Poetry, Plays, and Short Story Collections
Materials for Youth 12: Poetry & Short Story Collections from Annette Lamb on Vimeo.
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When you think of poetry do you think of dead guys like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg? Maybe you studied Langston Hughes or Walt Whitman in high school or college. Or, you could be a fan of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.
As a child, Dr. Seuss brought reading alive for me through silly rhymes. The gentle, but powerful voice of Maya Angelou reading poetry at an ALA conference helped me understand the importance of reading poetry aloud.
As an elementary media specialist, meeting Jack Prelutsky in 1984 at an ALA author event inspired me to promote poetry in my library. He signed my copy of The New Kid on the Block and a poster that I still have hanging in my personal library.
How has poetry impacted your life?
It’s important that young people have the chance to develop a passion for poetry. Many parents and teachers are uncomfortable and sometimes even negative about poetry. Because many poetry books like Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein aren’t a part of the Accelerated Reader (AR) program, many students, parents, and teachers simply ignore the poetry form entirely.
Remember that poetry is written to be read aloud. Look for opportunities to read poems to children. Introduce programs with a poem or start a lesson with a poem. Explore all types of poetry to identify those forms that you enjoy and seek out poetry that’s relevant to youth particularly humor. Who could resist poems read from The Armpit of Doom: Funny Poems for Kids (2012) by Kenn Nesbitt or Kids Pick The Funniest Poems by (1991) Bruce Lansky and Stephen Carpenter.
I’m Glad I’m Me by Phil Bolsta in Kids Pick The Funniest Poems by (1991) Bruce Lansky and Stephen Carpenter is shown on the left. Click the image to read the poem.
It’s possible to find poems on a wide range of subjects. Lee Bennett Hopkins is known for his collections related to math (Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems, 1997), science (Spectacular Science: A Book of Poems, 1999), and social studies (Got Geography! Poems, 2006) themes.
If you’re not a fan of poetry, you may still be waiting for the right poet or performance for inspiration. The options for poetry are endless.
Poetry uses rhythmic language to express an idea or story generally in short lines or verse. The goal is to capture an experience through imaginative language. However, the genre is really much more. It involves creating a connection between the author and reader that is difficult to explain. Instead, it must be experienced. The author’s precise use of vocabulary can immerse a reader in nature or help a patient cope with death and depression.
Many children develop a dislike of poetry because it’s viewed as part of a language arts curriculum that places emphasis on reading poetry, then writing poetry. While some children enjoy this activity, others put it in the same category as memorizing states and capitals or learning times tables. Let's make poetry fun, not a chore!
Prose vs Poetry
What’s the difference between prose and poetry? While prose is organized into paragraphs, poetry is not. Poetry may be a single line of text, a few lines, or words scattered around a page. It doesn’t need to rhyme or follow a particular pattern. However, you’re probably familiar with the most common forms such as haiku and limerick.
The library generally contains collections and anthologies of poetry. However be sure they’re the type of collection that will appeal to youth. The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry (2008) edited by Bill Martin Jr. contains traditional poems alongside contemporaries pieces that will appeal to kids.
Reading Poetry with Children
Most poetry is intended as an oral experience. For instance, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988) by Paul Fleischman won the Newbery medal and is written to be read aloud by two voices. One person reads the left side of the page and the other person the right side of the page. Click the excerpt below to read a portion of a poem.
A great way to instill a love of poetry in young children is by reading together. Books like the You Read to Be, I’ll Read to You series (2001+ series) by Mary Ann Hoberman is a wonderful place to start. Different colors are used in the poems to indicate the first reader, second reader, and joint reader sections. The image below shows a two page spread from the iTunes version of one of the books in the series. Notice that each reader has a different color as well as the joint reading section.
For older children, read the works of Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky together. You can alternative reading poems or lines within poems. Because many of the poems have multiple meanings, it’s fun to discuss each poem after reading.
We often talk about adults reading to children, however there's a special joy that comes when a child is read to read WITH an adult. The You Read to Be, I’ll Read to You series by Mary Ann Hoberman is series I read with my nephew as soon as he was able to begin reading. Later, we read the works of Jack Prelutsky line by line and discussed his use of satire. When we weren't together, we used Facetime as a way to read together even though we live a couple thousand miles apart.
Have you had an experience reading poetry with children? If not, it's time to give it a try. Pick up a copy of your favorite poems and share an amazing experience with the child of your choice.
Forms of Poetry
Keep in mind that youth may enjoy particular forms of poetry over others. While some children enjoy rhyme, others focus on story elements. Elements of poetry including poetic language, sound patterns, rhythm, word play, and figures of speech (Stoodt, 1996).
Although the short length of haiku is popular with children and teachers, they can be difficult to read and understand. Dogku (2009) by Andrew Clements tells his story about a stray dog using haiku. It’s a great way to introduce youth to this poetry form. Click the image below right to read a page from the book.
Humorous poems using the limerick rhyming scheme and patterns are particularly popular with children. The Book of Pigericks: Pig Limericks (1983) by Arnold Lobel is a favorite.
Concrete poems combine text with visual elements. The poem is written on the page in a shape representing the poem’s theme. A Poke in the I: A Collection of Concrete Poems (2001) by Paul B. Janeczko is an example.
Free verse has been used for both short works as well as entire novels.
Freakboy (2013) by Kristin Elizabeth Clark explore's a boy's internal conflicts. His story is told in verse through multiple perspectives.
Many picture books are written as poetry and some novels use free-verse poetry such as What My Mother Doesn't Know (2001) by Sonya Sones. Inside Out and Back Again (2011) and Because I am Furniture (2009) by Thalia Chaltas are also examples of novels written in verse. Under the Mesquite (2011) by Guadalupe Garcia McCall is a teen’s experience facing mom’s cancer in free verse. Click the image below right to read a page of verse.
Newbery medal winner Out of the Dust (1997) by Karen Hesse and May B (2012) by Caroline Starr Rose are two examples of historical fiction that use free-verse in telling a story. In her Newbery acceptance speech, Hesse stated,
“I never attempted to write this book any other way than in free verse. The frugality of the life, the hypnotically hard work of farming, the grimness of conditions during the dust bowl demanded an economy of words.” (Hesse, 1998).
Poetry and Children
Young children enjoy playing with language. Poetry is the perfect vehicle for this type of exploration. From the Cat in the Hat to Fox in Socks, books by Dr. Seuss are a wonderful way to introduce children to poetry. In addition to Dr. Seuss, many other authors such as Mike McClintock’s A Fly Went By take similar approaches in the popular Beginner Books from Random House first introduced in the late 1950s. Children are enthralled by the easy words and simple stories often memorizing the books without even knowing what they’re doing.
Unfortunately, this passion for words and the joy of reading is often lost. In just a few years, children who loved Dr. Seuss declare that they hate poetry. The key is providing engaging content and word play appropriate for the age of the children.
Youth need to relate to the content without the chore of exploring the “deeper meaning” of poetry. Consider topics that related to every day activities such as Arnold Adoff’s The Basket Counts (2000) about basketball. Feature animals like David Greenberg’s books Slugs (1983), Bugs (1997), and Skunks (2001). Click the image below right for an excerpt from Bugs!
Seek out poetry that reflect cultural experiences different from their own like Lori Carlson’s work Cool Salsa. These hip, colorful books draw in youth much more effectively than the sad old anthologies that once filled the poetry shelves.
Look for popular childhood themes. Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (2014) by J. Patrick Lewis is a picture book of poems about cars. National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry (2012) by J. Patrick Lewis combines breathtaking photos with carefully selected poems.
The Random House Book of Poetry For Children by Jack Prelutsky and Arnold Lobel (1983) remains a very popular tool to introducing youth to a wide range of poetry. For very young children, try Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (1986) by Jack Prelutsky and Marc Brown.
Introduce youth to popular adult poets through the Poetry for Young People series by Sterling Children’s Books through titles like Maya Angelou, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Lear, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Since poems are intended to be read-aloud, seek out books with audio CDs that accompany the works. Some examples include Poetry Speaks to Children (2005) by Elise Paschen, Dominique Raccah, Wendy Rasmussen and Judy Love and Poetry Speaks Who I Am (2010) by Elise Paschen and Dominique Raccah.
Because poetry is often shelved in an area of the library that is often overlooked by youth, it’s important to think of ways to market the titles. Booktalks and book trailers are two effective approaches because they play off the oral aspects of poetry that bring it to life.
One of the exciting ways poetry is reaching young adults is through the growth of Poetry Slams. A Slam is often set up with a Bohemian, coffee house atmosphere, not your same old library environment, and refreshments are served. Individuals share their own poetry in an oral presentation, and that work is judged with a one to ten score card system similar to that seen in sporting competitions. Many love to perform, and you might be surprised when you see who comes. Marilyn Irwin notes that “a school librarian friend said she almost died when football players showed up for one of her Slam sessions.”
Some teachers and librarians are providing variations on the traditional Slam. For some, students are encouraged to present the work of others. These events may or may not be judged. And sometimes the poetry jam becomes a multimedia event with slide shows or musical accompaniment. Presto! Poetry becomes fun again.
Also remember that poetry is a wonderful stepping stone for young singer/songwriters. Encourage youth to bring their guitars and set their favorite original or classic poems to music.
Not everyone would think it’s fun to stand up in front of a group of people and share poetry. For them, there are venues that aren’t quite so public. For example, Voice of Youth Advocates sponsors an annual Teen Poetry Contest. There are also several commercial ventures that provide contests, and some local libraries, schools, and youth organizations sponsor their own events.
Use books like Poems to Learn by Heart (2013) by Caroline Kennedy to get started. This collection contains poems that are easy to memorize and share. Click the image below right for an example.
Censorship of Poetry
You may think that poetry is a topic that wouldn’t receive challenges. However A Light in the Attic (1981) by Shel Silverstein is on ALA’s 100 Most Commonly Challenged book list. The poem titled “How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes” has been challenged for encouraging children to be disobedience. In addition, some parents have objected to the supernatural themes in other poems. Click the image below to read "How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes."
Evaluation of Poetry
You’re probably already familiar with Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. However, you’ll want to get to know some of the lesser-know poets for children too. Each year, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gives the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
Read a few poems by a poet who received the NCTE Award in Poetry for Children. Compare these poems to those of Silverstein or Prelutsky. How do they compare? How would you promote this poet?
We’ve talked a little about what makes good poetry for children. Here are some specific questions from Huck, et al. (p. 368) to consider when looking at poetry books for children.
- How does the rhythm of the poem reinforce and create the meaning of the poem?
- How does the sound of the poem add to the meaning?
- Does the poem use alliteration? Onomatopoeia? Repetition?
- If the poem rhymes, does it sound natural or contrived?
- Does the poem create sensory images of sight, touch, smell, or taste?
- Are these related to children’s delight in their particular senses?
- What is the quality of imagination in the poem? Does the poem make the child see something in a fresh, new way, or does it rely on tired clichés?
- Is the figurative language appropriate to children’s lives? Are the similes and metaphors ones that a child would appreciate and understand?
- What is the tone of the poem? Does it patronize childhood by looking down on it? Is it didactic and preachy? Does it see childhood in a sentimental or nostalgic way?
- Is the poem appropriate for children? Will it appeal to them, and will they like it?
- How does the poet create the emotional intensity of the poem? Does every word work to heighten the feelings conveyed?
- Does the shape of the poem – the placement of the words – contribute to the poem’s meaning?
- What is the purpose of the poem? To amuse? To describe in a fresh way? To comment on humanity? To draw parallels in our lives? How well has the poet achieved this purpose?
Many young people enjoy reading traditional plays as well as screenplays. William Shakespeare's Star Wars (2013) by Ian Doescher is a hilarious combination. Doescher retells the popular movie in the style of a Shakespearean play. Those who love both Shakespeare and Star Wars will love with the approach.
While many youth avoid the plays section, it was a favorite of mine. My cousins and I enjoyed getting together and performing plays for our siblings and parents. We also liked making the sets and costumes. There were lots of books that contained short skits that we could adapt for our productions.
Is there an area of the youth collection that you think is often overlooking by children and young adults?
Short Story Collections
Short story collections are an often overlooked part of the library. However, they’re an exciting form that provides youth the chance to “test out” new authors without the commitment of a whole novel.
A Matter of Souls by Denise Lewis Patrick immerses readers in eight short stories set in the past. Each story focuses on racial conflict.
A great place to start is The Best American Nonrequired Reading from The Best American Series. This annual collection includes essays, short stories, and comics designed for both young adult and adult readers.
Consider some of the classic collections too. Many libraries still have the old Alfred Hitchcock short story collections such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery: Eleven Spooky Stories for Young People (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock's Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense (1973) that continue to scare youth after 50 years.
When I was growing up, I enjoyed spending time with a cousin who was my age. She lived in a spooky old farm house in the country. We enjoyed staying up late reading Alfred Hitchcock short stories to each other. We'd takes turns reading the scary stories under the covers with a flashlight. They were the kind of spooky nights that tweens love.
Did you enjoy reading short stories when you were growing up? Or, did you prefer the depth of novels?
Short Stories by Author
Some authors enjoy writing short stories and create their own short story collections. Neil Gaiman is such an author. M is for Magic (2007) and Unnatural Creatures (2013) are two examples of his short story collections.
Short Stories by Genre
Some short story collections are focused on a particular genre such as school stories, mysteries, or fantasy.
Daughters of Time (2014) brings together popular female young adult historical fiction authors including Penny Dolan, Adele Geras, Mary Hoffman, Dianne Hofmeyr, Marie-Louise Jensen, Catherine Johnson, Katherine Langrish, Joan Lennon, Sue Purkiss, Celia Rees, Katherine Roberts, Anne Rooney and Leslie Wilson.
Short Stories by Topic
Many collections focus on a particular theme. Does This Book Make Me Look Fat: Stories About Loving — and Loathing — Your Body (2008) focuses on the topic of body image. On the Day I Died: Stories From the Grave (2012) by Candace Fleming includes ten ghost stories for teens set in different time periods.
If you look down the authors from the book Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (2009) edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, you’ll find many of the “hot” authors including M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, John Green, Tracy Lynn, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Barry Lyga, Wendy Mass, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfield, Lisa Yee, and Sara Zarr.
Who doesn't like zombies and unicorns? Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier provide twelve short stories by a variety of authors. The collection is called Zombies vs Unicorns.
Another short story collection is What You Wish For: A Book for Darfur (2011). This stellar collection includes the works of best selling authors as well as award winning writers. Many of the stories are takes on classic stories like Cinderella and the Little Match Girl. Proceeds of the sale of books goes to Darfur.
The novella form provides a nice transition from short stories to full-length novels. They are increasingly popular in the e-book form. Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellas (2011) by Gary Paulsen includes three short works that might encourage youth to jump into his other works.
Promoting Short Fiction
One of the reasons that short story fiction is often overlooked is it’s physical location. Look for ways to place this section front and center rather than in a dark corner.
Another approach is to encourage teachers to make use of short stories in their classrooms.
Huck, C. S., et al. (2004). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, 8th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.
Hesse, Karen (Summer 1998). Acceptance Speech. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, II(4), 341-345.
Irwin, Marilyn (2013). Material for Youth. Lecture notes.
Stoodt, Barbara (1996). Children’s Literature. Macmillian Education.