Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Handful of Poems: Five Anthologies for Small Children

I was reading The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children, edited by Philip Hawthorn (Usborne, 2004), when I came up with the Wynken, Blynken, and Nod rule, which states that any poetry collection for little kids that includes Eugene Fields’s sappy poem, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” should be red-flagged as being behind the times. I solemnly swear that I came up with the rule before the British Corollary occurred to me. It states that any book of poems for small children which includes “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” is likely to be British.

Sure enough, the only other book of the five I’m reviewing that includes WBN is My First Oxford Book of Poems, edited by John Foster (Oxford UP, 2000). Now, random as my rule may seem, it hints at other facets of children’s poetry collections published by the Brits. In general, I found the poems to be more sophisticated. Whether this means that UK editors consider young children to be capable of listening to longer, more complex poems than American editors do or simply indicates that they had a wider age range in mind, I do not know. But I do know that the two British collections include more classic, literary poems than the other three collections. The books somehow seems more stately to me than the American ones, if a little old-fashioned. They also have the advantage of drawing on poets not always added to American collections, e.g., John Agard and Roger McGough. This may be more of a sideways shift than a measure of fuller breadth, but it is still refreshing.

Heavy hitters like William Blake, Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Shakespeare are represented in Philip Hawthorn's Usborne anthology, but so are Spike Milligan, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Roald Dahl, and the famous Anon. (Did you know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that verse about the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead? I didn’t!) I particularly enjoyed the poems I hadn’t read elsewhere, such as the first in the collection, “Magic Cat,” by Peter Dixon. The poem tells of a family cat who accidentally becomes magic and then turns the human family members into various things with her wand of a tail. Roger McGough has three poems in the collection. My favorite is “The Sound Collector,” in which an ominous figure carries away all of the household sounds in a bag. “He didn’t leave his name/Left us only silence....”

Cathy Shimmen’s illustrations suit Hawthorn’s book, light and bright without being saccharine. They don’t overpower the poems, but they do round out the pages nicely. The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children skews a little old for toddlers, but it’s a solid collection for four- to eight-year-olds.

One thing I like about John Foster’s collection, My First Oxford Book of Poems, is that he organizes the poems into categories: Out and About, Creatures, From Dusk till Dawn, Beside the Sea, Fantastical and Nonsensical, and Weather and Seasons. A children’s poetry collection can feel like such a jumble without an organizational strategy, and besides, I like being able to read one section each night before bed.

I can almost forgive Foster for his inclusion of the overly adorable WBN because he also includes Nancy Willard’s marvelous, mysterious bedtime poem, “Magic Story for Falling Asleep,” which begins: “When the last giant came out of his cave/and his bones turned into the mountain/and his clothes turned into the flowers/nothing was left but his tooth....” Foster ranges a little farther afield with his choices than Hawthorn does, pulling in some poets who are less well known and are more contemporary, such as William Jay Smith, Kaye Starbird, Judith Nicholls, and Russell Hoban. Listen to this passage from Richard Edwards’s strange and beautiful poem, “Badgers”: “Badgers don’t jump when a vixon screams,/Badgers drink quietly from moonshiny streams,/Badgers dig holes in our dreams.”

I am a big fan of Eleanor Farjeon, so I was pleased to see three of her poems in this book. And take a look at the first stanza of Sue Cowling’s poem, “Pond”: “The pond is green as glass, the water slow,/It barely stirs the frills and fronds of weeds./Ponds have all day to dream, nowhere to go.”

The interior illustrations for My First Oxford Book of Poems are by eight different artists, so maybe it isn’t surprising that I thought they were a mixed bag. I’ve seen incredible poetry collections illustrated by various artists; however, some of the illustrations in this book are far more evocative than others. Like Hawthorn’s book, My First Oxford Book of Poems runs older, in spite of the title. I would recommend it for five- to eight-year-olds.

In comparing the two anthologies, I discovered that Hawthorn’s collection was more rollicking than Foster’s, jumping around from one subject to another and offering readers more funny poems. Foster’s collection had a more consistent tone—even with occasional touches of humor, it felt strongly imagistic, even haunting, to me.

Of course, no talk of poetry collections would be complete without the inimitable Lee Bennett Hopkins, so let’s look at his anthology, Climb into My Lap: First Poems to Read Together (Simon and Schuster, 1998). Like Foster’s book, it is divided into categories: Me! Secret Places, It’s So Funny! Some People, Worlds of Make-Believe, It’s Story Time! Little Hands and Fingers—Little Toes and Feet, and Good Night. You should know that Hopkins creates his collections, not only by looking at poems which are already out there, but by recruiting promising poets to write to the themes he’s selected.

Like Foster, Hopkins gets extra points for including Nancy Willard’s poem, “Magic Story for Falling Asleep.” But oh—I’m in shock! I just found WBN lurking two-thirds of the way through the book! (Not sure I’ll recover from the blow.) So much for the British Corollary. Perhaps we’re looking at the age of these editors? (I’ve gone from sounding anti-Brit to ageist in one fell swoop!)

Climb into My Lap is for a younger audience than the first two—I would recommend it for three- to seven-year-olds. The editor is particularly skilled at slipping back and forth between the pensive and the playful. The poems in this collection also strike me as being more straightforward, but in some cases this means they are less imagistic than the ones collected by Hawthorn and Foster. Still, the best poems in Climb into My Lap are lovely. Besides which, any collection that includes Deborah Chandra has got to be good! And Hopkins has chosen one of my favorite poems ever, Charlotte Zolotow’s “People,” which begins, “Some people talk and talk/and never say a thing./Some people look at you/and birds begin to sing.”

Kathryn Brown’s art for Hopkins’s anthology is just right, clear yet soft, as well as subtly multicultural. I don’t know which I like better, her cast of children or her day-and-night illustrations of the famous Quangle Wangle’s hat. (You should know that Climb into My Lap is out of print, so check it out at the library or track down a used copy.)

Jack Prelutsky’s contribution to this corner of the poetry world is Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (Knopf, 1986). Prelutsky is known for writing humorous poems with a lot of strong-edged sounds and wordplay, which pretty much describes the tone of his anthology. One example would be Lenore M. Link's "Holding Hands," which starts out, "Elephants walking/Along the trails/Are holding hands/By holding tails...." Marc Brown’s illustrations are just as playful as the poems. This collection has great kid appeal and is well suited to the reading needs of three- to seven-year-olds. Plus, no sign of the dreaded WBN.

I have to say, I do think this is the only time I’ve ever seen a poem from Maurice Sendak’s wonderful Chicken Soup with Rice anthologized—“January.” The other surprise is a snippet of Dr. Seuss, “We have two ducks. One blue. One black....” (Which makes me wonder, how much did they have to pay for the privilege of using those?) Among the many other poets Prelutsky features are Bobbi Katz, Judith Viorst, Myra Cohn Livingston, Aileen Fisher, Karla Kushkin, and Lilian Moore. His collection is perfect for having fun with words and for getting started with poetry. I should point out that there are a lot of poems squeezed onto the pages of Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, but the visual organization is clear enough that all but the very youngest readers should be able to follow it.

Jane Yolen, AKA Madame Versatile, recently gave us another poetry collection for small children, Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry (Candlewick, 2007). Her co-editor is Andrew Fusek Peters and her illustrator is Polly Dunbar. Which means that here is, not only a little poem, but the best of both worlds—American Yolen working with two Brits to create something that's simply gorgeous.

The collection is divided into four sections: Me, Myself and I; Who Lives in My House? I Go Outside; and Time for Bed. This book really, truly is for small children, probably ages two to five. It contains far fewer poems than Prelutsky’s collection, but the presentation is stunning, with only one or two poems per spread, each encompassed by light, fresh illustrations. Even the font is large and simple, sans serif so that a kindergartener could read it with some help.

The poets represented here are from both the U.S. and Great Britain. Though all of the poems are uncomplicated and many are funny, the editors manage to work in some nice imagery along the way. For example, here’s an excerpt from Berlie Doherty’s poem, “Grandpa”:“Grandpa’s hands are as rough as/Garden sacks/And as warm as pockets....” We also find “Bumblebee,” not the piece of writing for which Margaret Wise Brown is best known, but a poem with one of my favorite similes of all time: “Where are you taking/Your golden plunder/Humming along/Like baby thunder?”

Here’s a Little Poem avoids the indignity of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”; instead we get bedtime poems like Dennis Lee’s, which begins, “Silverly,/Silverly,/Over the/Trees,/The moon drifts/By on a/Runaway/Breeze.”

I’ll add that any “first collection of poems,” even Yolen’s, should be preceded or at least joined by a good Mother Goose. The best one I’ve come across is My Very First Mother Goose, edited by Iona Opie and brilliantly illustrated by Rosemary Wells (Candlewick, 1999). After whetting your young child’s appetite with Mother Goose, you might consider reading the anthologies I’ve described in the following order: Here’s a Little Poem, Climb into My Lap, Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, My First Oxford Book of Poems, and The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children. Once a week could even be poetry night at bedtime, with the other six nights saved for narrative and other picture books.

One final note: I’ve observed that most editors of poetry collections for children can’t resist slipping in a couple of their own poems. The question I always ask is, how do these poems hold up in comparison to the rest of the book? So here’s a quick report for you: Philip Hawthorn gives us “The Train from Loch Brane,” an adaptation of an anonymous poem called “Have You Ever Seen?” and “Classrhymes.” All three poems are pleasant, but not outstanding. John Foster does not include any of his own poems in his collection. Lee Bennett Hopkins offers up “My Name” and “Toy Telephone,” both clever and fun. He also retells a poem, “Five Great Big Dinosaurs.”

For his part, Jack Prelutsky gives us six poems: “Whistling,” “The House Mouse,” “Skeleton Parade,” “The Mistletoe,” “Sometimes,” and “Somersaults.” All six are well done, but I thought “Sometimes” was the most memorable. In any case, Prelutsky has much better poems in several of his own collections. Jane Yolen’s poems, “Recipe for Green” and “Dream Maker,” are both very good. I wasn’t as pleased by her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple’s poem, “Ice Cream Cone,” which is cute, but not striking.

These five anthologies are a way of dipping your toes into the friendly waters of children’s poetry. Eventually I’ll take a look at anthologies for slightly older children and then collections by individual poets. There are so many wonderful poets out there—Shel Silverstein, Kristine O’Connell George, and Valerie Worth are just a few of my favorites. But the five books I've talked about make a good starter set. Throw in the Mother Goose and you’re ready to play Pied Piper, leading your child toward an enduring love of words.

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