by Dave Kavanagh
As writers we all wish to leave a mark, something that will immortalise us, a book perhaps, a collection of poems or stories with our name standing proudly on the cover. What could be better than to say that your work influenced future generations, that your words helped mould the minds of poets and authors to come?
Writing poetry for children is not as straightforward as one might think. They are a discerning and critical audience with a flair for honesty, if they think your poetry is not up to scratch they will tell you. But if you get it right, they will be enthusiastic and appreciative in a way few adults can be.
There are certain rules for writing all forms of poetry and if you specialise in children’s poetry then these rules still hold true. You must have a keen understanding of metre and rhythm, your poetry must be engaging and tell a story. Your characters must be larger than life but still believable.
Many who attempt to write in this genre fail because they try to emulate the great children’s poets, Dr Seuss or Shel Silverstein for example. But they lack the craft and besides, why try to copy when you can be original.
The plus side of being a children’s poet.
The biggest plus of writing for children is freedom, the unlimited opportunity to create. Children have limitless imaginations and as long as you obey the rules and write well they will accept the outrageous, the comic, the impossible, indeed the more outrageous, the funnier and the more ridiculously impossible your poetry the more likely it is that you will find an audience.
Children love rhyme, especially those younger ones who are still learning and experimenting with language. They enjoy the way rhyming words bounce off the tongue, they want to learn, and rhyme allows them to memorise.
If you enjoy writing in rhyme then here is a ready-made audience for you. There are two main formats, rhyming poetry & better still rhyming stories, each has a different set of rules and each has it’s own pitfalls.
Rhyming poetry must be immediately engaging, it must present a scene that children can relate to, catching the school bus, getting dressed, riding a bike, all of these present endless possibilities for writing. You must compose your poem in uncomplicated language. (However, you can and probably should make up words that children will enjoy).
A poem for children must have faultless rhyme with no jars or stalls, small tongues trip easily. If you write a children’s poem you must read it aloud or better still have a child read it aloud, if there is any hesitation, if for a moment the metre fails or a child has to stretch to fit a word in, then you need to edit the work. You must create characters and scenes in a short few lines, so every word must earn its keep. Children will immediately lose interest if you have not done your job properly.
Rhyming Stories: now here is an opportunity to allow your muse to run riot. To tell a story in rhyme, to create characters that children will embrace and that parents or teachers will enjoy reading. All the same rules apply as per writing children’s poetry but in a story, you have the added challenge of a storyline, character development, and a conclusion; a strong ending.
In The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson tells the story of a mouse who though small uses his wit to escape from a fox, an owl and a snake by making up the story of a creature called the Gruffalo to scare the fox, the snake & the owl. However, in the end, his imagined antagonist becomes real and the mouse is faced with his greatest challenge, how to escape the jaws of the Gruffalo. This story illustrates wonderfully how a writer creates an engaging story which children will enjoy hearing and parents will love reading.
A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse, and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”
“It’s terribly kind of you, Fox, but no –
I’m going to have lunch with a Gruffalo.”
“A Gruffalo? What’s a Gruffalo?”
“A Gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?
He has terrible tusks and terrible claws,
And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.”
“Where are you meeting him?”
“Here, by these rocks,
And his favourite food is roasted fox.”
(NOTE: I have used colour to differentiate between the voices of the three characters, the Narrator, the Fox & the Mouse. In the book these lines appear on different illustrated pages so the child knows who is speaking)
In these first few lines the author introduces the hero, sets up the conflict and demonstrates the mouse’s ability to grow, these are all elements of any story either for adult or child. The difference with writing for children is that you must achieve these elements quickly and it all must appear effortless. Donaldson has also introduced three distinct characters in her opening, the narrator who will tell the story, the mouse who is the protagonist and the fox, the first of the antagonists that the mouse will encounter. Donaldson’s well laid out text allows a reader (a parent or teacher) to use different voices for the three characters and in children’s poetry this is important and adds to the strong storytelling element. So constructing your rhyming story requires strong characters, a good storyline, a protagonist that a child can sympathise with and at least one protagonist who children can visualise clearly and be a little afraid of. These are all the rules of good storytelling but in a rhyming story you must also incorporate faultless metre that has a definite pattern, these stories must lend themselves to be read aloud and read dramatically.
So if you are now inspired to write children’s poetry there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself.
Firstly, as with all writing, you should read and read and read and then read some more. Read as much and as many differing examples of the genre as you can. Don’t stick to the old favourites but instead get yourself to your local library and see what is being published this year, this month. Publishing trends change, so take your reference and guide from what is being published now not what was published ten or twenty or fifty years ago.
Secondly, find some little friends, take your kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces to the park, watch them but more importantly, listen to them. Pay close attention to how they use language, note what they find funny, scary, sad. If you have already written some poetry then read it to them, watch their reactions and ask for their opinions but beware, children have a talent for brutal honesty.
Finally, when you are ready to write, try to be original. With a child audience, you need to be unique, to place your characters in unfamiliar situations. A knight fighting a dragon is old hat but a dragon with a toothache or a dragon with a sore throat is new and easily imaginable. Do not write in cliche, children will hate it, present interesting, dramatic scenarios, create memorable characters (like the gruffalo) and for younger children, be certain your ending is not just happy but that it resolves all of the conflicts you set up.