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Little Wordsworths: Childrens Poetry On Its Best Behavior

Childrens poetry is a lot of fun to read. From Mother Goose to Dr Seuss, children delight themselves in the rhyme, meter and lyrics of poetry written with them in mind. Childrens poetry is usually the first experience children have with rhyme, poetry or any literature. Therefore, it is fitting to explore what makes it so fun and exciting.

Mother Goose Lives

Mother Goose is the doorway to good literature for most children. But who is she? It would be more accurate to ask “who are they?”

No one truly knows the identity of Mother Goose. The poems we know today as Mother Goose Rhymes were written by various people through the ages. However, the first use of the title “Mother Goose” appeared around 1650 when a writer by the name of Jean Loret wrote in his La Muse Historique in reference to a piece of literature during his day, “comme un conte de la Mere Oye.” Translated, this means “like a Mother Goose story.”

In 1697, Charles Perrault published a collection of fairy tales. These fairy tales, not classified as childrens poetry, included “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” as well as five others. The collection, in French, was titled Histories and Tales of Long Ago, with Morals, with a subtitle of Tales of My Mother the Goose.

An Englishman by the name of John Newbery published a small volume of rhymes and fairy tales in 1765 titled, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle. This book was pirated widely and appeared in America, mostly Boston and New York, with rhymes added to it. It began to be called “Mother Goose Rhymes” by its many fans.

The Mother Goose rhymes are still popular today. From “Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet” to “Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn” children and adults continue to love Mother Goose all their lives. The Mother Goose Society, founded in 1987, celebrates May 1st as Mother Goose Day each year. It seems that Mother Goose will never die.

More Nursery Rhymes, Fables and Fairy Tales

Mother Goose is by no means the only type of nursery rhyme. Other nursery rhymes have appeared as childrens poetry before and after. In fact, John Newbury, who was already famous for his childrens poetry before his famous book that coined the term, had written and published many nursery rhymes before 1765. He and poet Oliver Goldsmith regularly collaborated.

The earliest known childrens poetry is perhaps Aesop’s Fables. As early as the fourth century B.C., these brief verses of wit and wisdom captured the imaginations of adult and children alike. They were not, in fact, written specifically for children and, therefore, are not really childrens poetry, but because they carried the weight of moral instruction parents often found them to be appropriate reading for their children. It is because of this that their popularity grew.

Fairy tales were traditional stories passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling. They are generally not recognized as childrens poetry but due to their lyrical nature they have been entertaining and educational. It is appropriate to discuss them here.

The form has been around for as long as people have been telling tales. But in seventeenth century France publishers started putting fairy tales into print. Charles Perrault’s 1697 volume mentioned earlier was one of the earliest of these.

No discussion of great fairy tales would be complete without mentioning Daniel Defoe. His publication of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 won instant acclaim. It has long been considered one of the first English novels but it has appeared in many forms through the years and continues to be a favorite among children even though it is not specifically categorized as childrens poetry.

In 1790, The Pleasant and Delightful History of Jack and the Giants was published as a fairy tale. In 1853, an Englishman by the name of George Cruikshank published Fairy Library, a collection of four stories he rewrote to instruct children to stay away from alcohol. The book included “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Puss ‘n’ Boots,” and “Hop O’ My Thumb and the Seven League Boots.” Lydia Luisa Anna Very, in 1863, published Little Red Riding Hood in Boston, Massachusetts, where the book itself appeared in the shape of Little Red Riding Hood.

The Brothers Grimm have been very popular through the ages. In 1868, Jacob Grimm published German Popular Stories, which was illustrated by George Cruikshank. These stories were a collection of German folklore, fairy tales, and myths collected from the Grimms’ friends and family. While the stories usually had happy endings they typically contained graphic scenes of violence and deceitfulness which, through the years, have been controversial among educators and strict moralists.

The 19th Century Triumvirate: Andersen, Carroll and Stevenson

It would be a sin to exclude Robert Louis Stevenson, Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll in any discussion of childrens poetry. These three masters of the childrens poetry form are heroes. While none of them were strictly poets, each made significant contributions to the body of literature known as childrens poetry.

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Denmark in 1805. I guess that makes him a great Dane (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The child of a shoemaker and washerwoman, he fell in love with the arts at an early age. At age 14 he ran away from home to become an actor, singer and artist, but initially he was not very successful. He published his first book of poems in 1835 and continued to publish childrens poetry one book at a time. Between 1835 and 1872 he managed to publish one book a year. One of the most beloved fairy tale authors ever, his fame is still due to his simplicity and vivid imagination. He is most well known for his classic childrens stories “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832. He created the pen name Lewis Carroll by translating his first two names into Latin, "Carolus Lodovidus,” then again into English.

Carroll was the son of a clergyman and the oldest of 11 children. He loved to entertain. His primary occupation was mathematics, but he loved to tell stories. Eventually, he would be best known for his classic childrens tales, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, penned in 1865 and 1872, respectively. While not generally known for his poetry, he had a wonderful wit and imagination. His most famous poem, “Jabberwocky,” appeared in 1855.

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nevertheless, he contributed so much more. His first work was The New Arabian Nights, published in 1882, one year before his seminal work Treasure Island would catapult him to fame. While The New Arabian Nights is a collection of short stories, it does show Stevenson's marvelous imagination. In 1887, he published another collection of stories, The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables.

In 1885, Stevenson published his first book of childrens poetry, A Child’s Garden of Verses. First titled Penny Whistles, it contains great childrens classics such as “My Shadow,” “Bed in Summer” and “The Swing.” It is still a favorite among children.

Underwoods, Stevenson’s second book of childrens poetry, came out two years later. The unique characteristic of this classic work is that it appeared in two versions, one in English and one in Scots, Stevenson’s native tongue. In 1896, he published Songs of Travel and Other Verses, and Ballads appeared in 1891.

20th Century Masters of Children’s Poetry

Dr Seuss has come to be synonymous with the term childrens poetry. Just read one Dr. Seuss book and you will be hooked for life.

The great Dr. Seuss was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. One of the first childrens poets to illustrate his own work he has gone on to world renown as one of the best childrens poets ever. Click here for a full treatment of Dr. Seuss' children's poetry.

In the 1960’s another great voice in childrens literature emerged. Shel Silverstein’s poetry has captured the hearts and imaginations of children and their parents and to this day he still makes people laugh. For a fuller treatment of Shel Silverstein and some real Internet fun go to Shel's fabulous web site.

Since the popularity of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, childrens poetry has grown into a huge publishing industry around the world. Many school teachers and parents read poetry to their children on a regular basis. Educators use poetry in their classrooms to teach important lessons. As a result, childrens poetry publishers have constantly introduced new titles and many contemporary childrens poets have their own web sites. Check out some of the links below to learn more about these contemporary childrens poets.

Dr Seuss
That Poetry Guy (Ted Scheu)
Poetry 4 Kids (Ken Nesbitt)
Dorothy and X.J. Kennedy
What A Hullabaloo!
Joseph "Silly" Sottile

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