Most people would agree that poetry is best read aloud.
I was fortunate to have had a mother who read poetry to me from the time I could walk. Our first shared poems included those of A. A. Milne:
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
Having absorbed Milne’s satisfying dimeter, I wrote my first poem. It was an ode to sweet hot cereal.
Up and down,
Oh, hear the happy sound.
I can still feel the movement of my spoon shmushing and melting the brown sugar into my cereal.
Only now do I notice how this early poem breaks the rules by having two beats in each of the first three lines, followed by three beats in the last. At the same time, doesn’t that last line act as a stop to the forward motion of the poem—like a flashing yellow light and clanging bell signals the lowering of the bar for an oncoming train?
I’m currently adapting 19th century poetry by a well-known children’s book writer/illustrator to serve as voices for some of the magical creatures in my middle grade WIP. The original poems employed four feet to a line (tetrameter). Sometimes the rhythm was a bit “off”, but I liked the quirkiness and interest this created. Yet, people–editors, writing groups—warn that meter must be spot on if it’s to appear in a published work for children.
When did children become so picky?
On the other hand, I balk at poems that begin with a certain meter and change into something mushy and undefined. Once established, listeners depend upon a reliable meter—as reliable as a heartbeat, so that when the heart skips or rushes on, or god-forbid, stops—we sit up and take notice.
Two useful guides to poetic meter and stressed syllables:
Do you think poetry for children should follow a different set of rules than poetry for adults? I’d love to hear your comments.
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Illustration by Hans Fischer (1959): Pitschi
It was British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones who said she would much rather write for children. Because she didn’t have to explain things to them as she did with adults (editors, etc.). Jones was not trying to imply that children were credulous, but rather that they were sophisticated readers. Children could make imaginative leaps that many adults had forgotten how to do.
In late March 2015, the long-awaited fourth book in the Penderwicks series was finally released. I devoured it almost in one sitting. Like Jones, Jane Birdsall is an author who assumes the sophistication of her child readers. Penderwicks in Spring doesn’t land feet first in the middle of the action, as is the fashion today. But along with strains of gentle humor, there is a haunting pathos that runs through the book like a forgotten song. It compels the reader’s attention.
Birdsall opens her fourth book some years later, as 11-year old Batty wrestles with self-recriminations over the natural loss of her dog, Hound–Hound whom readers have come to love almost as deeply as Batty does. As the book unfolds, Batty’s guilt over Hound’s death gives way to an incomprehensible pain, when she learns from one sister of the role she played in their mother’s death. Throughout the book we find young Batty wrestling with huge conflicts—conflicts of a Job-like magnitude.
As with any good work of art, Penderwicks in Spring stayed with me—It resonated so deeply that I felt almost as depressed as poor Batty did, hiding wretchedly in her closet, unable to face the world or her family. I worried that this likeable character might not pull through in the end.
In addition to creating believable characters and endearingly funny scenes, Birdsall is a true master of human pathos. The brilliance of the Penderwicks series, is that in all four books at least one or more characters must navigate soul-wrenching growing pains. Given the sophistication and depth of young readers, it’s a skill well-worth developing for any children’s book author.