• Grace McKinney

Speaking in Cursive: Poetry Books for Children

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

I sometimes like to think of children as accidental poets. As they learn the rules of grammar and grapple with an ever-expanding vocabulary alongside similarly burgeoning concepts of the world, their turns of phrases can often be more poetic than any great effort I could make at a limerick. Admittedly, many small gifts from children in my classroom end up being set aside (read: in the trash), but I keep a little note on my phone full of their most poetic work. Recently, after watching me shove my sweater sleeves up to my elbows, a child asked me if I was trying to turn them into "shorts for my arms." I was tickled by the thought of my bunched-up cardigan sleeves resting above my kneecaps, but had to agree that that was kind of what I was going for. Another, in a context I don't quite recall, told me about a grown-up friend who "spoke in cursive." Though what they meant to reference was their friend's writing, I often think about what lush, eloquent tone of voice this person must have who speaks in cursive!

Poetry is ever so playful, and, as Maria Montessori says, "All nature is, in a word, replete with poetry." As children engage deeply with the people and the natural world around them, it only makes sense that they would relish poetic language to help them make sense of it all. Some of these are anthologies, some smaller collections, and some a single narrative told in verse. We've listed just a few of our favorites below, but this is a list we hope to help expand both an understanding of what poetry can be and who can write it (beyond the ubiquitous classroom favorite, Silverstein).

On The Wing, by David Elliott and illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

An aviary of playful bird poems, Elliott's On The Wing plays with rhyme, meter, and never refuses a good pun; to the crow he writes, "your singing voice, my friend,/ is pure caw-caw-phony." A collection well suited to lower elementary and above.

If You Want To See A Whale, by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin Stead

This book of advice for whale-watching suggests a number of things not to look at, for the roses can be a distraction for such focused business. Imbued with patience, fascination, and Stead's typical tender illustrations, If You Want To See A Whale makes waiting a little more wondrous.

When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Christian Robinson

"When's my birthday?/ where's my birthday?/ how many days/ until my birthday?" These all-too-familiar questions flow rhythmically and enthusiastically in a poem that speculates on the exciting goings-on of a child's birthday. Fogliano, at it again, and this time in a partnership with Robinson that (excuse me) really takes the cake.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Julie Morstad

Okay, we'll stop with Fogliano one of these days, but there was not a chance we'd bypass this beauty. In a collection of poems named only by dates of the year, When Green Becomes Tomatoes paints the shifts across the seasons, both delightful and muddy, sniffly and cuddly. The poems vary in length and appeal to primary children and above.

If I Had a Little Dream, by Nina Laden

This Is A Poem That Heals Fish, by Jean Pierre-Siméon

A young boy has a sick fish. In true French fashion (as this book is translated), he decides his fish must be suffering from ennui. Thanks to his mother's somewhat unhelpful suggestion that a poem might cure his finned friend, the boy asks his neighbors and friends what a poem is. The story is a unique delight with stunning illustrations.

My Village: Rhymes from Around the World, collected by Danielle Wright

Twenty-two nursery rhymes from around the globe have been collected by Wright and beautifully illustrated by Moriuchi. The rhymes are printed both in their original language (19 languages in all) as well as translated into English. Language is a great way to explore cultures, and this book is a thrilling jumping-off point for the logophiles and linguists among us.

Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems by Bob Raczka

Concrete poems play with shape to add meaning to the text of verse; the letters of "HOPSCOTCH" arranged as the familiar game would appear on the sidewalk, "orbiting" curved like the path of a planet. Raczka's collection—er, mix—of poetry shows just how shape and typography factor into some serious wordplay.

A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka

If you didn't get enough of them with Wet Cement, take a look at another collection of concrete poems illustrated by Raschka. Feeling inspired? Try building your own.

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows

Cicadas and crickets, bees and beetles. Joyful Noise is a celebration of insects, but you'll be thrilled to hear of all the ways bugs can be poetic thanks to Fleishman's wordplay and insights. Joyful Noise is joy to read alone or, perhaps, out loud with a friend.

Poems to Learn by Heart, by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon J. Muth

This book of 100 poems, old and new, spans the length and width of human experience. From Kennedy herself on the importance of poetry: "Poets distill life's lessons into the fewest possible words. But those tiny packages of words contain worlds of images and experiences and feeling. If our circumstances change and things seem to be falling apart, we can recall a poem that reassures us. If we find ourselves in unfamiliar or frightening surroundings, a poem can remind us that others have journeyed far and returned safely home. If we learn poems by heart, we will always have their wisdom to draw on, and we gain understanding that no one can take away."

Out Of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjorie Alexander and illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Truly a celebration—these three distinguished writers pay homage to cummings, Neruda, Shihab Nye, and more as they put wonder into words in the style of those they celebrate. Holmes' illustrations add richness and texture to an already dynamic collection of poems (Can someone please deliver me that bowl of oatmeal? thanks).

Sail Away by Langston Hughes and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

One of several collections of poetry Bryan has illustrated, Sail Away offers young readers an introduction to Hughes' mastery of words in a group of poems all about water. Bryan's captivating paper collage work conveys smooth and stormy seas alongside each poem in the picture book.

Print this list! Click here for a link to a condensed version of this list in Google Drive.


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