On Reading: Reading Aloud Poetry for Children

This Wednesday, March 9, is the 2nd Annual World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by LitWorld, an international nonprofit for literacy advocacy and education. LitWorld aims—among other things–to teach 1 million children to read by 2014, and the annual World Read Aloud Day was created to spread and celebrate the joy of reading. Writers, educators, and parents host readings at libraries and bookstores, participate in community events, read to their families and in their children’s classroom. The idea is to create a community of readers, advocating for every child’s right to literacy and access to books and technology.

This year, I’ll be reading again at a local bookstore with two other mother/writers. It’s a pajama party/popcorn eating/bedtime story kind of event, and it’s really fun. This year, I’ve chosen to read poetry, which may seem like a dry selection for an upbeat, celebratory kind of event. But it’s not. Certainly, there’s a lot of insipid, sentimental, bad poetry for kids. You know it: dull, predictable topics; tortured syntax composed only to make the rhythm work; moralizing verse; empty odes to cats or butterflies. It bores you. It bores your child. I say: avoid it at all cost.

But I have fond childhood memories of reading, on random afternoons, long narrative poems like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” or flight-filled lyrics like Stevenson’s “The Swing,” which is as close to a childhood standard as you can get, or darker, poems, that sort of made me shiver, like Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” I was compelled as much by the illustrations in my favorite anthology as by the verse, but diving into poetry was a quick fix into another, mysterious world and it captured my imagination.

But poetry is not just for private moments. Poetry is meant to be read out loud—in a community that connects speaker to reader (or listener). You can’t fully experience a poem until you hear it spoken and feel the shape of its words in your mouth and the rhythm of its lines in your body. Only then can you discover the cadence of the line leaping along the page, the surprise of a well-placed rhyme, the hum of a beautiful assonance, the tripping pull of alliteration. These are the things you share with a child when you read poetry out loud. When your child hears the story of the poem, captures a vivid image, laughs at a funny word or “gets” the joke of a pun, she hears language in a new way.

Just as we read children chapter books they can’t yet read for themselves, exposing them to more complex stories and ideas, reading poetry to children stretches them. Poems like Mary Ann Hoberman’s “Rabbit” or “Brother” offer irresistible wordplay; Shel Silvstein is full of ridiculous double meaning; Eugene Field’s surreal “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” can lull your child right to the edge of sleep (in a good way!); and C.K. Williams’ “Gas” is a freeverse narrative about, well, that thing your 6-year old son probably can’t stop talking about. Trust me, it’s funny. You’ll be hero for a day or two if you read it to him.

So, this week, in honor of World Read Aloud Day, think about searching out a great poem or two to read alongside the bedtime story. You can even make a party out of it one night: your kids, a friend or two, pajamas, a couple of great books, and big bowl of popcorn. It’s as good as a movie any night, but maybe especially on a school night.

After, please come back and let us know how you celebrated and what you read in the comments!

To get you started, here are some of my favorite volumes of poetry for children:

  • Yellow Elephant, by Julie Larios. Each short, surprising poem focuses on a color, an animal, an emotion. There is nothing predictable or bland here, & the illustrations are stunning.
  • The Cat and the Cuckoo by Ted Hughes. Few of the animals here are familiar, but even when they are, the exuberant rhyme and cunning point of view keep them feeling fresh and immediate.
  • A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike. If anything evokes more poignantly and directly the seasons of a child’s year, I haven’t read it. An ongoing hit with both my children. It makes me cry.
  • Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies by Shel Silverstein. I am generally not a fan of Silverstein, however this book, with its simple but outlandish illustrations, is beloved by my 6-year-old son, who finds it hysterical. I sort of have to agree. The language is among the most playful you’ll find.
  • Dragons are Singing Tonight, by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Peter Sis. I bought this on a whim, seduced by the Sis/dragon combination, but the poems are riveting. There’s something captivating about a topical book like this, full of narrative poems and odes to dragons. This one also fascinates my son, and we often read the whole book in one sitting.
  • The Llama Who Had no Pajama, by Mary Ann Hoberman. There’s a reason Hoberman was the Children’s Poet Laureate from 2008-2010. This book is a great place to start.
  • Poetry Speaks to Children, edited by Elise Paschen. If you can only have one poetry book in the house, make it this one. Contemporary and classic poems, lyrics, narratives, humorous odes—it’s all here and not a dull verse among them. Plus it includes a CD of poets reading their own poems.
  • A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson or A Child’s Book of Poems, both editions illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I fell in love with Fujikawa’s illustrations as a child, and still can’t keep myself from gazing at them. These collections are great if you’re looking for something traditional.

Lisa Catherine Harper is the author of A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood**, which won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and has been called “universal, moving, and relevant.” Her writing has appeared in places including Poetry Foundation, Huffington Post, Babble, Literary Mama, and Mama, PhD. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, and their two children. You can find her online at http://www.LisaCatherineHarper.com.

**Editor’s Note: Look for Jennifer’s review (with giveaway) of Lisa’s fabulous memoir A Double Life at 5 Minutes for Mom on Monday.


  1. says

    You must LOVE April then, for National Poetry Month, right? :) I don’t read poetry with my kids all that often, although I have no excuse since we have some fabulous collections from Silverstein to Prelutsky. Thanks for the reminder!

    • says

      I love April because it’s spring! & we can read poetry outside too! But seriously, I think we’re going to do a poetry performance slam thing with the 3rd grade in April. They had a great time yesterday “acting out” poems from Ecclesiates to William Carlos Williams, to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Who would have thought?

      My daughter loved The Tighty Whitey Spider last year–her teacher used it in school a lot & I had forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder!

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