Does it have to rhyme? Or is it the tempo that does it? Or is it the lovely or quirky imagery? Poetry comes in many guises and is hard to define. It can also have bad press and be seen as complicated, snobbish or boring, something for other people.
But poetry, in fact, has a talent for hiding in plain sight. Right from the start babies know about it, through the lullabies you sing to them. Nursery rhymes from ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ give rhythm to many toddlers’ and young children’s early years. Poetry turns up in crèche and in school to help develop memory, speech, counting and writing skills. It reigns over the playground with all sorts of games from skipping songs to Red Rover. And, of course, it fills many a great book.
Poetry books come in a wide variety of form and tap into many themes. Whatever your young reader is into, you will find a book to match their interest, be it dinosaurs (the classic Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Stickland, from age 2), history (try Brian Moses and Roger Stevens’s 1066 and Before That, 7+) or sport (Let’s Play! Poems About Sports and Games from Around the World, edited by Debjani Chatterjee, 5+).
Babies and toddlers will particularly enjoy song books and nursery rhyme books. Sandra Boynton is an author-illustrator-songwriter to look out for: her hilarious books work brilliantly with very young children (check out Moo, Baa, La La La! and her excellent album The Philadelphia Chickens for instance). Closer to home, the new edition of Gugalaí Gug offers a selection of Irish rhymes in both languages with a CD and some great artwork from Cartoon Saloon.
Older children will be ready for longer rhyming picture books (think Julia Donaldson to name but one) and their first collections of poem, such as the stunning Firefly July which features very short poems warmly illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Nicola Davies is a great non-fiction author who can write poetically about nature and animals in brief, simple and yet evocative poems such as in her First Book of Nature illustrated by Mark Herald.
Finally, emergent readers can get their teeth into series of very short verse novels such as Swashbuckle Lil (by Elli Woollard and Laura Ellen Anderson) or Squishy McFluff (by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad) and their (rhyming) whimsical tales of secret pirates and imaginary cats.
Written by Juliette Saumande, children’s book writer, Book Doctor and Reviews Editor for Inis magazine, published by Children’s Books Ireland the national children’s books organisation whose vision is an Ireland in which books are central to every child’s life.
0-2 years: Moo, Baa, La La La! By Sandra Boynton
A whimsical introduction to rhymes, Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La! Looks at different animals and what they ‘say’ from the well-known (‘A cow says MOO/A sheep says BAA’) to the unexpected (‘Three singing pigs say LA LA LA!’). Cleverly bringing in the reader/listener into the book (‘“No, no!” you say ‘That isn’t right’”), Boynton delivers a funny romp that begs to be read aloud, or rather loudly. Very loudly.
2-4 years: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Marl Herald
A First Book of Nature is described as ‘part poetry, part scrapbook’ and is designed for a child’s view of the natural world around them. The book is divided into the four seasons, with poems and facts inspired by each, and with a colour palette to match. The beautiful illustrations and the simple but lyrical text welcome the reader into a world of quiet yet joyful observation. One to treasure.
5-8 years: Swashbuckle Lil: The Secret Pirate
This first book in a new series contains two stories about Lil, schoolgirl and secret swashbuckling pirate. In the first tale, Lil saves her teacher Miss Lubber from the awful villain, the terrible Stinkbeard, while in the second her foe is Stinkbeard’s hungry croc. Full of adventure, fast-paced and with plenty of lively pencil illustrations, this is one for fun-loving emerging readers.