Celebrate National Poetry Month with the hilarious Chris Harris, a TV writer and bestselling author, who shares his charming techniques for teaching kids the joys of poetry.
Although I’ve been told many, many times over the years that my writing is childish, I never explicitly tried writing for children until I had kids of my own.
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After Jozy and Silas were born, I wanted to create something wonderful that was just for them. Many new parents get this urge—especially those who, like me, secretly fear that their children’s love for them won’t be unconditional but instead might end up being merit-based. But what to create? I couldn’t build them a tree house because hammers scare me to death. I couldn’t paint them a mural since I have the artistic instincts of a tractor. I couldn’t write more than a few lines at a time because I had two young kids and that’s about all my exhausted brain could handle.
And so, because I was incapable of anything else, I wrote a book of children’s poems.
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There’s a little more to it than that. The poetry collections that I grew up with—Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll—were formative parts of my youth. They helped me discover just how versatile language could be; they taught me how to grab a silly notion or reflective moment and craft it into a miniature work of art. By showing me the nearly unlimited things you can do with words, children’s poetry helped me fall in love with writing as a profession and a passion. So I was delighted to create and see published my own minor, ridiculous addition to that canon.
Since April has been designated “National Poetry Month” (did they purposefully choose a month that doesn’t rhyme with anything?), I’ve been talking at various schools, hoping to torment more than just my own children with my enthusiasm.
Poetry for grade school children can be a tricky needle for a parent to thread—the kids are too old for Mother Goose, but not quite ready to emotionally resonate with Sylvia Plath (I hope, anyway). We want them to keep exploring the world of poetry, but one wrong haiku or too many similes can turn them against the entire art form. So how do we share poetry with them in a way that will keep them excited about it?
During my readings, I’ve tried to note what moments grade-schoolers respond to most enthusiastically. I hope that parents find these strategies useful, whether they’re reading poems from my own book, or exploring another poet’s work, or creating their own verse with their family, or—and if I’ve mentioned this already, then please forgive me—reading poems from my own book.
BUILD UP THEIR CONFIDENCE
Just the idea of poetry can seem daunting—even to adults—so I always start my talks by letting kids suspect that they might actually be better at poetry than I am (which, by the way, they might be). My book’s title poem started out as a running joke I had with my own kids; it basically begs for children to shout out corrections to what I wrote:
I’m just no good at rhyming,
It makes me feel so bad.
I’m just no good at rhyming,
And that’s why I’m so blue…
Later on, I ask them their own ideas for poems about a chosen topic, or how they would improve a poem that I read to them. This helps them absorb that poetry—both reading and writing—is something anyone can do. I feel like I’ve done my job if kids leave my talks thinking, “Wow, if that bozo wrote a book, then I wonder what I can write.”
CONNECT WHAT’S ON THE PAGE TO REAL LIFE
Kids not used to poetry may have trouble relating to it at first. In my talks, I get to tell my poems’ “origin stories” and explain how they were inspired by moments or conversations with my own kids. (The poem “The Island Where Everyone’s Toby,” for example, was inspired by a brief phase when my own daughter decided to give all of her stuffed animals the same exact name. She was sort of the George Foreman of preschoolers.) But any parent can talk about how a poem’s theme or story takes them to a moment in their own lives, helping the child connect the dots from poem to real life.
MAKE IT A CHALLENGE
The symbolism and imagery in most poetry can be a chore for grade-schoolers. Even the word “metaphor” sounds more like a wound ointment than a cool literary device. But when I turn it into a bit of a mystery—“Can we figure out what the poet is really talking about here?”—then the kids’ eyes light up: now it’s a puzzle to solve! Of course, not all mysteries are solvable, as this one from my book makes clear:
UNFAIR RIDDLE #1
I’m not an egg, but I have a shell.
And yellow and white within me dwell.
No, I’m not an egg, although I’m round.
And on a farm I’m often found.
What am I?
An egg. (What? I said it wasn’t an egg? Oh, ignore that part. It’s definitely an egg.)
Grade-schoolers can be fascinated (like I am) by the fuzzy edges where language and logic break down; they love discussing when words don’t quite work the way they should. One piece in my book asks, “If nothing is impossible, then is it possible to name something that’s not possible?” Another poem is written in all oxymorons (“The sun that night was freezing hot…”). They go crazy for a poem called “I Love Quiet,” which ironically ends with the entire class shouting at the top of their lungs. And, in a more serious moment, they eagerly get into why someone might claim, “I’m shy on the outside, but inside my head? / I’m not at all shy; I’m outgoing instead.” Speaking of which…
GET SERIOUS… EVENTUALLY
Laughter is a gateway emotion: Once people have laughed together, it’s easier to go deep and talk about other emotions. (That’s why 90% of wedding toasts start with a joke about how many drinks Uncle Rick has already had before they get all weepy.) I always start with some funny poems to hook them; then, after a few laughs, I’m amazed at how eager they are to discuss more profound themes.
My book jacket states, “If you (think you) hate poetry, then this is the book for you!” I don’t actually think most grade-schoolers do hate poetry; by sharing poems with them in a way that’s best for them, I hope we can keep it that way. I end my talks by saying that I hope they keep reading and writing poems, so they too can discover, like I and my own children did, how much you really can do with words—and that I hope that many of them get to publish their own collections someday. Only that last part is a lie. I’m actually extremely nervous about all that competition.
Chris Harris is a television writer and the author of the New York Times-bestselling poetry collection I'm Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups.