Last week’s list was Poetry for the Very Young, the baby-to-2 crowd, and now we move up to 3 and beyond.
1. When We Were Very Young / Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne – age: 3+
Published in 1924 and 1927, these two collections successfully walk the tightrope between sentimentality and humour. The danger in nostalgic poetry about childhood for children is that it ends up appealing more to grownups with their own fond memories of a simpler time. The Milne poems are charming for grownups, but the playful energy will still hook children, every very young ones. You can pick and choose as you go (some poems are very long); I was reading these with my daughter when she was three and she had favourites she’d ask for again and again. Now that she’s five I may pull these books out once more… (Available combined into one volume, at amazon.com)
This is a combination of two earlier books, Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and You Can’t Catch Me, which came out in 1985 and 1981 respectively. Rosen’s work is less structured and more conversational, made up of tidbits of children’s speech and a smattering of nonsense. His introduction to this edition is written for children aged 7 or 8, and encourages them to perform the poems out loud and take a stab at writing poems themselves. Rosen has written many books of poetry for children and was appointed the British Children’s Laureate in 2007. (This title available at amazon.com)
3. Alligator Pie, by Dennis Lee – age: 4+
Even more raucous fun. This Canadian classic from 1974 sets the bar high for sheer audacity and infectious nonsense. The title poem must (yes, I say must) be taught to your child and memorized so that the both of you can recite it together at the top of your lungs.
4. Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein – age: 5+
Another much-loved collection, this was also published in 1974 (a banner year for children’s poetry!). This one is perfect for slightly older children, with poems like “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor” and others with less than cheery endings. Still, it retains a light touch and is pretty hilarious. (This one is my 5-yr-old’s current favourite.)
5. The New Kid on the Block, by Jack Prelutsky – age: 6+
There are many collections by this prolific poet, this one came out in 1984. Slightly sharper-edged humour, more sarcasm, more complex jokes, and a more advanced vocabulary. Of the “Homework! Oh homework! I hate you! You stink!” school of playground humour, this collection is both tougher (“Suzanna Socked Me Sunday”) and grosser (“Jellyfish Stew”) than the others on this list. Still, quite funny and enjoyable.
I had originally intended to include in this list the classic A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885), which is very important historically as a first serious attempt to write poetry from a child’s point of view and in a child’s voice, but it proved to be fairly unreadable cover-to-cover, child-wise. A little too sentimental and nostalgic. And it doesn’t have enough humour to really grab the imagination of a modern reader. It’s possible that a child with more literary tastes might enjoy it – or perhaps RLS’s poems are better encountered individually within anthologies.