Late last year, I was surfing the Internet looking
for articles about children’s poetry when I came across a piece in The Guardian
titled Why is children’s poetry so invisible? In the article (dated 28 April
2015), Chrissie Gittins, an award-winning British children’s poet, said that
it was time “to get confident about children’s poetry…” because children love it. She
suggested that publishers, bookshops, and libraries should stop hiding it and
start celebrating it.
Hoorah for the just-out CLPE poetry award shortlist! What treasures! In
fact it’s the only award for a book of children’s poetry in this country. Lucky
for writers of children’s fiction there are at least 10 opportunities for them
to submit to prizes which are solely for fiction. But, is poetry eligible for
the Carnegie Medal, the Costa Book Awards, and the National Book Awards? Yes it
is! Have you ever seen poetry shortlisted for these awards?
The last time a poetry collection was shortlisted in the
children’s section of Costa prize was in 1999 when it was still called the
Whitbread Book Awards. This year, out of 91 nominations for the Carnegie prize,
only one was for a poetry collection, and that book didn’t make the longlist.
(Any professional librarian can nominate a book and it is added to the
Certainly children’s poetry doesn’t win these prizes, even
on the very rare occasion it is shortlisted. Why is that?
If you read summer and Christmas book round-ups, or lists of
top 10/50/100 book recommendations, they hardly ever include poetry. If you go
into bookshops and libraries, do you see signs for children’s poetry? Not many?
Is it perhaps because in many bookshops poetry is likely to be found under
signs which say “Fairy Tales and Gifts”, “Jokes”, “Rhymes and Giggles” and
“Hobbies”? Do you see much stock of children’s poetry? No? Why is that?
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It appears that children’s poetry is
treated much the same way “across the pond” as it is here in our country. Children’s
poetry books are pretty much invisible in book stores. They rarely win a Newbery
Medal or Newbery Honor Award. Although novels in verse get more attention these
days, poetry collections—especially those for younger children—rarely get
serious consideration for the “big awards.” What is the reason for that? Do
children’s librarians think that poetry is a fringe literary genre that is, for the most part, unworthy of awards?
I’m glad that the National Council
of Teachers of English acknowledges America’s most gifted children’s poets with
its NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children and that there is a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for the best children’s poetry books of the year—but neither of
those awards is broadcast on the Internet like the ALSC awards. They are only “big
deals” to poetry lovers like me.
Poetry is the Cinderella—pre-fairy godmother—of
children’s literature. It is often a neglected genre in the school curriculum.
It is usually relegated to the servants’ quarters of education. Schools do not
purchase multiple copies of poetry books for teachers to share and discuss with
children in reading groups. Many teachers—and, sad to say, librarians—are
unfamiliar with the names of some of our most accomplished children’s poets and
their works. And most administrators consider poetry a frill, as literature to
be shared with children—if shared at all—when there is that rare free moment in
the school day.
Alas! Children’s poetry usually doesn’t get invited to the royal ball either.
It is seldom honored with the “big” award. To my knowledge, just two poetry
books have been recipients of the Newbery Medal since 1922: Nancy Willard’s A
Visit to William Blake’s Inn in 1982 and Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise in
1989. Surely, there have been other poetry books published over the years
worthy of acknowledgement. Am I mistaken to infer that the people who are most
knowledgeable in the world of children’s literature also perceive poetry as a
genre that is less important than fiction and other nonfiction? Why are there
so few Prince Charmings willing to squire Cinderella Poetry around town unless
she’s all dolled up for a special event? If I were Rodney Dangerfield, I might
opine on the state of poetry for children: It don’t get no respect.
Over the years,
I witnessed how the reading and writing of poetry with my students helped them
to reach inside themselves, to unlock original ideas and thoughts, and to find
their own unique voices. There were times when I was awestruck by the poetry
they created. Some of my second grade students even modeled their poems after
the works of such esteemed authors as Myra Cohn Livingston, Valerie Worth,
Barbara Juster Esbensen, Marilyn Singer, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Poetry
definitely enriched my classroom and the lives of my students. I know this not
only from what I observed in the classroom—but from letters I received from
parents and students at the end of each school year.
One June a mother wrote: “When Kate sits in our window and responds to the moon
and stars by writing poetry, I glow with happiness.” Another mother wrote:
“Thank you so much for helping Alex discover his ‘new eyes’ in your class. Your
love of poetry and music enriched him…” In his letter, Sam said: “…And I love
the poems you read to us.” Noah wrote: “When I read poetry, that encourages me
to write poetry. Writing poetry gets my imagination going.” Notes such as these
reinforced my belief that poetry—all kinds of poetry—should be an integral part
of every child’s education.
Poetry has been a genre too long neglected and too often overshadowed by other
children’s literature. For years, I have been on a mission to bring it out of
the shadows and into the limelight. Unfortunately, there is only so much
enthusiasts like me and a few respected anthologists and advocates like Lee
Bennett Hopkins and Paul Janeczko can do to achieve such a goal. I encourage
all bibliophiles—teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, editors,
publishers, reviewers, parents, booksellers, children’s literature bloggers,
and experts who sit on awards committees—to join in an effort to see that
poetry for children is acknowledged as an equal, is invited to the royal ball
more often, and when it arrives at the palace, is escorted down the red carpet
to the grand hall where it can bask in the attention that it truly deserves.
Do you think children's poetry is invisible? Do you think it should receive more attention from teachers and librarians...and from ALSC? Do you think that children really do enjoy poetry?