4 Great Poetry Books for Young Children

Our two-year-old Lydia loves poetry!  Most young children enjoy hearing rhyming, rhythmic words, but Lydia is particularly fascinated.  We have many picture books with rhyming text–like the wonderful works of Dr. Seuss–but we’ve also found several longer poetry books that she enjoys and so do we.

Poetry is very helpful in getting children interested in books and understanding how language works.  Our first child, Nicholas, went through a long phase of pointing out “matching” words on the page–words like rough and tough that look the same except for the first letter–and he was intrigued to learn that such words usually rhyme but sometimes don’t, and that words that rhyme sometimes don’t match visually.  Poems that don’t rhyme are educational in a different way, demonstrating the power of language to express feelings and perceptions.  Both rhyming and non-rhyming poems are more memorable than prose, enabling children to quote favorite portions and to “read” their books to themselves as the pictures cue them to recall the words.

Like many parents, we started with Mother Goose.  Lydia was around 18 months old when she visited a local used-book store with her grandmother and they picked up a copy of

Mother Goose illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Mary Quite Contrary Old Woman in ShoeThis little book (a handy size for travel) includes 76 classic nursery rhymes–all the ones you’d expect, plus many less familiar rhymes and some we’d never heard–each with its own exquisite watercolor illustration.  Many of them can be sung, if you know tunes for them, which adds to the fun.

Some of the rhymes are in more old-fashioned language than we’re used to.  “London Bridge” is particularly weird to me, so I just sing the words I know.  In a few rhymes, I edit especially grim language about whipping or drowning.  Then there’s “Trip Upon Trenchers”, a rhyme I never encountered before, about an apparently teenaged girl being harassed by young men and upset that they “kissed my sister instead of me”–I usually just skip that one.

In general, though, this book is a very pleasant read, ideal for tired parents because, having memorized most of the rhymes, we can rest our eyes looking at the illustrations.  I particularly like this depiction of the shoe housing the old woman and her many children; I’ve never before seen it as an upside-down shoe, but doesn’t that make sense?  The shoe sole would make a good roof….

Childcraft: Poems and Rhymes

Poems and RhymesThis is Volume 1 in a set of children’s books published by World Book Encyclopedia.  My parents bought a set in 1981, and I appreciated them (along with the World Book) throughout my childhood.  My parents gave us those Childcraft books a few years ago.  They’re all good, but most of the volumes are aimed at elementary-school kids.  An important thing to realize about a book set like this is that you don’t have to own the whole set–each book is a treasure in itself!  So if you find just one volume at a yard sale, pick it up!

Mother Goose in ChildcraftThe book begins with Mother Goose rhymes, which of course overlap quite a bit with the book above–but the illustrations are different. Lydia was startled by this at first! I think it’s good, though, to see several different illustrations of the same scene; it helps you to be more flexible about how you see it in your mind and what the poem might mean to you.

MorningDrinking FountainBut this 320-page book goes far beyond Mother Goose, offering a huge range of poems, mostly short but some up to four pages long. There are classic poets like Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Eugene Field, Christina Rossetti, and Walter De la Mare; twentieth-century poets like Ogden Nash, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and John Ciardi; and traditional rhymes and ancient Japanese haiku.

There are poems about every season of the year…poems about various animals, plants, and places…poems about practical life at home…poems about the excitement of travel or just going out into the city or out into the country…poems about fairies and magic and pirates. There are silly poems and poems that make you choke up with feelings. There are peppy, bouncy poems and sweet, quiet poems.

imaginingGlimpse in AutumnAcross the many editions of Childcraft, there have been many changes in illustrations. The 1981 edition has a huge variety, from contemporary photographs to the tackiest of 1960s/1970s collage to beautiful paintings in a variety of styles. This gives you a lot to look at as you read!

The TelegraphAlthough all of these poems are at least 35 years old, they relate to things children still experience today: playing with your shadow, learning to use buttons, walking with a long-legged person, planting a seed and watching it grow, riding a bus, watching a turtle, saying good night. Even some of the poems that seem dated, like “The Telegraph”, thrill me with wonder at the things that have been possible here on Earth throughout my own lifetime: “Along the wires everywhere, a million words flash through the air.” Wow!

Our usual way of reading this book is to open to a page at random, read that one, then turn to another random page. We get a lot of variety that way. But if you want to find a specific poem, topic, or poet, the index is excellently thorough.

My Book House: In the Nursery

Get up, little horseyMy Book House was an older set of children’s books, similar to Childcraft but with more emphasis on fiction. There were several different editions. This is Volume 1 of the 12-volume, blue-covered set. Again, I recommend any of the books, but this is the one most suitable for toddlers. We inherited most of the volumes (#4 is missing…UPDATE: We got #4!) of the set my mother and her siblings, and then some of my cousins, had as children. I’m not showing you the cover of the book because it is torn and shabby…but oh, the illustrations inside!  They are exquisite.  I grew up with another, similar set of My Book House, and I remember some of these pictures so vividly that the same imaginings come back to my mind now when I look at them.

Old Mother GooseThis book also begins with Mother Goose rhymes, but from there it takes the interesting approach of presenting other cultures’ nursery rhymes, translated into English. Some of these are wonderful! (Others are kind of weird.) Although this 1937 multicultural effort features mostly European cultures, it also includes China, Japan, India, Africa (two pages for the whole continent, but the specific culture is identified below each poem), and American Indians. Oddly, the African people in the illustrations for African poems are depicted realistically, but the African-American person drawn next to an “American Negro” poem is a caricature!

Italian rhymeAfrican nursery rhymeNorse rhyme

ancient crocus poem
Many childhood experiences are universal and timeless, and this book emphasizes that by including several Greek and Roman poems that are literally thousands of years old but still relate to life on Earth today. angels over BethlehemToward the end of the book is a six-page poem about the birth of Christ that includes some of the most achingly gorgeous illustrations–check out those angel wings!

Big Street, Big City
There are also a few stories among the poems. That city street scene looks dated to me, but Lydia’s not yet familiar with the stylistic changes in vehicles over time, so to her this is a story of everyday life and how that traffic she sees is all humming along and getting things done as “little feet skip and patter and dance” in their right place.

First Adventures“First Adventures” is a dull and repetitive story in which nothing really happens from an adult perspective, but to Lydia, little Janie is much like herself and her fashionable 1930s mother is much like me; they do the kind of things we do, which are adventures in their way.

Lydia also loves “Biting Marion”, a story about a female digging machine who loves to chomp through asphalt and spit big mouthfuls of dirt into a truck. (Luckily, imitating Biting Marion at the dinner table is a game that has not occurred to Lydia.)

When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne

Pooh and King of France Nursery ChairsI also had this book when I was very young, and I fondly remember my mother reading me these poems by the author of Winnie-the-Pooh.  They have a wide variety of rhyme schemes and rhythmic styles, and I enjoy them so much that I’ll gladly read the whole book of 44 poems from beginning to end.  (Daniel says it gets to him, though, because some of the poems stick in his mind and rattle on for days afterward.)

Lydia is particularly fond of “Teddy Bear”, a long poem about a bear who is embarrassed of his chubbiness until he learns that a King of France was both fat and considered handsome.  My very favorite is “The Dormouse and the Doctor”, which is such fun to read aloud.  “Nursery Chairs” is one of several poems that very clearly portrays the experience of a child pretending things in the everyday world; after the introductory stanza shown here, it has a section about each of the chairs in which a child visits four different worlds without leaving his nursery.

Reading these poetry books over and over and over again works for me!  Visit the Quick Lit linkup and Literacy Musing Monday for more book reviews!  Learn more about making use of old things and old-fashioned techniques at To Grandma’s House We Go!

10 thoughts on “4 Great Poetry Books for Young Children

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