Monday, October 09, 2006

Guest Blogger: CHILDREN’S POETRY AND THE CINDERELLA SYNDROME, Part II

Guest Blogger: CHILDREN’S POETRY AND THE CINDERELLA SYNDROME, Part II

Elaine M. was an elementary school teacher and librarian for over 30 years. She is now an Instructor of Children’s Literature at BU, President of MA North Shore Council of the IRA, and on the advisory board of the Keene State College Children's Literature Festival, as well as a gifted poet. Elaine is a passionate enthusiast of children’s literature. This is Part II of her guest blog.

I am a passionate proponent of children’s poetry. I want to spread the word about the importance of sharing ALL kinds of poetry with our children. Too often their exposure to the genre is limited to the humorous verse of Prelutsky and Silverstein. Kids love it! I like it, too. But we should lead our youth beyond the confines of this popular children’s poetry and introduce them to the works of our finest children’s poets—and to poetry that will challenge them, to poetry that will stretch their imaginations.

Two questions: Would anyone think it best to expose children to one type of fiction—just fantasy, perhaps? Would anyone espouse the practice of reading children picture books written by just one or two particular authors? Not anyone in his/her right literary mind! Yet, it seems there are few individuals lamenting our children’s limited exposure to poetry. This disheartens me. Let me explain why I feel as strongly as I do about this subject.

There are things I learned from my experience teaching in an elementary school for more than thirty years. Most children enjoy—and many even relish—poetry when it is read or recited by an adult who loves it. They delight in the rhythm, rhyme, and clever wordplay found in poems written by such masters of the genre as Mary Ann Hoberman, Karla Kuskin, Aileen Fisher, Lilian Moore, and David McCord. Most will also grow to appreciate poems that do not rhyme—poems written by authors like Arnold Adoff, Janet Wong, Eloise Greenfield, Joyce Sidman, Alice Schertle, Tony Johnston, and Kristine O’Connell George. Children can be so inspired by a poem they have heard that they will write an original poem as an artistic response. And when children are immersed in fine poetry, they begin to internalize poetic elements and to develop an understanding of and appreciation for figurative language, imagery, and metaphorical thinking.

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.

11 comments:

alvina said...

I agree that poetry is the "stepchild" of publishing--it's considered a "tough sell," especially for trade publishers, but I'm not sure what to do about it. One thing I will say is that many picture books, although not categorized as such, are indeed poetry. So children, at least picture book-age children, are getting exposed in a big way to rhyme, rhythm, and the beauty of poetry.

Elaine, would you prefer that poetry books were honored more often by the Newbery committee? Or would you like a separate major award for poetry books, along the lines of the Newbery and Caldecott and Printz? (by the way, there was also that poetry novel that won the Newbery, OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse)

Libby Koponen said...

I was heartened by this post! And not just because I absolutely agree that children love poetry -- unless it's presentad by a pedantic adult who treats poems as exercises in finding symbols. As a poet once commented about that, "A poem isn't an Easter egg hunt!"

It's too bad more parents and preschool teachers now don't read and teach nursery rhymes -- those old-fashioned English rhymes that have given many people (including m!) a love of the english language.

Joyce Sidman's THE SONG OF THE WATER BOATMAN & OTHER POND POEMS? didn't that win a Caldecott?

These are all disconnected thoughts -- there is too much to say on this topic for two posts and comments! It would be fun to talk to you at the next gathering about children's poetry....both the poetry they listen to and the poetry they write.

In the meantime, thanks for writing such a passionate post about poetry.

Elaine M. said...

Alvina,

Although OUT OF THE DUST is written
in free verse poetry, it is classified as fiction. I have asked myself the following question--which I will pose to you and anyone else who happens to read this comment: Would OUT OF THE DUST have gotten as much attention--and a Newbery Medal--if it had been classified as a book of poetry? I wonder. It is most certainly a powerful and elegantly written novel.

I think the "problem with poetry" is that so many of us who are adults had more negative experiences with poetry than positive ones. So we grew up without a true appreciation of the genre. Over the years, teachers and librarians and students in my children's literature course have made comments to me--such as the following:
I don't like poetry.
Children don't borrow poetry books from the library. They stay on the shelves.
Kids don't like poetry.

Well, I observed that kids really enjoy poetry when it is introduced to them by someone who loves it.
So, herein lies the problem: We need more adults who will take the time to get to know poetry, develop an appreciation for it, and share it with children. How do we do that?

I think we must raise the profile of children's poetry and children's poetry books.

And we all know that one way for a children's book to garner a great amount of attention is for it to have been honored with a Newbery Medal or a Newbery Honor Award. (There are already a number of awards for children's poetry books and children's poets. Unfortunately, hardly anyone-- except poetry enthusiasts like me--
pays much attention to them.)

I would hope that the individuals who serve on Newbery committees appreciate all genres of literature equally. I would hope every year one or two poetry titles might be taken into consideration. And yes, I would like to see poetry books honored with Newbery Medals more often than twice in eight decades!

I agree that young children are exposed to picture books with lots of rhythm and rhyme. But somewhere along the educational timeline, there is a gap in children's exposure to quality poetry--poetry that helps set the stage for their understanding of some of the great works they will expected to read in secondary school and college.

Elaine M. said...

Thanks, Libby!

Yes, SONG OF THE WATER BOATMAN received a Caldecott Honor. It was such a fine book of poems (which also contained factual information about the flora and fauna that inhabit a pond) I was hoping it just might be acknowledged with a Newbery Honor Award. There is still hope for Sidman. I just got her new book of poetry: BUTTERFLY EYES AND OTHER SECRETS OF THE MEADOW. It is an outstanding book--in both text and art. It was illustrated by Beth Krommes.

Do you know about the Poetry 180 website that was developed by Billy Collins when he was Poet Laureate of the United States?
I am sending you a link to "Introduction to Poetry," a poem Collins wrote. It is one of my favorites.
http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.
html

I'd love to come to the next gathering--with poetry books and CUPCAKES!

Anna Alter said...

Beautifully put Elaine! As you stated in your comment, it seems that some of the attitude towards children's poetry that you describe mirrors adult's experiences with the genre. Perhaps a good place to start would be creating positive experiences for adult educators with poetry? I'm not sure how exactly to go about this, just a thought.

In a way, poetry has resurged in pop culture recently with the introduction of 'poetry slams', where communities are invited to read their own works, as well as established poets, and turn a traditional poetry reading into more of a performance. I know there are several popular ones in Boston. Maybe children's poetry needs a similar makeover (not in content, but in presentation). As you said, the enthusiasm of the reader makes all the difference.

Gregory K. said...

I once heard Lee Bennett Hopkins say "just read a poem and get out of the way," and I think there's a lot to be said for that, particularly with younger kids. At some point, it's wonderful to analyze trochees and metaphors, particularly when kids are interested in doing that. But creating a culture where poetry is about enjoyment first... that's the ticket.

I am a huge fan of funny verse, and read a fair amount of it to the kids at the school where I am the volunteer librarian. But part of that is to set them up for reading poetry all the time -- a gateway drug, so to speak. They look forward to hearing a poem... and if it's not funny, they don't mind, as they just like that part of the day.

Also, I find poetry is a great way to introduce kids to voices they wouldn't always hear -- poems from different countries, different cultures, different races, different points of view.

Awards are fine... but Oprah would be better, because awards have a taint of "this is good for you"-ness that poetry really doesn't need any more of, imo. It takes advocates, and plenty of 'em... and then it takes time. But poets and poetry lovers are a patient lot!

Elaine M. said...

Gregory,

Tell Oprah I'm available to sing, act out, or dance a poem for her ANYTIME! Would you consider being my agent? Will send resume--and maybe some cupcakes--at your request.

The reasons I bring up the Newbery Medal: Books with those gold and silver stickers affixed to their book jackets are ordered by book stores and purchased by school and public libraries. They are books that often appear on recommended reading lists. Many teachers and librarians trust that such books have an inherent literary value. Most stay in print longer, too.
We want kids reading poetry.
After all, it is good for the soul
--maybe even better than chicken soup!

I most definitely agree that humorous poetry is the best introduction to the genre for kids. They love the funny poems of Silverstein and Prelutsky. Let's read them the funny poems of John Ciardi, J. Patrick Lewis, Douglas Florian, and Dennis Lee, too.

I AM a poetry lover who also writes poetry. But...I'm a gettin' mighty impatient. So I got me some red tights and a red cape and I'm a ready to leap tall library buildings in a single bound. Be on the lookout for SUPA(Super Ultimate Poetry Advocate)Woman!

alvina said...

I thought this poem was fitting for this post:

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

--Emily Dickinson

Elaine M. said...

Alvina,

I agree. Dickinson's poem is most fitting. I wish I could post a poem by Eve Merriam here for you. It is entitled "Prose and Poetry" and is found in her book THE SINGING GREEN.

It would take too long for me to explain why poetry has become such an important part of my life. I will just say that it provided me with sustenance during trying times. And I know it did for one of my most gifted students.

Elaine M. said...

Anna,

I am responding, belatedly, to your suggestion about providing more positive poetry experiences for adults. I have been attempting to do that for years, especially since I became an officer of the PAS North Shore Council of Massachusetts. A few years ago, I was awarded a grant from the council to lead a poetry study group for teachers. We met on Saturdays in my school library. The participants enjoyed immersing themselves in children's poetry, compiling anthologies to use across the curriculum, and learning about different types of poetry to write with their students. The grant money went toward the purchase of poetry books for the teachers to use in their classrooms.

Our council also runs a Speaker Series every school year. Since 2003, I have been in charge of making arrangements for our guest speakers. In the fall of 2004, Paul Janeczko, the award-winning poet and anthologist, addressed our members. He talked about sharing and writing poetry with kids. He's a wonderful presenter.
The esteemed Joseph Bruchac is coming next March. He writes fine poetry--as well as fiction and other nonfiction. Next May, the great Mary Ann Hoberman will be our guest speaker. Mary Ann was the recipient of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 2003. She also received a National Book Award for A HOUSE IS A HOUSE FOR ME many years ago. Mary Ann is a delight--and young children really respond to her poetry. I am hoping to schedule Janet Wong in the near future. She's a great writer--and an dynamite speaker. I love her poetry books!

In my children's literature course at BU, we spend two three-hour sessions on poetry. I bring in a suitcase full of poetry collections and anthologies for each session. Students have the opportunity to browse/read through all kinds of poetry books. One of the course projects is to compile a themed poetry anthology. Some students spend most of the semester working on the project. I also show them the video of Judy Sierra's ANTARCTIC ANTICS. It is fabulous! Students often leave that class singing some of the penguin poems that were put to music in the video.

I want to thank the Blue Rose Girls for giving me the opportunity to write a guest blog about something that is near and dear to my heart. I just hope I may have convinced one or two readers about the importance of sharing poetry with children.

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