Unlike adult poetry, children’s poetry books almost all consist of themed collections. Deciding which poems to include and how to arrange them is a complex issue.
As with many poetry matters, looking at successful examples is a great way to gain insight and direction for your own work. I’ve looked at a dozen of terrific collections you might explore to see some of your options. I initially wrote this roundup back in 2007, but things haven’t changed too much in the marketing of collections. Still, I hope to add some more recent collections soon.
Swing Around the Sun, by Barbara Juster Esbensen – This is one of my favorite books of all time. I think it is a perfectly formed picture book poetry collection. The title refers to the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun, and the collection is about the four seasons. So, subject matter is one obvious unifying theme.
Each season is a group of 4–5 poems, and each season’s section is illustrated by a different artist. Brilliant! Cheng-Khee Chee’s muted watercolors convey the wet, sometimes dreary spring weather, while Mary Grand Pre’s rich, ethereal geometry captures the drama and eeriness of fall, etc. The use of different illustrators turns this into a book of 4 mini-collections, or chapters.
And then there’s Esbensen’s voice. The late poet used a lot of rhyme, but her poetry always has a sophistication to it, a sly, careful sense of observation. She reflects and refracts the world, but not in an unceasingly chirpy manner. The acknowledgement of nature’s harshness, of death present in all life, is another unifying characteristic of this collection. Here’s one of my favorites:
Elm leaves fall
In a golden shower.
Wind runs howling,
Rain slants cold;
Elm leaves pave
The streets with gold.
Esbensen’s poems are layered and are as appropriate for teens and adults as they are for kids. And that gives them their own voice. Savor this book as an example of a poetic masterpiece of unity: topic, voice, illustration within each season, and depth.
Wool Gathering: A Sheep Family Reunion, by Lisa Wheeler – This clever collection of funny poems revolves around a great big sheep family reunion. The opening poem, “Wool Gathering,” concludes with
And as the flock begins to gather,
you will see they’re really rather odd,
but in a woolly way.
each ewe, each ram, each little lambly—
stay and meet this close-knit fambly.
—by Lisa Wheeler, all rights reserved
This poem sets the tone and tells the reader what to expect. It promises a roundup of oddball characters, and it promises funny poems filled with wordplay and sheep puns.
And the rest of that book delivers. Each poem describes either an eccentric family member or an activity like baa-dminton (played by players who don’t care about the birdie but enjoy the yummy grass). Every poem is funny and witty.
After a rollicking fun reunion, the sheep (and the reader) must part:
Hugs and kisses, shed a tear
promises to meet next year
as they drive away they hear:
—by Lisa Wheeler, all rights reserved
What an excellent, cohesive collection!
In the Spin of Things: Poetry of Motion, by Rebecca Kai Dotlich – This lively collection of 23 poems is unified by its topic and its poetic voice.
Every poem describes an object that moves, swings, spins, twirls, shakes, and more. The subjects range from windshield wipers to classroom globes to waterfalls. But the focus of these diverse objects is the movement each one makes. So even though the collection includes items large and small, manmade and natural, noisy and quiet, the poems feel like a whole.
And the style of poetry is also very cohesive. Dotlich is known and loved for her perfect rhymes and exact meters. She makes rhyming, bouncing, chanting, poems look incredibly easily. But Dotlich’s poems here are distinctly different from several of her other collections, like Lemonade Sun and Sweet Dreams of the Wild. The poems here are full of slant rhyme and rhythm. Even when she uses perfect rhyme, she arranges the lines in a way that the rhyme is not immediately obvious. The emphasis in these poems is on verbs—always a strong point of Dotlich’s, but particularly so in this collection. A metered rhyming poem of the wonderful kind that Dotlich is so well-known for would be out of place in this collection. If there were 20 metered poems and only three of these slightly more sophisticated free verse poems, then the free verse poems would feel out of place. It’s not a matter of one style of poetry being better than the other. The point is that in a collection, the poetry has to feel like a whole. Dotlich writes equally fabulous rhymed metric verse and free verse. But she can’t just stick them into any old combination. She has to assemble them into collections in ways that make sense and feel unified to readers. And she does.
Here’s one of the lovely poems from this collection:
to the wind,
on a tangle
of chattering ghosts.
–by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, all rights reserved
Little Dog and Duncan, by Kristine O’Connell George – This poetry collection for young kids has a clear distinction from most other collections aimed at preschoolers and young kids. It doesn’t rhyme! Like its predecessor, Little Dog Poems, this is filled with brief poems of everyday moments in the life of a small dog. The poems are haiku-like. In fact, at the L.A. SCBWI Conference, George said that she was in a poetry class with Myra Cohn Livingston, who assigned them to write haikus. At the last minute, George wrote one or two poems inspired by her little dog. She expected Livingston to tear them apart. Instead, Livingston assigned George to “write more little dog poems.” And I’m glad she did!
This collection opens with:
Little Dog yips,
runs in circles,
runs to the door,
–by Kristine O’Connell George, all rights reserved
Duncan, a distinctly not little dog, has come to visit. The collection follows Duncan and Little Dog through the visit, and kids will recognize the ups and downs of friendship.
George uses everyday, easy words in all these poems. The poems are simple but full of energy, emotion, and humor.
Little Dog brings a stick
for me to throw.
half a tree.
–by Kristine O’Connell George, all rights reserved
So the chronology of the story, from the beginning of Duncan’s visit to the end, is one unifying factor. The free verse form, unusual for this age range, is another. And, finally, the humor and everyday language makes all the poetry feel connected.
What Is Goodbye?, by Nikki Grimes – This emotional, touching collection is centered around intensity and format. The collection follows Jesse and Jerilyn, the younger brother and sister of Jaron, who has died suddenly. Each shares the grieving process in paired poems. Jesse, who is the youngest, writes in authentic, imperfect rhyme.
His Name – Jesse
Mommy won’t say Jaron’s name
so I write it everywhere,
on the walls, my book, his chair.
If I’m punished, I don’t care.
Let her take away my pens.
I’ll write it on the air!
–by Nikki Grimes, all rights reserved
In a paired poem with the same title, his older sister Jerilyn then gives her take, in a more sophisticated and usually angrier voice, on the same topic.
His Name – Jerilyn
Once, I asked my mother
where she found
his name means “to sing,”
which he did
in every room
of this house.
sweet as chocolate,
melted through the walls
at all hours of the day
I might not miss him
half as much
if his silence
–by Nikki Grimes, all rights reserved
So Grimes’ collection works as a whole, exploring the grief process and family dynamics after a terrible loss. But each set of poems—Jesse’s and Jerilyn’s—has an internal cohesiveness. If you read half the book, and then someone read aloud a poem from the other half, you’d immediately know whether the poem was from Jesse’s or Jerilyn’s point of view.
This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, by Joyce Sidman – This is another great example of how paired poems can give a collection a unique form. The introduction is written by a sixth-grade boy, who explains that these poems are part of a school poetry project of poems written in response to the William Carlos Williams poem, “This Is Just to Say.”
Part One of the book is Apologies. Each poem is written by a student to a different person or thing. Thomas write a poem to Mrs. Garcia, in the office, to apologize for stealing jelly doughnuts from the teachers’ lounge. Bao Vang apologizes to a statue for rubbing its nose for good luck. Students write poems to their parents, their teacher, and each other.
In Part Two, Responses, the people accept or reject the apologies in poem form. Even statues respond, with a little help from students.
Because the poems are written by different people, the poems themselves vary widely in voice and style. So the premise, the format itself, is what makes this collection hold together—along with the theme of forgiveness, of course.
Here’s one of my favorite pairs:
to the class
How Slow-Hand Lizard Died
I stole him.
Took him home in my pocket.
Felt the pulse beating
in his soft green neck.
Had no place good to put him.
He got cold, I think.
Watched his life wink out,
his bright eye turn to mud.
Brought him back,
stiff as an old glove.
Hid him in the bottom of the cage.
Left the money on Mrs. Merz’s desk.
(Stole that, too).
Won’t touch the new lizard.
Don’t like to touch
Ode to Slow-Hand
the way his heart beat in his throat
the way his toes whispered on our hands
his skin: rough green cloth
the color of new leaves
his belly: soft as an old balloon
his tongue: lightning’s flicker
the sad way he left us
the sad way you feel
we forgive you
by Mrs. Merz’s class
–by Joyce Sidman, all rights reserved
Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman – This collection is triple-tight. The poems share subject matter, form, and voice. Every poem is written for two speakers or groups of speakers. This form is not that common, but it’s terrific for classrooms. Kids who don’t like to speak in front of the class will find it easier to perform when they have a partner.
The subject of this collection is insects. From cicadas to book lice to mayflies, these 14 poems all feature bugs.
And finally, the voice. Throughout this lovely collection, Fleischman gives voice to bugs, and that voice is in turns funny, melancholy, and a little bit formal. Here’s the beginning of “The Digger Wasp”:
I will never
they will never
|I’ll have died|
when they’re emerging
|So it must be.||So it must be.|
|–Paul Fleischmann, all rights reserved
This amazing collection has something for everyone: kids, adults, teachers, boys, girls. It’s a Newbery Award-winning masterpiece, and a worthy collection to study.
Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water, by Kurt Cyrus: This is one of my favorite poetry picture books. The art (also by Cyrus) and poetry are both amazing. This is basically a collection of poems that each highlight one deep-water ocean creature. The overarching structure, however, is two-fold. First, it’s a story. Early on, a marlin surprises a “blur of sardines,” who disperse. But, “Where did everyone go”/One sardine. Apart. Alone./Welcome to the Mystery Zone. And the story begins. One small sardine has been separated and needs to find his school (do sardines come in schools?).
What follows are poems that focus on an octopus, a flounder, a crab, and many other animals. The poems reflect the beautiful and bizarre underwater world, with moods that include lonely, scary, and somewhat silly. Here’s an example:
The angler flaps her fleshy flap,
A shrimp comes in. The jaws go snap!
The angler doesn’t have a clue
Why shrimp come in. They simply do.
And so she eats them. Wouldn’t you?
Even the sort of silly poems have a rather menacing feel to them, because most of the animals present a danger to the sardine. And interspersed with the individual animal poems are return visits to follow the lost sardine’s journey.
Lost and lean, a lone sardine
Haunts the doorways of the sea.
“Please, has anybody seen
A million other fish like me?”
The second part of the structure is from less to more intense. Like any good story, the tension here builds. Early on, the sardine is lost, but the creatures don’t seem overly scary. The crayfish and the wentletrap don’t directly threaten the sardine. But as the book moves on, we meet the seagoing snake, who lets us know that “turning your back would be such a mistake.” And then, in the scariest poem, we meet the hatchetfish, compared to an “deep-sea Jack the Ripper.” The tension is at its most extreme here. But soon after, the sardine is reunited with all his mates and is off for more fun and adventure—in the safety of a large group!
So, using a story framework or a main character is another way to draw your collection into a whole.
The poems in this collection do not have individual titles, giving the whole piece an easy flow. A media specialist or teacher could read this aloud to kids at one setting, or each of the creature poems can stand alone.
Mammalabilia, by Douglas Florian: Florian is the master of short, funny poems with lots of wordplay. His benchmark book, Mammabilia, is a collection about—you guessed it—mammals. But that’s not enough. You can’t just throw together any 15 poems about mammals and have a collection, not in today’s marketing atmosphere.
Each of Florian’s poems are small. The longest are 8 lines, but most are from 1- 4 lines.
Each plays with language in Florian’s trademark way. You’ll find lots of puns here, plus fun rhymes. These poems beg to be read aloud. What kid would not laugh at:
The daring ibex risk their necks
On scary, airy mountain treks.
Each one must climb with skill complex,
Or else become an ex-ibex.
–Douglas Florian, all rights reserved
I know nothing about Florian’s writing habits, but I feel pretty sure that if a 20-line poem about cats poured out of his pen during the writing process, he knew better than to include it in his selection! Brevity is key in these poems. And they’re about wild mammals, not pets.
Sometimes, you might think you have a focus for your collection. But then look at it again. Can you make it even tighter? The trick for a collection is writing poems that are similar enough to go together (think of them as cookies you’re handing out to a classroom—isn’t it easy when they are all similar?) but different enough to not get boring. And Florian is never bori-an. Sorry.
Science Verse, by Jon Sczieska: Form and subject matter unite for a funny collection here. Every poem in this collection is a spoof of a well-known poem or song. And every poem is in some way related to science. Here’s an excerpt.
from What’s the Matter?
Miss Lucy had some matter.
She didn’t know its state.
She only had three choices,
So tried to get it straight.
She thought it could be liquid,
Quite possibly a gas.
And if it wasn’t solid,
Well call me sassafras.
–Jon Scieska, all rights reserved
Scieska’s trademark irreverence and sly humor fill every page of this kid-friendly book. He uses a brief bookend framework to set up and wrap up the poems. In the first spread, the main character’s science teacher, Mr. Newton, puts him under the ?curse of science verse. All the poems follow this, as every scientific topic is turned into verse—good enough to scan (usually), but bad enough to be the kind of stuff kids could actually make up (genius!). Then in the last two spreads, the kid wakes up and is cured of the science verse curse. But oh no—art class is next! So first we had Math Curse, then Science Verse, and then an art-themed collection.
Moving Day, by Ralph Fletcher: Chronology, story, and emotional tone are the bones of this collection. In the first poem, Fletch finds out his family is moving to Ohio. He is not happy. And in the 33 other poems, life moves on from there as Fletch moves from flat-out denial to resignation to acceptance. The poems evokes Fletch’s emotional attachment to his home and fear of moving away. There are no silly poems here; they would stick out horribly. There are some happy moments and a hopeful ending, but overall, the tone is consistent. This is a 12-year-old boy going through something tough. Every poem is accessible, told in every-day language without lots of alliteration, unexpected words, or poetic turns of phrase. They are simply heartfelt words that draw attention to the feelings they convey, not to the words used to express them.
from Buried Treasure
Wish I could hide here
like one of those locusts
that burrow into the ground
and wait for seven years
before they tunnel up
into the sunlight
Wish I could hide forever
from this moving madness.
–Ralph Fletcher, all rights reserved
Fletcher certainly can and has written more evocative, lyrical poetry. But this collection has a voice, and Fletcher remains loyal to that voice throughout. That way, readers can too. If the main character Fletch suddenly broke into silly rhymes, the reader wouldn’t trust Fletch nor Fletcher. But Fletcher never betrays the seriousness of the situation by falling into comic rhyme. That’s what gives this collection its center and what makes it such a success.
If your poems are all told from a main character’s point of view, get yourself out of there. Be true to your character and what he or she would say/think/feel about things. If you write poems you love that don’t feel true to that, pick them out for use somewhere else. But don’t force them upon your viewpoint character. That will ruin your collection.
Alphathoughts: Alphabet Poems, by Lee Bennett Hopkins: Here is a set of 26 poems, in alphabetical order, of course! The title of every poem is a word that begins with that page’s letter. Each poem is clever and concise, with many lines containing only one word. Many of the poems hint at more, just like the snack food in the letter N.
—Lee Bennett Hopkins, all rights reserved
And each poem contains at least one word (in addition to the title) that starts with that page’s letter. These tiny, clever definition poems all have a similar magical, secret feel to them, and they form a tight, cohesive whole.