It’s hard to think of a time when there’s been such a gulf between the world in which we parents are raising our children and the one in which we ourselves grew up. But whatever shape tomorrow takes, words will always matter, and an ability to choose the right ones will be vital. Nothing teaches this more memorably, more pleasurably than poetry.
So, to celebrate National Poetry Day, here is a list of classic poetry books that have something for even the littlest listener. Because a child is never too young to be charmed by rhythm and rhyme. There’s a musicality to language that entrances even when meaning is missing, and if you can awaken your little person to the sheer fun and delight that’s be had from words, you’ll be well on your way to raising a baby bookworm.
I know – there’s a glut of viral verse out there on internet, and if you live with teenagers, you’re likely vastly more qualified to chat about it than I am. But these poems, unfashionable though their often white, male authors are, still have the power to connect to readers. And speaking of connecting: please do share your own poetry recommendations for kids.
Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense (Usborne, £12.99)
The Owl and the Pussycat in their pea-green boat, the music and starlight and slices of quince… And let’s not forget the runcible spoon, because ‘runcible’ was one of Lear’s favourite made-up words. Its meaning is slippery but that’s kind of the point – sometimes, Lear just loved the sound of a word, and why not?
Witty and ingeniously imagined, this collection brings together favourites and less well-known poems. It’s sure to lift your day and beguile even the most fidgety of listeners.
The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber, £16.99)
Emily Dickinson, Ogden Nash, Shakespeare… This wonderfully eclectic collection is one to grow with.
It’s been in print for decades – long enough that my mum bought it for me and my sister as children.
Our copy now lives at my house (don’t tell her!) and I still reach for it.
The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (Macmillan, £12.99)
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
Filled with characters from the Jabberwocky in Through the Looking Glass, it’s an epic adventure nonsense poem.
This edition, full of spiky illustrations by Chris Riddell, was bought by a friend for my daughter’s first birthday. Its pages are edged in metallic blue and it even comes with a ribbon marker – if your child is drawn to the physicality of books, they’ll adore it.
Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare (Faber, £6.99)
Beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, this is a classic that still enchants.
Full of satisfying rhymes and mordant whimsy, its short verses conjure up some indelible images and characters, like Jim Jay who, ‘like a rusty pin’, ‘Got stuck fast / In Yesterday’, and poor Tired Tim, ‘Too tired to yawn, too tired to sleep’.
(What parent doesn’t know that feeling?)
I Like This Poem (Puffin, £7.99)
This now vintage volume is like a little book club between soft covers. Split into suggested age ranges, all of the poems have been chosen by children, who explain a bit about why they like each one.
It starts from age 6, but really, don’t let that put you off is your children are younger. With a huge range of poets represented – think Christina Rosetti, Tolkien, Roald Dahl – you’ll find verse that’s funny, melancholic and everything in between.