Top 5: Poetry for Preschoolers

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

2. Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, by Michael Rosen, ill. by Quentin Blake – age: 4+

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

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.)

(This title available at

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.

(This title available at

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.


Top 5: Poetry for the Very Young

Poetry is a perfect way to introduce your child to the sheer pleasure of words, playing with rhythm, rhyme, humour and imagination. Even a baby will enjoy the musical qualities of poems read aloud, even if they don’t quite understand their meaning.

Of course a great many picture books are written in rhyme – Each Peach Pear Plum, the Madeline books, Drummer Hoff, Mister Magnolia, and the entire works of Dr. Seuss for example! Here are some poetry collections and classics to begin with, suitable for infants on up. (Click on links for full reviews.)   Coming soon: poems for preschoolers (3 to 6).

1. The Mother Goose Treasury, ill. by Raymond Briggs (Hamish Hamilton, 1966) – Ages: infant +

There are many, many collections out there to choose from. This one is particularly comprehensive (and a Greenaway Medal Winner). A nice big book of nursery rhymes is also a perfect baby shower gift!  (Available at

2. The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles, Maude and Miska Petersham (Simon & Schuster, 1945) – Ages: infant +

Another collection of old folk rhymes, including such classics as “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear”. The kind of rhymes you don’t remember anyone teaching you… you just feel like you’ve always known them. (Available at

3. All Join In, Quentin Blake (Jonathon Cape, 1990) – Ages: 2 +

Rollicking rhymes that invite everyone to “all join in!” Poetry at its most accessible: loud, raucous and fun!

4. The Owl and the Pussycat / The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, Edward Lear – Ages: 2 +

Lear’s classics of nonsense and word-invention (runcible spoon?) successfully stand the test of time. The Owl and the Pussycat is especially lovely and romantic. (NB. Lear’s limericks are rather more problemmatic, fairly violent and dark, but these two poems are blissfully serene.)  (Owl on amazon; Quangle on amazon.)

5. A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – Clement Clarke Moore (1823) – Ages: 2+

Don’t forget this seasonal classic, available in many, many editions. (Here’s one on

Check out my follow-up list – Top 5: Poetry for Preschoolers (3-6).

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.