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Favorite First Poems

The Academy of American Poets designated April National Poetry Month in 1996 as a time to celebrate poetry's many contributions to American culture. Throughout the month, schools, libraries, and literary organizations participate in readings, festivals, workshops, and other events to encourage a deeper appreciation for the art form, especially among children.

In addition to providing entertainment value for children of all ages, poetry plays a vital role in the development of literacy skills. "Kids delight in repetition, rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme," says Diane McGuiness, Ph.D., the Sanibel, FL-based author of Growing a Reader From Birth: Your Child's Path From Language to Literacy. Children as young as 3 (and sometimes even younger) can easily master a short rhyming poem, Dr. McGuiness says.

It's not just the language benefits that make reading, writing, and listening to poetry so important. Silly or serious, poetry taps into young hearts, captivates the imagination, and can stay with children for a lifetime. Spend some time encouraging your child to read and write poetry this month, using the memories below as inspiration. Then go to www.child.com/web_links and submit your child's poem; we'll post it online to share with other readers.

Top Author Memories

"For my eighth birthday, my grandmother gave me a beautiful illustrated copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The first Wonderland poem, which is the first poem of my life, looks, to a contemporary adult eye, like experimental verse. This curiosity, which fascinated me as a child and inspired me to much imitation, has no title and begins with the startling word 'Fury.' The poem replicates a mouse's long tail, dwindling down the page until its final, mordant words are set in miniature type, scarcely readable. But it was the sharply rhymed and accented 'Jabberwocky' that made the most profound impression on me. I was fascinated by the bizarre, secret language and the poem's dreamlike violent action. The entire poem is irremediably imprinted in my memory, who knows why?"

--Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award-winning author of Blonde, What I Lived For, and I Am No One You Know: Stories (April 2004); adapted from The Faith of a Writer, © 2003, The Ontario Review

"When I was in the eighth grade, we memorized 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' [by Samuel Taylor Coleridge], and every time I go to the beach, I always think, 'Water, water, everywhere.' It never left me."

--Wendy Wasserstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, Uncommon Women and Others, An American Daughter, and Isn't it Romantic, and author of Shiksa Goddess

"The poems I cared most about as a child were 'The Road Goes Ever On' by J.R.R. Tolkien, 'Cottleston Pie' by A.A. Milne (featuring, as I recall, the fab line 'A fish can't whistle and neither can I'), and a silly bit of nonsense [titled 'No Pets Allowed'] from a collection of tongue-twisters and double-talk by a certain Mr. Arnold Arnold. I still think of the last line, 'Fretting pets wet,' every time I see an upset dog indoors. When I was a kid, though, I didn't even have a pet. This poem, like all the poetry that interested me before age 12 or so, was purely about the sound of words."

--Jonathan Franzen, National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections, Strong Motion, Twenty-Seventh City, and How to Be Alone: Essays

"When I was in fourth grade, something possessed me to memorize 'Paul Revere's Ride' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (I think I might have been a bit of a showoff.) What's amazing to me is how vividly the poem has stuck with me over the decades, the way pieces of it still pop into my mind from time to time. Something about the breathlessness of the poem -- the galloping rhythm and the sense of adventure it evoked -- really brought a historical moment to life in a memorable, accessible way."

--Tom Perrotta, author of The Wishbones, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, Joe College, and Election

"'The Purple Cow' by Gelett Burgess was one of many doggerel poems my father read to me as a child. This poem stands out in my memory as a particular favorite because of how wonderfully simple and short it was. In fact, it was the first thing I ever memorized and has stuck with me to this day."

--John Lithgow, actor (3rd Rock From the Sun television series, The Pelican Brief, Orange County, Shrek, and the upcoming Shrek 2) and author of I'm a Manatee, Marsupial Sue, and A Lithgow Palooza!: 101 Ways to Entertain and Inspire Your Kids (April 2004)

"I remember falling in love with Carl Sandburg's 'Fog,' which I instantly memorized. I must have been astonished by its length, 21 words, and the fact that it was an adult poem yet utterly un-mysterious and accessible. I was also a big fan of Robert Louis Stevenson's book, A Child's Garden of Verses. [My classmate] Charlie Donahue gave it to me in the third grade after picking my name in the Christmas grab bag. I hope I thanked him, especially for letting his mother's taste prevail."

--Elinor Lipman, bestselling author of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Inn at Lake Devine, The Ladies' Man, Then She Found Me, The Way Men Act, The Dearly Departed, and Isabel's Bed

Children's Poetry Classics

Reading poetry gets kids ready to write their own rhymes. Wondering where to start? Here are some timeless collections of poetry for every child's bookshelf:

  • A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (Simon & Schuster)
  • Mother Goose: The Original Volland Edition (Derrydale)
  • The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury (Knopf)
  • When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne (Dutton Books)
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends, 30th Anniversary Special Edition, and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins)