In reading over some work of a critique client recently, I found that much of her poetry was lovely but had an adult feel to it. In writing my critique letter to her, I had to try to identify what makes a poem for children versus a poem for adults.
This is so difficult, because poetry is not black and white. It slips and skips and slithers through the grey spaces of sound and meaning. And some poetry written for adults is accessible to some kids, if not in meaning, then through the sound and mood of it. You’ll find certain poems originally written for adults repackaged for kids?this is usually done only with famous poets like Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
I love Robert Frost’s well-known poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And I’ve found that fairly young kids respond to its sense of quiet and responsibility and perseverance. It sets a mood, regardless of the age of the reader (or listener).
In contrast, Douglas Florian’s poems are written for young children. They are rhythmic and simple in vocabulary and structure. Take “The Aardvarks,” from Mammalabilia. This poem is so funny and clever. Kids love it, but adults, do, too.
Aardvarks aare odd.
Aadvarks aare staark.
Aardvarks look better by faar in the daark.
–Douglas Florian, all rights reserved
So there no definite rules about poetry and its audience. With the children’s poetry market tighter than a ice skater’s bootlace, trying to sell poems with an adult feel to them will be a long, arduous process. If you’re looking at your poems and trying to figure out if they’re more appropriate for kids or for adults, check out these guidelines (and they’re full of generalizations that you can probably find exceptions to) and compare them to your own work.
- Keep it short. Poems for kids do not generally go on for pages. They are not usually prose poems. Poems for young kids are often 20 lines or less (sometimes lots less!), and poems for pre-teens and teens are still most often less than 40 lines. One of the things that kids love about poetry is its brevity. It is not intimidating on the page.
- Write about things kids are interested in, in a way that will hold kids’ interest. Poems that ponder one tiny thing at length tend to appeal more to adults. Of course, you can write about things that don’t seem like high-interest topics, if you’re writing them in a way and voice that speaks to kids (see “The Aardvarks”).
- Keep a kid’s vocabulary in mind. In poetry, you have to use the right word, and you’ll know the right word when you try it out. You should never not use a word because of its reading level. But if you find your poem of 82 words has 17 words that the average 5th-grader has never heard of, it’s probably not a poem for kids. There’s nothing wrong with using words kids don’t already know. That can be intriguing and mysterious and make your poem better. But if lots of words are words kids don’t know, reading it will be drudgery instead of adventure. And your poem might be perfect—for adults.
- Capture a single moment. Most poems for kids capture one single moment or image. If your poem feels like a meditation on the many moods of the elm tree in your yard, or you’re describing a relationship through several different meetings, it’s probably a poem for adults. There are children’s poems that tell stories, and they are usually metric and rhyming and funny. “Book Lice,” a poem for two voices from Paul Fleischman’s Newbery-winning Joyful Noise, tells the story of a relationship between two book lice. But it’s funny and delightful and kids certainly love it.
- Use a childlike voice. If there is an “I” in your poem, a narrator somewhere near the age of the reader works well. Again, in funny poems, lots of narrators might be used to comedic effect: a grandma, a garbage collector, a gorilla—But if a poem has an everyday adult narrator, that voice is often too close to a parental voice to appeal to kids. Does your narrative voice approach life with childlike joy and an eye for details? Are the things observed in your poem things that would make a kid say wow, or even just make the kid stop and think for a second? If so, great!
Once you evaluate your poems, you have to decide what to do with them. If they are more suitable for adults, do you want to keep them for adults or try to revise them for kids? This is a tough decision, and only you can know what’s most important for you: this poem finding an audience, or writing about this topic/moment/emotion for young readers. Once you answer that, your next step should be clear.