By Rebekah McCallum, Children’s Librarian, Cumberland Branch What better way to share a love of language with your child than through poetry? Even the youngest babies will respond to its rhythm; toddlers quickly learn the game of rhyme; and preschoolers develop an appreciation for drama and suspense through its musical storytelling. Perhaps best of all, poetry brings out the playfulness and humour to be found in language.
I would like to share some of my favourite poetry books from the Ottawa Public Library children’s collection with you, in celebration of Poetry Month this April. All of these titles can be found at your local OPL branch or requested through the library’s online catalogue.
While many of the poems from these collections are favourites of mine for personal reasons (often they were also favourites of my mother and grandmother), I think that the best of them share qualities of drama and humour, which will delight almost any reader, small or large.
The Baby’s Playtime Book is one in a series of colorfully illustrated poetry compilations by Kay Chorao. A mix of nursery rhymes, classic verses, and contemporary poems, this is a perfect “starter” volume for babies and toddlers, who will love the bright-eyed children and animals that romp through it’s pages. Some selections, like “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “Dance to your Daddy” can be sung; others make good lap-riding or action verses; and still others appeal to children simply in the sound of their words and rhymes. “Wild Beasts” by Evaleen Stein is not to be missed; “My Shadow” and “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson are wonderful classics; and I’ve always had an unexplained partiality for “A Cat Came Fiddling Out of a Barn”…
If your child is hungry for fast-paced adventure, try picking up Once Upon a Poem: Favourite Poems That Tell Stories. This is a romp of a different order – what Kevin Crossley-Holland describes in the book’s forward as a throbbing, pulsing gallop! Each one of these fifteen dramatic poems is championed by a contemporary storyteller, among them J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Mary Pope Osborne. And each is illustrated by a different artist to reflect the tone or mood of the individual poem. My favourites from this collection are Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, famous for its lucid nonsense-words; Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”; Eugene Field’s lyrical “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”; and the unparalleled “Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. Also watch for the poetry of Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc, Robert Service, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in this splendid series of adventures.
Rhymes for Annie Rose, by picture-book author and illustrator Shirley Hughes, is a magical (and also a remarkably consistent and well-crafted) series of poems. Toddlers will quickly identify with the quirky, smiling character of Annie Rose and find common ground with her, in her many adventures: splashing in puddles, oozing with finger-paint, making blanket forts, and peering through forests of legs and feet. Many poetry books portray childhood in an idyllic country setting; I appreciate Hughes’ ability to create the same kind of idyll in a city context. My particular favourites from this collection are “Duck Weather”; “Fingers”; “Feet”; and “Monday Morning Dance.” Recommended for lovers of A.A. Milne, who is an acknowledged influence on Hughes’ Rhymes.
And speaking of A. A. Milne, any list of my favourite children’s poetry books must include When We Were Very Young. First published in 1924, the book has been a best-seller ever since. Centered upon the character of Milne’s young son Christopher Robin, When We Were Very Young takes us on a series of toddler adventures through London and the surrounding countryside. It also includes the début appearance of Milne’s famous character, Winnie-the Pooh, in the poem “Teddy Bear.” Each poem is accompanied by a series of sketches by Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard. Both poems and sketches are like little windows into a child’s world. My favourite titles include “Happiness”; “The Four Friends”; “Summer Afternoon”; and “Sand-Between-the-Toes.”
For anyone who has fragments of poetry floating through their head, it is a pleasure to be introduced to someone else’s personal collection. In A Family of Poems: My Favourite Poetry for Children, Caroline Kennedy introduces us to over a hundred of her favourites (beautifully illustrated by Jon J. Muth). The poems are grouped into seven chapters, including “The Seashore”, “Adventure”, “Animals”, and “Bedtime.”
The Kennedy family had a tradition of giving poems for special occasions: they would find a favourite poem, transcribe and illustrate it, and present it to a relative instead of a card. Her mother pasted these selections into a scrapbook, and many of them have found their way into this collection. Among Kennedy’s selections, I find poems from my own ‘collection’: “The Tyger”; “In Just –“; “Full Fathom Five”, “The Mock Turtle’s Song”... But I also discover some new gems: “To P.J.”; “Moses”; and “Sea-Fever,” among others. Reading this book feels like conversation with a friend: the points of connection and the new discoveries are both a delight.
If you’re feeling a little crushed by the weight of so much great poetry, I encourage you to find a copy of Edward Lear’s Nonsense!, in particular the version illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Lear and Fisher take us on a “smile-provoking” tour of Europe through limericks: “There was an old man of Berlin…”; “There was an old person of Wilts…” If you are an avid poetry reader, but especially, if you are little nervous about ‘all this rhyming business’, this book is for you: it is a feast for ears and eyes. And you can enjoy some very light-hearted greatness.
In her introduction to A Family of Poems¸ Caroline Kennedy advocates for these little groups of words better than I can. She writes: “poetry captures the most fleeting moments and makes them last forever, or describes the tiniest creature and makes it huge. Poets express our deepest emotions and ponder life’s biggest questions in just a few lines that we can carry with us and bring to mind whenever we need them.”
I encourage you to venture into the poetry section of your nearest Ottawa Public Library branch, and seek out the special verses that will form a treasure trove of the mind, such as Kennedy describes, for you and your children.