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The Wonderland of Children's Poetry

By Joseph T. Thomas, Jr.

April is National Poetry Month. What better time to introduce the young people in our lives to the varied and exciting world that is children's poetry. The landscape of children's poetry is vast, the terrain irregular and sometimes intimidating. Any map of this peculiar world will necessarily leave out many important landmarks, so consider this essay simply a helpful sketch, an idiosyncratic charting of a place as fantastic as Dorothy's Oz or Alice's Wonderland. I leave it to you and the young ones you love to fill in the details.

Early MoonWe can begin our tour with Carl Sandburg's lively collection Early Moon (1930). Composed in free verse, his poems are political without being didactic. Take, for instance, "Street Window":

The pawn-shop man knows hunger,
And how far hunger has eaten the heart
Of one who comes with an old keepsake.

Sandburg's populism is also apparent in "Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight," a poem comprised of winding, muscular lines as strong and direct as the Chicago workers it describes: "The rolling-mill men and the sheet-steel men are brothers of cinders; they empty cinders out of their shoes after a day's work; they ask their wives to fix burnt holes in the knees of their trousers; their necks and ears are covered with a smut; they scour their necks and ears; they are brothers of cinders."

Dream KeeperAnother Depression-era collection is Langston Hughes's The Dream Keeper (1932), which bursts with memorable lines. His musical poems treat subjects as varied as youth, old age, death, poverty, love, and (as the title suggests) dreams: "Bring me all your dreams / ... That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world."

Like Hughes, Gertrude Stein questions mainstream conceptions of children's poetry. Her The World is Round (1939) is an under-appreciated children's book that remains, sadly, out of print (if you hunt for a used copy, be sure to look for the stunning North Point Press edition illustrated by Clement Hurd). An extended prose poem, The World is Round also features conventional, lined poetry. The following is among its most famous verses:

I am Rose my eyes are blue
I am Rose and who are you
I am Rose and when I sing
I am Rose like anything.

Another of Stein's children's books is her poetic alphabet, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (2001). Green Integer Press recently published an unattractive edition of the book, apparently meant for academics rather than children. But the poems in the book are beautiful. A brilliant blend of lined and prose poetry, Stein's language catches meaning like diamonds catch light. It is an alphabet with rhythm that is all Stein: "And that is the end of the sad story of N which is not as sad as the story of M which is much sadder and badder, of course it is."

Old Possum's Book of Practical CatsT.S. Eliot (whom Ezra Pound nicknamed "Old Possum") also tried his hand at children's poetry, and the result was Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). English professors may gasp when they hear it, but I honestly believe that Old Possum contains the best verse this famous poet ever wrote. The perfect gift for any cat-loving child, Old Possum is a happy marriage of wit and technique:

You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse—
But all may be described in verse.

And describe them he does, his slim volume cataloguing the adventures of Gumbie Cat and Growltiger, Rum Tum Tugger and Rumpelteazer, Old Deuteronomy and Mistoffelees, and, my favorite, Macavity, the criminal cat "called the hidden paw / For he's the master criminal who can defy the law." Poet and artist Edward Gorey masterfully illustrated a regularly republished 1982 edition, invigorating Old Possum's reputation, as did Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular adaptation, Cats, which played from 1981 to 2002 in London and from 1982-2000 in New York. Perhaps no single book of children's poetry has proved as profitable or influential.

You Read to Me, I'll Read to YouThe mid-century brought a number of memorable collections of children's poetry. We're all familiar with Dr. Seuss's offerings (especially those involving a certain mischievous hat-wearing feline), but perhaps we're less familiar with the nonsense of John Ciardi. One of his most successful books is You Read to Me, I'll Read to You (1962), illustrated by Edward Gorey. It is peopled with lively personalities, cats like "Chang McTang McQuarter Cat" (who is "one part this and one part that") and boys like "Arvin Marvin Lillisbee Fitch" (who "rode a broomstick like a witch").

Another notable mid-century collection is Gwendolyn Brooks's Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a touching book recently re-released with illustrations by Faith Ringgold.  Bronzeville is graced with charm and humor; the poems are elegantly crafted, conveying an emotional complexity all too rare in children's poetry. "Gertrude," for instance, sings of a child's affection for Marian Anderson and reminds us that children deserve art that is profound and moving:

Fingers tingle. I am cold
And warm and young and very old.

But, most, I am a STUFFless thing
When I hear Marian Anderson sing.

Out of the DustLet's finish our tour in the present. The poetry of today is as rich as that of the past, and an able troop of poets continues the good work of their predecessors. Among them is Karen Hesse, whose Out of the Dust (1997) tells the story of Billie Joe, a young Oklahoma girl growing up in the Great Depression. Each short, free-verse lyric furthers the plot and succeeds as poetry. "Night Bloomer," for example, describes the flowering of "Mrs. Brown's / cereus plant":

I couldn't watch at dawn,
when the flower,
touched by the first finger of morning light,
wilted and died.
I couldn't watch
as the tender petals burned up in the sun.

We also have Marilyn Nelson, whose three most recent books--Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2004), and A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005)--will impress even the most demanding of readers. Another recent great is Stephen Mitchell. His The Wishing Bone and Other Poems (2003) continues the nonsense tradition begun by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I could go on and on, mentioning the work of Jorge Argueta, Helen Frost, Walter Dean Myers, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, and Allan Wolf. But I would like to end my list with a relative newcomer, one who deserves more attention: JonArno Lawson.

Man in the Moon-Fixer's MaskLawson is the author of two delightful books of poetry: The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask (2006) and Black Stars in a White Night Sky (2008). These two books prove that Lawson, like Maurice Sendak, understands both the dark and the light side of childhood. He has Stein's knack for making everyday language strange, and Ciardi's gift for perfectly incongruous juxtaposition. Capable of regular, romping rhythms in one poem and irregular, jazzy syncopations in another, he lingers on an abstraction here and revels in physicality there. Let me end, then, with a few lines from Lawson's "Tickle Tackle Botticelli" because they express a sentiment that parents might remember when traveling with the young in the wonderful land of poetry:

A Click and a clack,
a blip in the black—
a jittery dog
on a dock—

can you remember
how you thought
before you
learned to talk?

Consider that, consider this
consider it on the dot,

that words, however used,
are just the playthings
of a thought.


Carl Sandburg, Early Moon
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Harvest Books: $14.00
Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Knopf Books for Young Readers: $8.99
Gertrude Stein, The World is Round
Ages: All
North Point Press: $9.95
Gertrude Stein, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
Ages: All
Green Integer Press: $9.95
T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Ages: All
Harcourt Brace & Co.: $9.00
John Ciardi, You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
HarperTrophy: $7.99
Gwendolyn Brooks, Bronzeville Boys and Girls
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
Amistad: $16.99
Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust
Ages: Young Adult
Scholastic: $5.99
JonArno Lawson, The Man in The Moon-Fixer’s Mask
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Boyds Mills Press: $14.95
JonArno Lawson, Black Stars in a White Night Sky
Ages: 9 - 12 yrs.
Wordsong: $16.95


About the Author
Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. is a scholar and poet who teaches at San Diego State University. A regular judge of The Lion and the Unicorn children's poetry award, he is the author of Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry (Wayne State, 2007) and a book of poetry, Strong Measures (Make Now, 2007).

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