourite children’s books, in verse or otherwise, that meant something to you as a child or as a parent or as teacher or in any other capacity.  There will soon by space on our bookshelves, and I need suggestions to fill them.

  1. Devin said:

    Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne
    Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett
    Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
    Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
    Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman
    Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman
    The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
    The Cam Jansen mystery series by David A. Adler

    *warning: be sure to check before buying–some of these might have some adult themes.

  2. Perhaps the solution is to do the classical cliche and works some couplets and verse into Lindy?

    Another solution might be demonstrated through this man, who is in fact the only solution I can think of…

    although, given his reading of Goodnight Moon,

    but it even works for adults

  3. Lauren said:

    I’m so glad Sandra Boynton meets with your approval, because I find her stuff delightful, with a side of hilarious. Her books (specifically “But Not The Hippopotamus” and “Hippos Go Berserk”) are my go-to new baby gifts, often paired with The Gruffalo.

    If your boys aren’t averse to picture books featuring girls, the Jillian Jiggs books are written in a very pleasing style of verse. (At least, that is true assuming I recall correctly — it’s been a while.)

  4. Lauren,

    I have never read the Jillian Jigs books. Maybe I should check them out.

  5. John Jantunen said:

    I’ve calculated that we’ve read somewhere in the vicinity of five thousan books to my kids over the past eight years (and that’s a conservative estimate): I agree, most are drek but off the top of my head these will always satisfy:

    Listen Buddy, Helen lester
    Keeper of Soles & April Foolishness, Theresa Batemen
    The Scary Old Tree & The Honey Tree, Bernsteins
    Any picture book by Berke Breathed (of Bloom County fame)
    Max, The World’s Greatest Detective (any in the series should do).

  6. Sandatola said:

    Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum
    Icky sticky bubble gum
    Chewy gooey bubble gum
    Lying in the road.

    Along comes a toad
    A fine fat toad
    A fine, fat, wild – SPLAT
    Wart-backed toad

    Wow oh wow, the toad’s stuck now.

    So begins Lisa Wheeler’s book, as a menagerie of animals get stuck with the toad in the bubble gum. It has a great rhythm that my two-year old can recite nearly as well as I can.

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