What makes a poem suitable for children?

Jean Sprackland - 4 December 2009

I've been thinking recently about the tradition of writing poetry specially for children. There's no doubt that there are some marvellous children's poets around - some of the very best are to be found in the Children's Archive here on this site, including Valerie Bloom, James Berry, Kit Wright, Allan Ahlberg, Jackie Kay, and the late, great Charles Causley. Causley had an unusual talent for writing complex, demanding poems which appeal to children without ever patronising them. His poems are full of warmth and conscience and ambiguity and strangeness.

I wonder what it is that makes us deem a poem suitable for children? Are there certain kinds of subject matter we think they like, and if so what are these? Do children prefer literature which reflects their own everyday lives and the people and things which feature there (such as school, family, pets and so on)? Or do they like reading about worlds beyond those familiar boundaries, and things they have never encountered? I imagine the answer is 'both'. I imagine it depends on the child. When I was growing up, the poems I read were rarely actually given to me to read - I simply stumbled across them, and they were often quite foreign in their subject matter, offering me inexplicable but oddly fascinating glimpses of places and perspectives I'd never dreamed of from the streets and playgrounds of 1970s Burton-on-Trent. I'm afraid poems about gerbils and underpants would have left me completely cold, even though underwear and small rodents were certainly present in my young life. But whatever the subject matter, are there ways of articulating it that tend to include or exclude a child readership? I think perhaps there are, but I don't think it's necessarily about using easy vocabulary or simple concepts. It seems to me that children are, in general, exceptionally ready to accept things they don't fully understand - it's adults who worry about this! Perhaps it has more to do with assumptions about certain kinds of life experience or shared knowledge, which might make some poems uninteresting to a child. Nevertheless, children can surprise us by responding to the most unexpected things, and I worry about the tendency to caricature them and feed them a specially watered-down diet. My own stumbling about in the dark set me up for a lifetime - it was a completely indiscriminate kind of reading, which took me to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and John Keats as well as children's favourites like Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Lear and Robert Louis Stevenson. I had no idea that these categories or labels existed, and even the greatest of the poets' names meant nothing to me. I either liked what I read, or I didn't. Isn't that how it should be, for all of us, whatever our age?

Comments:

When I was a child I loved poems like Lochinvar and €™The Jackdaw of Rheims and The Lady Of Shalott even though they were full of words I didn’t understand, so I agree that children are capable of enjoying all sorts of poems. Reading poetry as a child meant enjoying the rhythm of the sentences and letting the words conjure up all kinds of images without worrying too much about their actual meaning and significance-now, of course, I am more preoccupied with the exact meaning of the poem, and enjoying the sound or the strangeness of a phrase here and there is a secondary consideration. Perhaps that takes away from the instinctive pleasure of reading a poem that I felt when I was too young to know and care about historical contexts and literary allusions! And then, as you rightly point out , the labels and categories we encounter as adults alter the way we look at poetry; what we know of a poet’s stature and reputation colours our view of his/her poems, whereas the fresh, prejudice- free approach of children is really the ideal way.
Drawing from our earlier discussion of rhyme and free verse, I notice that poems written for children even today are quite heavily rhymed. Do you think children can enjoy free verse or is rhyme necessary to instil in them a love for poetry?

Thanks, Susan. It's true that a great deal of poetry written for children makes use of rhyme. I'm sure children do respond to rhyme and love it - perhaps one of the reasons is that it makes a poem memorable, and in our earliest years, before we are independent readers, this is very important. Rhyme can also play a key role in creating humour and a sense of the absurd. I don't think this means children cannot enjoy free verse, and of course there are many other ways of making pattern and shape in a poem - rhythm, repetition and alliteration, for example. What do you think? Are there particular poets you admire amongst those writing for children today?

Michael rosen is a great favourite with my own daughters (now 7 and 4) as well as with the children I teach. I am a Herefordshire primary school teacher. The children in my class like silly poems and nonsense poems like Rosen's poem The news and even some of the old nonsense poems I remember from my own childhood by people like Spike Milligan and Ogden Nash.

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