What Are the Elements of a Good Children’s Poem?
Do Not Be Afraid to Be Silly
What should a child find in a poem? Not in poems written specifically for children, but in poetry thought to appeal to children? Reading poems to include in an anthology of “poetry for children,” it struck me that the requirements for adult and child readers of poetry are much the same.
Children read poetry as adults do in the sense that each will find their own significance in a poem—it will appeal, or alarm, or intrigue, or not strike a chord at all. But children read as literary innocents, and I think for that reason what they read has a special impact. Adults are seasoned readers; we have a backlog of reading experience, according to which we make judgements, comparisons, appraisals, rejections. The child reader comes fresh to the whole activity of reading, and is thus the more impressionable. Those who write for children have to be aware of this, I feel, and proceed accordingly. The child must be involved at once—seized by the first line or two—or you risk losing your reader at the outset.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves …
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan …
Now this is the Law of the Jungle – as old and as true as the sky …
I remember being very conscious of this when I was writing—prose, not poetry—for children, long ago. The story had to grab the child reader’s attention on the first page, through action, character or setting. Poetry is in any case more immediate, more concise, than prose—not that that makes it any easier for the writer to find that essential combination of language and content which will engage the reader within a few lines.
Funny poems, sad poems. Poetry should engage the emotions—and children’s reading responses are acute. Poetry for children is often humorous: from the rather obvious to the nicely flippant. One is struck by how often poetic humor is married to wordplay, to having fun with language, to making language fun. Laura E. Richards may not be so familiar to many of us but her “Eletelephony” is a masterpiece of the genre:
Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone.
Spike Milligan’s “On the Ning Nang Nong” is playing the same game:
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
And the Monkeys all say Boo!
And the point is that the poet is doing with elegance just what children do themselves. Children savor language—words, new words, unfamiliar words, challenging words—and play with it, juggle words about for the sound of them. How satisfying, then, to read a poem that has noticed your own fascination with wordplay and has set about creating something that does that with exquisite artistry and is funny into the bargain.
Late 20th-century humor can be robust in an entirely different way, nicely exemplified here by Roald Dahl’s “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf”:
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
So much for humor.
The great distinction, it seems to me, between writing for children in the 19th century and writing for them in the 20th is the element of didacticism. The 19th-century writer sees the poem or story as a vehicle for something over and above the narrative. It is an opportunity for a bit of child-instruction, more or less disguised as a beguiling tale. The 20th-century writer junked all that: the only purpose in writing for children is to introduce them to the pleasure of reading. Actually, I suspect the contemporary child reader, unaware of the Victorian climate of child-rearing, will be more amused than instructed by morals.
In collecting poems for the anthology, across a whole spectrum of subject matter, if one were to filter out a single most recurrent category it has to be animals. Lion, dormouse, hare, hippo, wagtail, wolf, owl . . . Eighteen species and counting. We are all familiar with the way in which children will notice an animal, be fascinated by animals. They see something that is alive like them, that moves and responds, yet is dramatically different. And the variety is apparently endless. For a child, each day brings new experience—as we jaded adults tend to forget: we forget the miracle of the first frog in the garden pond, the first elephant in a zoo. Poets pick up on this interest and cater for it, to great effect. Write a poem about an animal, and you can slip in much else: a story, a moral, humor, wordplay. Here’s D. H. Lawrence’s “Little Fish,” for example:
The tiny fish enjoy themselves
in the sea.
Quick little splinters of life,
their little lives are fun to them
in the sea.
The animal as subject matter is nicely flexible.
A child comes to expect that prose will serve up a story—that is the prime requirement, the usual expectation. Poetry is another matter. Poetry is essentially about language; it is in poetry that the child discovers the possibilities of language—its range, its flexibility, its infinite variety. Of course prose, too, is concerned with language for every effect, but here the language is the vehicle for the story. The effect of reading a poem can be that much more immediate, that much more illuminating. The reading child needs both prose and poetry, and the great virtue of an anthology is that it is for dipping into, for picking up and putting down, for brief arresting engagements with language.
The essential value of this, it seems to me, is that children come to realize the infinite possibilities of language, of the poetic imagination; that poetry can come in every shape and form; that its message can range from the beguilingly frivolous to the starkly serious.
From The Folio Book of Children’s Poetry. Used with the permission of the publisher, the Folio Society. Illustrated by Lesley Barnes. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Penelope Lively.