So You Wanna Be a Children's Poet...
by Linda Phillips

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Do rhymed couplets -- the kind that make nursery rhymes or 32 page picture books -- sneak into your head at all hours of the day and night? Do you leave refrigerator notes for your spouse or child that could put Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky out of circulation? If you answer "Yes!" to either or both of these questions, you qualify as a children's poet "wanna-be." With some concerted effort and a focused action plan, you could morph into a "has been" -- published children's poet, that is.

Read, Read, Read

If you think poetry, chances are you have already read and collected a variety of favorite children's poems. It's time to read outside your comfort zone. Try reading the classics, or a particular genre, or poems and/or poets that you have previously labeled "boring." After all, there is some good reason why they are in the book, and you aren't. Try picking out a poet's favorite techniques; read with an eye for the unique twist that sets a poem apart; jot down the defining characteristics of a certain poet's voice.

For example, read William Blake's "The Tiger" and "The Lamb" several times through, deciding for yourself what makes him one of the immortal poets of the English language. Read Edward Lear's limericks (19th century) to see how they compare with Arnold Lobel's Pigericks (21st century). Find out what images give Emily Dickinson's poem, "Autumn," its lyrical quality, and what rhyming technique she used to add interest.

Maybe you have had trouble reading or writing anything that doesn't rhyme. Discover the importance of rhythm in Carl Sandburg's "Buffalo Dusk" and notice how the dramatic use of repetition brings this free verse to life. Dig into the haiku of the masters (Basho, Buson, Issa) and compare them to the haiku in Jane Yolen's Water Music. Study the divergent approaches to free verse of two African American poets, Langston Hughes and Arnold Adoff. Notice how Adoff uses his trademark, shaped speech, to speak to a diversity of cultures in contemporary America. Contrast that with the quiet, gentle voice of Langston Hughes.

Take another look at some seemingly simple poems, the kind that make you say "I could do this." Karla Kuskin's often short, whimsical poems capture the essence of childhood experience, as in "I Woke Up This Morning." In Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams she offers short anecdotes and insights into the writing process of selected poems. Dip into David McCord who has been called "an acrobat with language" with his surprising usage of rhythm, sound effects and word play. One of his best collections is All Small, including his classic and clever "Pome."

Techniques and Terminology

It's a fact that many published children's poets do not have MFA' or even much formal training. But one way or another, they have acquired a working knowledge of some basic terminology.

A viable question among children's poets today is to rhyme or not to rhyme. Be very careful how, when and where you use rhyme. It is far more difficult to write good rhyme than free verse, and far easier to come off blatantly awful. Rhyme should add tonal variety, offer the possibility of discovery, and emphasize rhythm. It is NOT essential to a good poem.

Alliteration, or the repetition of the first sound of several words or phrases, is a popular form of rhyming that young readers love. Jack Prelutsky puts it to good use in many of his books including Something Big Has Happened Here, as does David Kirk in Miss Spider's ABC's.

Assonance (stressed vowels in two words agree, but final consonants do not), and consonance (final consonants of stressed syllables agree but vowels differ) both fall into the category of near rhyme. The beginning poet must tread lightly when using either of these rhyming devices, lest they be called near misses by unimpressed editors who mistake them for ignorance or carelessness. Jane Yolen, Mem Fox, Arnold Adoff and Myra Cohn Livingston are among the contemporary poets who use them effectively.

Internal and initial rhyme and repetition do just as the names imply and are often found in simple poems for the very young. Read Karla Kuskin's "Snow" or David McCord's "Four Little Ducks" for good examples of internal rhyming. David Kirk uses Initial rhyme well in his Miss Spider's ABC's. Repetition, a device derived from Hebrew poetry, is most often, but not always used in poems of a serious tone. Karla Kuskin's "Spring Again" and Langston Hughes' "April Rain Song" are good examples.

If you are a poet who loves to pull out all the stops, wordplay, including puns, portmanteau, and exceptional words used in an exceptional way are right up your alley. Reading or re-visiting Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" is a must. He gave us portmanteau, or suitcase words, named so because they collapsed together as if slammed in a suitcase. Chortle, derived from snort and chuckle, is one of his best. Ogden Nash, one of the most widely acclaimed writers of light verse, e.e. cummings and David McCord are all masters at this art.

While rhyming is optional, rhythm is essential to every poem. Extremely hard to define, it is easy enough to recognize by its ebb and flow. It is, in fact, derived from the Greek word meaning "flow." Rhythm is as necessary to a poem as breathing is to life. It gives a poem balance or symmetry, is satisfying to hear, and is dependent on the use of pauses and vocabulary. While many children's poems today do not have meter (pattern of formally organized rhythm), they do have cadence, or some kind of rhythmical pattern.

Write, Write, Write

Now that you've read a wide variety of poets and boned up on some popular techniques and terminology, how do you find your voice? What type of poem will you write? To take the pressure off yourself and ward off writer's block, try this exercise:

  1. Set up shoe box word banks numbered and labeled as follows:

  2. Draw a rule from box #1.

  3. Draw from the other boxes according to the rule.

  4. Write a poem using the criteria. Remember who your audience is (kids)

Stretch Yourself

Ready for a bit more stretching? Add another dimension (box) from which to choose, labeled GENRE.

Among the many categories of poetry according to style, form and purpose, the epigram (short, and usually pointed, rhymed couplet) is the simplest. Try outdoing Robert Louis Stevenson's well-known epigram:

The world is so full of such wonderful things
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Another must in the rhyming department is the limerick, a humorous verse of three long lines and two short lines with an a/ a/ b/ b/ a/ rhyme scheme. In addition to Edward Lear, who popularized this form in 1846, read John Ciardi's work to prime the pump.

Are you great with images but short on words? Include haiku, a seventeen-syllable poem in three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. These little gems originated as the first stanzas of long Japanese poems, describing the season and setting in which the poem was composed. Now they stand on their own, usually describing a natural object and a second image or insight that gives energy to the first image.

If you choose not to follow any rules of metrical verse, but have a sense of cadence similar to phrasing in musical composition, try free verse. Images are essential, rhythm is less important, and rhyming is out. Newbery award winner Karen Hess's novel, Out of the Dust, is worth consulting as you consider this genre.

Do you love to tell stories? Narrative poems do just that, and can be written in rhyme or free verse, with fictional or real subjects. Read these classics: Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride."

For those who have an artistic bent, concrete poems will offer a challenge. These poems substitute for conventional elements of poetry (rhyme, rhythm, form and syntax) by creating a picture with the words or letters. Walking Talking Words by Ivan Sherman and Space Songs by Myra Cohn Livingston will provide good examples.

On Becoming a "Has Been" (Published)

Believe it or not, the easy part is writing the poem. The hard part is marketing. But you've come this far; don't stop now. Your strategy should go something like this:

  1. Research the market

  2. Start with magazines

  3. Send for writer's guidelines, catalogues or free copies

  4. Follow the submission format and requirements

  5. Consider entering contests

  6. Join a critique group or professional organization

  7. Buy a supply of stamps and envelopes and start submitting your poems

The point is to read widely, acquire new skills and techniques, and get busy writing. You'll never be a "wanna-be" children's poet again.

Find Out More...

Writing in Rhyme for Children - Laura Backes

Helpful Sites:

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Publisher's Weekly


Copyright © 2002 Linda Phillips
This article originally appeared in Children's Book Insider.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Linda Phillips is a freelance writer living in Charlotte, NC. She enjoys writing for a variety of publications including literary magazines such as The Texas Review, Windhover, and Main Street Rag and newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer. She has also written for numerous trade and children's publications, and for elementary and middle school curriculum projects. She is an active member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. In addition to writing, she enjoys conducting workshops on children's writing at literary festivals and in schools and public libraries.


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