Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy
First published in 1982 and updated in 1999, this is still my favorite overall collection for kids ages 8 to 12. It's very well rounded and includes all of the poems you think it should, along with others you've never seen before. The collection of 150+ poems is organized by topics such as What Do Poems Do? and broken into subtopics, e.g., Make You Smile, Tell Stories, Send Messages, Share Feelings, Help You Understand People, and Start You Wondering. Other broad categories include What's Inside a Poem?, Special Kinds of Poetry, and Do It Yourself. Kennedy and Kennedy also give us reader-friendly riffs on poetry forms and even the topics of certain poems here and there. Check out this excerpt from one of the poems to "make you smile," "Commas" by Douglas Florian:
Do commas have mommas
Who teach them to pause,
Who comfort and calm them
And clean their sharp claws?
This book is still in print, still the perfect poetry collection for home or school. (You've heard of a bedtime story, but what about a bedtime poem?) In case you don't recognize the name, X.J. Kennedy is a famous poet in his own right.
An Old Shell: Poems of the Galapagos by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tom Pohrt
This book has such a narrow topic that I was a little dubious when I first picked it up, but I soon changed my tune. What lovely poems! They will put you right there on the Galapagos Islands. Here's an excerpt from "The Whale":
Gray and pale and still,
like the first dawn,
like the Beginning.
Through the water a whale comes
swimming a gleaming
swath of calm.
An old old whale...
Johnston writes in a variety of forms, giving us pictures of the islands' flora and fauna, removing them almost entirely from human connections, though I'm sure Charles Darwin will be tiptoeing around the edges of your mind as you read. (He is mentioned in an author's note at the end of the book.)
Confetti: Poems for Children by Pat Mora, illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez
A gold-glowing collection with a Latino flavor. My one complaint is that there are only 13 poems and I wish there were more. We do get the benefit of some very pretty full-page artwork, though. The collection touches on the sun, the wind, and colors, with a feel of constant motion, as exemplified by poems about singing and dancing. I especially like the poem that inspired the title of the book, "Words Free as Confetti." Here are a few lines:
Come, words, come in your every color.
I'll toss you in storm or breeze.
I'll say, say, say you,
taste you sweet as plump plums...
Note that the poems are sprinkled throughout with Spanish words like so much—yes, confetti!
Seasons: A Book of Poems by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Erik Blegvad
There aren't many books of poems in the easy reader category, and even fewer that succeed. I assume most of you have come across this I Can Read Book (Level 3), but if you haven't, track it down! The very simplicity of the language makes what Zolotow accomplishes all the more impressive, e.g., in "Singing Birds":
...Oh springtime is springtime is wingtime
is growing time
warm and yellow...
We get a satisfying 9-11 poems for each of the seasons, and each is perfectly complemented by Blegvad's gentle illustrations. You'll find that some of the poems are not so much seasonal as they are small commentaries on the life of a child, with topics such as a quarrel with the speaker's mother or shadows or even the meaning of life (see "The Puzzle").
The Great Frog Race and Other Poems by Kristine O'Connell George, illustrated by Kate Kiesler
This is a book that blew me away, shooting the poet to the top ranks of children's poets in my little mental list. You will find some perfect metaphors in this collection. For example, I'm pretty sure George has written the quintessential tadpole poem with her "Polliwogs." Watch how it begins:
What I found!
Stubby as toes,
Then there's her back-to-school poem, "September." I will restrain myself from giving away the key metaphor, so you'll have to look for it. I like her other books, but this one's still the best: it thrills me every time I read it!