If you search the Internet for “reading aloud to children,” you’ll see a number of results describing the huge benefits to children. If you search the Internet for “reading poetry to children,” you’ll find more such results. It’s too bad the results don’t describe the benefit of bonding between adult and child. My children often, and gratefully, remind me of the times I would read to them, including J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For my own part, before I could read, I vividly remember seeing, and hearing the caption for the illustration for, such events as Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, the serpents biting the Hebrews in the wilderness, Elijah in flight in a chariot of fire, and Absalom’s hair fatally entangled in a tree.
Children like poetry, maybe especially when adults don’t announce ahead of time “poetry” sessions. I don’t think, for example, that kids think of Dr. Seuss as “poetry.” And they certainly don’t think of playground rhymes like these as “poetry”:
Sticks and stones
may break my bones…
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
2, 4, 6, 8,
Who do we appreciate?
And of course there is fee-fi-fo-fum from Jack and the Beanstalk and the many Mother Goose rhymes. (There is a delightful book for French language enthusiasts by Luis d’Antin van Rooten, Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967), where the author “translated” Mother Goose rhymes homophonically into French words. The result is that a French reader reads the French words but the words make no sense in French, except that they sound like the English nursery rhymes. You can see this system of transliteration at work in the very title of the book.)
There comes a point where the adult lets, or encourages, the children to read aloud to the adult. This brings to my mind a contest where children deliver one of the speeches of Frederick Douglass:
Every year, the National Park Service hosts an oratorical contest in the auditorium at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. All students in grades 1-12 are welcome to participate. The goal of the contest is for students to experience the same transformative power of language that Frederick Douglass experienced as a young man.
In choosing poetry to read to your children, I think you should want a book that is meaty in two ways: lots of material and lots of stimulus to thought. You want material that appeals to the ears and eyes of the children with memorable characters, memorable illustrations, memorable words, and a hefty dollop of whimsy. I recommend a new book by Matthew Mehan, illustrated by John Folley: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals ($24.95; $17.36 on Amazon). Each of the 26 mythical mammals (one for each letter of the alphabet, but it need not be read in alphabetical order) gets at least one page of poetry. Although the stated target age range for children is ages 8 to 12, grades 3 to 7, I think the upper age should be higher, to at least age 14, and, in any case, there is much for people, children and adults, over the age 12 to savor.
The book has over 80 pages of poetry and illustrations. That’s a lot of meat for your money. Here is part of the description of the nocturnal mythical mammal Mixxy:
With dainty digits, he dabbed the dark
And blinking shimmers of fire,
And watched the ripples shake the skies,
Lapping his toes in the mire.
One type of mythical mammals are called “The Fah-la-lahs.” They sing and dance on the glistening snow: Fah-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.
There are various levels of depth to the text, reflecting the training the author received in the Western canon. (He teaches the Western canon at the high school level.) One mythical mammal, Kalondahres, reminded me of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Myth of Sisyphus (1942, English 1955) or maybe of the endless wandering of the ancient Greek Odysseus:
Topsy-turvy in a flurry
Kalondahres spins around,
Never knowing where he’s going,
Whether up the hill or down.
(For fun, see the notion of “mystery spots,” here).
What’s it like to be a mosquito, or an orangutan, or a parrot? Maybe thinking about what it’s like to be a Mixxy or Fah-la-lah or Kalondahres will help. And there you are! You are in the world of being-ness or ontology (not to be confused with otolaryngology).
The poetry and illustrations of this book are followed by 45 pages of “A Glossary.” The Glossary was inspired no doubt by the great Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, a work that included not only definitions and usage, but also humor, like these two:
--a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
--a writer of dictionaries;
--a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.
Now here is a sample entry in Mr. Mehan’s Glossary:
--sweetness of smell; pleasant scent; grateful odor;
--smell, one of the five senses, can bring back memories deep in the mind; one whiff of a certain smell can call an old man’s mind back seventy years!
Read this book to children for whom you care. Imbibe its life-giving fragrance! Of course, just to have the book in your home, where the children can themselves read it or recite it will do.
Spero News columnist James Thunder is an author and attorney who works in the Washington DC area.