Our Favorite Collection of Famous Poems for Kids
We’d like to recommend One Hundred and One Famous Poems for kids. This skinny little book of “grown-up” poems has small print and no illustrations, but it was a favorite when we were children. That’s because, as Mom read to us, she’d pause to explain the references to historical events, and point out certain lines we’d hear the rest of our lives. We would follow her on the page in awe, realizing a poem packed in so much more than it seemed. It was our first awareness that poetry is layered with symbols and deeper meanings, that a “famous” poem has wide-spreading roots and high-reaching branches. Every poem seemed to prove that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
Mom and the poets showed us the indirect, mysterious expression of the human experience. Each poem in One Hundred and One Famous Poems was topped with a black-and-white oval portrait of the poet, along with birth and death dates. We’d gaze at the poet’s face while we soaked up the words, recognizing that the feelings in the poem (and often the events) had been real. They were coming from a real person’s life. They had not been made up, imagined. We were glad when the space for the death dates was blank, thinking the poet still lived. We didn’t know the book had been published for 40 years.
In feeling-filled, non-pedantic ways we learned history facts: we heard the thundering hooves of the Light Brigade, saw the breeze-bent poppies between the crosses on Flanders fields, felt the nation’s grief at the murder of their “Captain, My Captain.”
In passion-packed, non-preachy ways we learned ethics and truths: that vanity could lead us into sticky, even fatal situations; that simply easing an aching heart or helping a robin gives life meaning; that if you can keep your head, trust yourself, be patient and honest and strong, you’ll become a fine human being.
In drama-infused, exciting ways we heard stories of love and loss: of a midnight avian visitor who bore grave news, of the doom of a robber baron and innkeeper’s daughter, of the life of a native American warrior.
Mom and these poets also showed us the impact of rhythm, rhyme, and artful punctuation. Thanks to Mom’s understanding of poetry and her dramatic reading, we were mesmerized by the cadence, lyrical meters, repetitions, and sound-alike words. Looking at the book as she read, we could see that the highwayman came riding, riding, riding and that the six hundred galloped on half a league—half a league—half a league onward. It was much more than a listening experience. It was a visual, visceral, imaginative recreating of things that happened, in history and hearts. It connected us to the world beyond in empathetic, powerful ways.
When we grew up and had kids of our own, One Hundred and One Famous Poems was our go-to for poetry readings. Mine is still marked with dozens of bright sticky tabs, marking the poems I’d bribe my kids a dollar to memorize. Last week we taught PoetryWriting Camp, and all the poems we chose to study and emulate came from this book. When I mentioned this to my brother, he said “Funny you should mention that, I just came across my own copy the other day.” As it turns out, we five all bought our own editions as adults.
So Becky and I highly recommend this little book to you and your kids. We hope it helps you share powerful points in powerful ways, as it did for our Mom, and that it nurtures in your children a love of great poems, as it did for the five of us.
We’d love to hear your own recommendations and experiences of high-impact poetry, too. Please do share, in the Comments below!