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You may know April is National Poetry Month, but to dig a little deeper, I asked Shannon Anderson—author, poet and teacher—to the blog to explain why poetry is important for children to read and write. She also shares tips for teaching poetry to young writers.

Shannon, what is National Poetry Month and when was it created?

I’ll admit, I had to look up the history behind this special month! Here you go: National Poetry Month was first started in April of 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry.

Many schools celebrate reading and writing poetry with creative activities and celebrations. As a teacher, I LOVE the “excuse” to encourage kids to read and write more poems during this time. As an author, I have been to many schools this month to share the joy of poetry and write poems with kids in writing workshops. My creative writing clubs have also had a blast this month, focusing solely on poetry creation.

Why is poetry important for children?

That is a big question! I can answer first as a mom, remembering back to my girls loving the sing-song rhythms of stories written in rhyme. The sounds and plays on words were pure enjoyment! Poetry helped them develop a love for books and reading.

As a teacher, I can tell you that poetry does SO much for language development. Reading rhyming poetry can help kids with predicting, an important comprehension skill. Reading aloud helps kids build their reading fluency. Poetry is the perfect genre for introducing interesting vocabulary words and figurative language. And, in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to inspire creativity and self-expression with students’ writing skills.

How did you kick off National Poetry Month with your classroom?

By the time April has rolled around, my class has already been introduced to all kinds of writing. I actually start out my first week of school with a narrative rhyming story from our reading series. I pair this, When Charlie McButton Lost Power, with Penelope Perfect, to show the kids the magic of different rhyming schemes. Many students don’t even realize authors intentionally plan which lines rhyme!

The first week of Poetry Month, I used my book MONSTER & DRAGON WRITE POEMS to show the kids other types of poetry that do not rhyme. Examples include acrostics, cinquain, haiku, and others. Through this mentor text, they see a fun story about a Monster & Dragon writing poems and want to try them out themselves.

Where can teachers, parents, and other writers go to find more information about poetry…and where can they find your book?

Being the poetry geek that I am, I wrote a big blog post about this, pulling together many great resources I have found. You can read the post here: Preparing for Poetry Month.  MONSTER & DRAGON WRITE POEMS is available here.

Shannon, thanks for sharing your love of poetry. April poem showers bring May writing powers! (Um, maybe you can tell I’m not much of a poet.)

What are you working on now?

I have a busy summer of writing ahead! I’m working on three books for teachers and have two more books for kids coming out next year. I’m sure it’s no surprise that one of the books for teachers is about writing. I’ll be sharing my lesson ideas, motivators, and tips for inspiring and teaching young writers. You can visit my website for updates and my newest releases: I have a link there to sign up for my monthly newsletter as well. I gather and post all of my favorite new finds for the month in these. (For teachers and writers.)

Shannon is giving away a free Skype poetry visit to the classroom of your choice.

Leave one comment to enter and a random winner will be chosen next week!

Good luck!

One of the most frequently asked questions by new kidlit writers is “why do editors say not to write in rhyme?” There’s plenty of picture books written in rhyme, right? They get published somehow!

Well, the answer is a bit complicated. It’s not that editors don’t necessarily LIKE rhyme. It’s just that it is very difficult to do well. Here’s why:

  • Rhyme scheme can dictate story–but shouldn’t. Tales should unfold organically, not be forced into the confines of the rhyme. Often it’s suggested to write in prose first—so you don’t get locked into a plot that doesn’t work—then translate it to rhyme.
  • Common rhyme schemes can be stale. Editors see them again and again. Avoid overly simple, one-syllable rhyme schemes like  go/show/know, to/you, me/be/she/he/see, run/fun/sun, day/may/way/say. If your reader can guess the word at the end of the line before they get there, your rhyme scheme may be too common. Editors want to read rhyme that surprises them.
  • Forced rhyme or near-rhyme can ruin a story. This is when words don’t exactly rhyme unless you mispronounce them. Once in a while this is acceptable, but more than a few times in a manuscript and it distracts.
  • The meter (or beat) must be spot-on. That doesn’t just mean the number of syllables in each line, but the emphasis on those syllables. Meter shouldn’t be so sing-songy and constant that it lulls the reader to sleep (unless maybe it’s a bedtime book) or so rough that it tongue-ties the reader and forces them to speak unnaturally. Some good rhyming books offer a break in the rhyme scheme for variety—not unlike a bridge in a song.
  • Rhyming books are difficult to translate into other languages. An editor may not want to lose out on foreign book sales, so they’ll pass on a rhyming project.

However, if your heart is set on rhyme and if you have a talent for it, you should go for it. At first, Karma Wilson listened to the “don’t rhyme” advice.

“When I first started submitting some 15 years ago all the guidelines said, ‘No rhyme and no talking animals!’ For THREE years I avoided rhyme and talking animals. But guess what my first book sale was? BEAR SNORES ON! And guess what the guidelines said for McElderry books? NO RHYME AND NO TALKING ANIMALS! My passion is rhyme, and talking animals are great as long as they have something interesting to say.”

Yes, you can break the rules like Karma. But get your rhyme critiqued and know whether or not you can nail it.

Me, I’m terrible at rhyme and I know it. I cannot “hear” meter. I’ve tried and failed. My friends have coached me, but I still don’t get the right beat. I can’t dance to it. (I can’t dance anyway. Think Elaine from Seinfeld. Sweet fancy Moses!)

So what is successful rhyme? I’m glad you asked! I’ve got a few examples for you.

In HUSH, LITTLE DRAGON, Boni Ashburn spoofs the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby”. Instead of buying her baby a mockingbird, the mama dragon in the story brings her darling son various villagers to eat. It’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best lines:

Here she comes with a fresh magician.
Don’t mind the taste—he’s good nutrition.

…and later on…

If Mama finds a mean old queen,
Honey, you are lucky—that’s good cuisine!

Notice how these rhymes are out of the ordinary. They’re surprising and fun, plus the words have multiple syllables. She also rhymes “flee” with “fiery” and “bolt” with “revolt”. I challenge you to find these rhymes in another book! You won’t—and that is what makes this story so special.

Jean Reidy’s LIGHT UP THE NIGHT is an example of rhyme that elicits glorious illustrations. Remember that in picture books the art tells half the tale, and these lines create an expansive view of our world (click on image for larger version)…

This is my country, with highlands and plains,
with farmlands and cities and highways and trains…

Notice how there is a break in the rhyme scheme at the end of the stanza—and that line is set apart in the illustration for emphasis. Coincidentally, Jean blogged today about her decision to write in rhyme. Go check it out!

In Corey Rosen Schwartz’s THE THREE NINJA PIGS, the rhyme is infused with porcine puns. Kids and adults alike will appreciate the humor:

She then gave a swift demonstration
With backflips and butterfly kicks
The wolf looked quite shaken
but hollered, “Yo, Bacon!
I’m not at all scared of your tricks.”

There’s more great piggish laughs (like my favorite “pork-chop” line) but you’ll just have to wait until it’s released in September!

So I hope I’ve provided you with some background on why rhyming picture book manuscripts are a hard sell…but that if they’re done well, they can be spectacular.

What are some of your favorite rhyming picture books? Please share in the comments!

mehndiThis week my India-born critique partner submitted an engaging group of multicultural poems.

“Summer Paintings” featured three young girls decorating their palms in the mehndi tradition, embedding secrets in the scrolled henna designs—initials of boys and dreams and all the hushed longings of adolescence. Toward the end of the poem, the girls washed away the paste to reveal the designs. The next line, Finally freed from our impatience, caused debate among our group.

The girls in the poem had a wonderful time waiting for the henna to dry, for the patterns to stain their skin. They laughed and talked, giggled and blushed. Why were they impatient if they enjoyed the journey?

The answer? This is what childhood is about: impatient eagerness.

While children take pleasure in their activities, they are always rushing forward to the next thing. As a child, every experience is new. There is little time to let events soak in when there is something else to explore. They are motivated by an insatiable curiosity.

Moreover, children wish to repeat favorite experiences over and over again, and not soon enough. I’m reminded of this when my family leaves Chuck E. Cheese. Two seconds into the parking lot and my daughter pops like a balloon: “Mommy, when are we going to Chuck E. Cheese again?”

When writing, I will try to remember the impatient eagerness that my critique partner so eloquently showed.

Does your character display an impatient eagerness? What is next big thing for them?

Women Who Write, a collective of published and aspiring female authors from New Jersey, invite you to attend their fall reading at the Bernardsville Public Library this weekend.  On Sunday, October 28, 16 women will read original works of poetry and prose.  Come join us for an inspiring afternoon of stanzas and stories! 

Bernardsville Public Library
1 Anderson Hill Road (center of town off Olcott Square)
Bernardsville, NJ
Sunday, October 28

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