Posted by: Erica Gillingham | April 19, 2012

NaPoWriMo, or Why Poetry for Children Inspires

I am Erica my eyes are blue.

I am Erica and who are you?

I am Erica and I’m not mean.

I am Erica in the blue jeans.

Yep, you might have guessed it: this the first poem I ever wrote for school. I was quite chuffed really, at age 5, of my poetic license in rhyming ‘mean’ with ‘jeans’–yes, I did talk that way, and yes, an ‘s’ isn’t a huge difference, but, c’mon, I was 5… The point being that my schooling was rich with poetry as a child and I have never forgotten its impact.

The assignment was based on Gertrude Stein’s* poem “I am Rose” in which the first two lines of my poem are the same as Stein’s (hey, I have blue eyes, too), but hers ends with “I am Rose and when I sing/I am Rose like anything.” I found Stein’s poem again as an adult when I was given Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry (2007). The poems were collected by Jane Yollen and Andrew Fusek Peters, and the entire book is illustrated by Polly Dunbar.

Let me just say, this is a beautiful book. Over a hundred pages long, this big square picture book is chocked full of well-known British (and some American) poets & poetry. Here’s a Little Poem is split into four themed sections: “Me, Myself and I…”, “Who Lives in My House?”, “I Go Outside”, and “Time for Bed” which is helpful for those poignant moments when a well-timed poem would be useful just then. They also aid in giving the reader a sense of each theme, i.e. of family in the “Who Lives in my House?” section and of the seasons in “I Go Outside”. The accompanying illustrations are lively and cheeky, playful for the youngest poetry reader/listener.

A poetry collection for the slightly older child, The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry (1999) ed. by Brian Patten introduces the concept of reading poems by single author, rather than on a theme. The collection includes poems by Spike Milligan, Kit Wright, Michael Rosen, Charles Causley, Roger McGough, Benjamin Zephaniah, Brian Patten, Jackie Kay, John Agard, and Allan Ahlberg.** This concept is highlighted by an interview with each author at the beginning of their section where they discuss themselves, poetry and their experiences as a child. The poems range from downright hilarious to sentimental.

In contrast to the previous two books, the poetry books that had the most impact on my childhood were Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) (given to me on my 8th birthday) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1985) illustrated by Michael Foreman (my 9th birthday).*** Silverstein’s book opens with this poem:

Invitation

If you are a dreamer, come in,

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…

If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!

As a child, those words were magic. I read the book cover to cover and again and again. I memorised poems for school and, as a teen, I even got my campers to perform “Band-Aids” during summer camp! I still laugh at the black & white pen drawings, silly situations and deliciously made-up words by Silverstein. This book is a classic if there ever was one (and I don’t know anyone who would dispute it!).

A Child’s Garden of Verses is contrasting in both its tone and illustrations. Depicted in watercolours, Foreman brings “The Land of Counterpane” and “The Land of Nod” to life, among other scenarios and imaginings of Stevenson’s poems.  The poems very much reflect Stevenson’s own childhood and I could endless get lost in his faraway places or ordinary scenery. The poem “Foreign Lands” best exemplifies both for me:

Up into the cherry-tree

Who should climb but little me?

I held the trunk with both my hands

And looked abroad on foreign lands. (first stanza only

Romantic, yes, but Stevenson gave me a sense of permission to write my own poetry, whatever it was I saw or imagined.

And that reason, writing poetry, is what kicked off my critical cogs for this post in the first place! As you have probably seen across the “interwebs”, this month is both National Poetry Month and National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in the US. Modelled after National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the US in November, NaPoWriMo challenges poets to write 30 poems in 30 days. (Silly me, I’ve been doing this during NaNoWriMo, not knowing there was a NaPoWriMo at all! Until now…) Given my current work in Children’s Literature, I wanted to tie my two loves together and share them with you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this picture book adventure down Poetry Lane for NaPoWriMo & would love to hear about some of your favourite poetry books for children–or, even your own childhood attempts at a poem or two! Do share!

*Incidentally, there is a beautiful picture book about Gertrude Stein written in verse by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Calef Brown entitled Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude (2009). If you’re a fan of Gertrude Stein + picture books, don’t miss this one!

** Illustrators for The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry include Spike Milligan, Fritz Wegner, Sheila Moxley, Sue Williams, Ali Chatterton, David Mostyn, Lydia Monks (a personal favourite), Alison Jay, Korky Paul, and Emma Chichester Clark.

***If you don’t know when to give a child a poetry book, a birthday is an awesome opportunity. I’m not sure if my first one came on my 8th birthday, but regardless I’ve been getting poetry books now for at least 20 years on the day of my birth. Like I said, awesome.

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Responses

  1. […] my post on children’s poetry a few weeks ago, I referenced Here’s a Little Poem, a poetry […]

  2. […] Winter also wrote Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude that I mentioned back in April–just sharing the […]


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