All studies in early childhood development have shown that both rhythm and rhyme play a huge role in helping children acquire early literacy skills. Parents and grandparents used to recite poems and songs to infants and toddlers, but now this happens less and less. Literacy experts have found that way too many 4- and 5-year-olds have never heard a single nursery rhyme in their young lives. This is sad. Hearing poetry helps children develop an ear for rhyme and rhythm, as well as for understanding more complex reading-and-thinking skills such as word usage and meaning, foreshadowing, and cause and effect.
The verses we know as Old Mother Goose’s Rhymes were compiled during the 17th century. My mother bought me a Mother Goose book and read to me from it until I was able to read on my own. Some of the rhymes I remember are: Little Bo-Peep; Little Boy Blue; Robin Redbreast; Going to St. Ives; To Market; Wee Willie Winkie; Simple Simon; Three Blind Mice; Miss Muffet; Humpty Dumpty; Jack Sprat; and of course Jack and Jill. I also remember my grade school teachers reading these poems to us.
Poetry for children was very popular during the Victorian era. One of the collections of poetry my mother gave me contained many poems by Victorian poets such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. But it also contained poems (or parts of poems) meant for adults. I remember this one from Tennyson.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
I used to recite this poem and pantomime the last line over and over.
Although I loved the language and imagery of “The Eagle,” and somehow sensed that this was very good writing, I was also much enamored of humor when I was in grade school. In particular, I was drawn to the dark h humor of the Little Willie poems. Example:
Into the family drinking well
Willie pushed his sister Nell.
She’s there yet, because it kilt her —
Now we have to buy a filter.
My favorite Little Willie poem, which I still know by heart, is this one:
Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite.
Curiosity seldom pays:
It rained Willie seven days.
Today many wonderful books of poetry for children are published in picture book format each year. Most of these books are themed. And there are so many wonderful poets writing for children that it would be impossible to list them all. So I will mention only three of my favorites, Kristine O’Connell George being one of them. I love all her books, but am especially fond of the Little Dog poems.
Children also love the clever rhymes and observations of Jack Prelutsky’s poems. And, of course, those of Shel Silverstein, whose book of humorous poems for children (ages 6-8), Where the Sidewalk Ends, is now in its 36th year of publication. The book is a perennial Best Seller on Amazon and is often the year’s best-selling book of humorous poetry for children — indicating that when they’re young, children enjoy the rhymes, rhythms, and irreverence of poetry.
Barbara Gregorich’s poetry for children has been published in Cricket and other children’s magazines.