PLAYING WITH WORDS: YOUNG CHILDREN AND POETRY
Rhyme and alliteration are a natural part of baby babble. Infants respond to rhymes recited and sung, too. The excited bouncing of a six month old to a familiar rhyme demonstrates this.
My two children began with nursery rhymes – some sung, some recited. They had favourites almost at once. ‘Baa baa black sheep’ was always responded to. The book used first was Brian Wildsmith’s Mother Goose, though there were several other nursery rhyme books soon added to their book collection, including Raymond Brigg’s extensive Mother Goose Treasury. Strong rhyme begs to be joined in. Rebecca at 1-8 (one year eight months) chimed in with ‘hop’, ‘stop’ ‘tail’ and ‘flew’ in the nursery rhyme ‘Once I saw a little bird’ before she had the words in her vocabulary.
The pattern of the rhyme tells a lot too. At 1-6 Rebecca would demand ‘more-ee’ just before the end of each rhyme. On a long car trip, being entertained by singing nursery rhymes, she allowed three repeats of each rhyme, but none thereafter. If I ran out of inspiration and started ‘Twinkle twinkle’ again, I was severely reprimanded.
Quotes from nursery rhymes made their way into speech as well. From ‘There was a lady loved a swine’ both acquired a useful phrase. Ralph at 2-8, stuck on a fence, begged ‘help me or my heart will break’ and, rather older, at 3-6 Rebecca, who still occasionally used her baby term for ‘pick me up’ asked plaintively ‘Uff uff me, or my heart will break’.
It was rhyme that inspired their earliest joke. A familiar rhyming text had a stanza ‘here’s a white kitten, soft and sweet, / and here’s a white lamb with four little black …’ ‘WHEELS’ shouted Ralph to the amusement of us all (2-3).
When Rebecca was two, I decided she needed a different type of poem, moving on from the rhymes (by this stage Milne was very familiar too) so I found Keats’s illustrated collection of haiku In a Spring Garden. She took to them with great enthusiasm, even the adult collection I had borrowed, and began making them herself, insisting that we write them down: ‘The hibiscus sits in the tree, and waggles his head, head, head’ was one, and there were others about frogs and birds.
Later they both enjoyed learning poems by heart, though they were always humorous rhyming ones – Ogden Nash or Doug McLeod, usually. They enjoyed listening to others, but as Rebecca remarked at 10 that ‘Poems are meant to be funny, or there’s no point to them’. She enjoyed listening to serious poems, but she never chose to learn them.
I maintained a record of my own two children’s responses to books from birth to eight, and kept the record sporadically from then to adolescence. From it came Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell, published by Routledge in 2007. It is, to date, the only record that includes a male child; that looks at their reality-understanding at length; covers the sibling influence; and almost the only one that begins at birth – certainly in as much detail. Its aim is to convince people not to underestimate very young children – they can reason as well as you and I, it’s just their knowledge which is less.
There weren’t verse novels around at the time, but these have lately become very popular, started by Steven Herrick, but continued by Catherine Bateson and Sally Murphy. I’ve just read Sally’s Toppling, and loved it. It’s a study of friendship in Grade 6, four boys. It’s a wonderful read, with the short lines of the verse making it look very approachable. It’s an interesting fact that verse novels are usually shorter than prose ones – you can tell so much more in a short space by using metaphorical language – not having to spell everything out. But the converse is true of verse picture books – they usually have more than the recommended 500 words, because to make the metre and rhyme work (and they are usually rhymed – most authors having Dr Seuss as their model) you find you have to use extra words not entirely germane to the story.
I have been around children’s books since first becoming Children’s Librarian at the new Mooney Valley Regional Library in 1966. Since then I have lectured at university in children’s literature and English, been Judge for the CBCA Book of the Year Award and a school librarian. For the last fourteen years I have run the manuscript assessment agency Create a Kids’ Book – we also do workshops, writing e-courses, mentoring, and send out a free monthly bulletin on writing for kids and children’s literature generally. www.createakidsbook.com.au or contact Virginia on Virginia@createakidsbook.com.au if you’d like to go on the Bulletin distribution list, or if we can assist in any other way.
Thanks Virginia. Lots to think about there!