Poetry is something we learn to appreciate from a very young age, even if we don’t know it by that name. Nursery rhymes are often the first ‘poems’ we learn as kids or young children, while nonsense verse, and the works of some of the more celebrated children’s authors of the last hundred years, remain popular ‘texts’ at primary or junior school.
Picking just a handful of the best ‘poems for kids’ is always going to be difficult, but the list that follows is meant to be a crash course in some of the greatest kids’ poems ever written in English, rather than a comprehensive overview of all great children’s poetry. But we hope there’s something for every kid out there here.
1. Anon, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’.
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
Since we mentioned nursery rhymes at the beginning of this post, let’s kick off with one of the best of the lot. ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, with its bovine athletics and eloping cutlery and crockery, is great fun for young kids, conjuring a fantastical world not too far removed from the later nineteenth-century strangeness of Victorian nonsense verse.
2. Jane Yolen, ‘Earth Day’.
Yolen (born 1939) has said that she writes ‘to satisfy the story or poem or piece of fascinating research that speaks to me.’ A poem, for example, is an answer to a question which nobody else has managed to answer for her.
This poem was written specially for Earth Day, which is celebrated each year on 22 April in order to show support for the protection and preservation of the environment, including all of the delicate ecosystems that make up the Earth.
Yolen’s poem is spoken by someone who acknowledges their kinship with the Earth and who views the planet as a delicately balanced organism, much like themselves. The poem is thus a great way to introduce to kids the importance of looking after the planet.
3. Shel Silverstein, ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’.
This is the best-known poem by Shel Silverstein (1930-99). First published in 1974, it describes a hidden other world which lies between the sidewalk and the street: a world which children know how to find, where things are somewhat different from our world.
The poem concludes by suggesting that we should go where the arrows lead, to the place where the sidewalk ends. He then reveals that it is children who have marked the chalk arrows onto the path, to direct others to this special place that lies between the sidewalk and the street: the place ‘where the sidewalk ends’.
4. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …
So begins the poem which gave us the now-familiar words ‘chortle’ (a snort-chuckle) and ‘galumph’ (to gallop triumphantly). Begun in the 1850s when Carroll – whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was still in his early twenties, the poem is included in Carroll’s 1872 novel Through the Looking-Glass, his sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The poem is a version of the heroic quest, and sees an intrepid hero leave home to brave – and fight – the dreaded Jabberwock, a fearsome monster invented for the poem itself. But the real joy in this quintessential kids’ poem is the language, with each line containing at least one word coined by Carroll himself to describe this strange, fantastical world.
5. Edward Lear, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’.
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights; —
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore; —
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore …
If Lewis Carroll offered marvellous heroic nonsense verse for kids in ‘Jabberwocky’, his fellow Victorian nonsense-maker Edward Lear (1812-88) brought pathos to the genre. But it’s also a glorious work of the imagination, a colourful poem full of life and, even, of hope.
This poem is about a mysterious figure – the fictional Dong – who falls in love with a girl from a foreign land (she is one of the Jumblies, who feature in another poem by Lear). She leaves, and he is heartbroken.
But he doesn’t give up: he constructs his famous luminous nose from bark picked from the fictional Twangum tree, painted it red, and tied it to the back of his head with cords. He then hung a glow-in-the-dark lamp in the nose so it could guide him to his lost love …
6. Mary Ann Hoberman, ‘Fish’.
Hoberman served as the Poetry Foundation’s children’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2011, and her work remains popular with kids. She’s also been extraordinarily prolific, writing over 50 books, all but one of which were written in verse.
In ‘Fish’, Hoberman uses a series of lively and evocative verbs to suggest the movement of fish through the water: wiggling, swiggling, swerving, curving, and so on, with each verb gently meandering into the next through some shared sound-association. What a great way for children to learn about the oral (and aural) power of poetry: a great kids’ poem to be read aloud!
7. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Looking-Glass River’.
Sailing blossoms, silver fishes,
Pave pools as clear as air –
How a child wishes
To live down there!
When he wasn’t writing classic novels for younger readers like Treasure Island (1883), or Gothic horror novellas like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) was writing verses for children, which were published in A Child’s Garden of Verses in 1885.
In a series of clear and easily visualised images, Robert Louis Stevenson summons the magical charm of the river with its ‘looking-glass’ aspect: it’s like a mirror not only because we look down and see ourselves and the world around us reflected in the surface of the water, but because, to the imaginative child, the water hints at an inverted world, a magical realm beyond our own.
8. T. S. Eliot, ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’.
As well as writing such modernist poems as The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’, T. S. Eliot (188-1965) also wrote a book of nonsense verses about cats for his godchildren. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was later turned into the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats.
This poem is the most famous one from the book: Macavity, who is loosely based on Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories (of which Eliot was a devoted fan), is a master of disguise, a ‘cat-burglar’ in the most literal sense of the term, and a criminal who covers his (paw-)tracks with skill. According to Stephen Tunnicliffe, ‘Macavity’ is particularly good reading for 11- and 12-year-olds.
9. Dr Seuss, ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’
One of the biggest-selling authors who has ever lived, Dr Seuss is a favourite among many children, known for his charming story-books told in verse such as Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
In this short poem, which is also a popular one for graduations, he inspires his young readers to go and ‘move mountains’, confident that they will achieve what they want to achieve as long as they stick at it. One of the great things about the poem is that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the road ahead will sometimes be difficult. But ultimately, it’s an optimistic poem.
10. Marilyn Singer, ‘Cat’.
Singer (born 1948) has written a number of well-received books for children, with her poetry books including Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse (2010).
In ‘Cat’, a very short poem, a cat speaks in short, clipped lines of verse, telling us about what it most enjoys, even in December when it’s cold outside. It’s a charming poem which uses language, and line endings, beautifully and simply, making this the perfect poem to engage younger children in the joys of verse. And it’s about a cat, so what’s not to like?
11. Roald Dahl, ‘My Teacher Wasn’t Half as Nice as Yours Seems to Be’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best poems for kids with something from the master of the gruesome and macabre: Roald Dahl. When he wasn’t writing classic children’s novels featuring outlandish and ghoulish characters and events such as The Witches, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, Dahl was penning verses for kids.
This poem, which one can imagine Dahl delivering to schoolchildren when he visited classrooms around the UK, contains the trademark touch of the exaggerated macabre which has made Dahl such a firm favourite among kids. Here, he reminisces about a strict teacher he had when he was at school …