“Mama?” Jane holds a book in her hand. “Will you read the llama poem?”
“Sure, sweetie.” I shove back my dinner plate to clear a space on the table. She climbs into my lap and opens the book to the llama poem page.
“The Llama Who Had No Pajama, ” I read the title, then launch into the poem.
The llama who had no pajama
Was troubled and terribly sad
When it became known that he had outgrown
Every pair of pajamas he had.
The poem continues, picking up speed as the llama and his mama look in “each nook and each cranny / each hillock and mound” and not a pair of pajamas can they find in the whole wide wumberly world. By this time, they’re so exhausted from their search, the little llama falls asleep sans pajamas, only to wake up in the morning and realize:
Since goats don’t wear gloves
And cocks don’t wear socks
And bats don’t wear hats,
Well, why in the world,
In the wumberly world,
Should llamas be wearing pajamas?
“Will you read it again, Mama?” Jane asks. So I do. This time, Jack leans over my shoulder to read and listen along, and the twins crowd on either side, resting their little blond heads on my hips.
I confess, until I had children, poetry intimidated me. I was an English major who always felt incredibly dense when I approached a poem, as if its meaning were somehow obscured by its language, and it was my job to decode it, only I didn’t know the code that my classmates had somehow managed to crack, and I just bumbled along, feeling ever more and more stupid at poetry. Once I graduated, I more or less quit reading the stuff.
Then, Jack was born, and I started reading children’s books, many of which are poems: Goodnight Moon and Ten, Nine, Eight. Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? and Owl Moon. Jamberry and The Circle of Days. And I liked them. I loved them. I read them over and over again. I still do.
Then Jack and I graduated to Mother Goose and Jack Prelutsky and Edward Lear—whole books full of verses, of poems. We giggled over them, and I reveled in the sound of the words in my ears, the feel of them on my tongue. By this time, Jane was born, and I read to her all the books I’d read to Jack. Then the three of us discovered Mary Ann Hoberman and Rachel Field and Robert Louis Stevenson and the poems of A.A. Milne.
And somewhere along the way, I discovered that even though real poetry still intimidated me, I definitely liked children’s poetry.
Then we began reading from Favorite Poems Old and New, a book I stole from my mother’s library when I was home for a visit, and I found myself reading poems by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson—poets whom no one would accuse of writing for children. And I loved the feel and sound of these words just as much as I loved the feel and sound of the children’s poems on which I’d cut my poetic teeth.
I could no longer claim that I wasn’t really a poetry person. Reading to my kids, I fell for poetry myself. Now, there are still poems that mystify me, that I read and wonder, what the heck is that about? But I no longer feel stupid in the face of them. I just figure that poem wasn’t written for me and go read something else, something by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins or John Keats.
I finish reading “The Llama Who Had No Pajama” a second time. Jane flips to another page and asks me to read the poems there. We spend half an hour turning pages, looking at the funny illustrations, and reading poetry. The kids could keep going—they’d have me read every poem in the book—but my backside is getting sore from sitting on hard wood under a six-year-old who seems to get heavier by the minute.
So we get up and clear the table. While I load the dishwasher, Jack and Jane get ready for bed. Then they help me put the twins in their pajamas. “Our own little llamas, ” I say.
“In fleecy pajamas, ” Jack says. He and Jane and I grin at each other. Then we pile onto the sofa for stories—and more poetry.
If you’re like me and don’t know how to introduce a youngster to poetry, start with picture books, many of which are poems in disguise. In addition, look for illustrated books written by well-known poets. Some of our favorite children’s poetry books include illustrated versions of poetry by Donald Hall, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Frost, Rachel Field, Rose Fyleman, and Mary Ann Hoberman (author of “The Llama Who Had No Pajama”).
Once they (and you) are used to the language of poetry, you could try a longer collection of poetry. Here are a few of our family’s favorites:
Children’s poetry for the very young:
My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie, illustrated by Rosemary Wells
Sylvia Long’s Mother Goose selected and illustrated by Sylvia Long
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young selected by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Marc Brown
Animal Crackers: A Delectable Collection of Pictures, Poems, and Lullabies for the Very Young collected and illustrated by Jane Dyer
Children’s poetry for preschoolers on up:
The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Betty Fraser
Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-Me Book of Poems selected by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy, illustrated by Jane Dyer
Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart selected by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Michael Emberley
Poetry Speaks to Children (Book & CD) edited by Elise Paschen, illustrated by Judy Love, Wendy Rasmussen, and Paula Zinngrabe Wendland
Poetry Speaks to Children (Book & CD) selected by Helen Ferris, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard
Early to Late Elementary School:
Poetry for Young People series. Illustrated collections of American and British poets.
A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, selected by Caroline Kennedy. The Kennedy family’s favorite poems. Illustrated by Jon J. Muth.
Hailstones and Halibut Bones: Adventures in Poetry and Color. Mary O’Neill. Beautifully illustrated by John Wallner.
Hip Hop Speaks to Children with CD: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat, Nikki Giovanni. Illustrated by Alicia Vergel de Dios, Damian Ward, Kristen Balouch, Jeremy Tugeau, Michele Noiset.
Photo by EriSuch, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In February we’re exploring the theme Purple, Plum and Indigo.