Would you try to encourage a group of netflix-addicted screenagers to read by handing them Moby Dick or Infinite Jest? Not hardly. These titanic tomes–no matter how much you enjoy them–would be unlikely to ignite flames of book lust in reluctant readers. Obviously, you wouldn’t go to the other extreme and offer The Poky Little Puppy, either. But somehow, everything we know about motivating kids to read gets tossed on the trash heap when it comes to poetry. I’m not entirely sure why. Is it because we don’t read much poetry ourselves? Or because we view poetry as some kind of weird root vegetable, definitely good for kids, but not necessarily appealing?
We are easily bored by what we do not understand, but also by what provides us with no challenge at all. Beyond that, we all have our quirks, our individual tastes and preferences. Yet, poetry encountered in school is too often either antiquated and complex (Keats, anyone?), or banal and simplistic (the tired, cliche, greeting-card-style poetry that finds its way onto memes and motivational posters). It’s no wonder so many students find it boring!
Educators eager to find good poetry written especially for children and young teenagers don’t always know where to turn. For many teachers, there’s Shel Silverstein, and then there’s, um … well, there’s Shel Silverstein! It isn’t entirely their fault, as poetry seems to be the forgotten stepchild in most children’s literature courses, even as it’s experiencing something of a small renaissance in the publishing world. I can relate. When I first started out as a school librarian, I thought I knew something about children’s literature. However, I quickly realized I had no idea what purchases to make for our poetry collection, which was in serious need of shoring up. Through networking, conferences, and, most importantly, reading dozens of new-to-me poets, I’ve learned a lot. Poet Nikki Grimes writes on her blog, “There’s a depth and breadth to children’s poetry that rarely gets its due, poetry specifically written for children that scales the heights of heaven, plumbs the depth of death, and graces all the notes in between.” Relying solely on Shel (delightful though he is) deprives kids of the opportunity to get to know the myriad of other talented children’s poets out there.Who knows what poem might be the one to unlock a child’s lifelong love of verse? Below are ten kid-tested poets for educators to read and share with their students. Get ready to open doors and minds!
Lee Bennett Hopkins deserves to be at the top of any list of poets for young people. Not only is he an accomplished poet himself, but he has edited over one hundred poetry anthologies. He is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for his achievements. While the poets on this list have won countless awards between them, Lee has several poetry awards named after him!
Margarita Engle is an American poet of Cuban ancestry who is best known for her novels-in-verse, which often feature strong-willed protagonists based on real people from marginalized cultures. Her books have received multiple awards, including Newbery honors and the Pura Belpre medal.
Janet Wong is an established poet who has published multiple volumes of poetry on a wide range of topics in many forms, all with great kid appeal. But she’s also a poetry ambassador who’s won accolades for her Poetry Friday anthologies (co-edited with Sylvia Vardell) that include brief lessons to help teachers integrate poetry into their regular curricula.
JonArno Lawson is a master at expressing the inexpressible. He knows just how to push the thoughts that live in the periphery of kids’ minds right out into the open, and he has a way of making the ordinary into the extraordinary. He is perfect for introspective types. JonArno Lawson is a winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Poetry Award for Excellence.
Helen Frost writes verse novels that are highly poetic, with clever, invented forms that provide added appeal to her perfectly paced stories. She is the kind of writer that students recommend to one another.
Marilyn Nelson writes both formal and free verse that is breathtakingly elegant. Her themes often center around issues of race and social justice. If you are searching for gorgeous poetry with heart and soul, look no further. Marilyn Nelson’s awards include the Printz honor and the Coretta Scott King medal.
Joyce Sidman writes clever, whimsical, heartfelt, but never saccharine poems on all the topics kids want and need to read about most: animals, loneliness, the dark, losing things, illness, hope. She has received a Newbery honor for her work.
Nikki Grimes was born and raised in New York City, and many of her poems have urban themes and settings. Her expressive, insightful poems are often told from the point of view of characters that feel like real people with hopes, dreams, and challenges. Nikki Grimes is a Coretta Scott King medal winner.
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, but has spent time living in Jerusalem. Her innovative poetry reflects her family’s Palestinian heritage, and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.
Mary Oliver, a winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, is not a children’s poet, but much of her poetry is accessible to young people. Oliver’s poems often focus on a close observation of the natural world.