In honor of National Poetry Month and National Library Week, here’s a short “bibliography” of remarkable poetry books for kids that I admire. They range from the serious to the silly and encompass a wide range of styles, poetic sensibilities, and verse forms. You can find these books through online retailers; or, they might be available at your local library, either on the shelf or through e-book services like OverDrive. Check your local library for details.
Silly in the best way, Calef Brown’s poetry is lively and whimsical, inspiring and sometimes absurd. Don’t be surprised if your child is completely absorbed and amused! This book captures the essence of the contemporary nonsense poem. Brown’s exhilarating poems employ a lot of alliteration and strong poetic meter and rhyme. For slightly younger children, try Brown’s sweet and snappy collection We Go Together!: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse. (Best for Elementary-Age and Older)
Stirring, a little meditative, and slightly alien, Joyce Sidman’s entrancing poems about the beauty of nighttime are made even more enjoyable by elaborate linoleum prints of animals and plants by illustrator Rick Allen. The poems and illustrations are meticulously crafted and feature moths, mice, and other creatures that thrive in the darkness. Another nice aspect of this collection is the fascinating and detailed scientific notes on the night world that accompany each poem. (Best for Elementary-Age and Older)
Aleutian Sparrow, by Karen Hesse
Karen Hesse writes about difficult time periods in history with enormous skill and humanity. A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Awards, Karen Hesse’s innovative, genre-bending work is multi-faceted, fascinating, and haunting. When parents ask me about books that encourage empathy, Hesse’s books are almost always among the ones that I recommend. Aleutian Sparrow follows a girl’s forced dislocation from her home in the Aleutian Islands in 1942 following the Japanese invasion of the islands. If you and your child are drawn to Hesse’s poems, try the work of award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson, who also often tackles troubling or turbulent historical moments and situations. (Best for Middle School and Older)
Here’s A Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, by Jane Yolen
One of the best introductions to poetry that I’ve seen that is immediately engaging to preschoolers and toddlers. Sweet illustrations accompany poems from a wide range of authors like Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Margaret Wise Brown, and Jack Prelutsky. Lovely and truly age-appropriate for its intended audience, you’ll get a lot of use out of this book. (Best for Pre-K and Older)
Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems, by Marilyn Singer
A remarkable feat of writing! These poems based on fairy tales ask the reader to read the poem first from top to bottom, then to reverse the poem by rereading (line-by-line) from bottom to top. Singer’s chosen poetic form is extremely demanding to write, and it’s thrilling to read each poem in reverse and discover how its meaning changes. Singer has another book of reverso poems based on fairy tales entitled Follow Follow, and a collection of reverse poems based on Greek mythology called Echo Echo. (Best for Upper-Elementary Age and Older)
A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, by Paul B. Janeczko
A fun and inviting introduction to various poetic forms (including the sonnet, persona poem, haiku, and double dactyl), this is the rare “pedagogical” book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The “rules” of each form are explained and accompanied by one or two stellar examples. Caldecott-winning illustrator Chris Raschka’s playful collages are real gems of artwork, too. Janeczko and Raschka have also collaborated on A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems; A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing, and Shout; and The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects. Each title in their series is extraordinarily well-done and approachable. (Best for mid-Elementary and Middle School students)
Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish, by Juan Felipe Herrera
Full of infectious rhythms and vivid, sensory details and images, Juan Felipe Herrera’s poems are a joy to read out loud. Herrera is the current United States Poet Laureate, and this recent collection of poems straddles two cultures with humor, tenderness, and exuberance. (Best for Teens)
GUYKU: A Year of Haiku for Boys, by Bob Raczka
There are a number of delightful books of haiku for younger readers like Andrew Clements’s Dogku and Lee Wardlaw’s irreverent Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, but Bob Racza’s GUYKU is perhaps my favorite. Boys and girls alike will enjoy the honesty, playfulness, and adventurous quality of this book. If you and your child enjoy the compactness of the poems in this book, you might also enjoy Linda Sue Park’s Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems), which introduced this traditional Korean form which employs a fixed number of syllables and an ironic, often humorous, ending. I also whole-heartedly recommend Raczka’s book Lemonade: and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word. (Best for Pre-K and Elementary)
My Hippo Has the Hiccups: And Other Poems I Totally Made Up, by Kenn Nesbitt
Fans of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky will delight in this high-octane book of verse. Humorous and preposterous, Nesbitt’s poems are a little surreal. His verse seizes on the kind of zaniness and outrageousness that appeals to kids of all ages and their parents. Nesbitt was recently named Children’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. (Best for Elementary-Age Children)
UnBEElievables: honeybee poems and paintings, by Douglas Florian
Douglas Florian’s books have titles like Dinothesaurus, Poetrees, and Laugh-eteria. UnBEElievables is one of this prolific author’s most accomplished works. Elementary-aged kids will be delighted by clever rhythms, fun rhymes, and charming puns like “bee-cuzz bee-cuzz.” Parents will appreciate the cheerful factual descriptions of bee behavior that accompany the poems. (Best for K-Elementary)
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I also need to mention the landmark book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch about writing poetry with children. I used this book when I was a “poet-in-the-schools” in my early 20s (which was my first teaching experience and my first experience working with younger kids!). It’s an innovative and inspiring look at how to teach writing in a way that’s not formulaic or pedantic. It’s also full of wonderful poems written by children that other kids will enjoy hearing.
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Editor’s note: we’re having some issues with gravatar.com today, so Emily’s bio appears here instead of in the “Author bio” space–apologies! We hope to have that fixed soon!
Emily Lu works in the Youth Services Department at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library in Falls Church, VA. Although she does not have an MLS, she has an MFA in Creative Writing. Reading and writing poetry are among her favorite topics to discuss!