Tony Mitton is without doubt one of the best poets writing today for children – his Plum, one of my favourite children’s poetry books, has featured on many of the favourite poetry lists here! Tony was born in Tripoli, South Africa, and lived in North Africa, Germany and Hong Kong as a child as his father was in the British Army. He went to Cambridge, became a primary school teacher and then a Special Needs Support Teacher for primary children in Cambridge. Apart from Plum, his children’s poetry books include my favourite Come into This Poem (atmospheric, full of word play and fun). One of his latest books is a rhyming picture book called Snow Penguin – perfect for Christmas! Tony’s website is here.
Some of my favourite children’s poetry books
Hello there. I’ve taken ‘favourite’ to mean most influential and formative. In my opinion, these are some of the books that most formed my sense of what poetry for children might be. Really, they’re all ‘classics’ now. And to some people they may read as a bit ‘old fashioned’, traditional, if you like. But I believe all the writers and the writing in them achieve excellence. The work is finely crafted and the inner ears of the poets are really well tuned to the sounds of the words, of the language. Some of the editions as pictured may no longer be in print. But most of these books will be available either in newer editions or on 2nd hand websites like Abe Books. Here they are in roughly chronological order, though there’s quite a lot of overlapping in terms of time.
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson:
This is one of the first ‘great’ collections of poems for children published in English. It was first published in 1896. Considering that, the writing is amazingly modern in tone. This is the same Stevenson who wrote ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. The poems in ‘A Child’s Garden’ show how exactly Stevenson remembers his own ‘child’s mind’. In the poem ‘The Land of Counterpane’ he takes me back to my own childhood where I played exactly the same kind of game on my bed, using it to arrange my toy soldiers and farm animals. His lyricism in these poems is deftly tuned. ‘Windy Nights’ appears in many anthologies.
Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare:
This book of poems for children was first published in 1913, but the versions I’ve read have been mostly the 1946 onwards editions with illustrations by one of my favourite illustrators, Edward Ardizzone (the man who later wrote and illustrated the Little Tim books). De La Mare is probably best remembered for his exquisite poem ‘The Listeners’ which many people of my generation recall learning by heart at school in the 1950s and 1960s. Peacock Pie, like Stevenson’s poems (see above) tunes into the mind of a young child, or addresses that mind directly in playful, entertaining ways. Both de la Mare and Stevenson, in my view, strongly influenced the later writers in my list here.
Blackbird Has Spoken by Eleanor Farjeon:
Yes, she wrote the words to that primary school hymn that so many of us sung in assemblies from the 60s onwards. One of my favourite looser-rhythmed children’s poems is her ‘It Was Long Ago’ in which an old woman recalls a very early childhood memory, such as many of us must have. It’s such a poignant poem, strangely full of the mystery of our consciousness, experience and memory, and yet it’s so simply and beautifully put, so gently rendered. Like the two collections above, it’s a little old-fashioned now to many younger readers. And yet it has such strength, such lyrical power. You’ll find some lovely poems if you go hunting in this book. And yes, she wrote ‘Do You Know The Muffin Man?’
Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne: I can’t find my copy of ‘When We Were Very Young’, also by Milne. For me the two books are like two volumes of one book and I muddle up which poems come from which book. Milne is most famous as the author and creator of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ that well-known bear. This book is also a piece of the past, where middle class children have nannies and cooks in their homes. But the poems themselves are all gems. Milne, like my other ‘classic’ children’s poets is so expressive when he adopts the voice of his inner child. He’s so convincing. He’s a brilliant lyricist and wields rhythms and rhymes with artistry. And if you want to see illustration at its finest look at the pictures (‘decorations’!) by Ernest H. Shepard, who also defined the looks of Winnie the Pooh and friends for us. Get both of these books and read them if you haven’t already. ‘When We Were Very Young’ is full of golden oldies. ‘Now We Are Six’ is packed with great lyrical writing and very witty too.
Complete Poems for Children by James Reeves:
Not quite as famous as the 3 poets above, James Reeves is just as good and it’s sometimes easy to mistake some of his poems for poems by de la Mare (above) or Charles Causley (below). I’m sure Causley must have read James Reeves to his primary classes in Launceston, Cornwall, at the primary school there. There is a very possible influence on Causley from Reeves, I think, though I’ve no proof. To get a sense of what a master of figurative writing he is, what a magician with rhythm, rhyme, sonorous texture and metaphor, read ‘The Sea’, which starts, ‘The sea is a hungry dog, / Giant and grey.’ My edition of 1994 is a reprint of the 1973 with lovely illustrations by (yes!) Edward Ardizzone (how apt) who also illustrated de la Mare (above). Ardizzone’s work has a rougher texture and line to Shepard’s (of the Milne books). But he’s just as expressive in his own way and responds wonderfully to the heart of the poems. As to Reeves himself, try ‘Stocking and Shirt’ on page 51, for an example of how witty and exact his writing is. It’s like watching Fred Astaire dance. Reeves seems forgotten now, but he’s one of our very best.
A Puffin Quartet of Poets chosen by Eleanor Graham: Here, for Puffin, in 1958, Eleanor Graham created one of the best books of poetry for children ever printed, in my view. I can’t quite call it an anthology, as there are only 4 poets represented. So it’s a kind of sampler for these 4 poets : Eleanor Farjeon, James Reeves (both represented above), E.V.Rieu and Ian Serraillier. The latter two poets show themselves to be as strong in their verse writing for children as the former two, now better remembered. Try ‘Sir Smasham Uppe’ by Rieu, and Serraillier’s ‘The Tickle Rhyme’, both often featured in anthologies. This book was on my classroom shelf when I was a class teacher in primary in the 1970s and 1980s.
Collected Poems for Children: Charles Causley (illustrated by John Lawrence)
Well, I shook his hand once and had a brief chat. Later we swapped a couple of letters and cards. I sent him my ‘Big Bad Raps’ (my first verse book for children) about which he was very courteous and complimentary. Causley was the poet who most ‘got me writing’ for children. After half a lifetime of writing as an unpublished ‘adult’ poet, while teaching in primary schools and reading lots of children’s fiction and poetry to my pupils, reading Causley made me realise what and who-for I should be writing. It’s like his writing style gave me permission to write like that when I’d always assumed it was an outmoded voice. The book of my own here (below), Plum, was, in my view, very much inspired by all of the books above, but somehow released by reading Causley’s ‘Figgie Hobbin’ and the other books that followed (most or all of which are contained in this Causley Collected). A lot of Causley’s work is a blend of traditional lyricism and ballad. He manages metre and rhyme adroitly, allowing a slightly conversational ease into those essentially tight forms. His writing for children has a strong adult appeal, also, particularly where he deals with poignancy and the past. ‘My Mother Saw a Dancing Bear’ is an achingly sad poem, about suffering and cruelty to animals, not intended yet inflicted on them. Yet, more playfully, see ‘Colonel Fazackerley’. Could he perhaps be a near relative to E.V.Rieu’s ‘Sir Smasham Uppe’? (above). I wonder if Mr Causley had Eleanor Graham’s book on HIS classroom shelf?
By the way, John Lawrence, Causley’s illustrator here, is the John Lawrence who also later illustrated my verse retelling of Wayland, which won the Clippa Award some few years ago.
Plum by Tony Mitton: I was asked to include one of my own poetry collections in this list, so I choose this one, as it was my first collection of poems for children, published in 1998, just over 20 years ago. In this book, with my editor David Fickling, I tried to compile a choice of my then ‘best’ work across a wide range. Poems long, short, traditional, contemporary, serious, funny, silly and sad. Some lyric, some narrative. Showcasing, at the time, the kinds of writing I was mostly doing for children. It’s still in print today, kept alive by Frances Lincoln, which is nice. I’ve done many other things since. But it’s still the one I’d save if I had to choose just one… I think.
Well, there’s my list. If you read all that you’ll have a very strong sense of where for me English language poetry for children comes from. And what my strongest early influences were. All the poets there are now dead, except me….. so far. 😉 It’s a very English, UK based list, I know. From the 1980s I began to know the Caribbean poets, of whom John Agard, Grace Nichols and Valerie Bloom were particularly enticing voices. And from America there was the irresistible Shel Silverstein (‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ et al). But those, and others, came later for me. These above were my early and first loves, and strongest, I think, influences on my own writing from the world of poetry for children.