Children’s Poetry

A wide category of children’s lit. Children’s poetry can include nursery rhymes, prose poems, the early rhyming texts of authors like Dr. Seuss, or poetry written explicitly for a young audience like the amazing verses of Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, or Jack Prelutsky.

I love the variety of book spines on my kid's bookshelf...

I love the variety of book spines on my kid’s bookshelf…

I’ve never been a big fan of lists like “50 Books Your Kid HAS to Read” or “The 100 Best Children’s Books OF ALL TIME.” Typically, they make my blood pressure spike, tossing me between joy (“Ooh, good pick!”) and rage (“No Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? Those Philistines!”), and I spend more time debating their selection criteria and omissions than enjoying their recommendations. That said, I do think there are certain TYPES of books that every kid should be exposed to, the kinds of books that truly introduce them to the best of what the written word has to offer.

Here are my (very subjective) picks for the EIGHT essential kinds of books that every kid should have in their home library:


Board books are more of a format than a literary genre, but their impact can be profound. They are the training wheels of literature. They can be given to crazy little toddlers and those ankle-biters can browse them, chew on them, do whatever they want with them, and those thick cardboard pages will ENDURE. They teach kids that books are there to stay AND they allow their chubby little fingers to perfect the art of the page flip, which is possibly the greatest technical innovation in the history of reading. (Sorry, eReaders, but you can’t compete with the awesome power of the perfectly-placed page turn.)


Our world has a ridiculously rich and involved cultural history and it would be a shame not to introduce your child to it at a young age. And I’m not just talking about Greek Myths, which, granted, can have a bit too much god/animal coupling for young readers. I’m talking about the stories, the BIG STORIES, that everyone in our world knows. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Cinderella, Noah and the Flood, Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, stories of Anansi, King Arthur, Superman, and Strega Nona – the foundational stories. The stories that are referenced throughout every other story your kids will be reading for the rest of their lives. That foundation HAS to be laid somewhere and it should start at home.


Yes, you can’t expect that your child will have the exact same taste as you do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to share your favorite books with your kid. At the very least, it will show them what it looks like when a book truly has a profound effect on a person, when a book is treasured and loved. And who knows? They may surprise you.


This may be hard to hear, but, if your kids love talking about farts, burps, and boogers, you should buy them some books about farts, burps, and boogers. That doesn’t mean that you should ONLY let them read about what they want, but, if you really want your child to enjoy reading, they have to know that their interests are represented in the books they read, even if those interests are completely incomprehensible.

Reading only one kind of book is boring...

Reading only one kind of book is boring…


I know a lot of adults who don’t enjoy reading poetry personally, but I can’t stress enough how powerful poetry can be for young readers. If normal prose is a Volvo, poetry is a Lamborghini – it takes language, floors the accelerator, and really shows you what words can do. Poets like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein teach kids that, when assembled correctly, even in ways that don’t seem to make sense, words can make a person feel a ridiculously deep range of emotions, and kids LOVE THAT. [read the rest of the post…]


rexhallow_0004Before I get started, let me say that I know that saying anything is the “best EVER” is one of the internet’s most heinous and frequent sins. Everything online has to be the greatest or the worst. People can’t disagree on the web — they either destroy their opponents or come off as an epic fail. Everything is heightened and over-the-top, which means that nothing is really heightened or over-the-top, so, when someone online tells you, “This is the best ever,” there’s no real reason why you should think that they’re talking about anything special. EXCEPT THIS TIME… because Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and its sequel, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, are seriously the best Halloween books for kids EVER.

If you haven’t been overwhelmed by incredulity yet, let me explain. Yes, I realize that people like sharing spooky books with kids around Halloween time and I love that. For younger kids, you can give them something clever (but safe) like The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky or Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall. (Both great.) For older kids, you can go classic like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving or modern classic like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Super creepy.) But, for me, Halloween is really all about that sweet spot where unbridled fun and playful spookiness collide and I don’t know of any other kids’ titles that tap into that crazy tone overlap better than Rex’s Frankenstein books.franksandcover

For those unfamiliar, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake are two insanely creative illustrated poetry collections that utilize a breathtaking variety of art styles and rhyme schemes to tell short stories about some of the most famous monsters of all time – Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, the Mummy, witches, yetis, zombies, Godzilla, and, of course, the titular Frankenstein.frankcakecover

If that sounds cool, yes, these are incredibly cool books, but you also need to know that the poems are FUNNY. The Frankenstein books are among the funniest kids’ books we own. Get a load of the titles of some of the poems: [read the rest of the post…]


Nursery Rhyme Comics

This book could not be more popular in our household…

Back in May, I wrote a positively glowing review of Nursery Rhyme Comics, a 2011 collection of “50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists” that my daughter instantly adored. Seriously. She LOVED IT. It became the book my daughter talked about endlessly, the book that she wanted to check out every single time we visited the library.

To give you a full picture of her unbridled affection for Nursery Rhyme Comics, here’s a telling excerpt from my original review:

Do you want to know how much [my daughter] loved it? The next day, after I had to read her the whole anthology AGAIN, she asked me, “Do you think Santa will bring me this book for Christmas if I ask him?” For those of you without kids, just FYI, that’s maybe the single greatest endorsement ANY kids’ book can EVER have. That’s like a movie winning 12 Oscars and making a billion dollars at the box office.

That’s right. She asked for it from SANTA. That’s a big deal for a kid. And that happened back in May and, right before Christmas, my daughter asked me again – she remembered – and she asked, “Do you think Santa is going to bring me my own copy of Nursery Rhyme Comics?”

C’mon, parents, how could Santa say no to that? With that in mind, I present this quick video of our 2012 Christmas morning. (The “He” my daughter keeps referring to in the video is, of course, Santa.) So, thanks, First Second Books and Chris Duffy (editor of Nursery Rhyme Comics), as you can see, you guys – and St. Nick – really made my daughter’s Christmas.


Awful Ogre Running Wild

Wonderful poems about gloriously gross things…

Welcome to the fourth installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, the newest chapter in a weekly series where we take a look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out at our local library last week. I’m listing the books in the order they were selected and this fourth book definitely falls into the category of “old favorite.” Every time we hit the library, we end up coming home with, at least, one book that we’ve checked out multiple times before. My daughter loves to re-read books that connected with her in the past and so, when she saw  Awful Ogre Running Wild by Jack Prelutsky and Paul O. Zelinsky sitting on the “Librarian’s Picks” shelf last week, I KNEW we were coming home with it.

I know some parents are hesitant about reading poetry to their children. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because “poetry” is a loaded word for certain people. Maybe, to them, “poetry” conjures images of Sylvia Path, Emily Dickinson, beatniks, hipsters, and holier-than-thou coffee shop readings, and they just can’t get past that. While a part of me sympathizes with that prejudice, the vast majority of me just wants to slap them. Parents, perhaps without them even realizing it, read poetry to their kids ALL THE TIME, whether they’re singing a nursery rhyme or reading Dr. Seuss aloud. In fact, a huge percentage of picture books are actually poetry books – they’re narrative poems with rhyme, meter, etc. – but I guess those parents just see the images as the focus point. Who knows?

But one of the many reasons that I’m so fond of Awful Ogre Running Wild is that it’s a picture book that REVELS in its poetry. It’s a book that proudly classifies itself as a poetry book and announces on its cover that its author, Jack Prelutsky, is the Children’s Poet Laureate. (Ooh la la.) And, in cooperation with renowned illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, Prelutsky has created one of the most kid-friendly poetry collections ever, a book that wonderfully taps into the Id of children everywhere and turns all things gross and boorish into something beautiful.

Awful Ogre Running Wild

There’s a carbon footprint joke here somewhere, but… I can’t get there…

The book introduces us to Awful Ogre, a giant immature cyclops who smashes and destroys everything in sight. (Awful Ogre actually first appears in Prelutsky and Zelinsky’s Awful Ogre’s Awful Day, but… though I’m ashamed to admit it… our library doesn’t have it.) And Awful Ogre – he’s rude, he’s dirty, he’s destructive, and… he looks like he’s having a great time. Zelinsky does a really amazing job of making Awful Ogre into something distinctly monstrous, but in a really lovely, charming way. He’s a brute, but he’s a loveable brute. In the world that Prelutsky and Zelinsky create, the people that have to interact with Awful Ogre recoil at the very sight of him, but, as readers, the authors make it tremendously fun to watch the Ogre’s oblivious, joyful destruction from a distance. [read the rest of the post…]

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My Very First Mother Goose

This is a great nursery rhyme collection... that I very, very rarely read to my daughter.

If you asked me to look back at my home library experiment so far and identify the one area of children’s literature where I really feel like I dropped the ball, the one area in which I feel that our library has the worst overall coverage, I already know the answer. NURSERY RHYMES. I have completely, completely failed to give my daughter a proper education in nursery rhymes. Why? I’m not totally sure. We have some nice nursery rhyme and Mother Goose collections at home, including a particularly cool one – My Very First Mother Goose – that’s edited by Iona Opie with illustrations by Rosemary Wells (I’d definitely recommend it), but, for whatever reason, we haven’t really read any of them all that much.

I’m not quite sure where my unconscious prejudice against nursery rhymes comes from. Maybe I felt that we had enough sing-songy-type picture books, books that we recited and sang so often that it made up for our lack of reading “Humpty Dumpty” or “Three Blind Mice.” (We used to recite Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? on our drive to daycare every morning.) Maybe, as guy who used to edit reference books on children’s literature, I’d read way, way too many academic essays on the historical origins of nursery rhymes and I got it into my head that I didn’t want to have to explain to my kid the socio-political subtext of “stuck a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni.” Maybe I was turned off by the sepia-toned, English nursery illustrations in so many of the Mother Goose collections – with the girls in big frilly dresses and the obscenely cute anthropomorphized animals being so freaking precious all the time. I don’t really know.

Kate Greenaway Little Miss Muffet

I know Kate Greenaway is a legend of children's illustration, but these dainty, precious nursery rhyme images always turn me off.

In retrospect, it seems so odd to me. Before she was born, I was obsessed with making sure that my daughter had a strong library of fairy tales and folklore. As I’ve mentioned on the blog previously, I made sure that she had to have a “Dad approved” version of Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Red Hen, and so on, even if only so she’d be able to get all the various references to “classic fairy tales” that populate so many modern picture books. (How could she understand the genius of The Stinky Cheese Man if she’d never read The Gingerbread Man first?) But, for frankly stupid reasons, it apparently never occurred to me to make sure that she had the same education in nursery rhymes. Sure, I did buy a few nursery rhyme collections, but I never really pulled them out all that often. And I have no idea why. (Is “nursery rhyme prejudice” a recognized mental disorder?)

To be honest, my daughter got most of her education in nursery rhymes from a “Songs for Kids” CD that my mother bought to play in the car whenever she picked up my daughter for a play-date or sleep-over. While, at first, I found the CD a little obnoxious, it eventually won me over. I hadn’t really thought about how my daughter would eventually learn about “classic” children’s songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” or “Pop Goes the Weasel,” but the CD in Grandma’s car actually did a fantastic job of making her fall in love with a nice mixture of old songs and nursery rhymes set to music. The first time I heard my daughter singing “Ba Ba Black Sheep” to herself – with full knowledge that neither I nor my wife had taught her the song – was both a weird and really wonderful moment.

Nursery Rhyme Comics

I thought my kid was too old for nursery rhymes. This book proved me wrong.

This long preamble is my way of telling you that I really, really didn’t expect my daughter to like Nursery Rhyme Comics, a 2011 collection of “50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists”, edited by Chris Duffy. Now that my daughter is five, I thought the window for her enjoying nursery rhymes had passed. I thought that, thanks to my nursery negligence, the rhymes would just be too “baby” and uninteresting for her. And, when we took it out from the library, I was very aware that I was more taking it out for me than for her. I’m a big comics fan and some of my very favorite artists – Scott Campbell, Kate Beaton, Jaime Hernandez, Jules Feiffer, Gene Luen Yang, Tao Nyeu, Tony Millionaire, and more – had contributed to the anthology, so, personally, I just really wanted to read it. I didn’t actually think that my daughter would care that much about it.

Now, long-time readers of my blog can feel me building up to something here. And what I’m building up to is the reveal of the ONE seemingly constant and unchangeable rule of parenting that I never seem to be able to escape. A rule that I’ve referenced over and over again in my book reviews. What’s that rule? The fact that – when I make a parental decision or even when I speak a particularly declarative sentence – I am almost always, always WRONG.

My daughter was intrigued when I checked out Nursery Rhyme Comics from the library and asked me to read her a few of the rhymes at bedtime. I said we’d read five rhymes, expecting that her interest would quickly wane and we’d move onto something else. But we did not read five rhymes that night. We read ALL FIFTY rhymes. TWICE. I was completely unprepared for the sheer, unbridled JOY that Nursery Rhyme Comics brought to my five-year-old. She went NUTS for it. She LOVED it.

Do you want to know how much she loved it? The next day, after I had to read her the whole anthology AGAIN, she asked me, “Do you think Santa will bring me this book for Christmas if I ask him?” For those of you without kids, just FYI, that’s maybe the single greatest endorsement ANY kids’ book can EVER have. That’s like a movie winning 12 Oscars and making a billion dollars at the box office. [read the rest of the post…]


Before I get into my discussion of Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard, I want to tell you about a fantastic Halloween reading tradition that’s sprung up over the past few years called All Hallow’s Read, which apparently originated with a blog post by Neil Gaiman in 2010. It’s all about… well, I’ll let Gaiman explain it himself:

That’s it. On the week of Halloween (or on the day itself), give someone you know – adult, kid, or in between – a scary book to read.

Simple yet elegant. I love the concept for many reasons. First of all, if you can actually find a book that really, truly scares you, it’s an amazing sensation. Finding out that reading words on a printed page can actually chill you to the core of your being is a staggering, unrivaled experience, and it often gets dismissed by people who look down their nose at “genre” fiction. Personally, if a book can actually scare me, I find the experience way more affecting than a book that can make me cry. I cry all the time (ask my wife – it’s a sickness), but scaring me while I’m sitting on the couch reading in the middle of the day? That’s a hard act to pull off.

Secondly, I love that there’s this aspect of All Hallow’s Read that’s all about figuring out your audience. It’s not just finding a book that YOU might find scary. You’re trying to find a book that will scare your mother, your daughter, your pal, your co-worker – some real thought has to go into that selection. The book has to have the APPROPRIATE scare level for the person you have in mind. Your nephew might be a little tame and timid, but can’t get enough of campfire ghost stories. Your best friend might despise gore, but might love the existential dread of a Lovecraft novel. Psychological suspense might bore your sister to tears, but she ADORES blood and guts. It’s like choosing the perfect holiday gift for your friends and family, only with marginally more viscera and tentacled gods.

I decided to get in on the All Hallow’s Read fun this year and find a scary book to share with my daughter, which… was a challenge. She’s almost five and is a bit of a scaredy-cat. And it’s hard to predict what will or won’t resonate as scary with her. She can’t get enough of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal – both of which have some decidedly weird and dark moments – but curls up in anxiety whenever she sees a picture of a gun or whenever there’s an especially creepy background shadow in a picture book spread. (I’m 95% certain that she never even realized that she was supposed to be afraid of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, so, thanks a lot, Stan and Jan.)

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

So I had to stay away from murder, death, weapons, unfriendly monsters, situations that couldn’t be explained away as fairy tales, overt threats towards children, and particularly spooky illustrations. In other words, I didn’t have a ton to work with. But I eventually found the perfect All Hallow’s Read book for my daughter in the 2007 picture book adaptation of Jack Prelutsky’s poem The Wizard, illustrated by Brandon Dorman – a book that I think is a PERFECT Halloween read for nervous young readers looking for a slight dose of spookiness before bed.

If you don’t already know, Jack Prelutsky was named the first Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006 and, for decades, he’s been a major force in children’s poetry. When asked to name great poets for young readers, I normally rattle off the names “Silverstein, Seuss, and Prelutsky” on instinct before my brain has time to start thinking of other options. If you have third graders or older – or younger kids with particularly strong constitutions – who would revel in tales of monsters and mutilation, you can’t go wrong with Prelutsky’s perfect-for-Halloween poetry collections, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep or The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Both are way fun and are accompanied by a series of Edward Gorey-esque illustrations created by the great Arnold Lobel. [read the rest of the post…]


This September has been an oddly momentous month for children’s literature – first, we got the publication of Bumble-Ardy, Maurice Sendak’s first new illustrated and authored children’s story in 30 years, and then, if that wasn’t enough, this week, we get the release of Every Thing On It, a brand-new collection of 130 previously unreleased poems and drawings from the late, great Shel Silverstein, only the second “new” collection of Silverstein’s work to be released since his death in 1999. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein

What a great September

My family is particularly excited about Every Thing On It. Shel Silverstein is a master of language, particularly in using language to speak directly into the brain stems of eager children. We started reading to my daughter from A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends when she was three years old and, at first, I really didn’t think that my daughter was going to have the patience to sit and listen to poetry being read to her. It just seemed very… abstract, esoteric, it didn’t seem to have the immediacy of a picture book. I thought she’d be bored. However, once we got started, I quickly realized a profound and universal truth – I get things wrong ALL THE TIME. (Take a note, dear readers. That truth is going to come up again and again on this blog.)

Me being horribly, pig-headedly, stupendously WRONG has occurred multiple times during my brief tenure as a parent so far, and it has almost always involved situations where I completely underestimate my kid. Reading Shel Silverstein was one of those situations. She LOVED the poems. She was quiet, attentive, enraptured. After the second night of reading a selection of Shel poems before bed, she had already MEMORIZED some of the shorter ones. It was uncanny, and it really speaks to Silverstein’s ninja-like virtuosity with words and images and how he was able to use that skill to engage whole generations of young readers. For an author with the, hands down, scariest back-cover photo in the history of children’s lit, Shel Silverstein was a tremendous friend and ally to kids all over the world, speaking to them – never speaking down to them – with such depth, sophistication, and a sense of fun that they couldn’t help but love the guy.

So, in honor of the publication of Every Thing On It, here are two classic videos of Shel doing what he does best, entertaining everyone around him.

The first video is an extremely cool  clip of Shel appearing on The Johnny Cash Show back in 1970 where he does a few songs, including a duet with Cash (Silverstein wrote the lyrics to one of Cash’s most famous songs “A Boy Named Sue”). The second video is an animated clip of Shel reading “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” from Where the Sidewalk Ends, which is one of my daughter’s favorite poems. Enjoy.