When my mother was a little girl, everyone had a “party piece.” This was pre-television, and at a large party everyone would take part in the entertainment by singing the crowd a song, reciting some poetry, doing a dance, or something else that they’d memorized to amuse a crowd. I say it’s time to bring this tradition back—who wouldn’t want to be in the audience when the next Bob Dylan sings “Accentuate the Positive?”
I love singing and dancing, but for this post I’m going to advocate choosing poetry for a party piece, mainly because I’ve had the good fortune to be wowed by my friend Bill Hughes’ dramatic reading of the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” at his family’s holiday parties. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a fairly long poem, but even short poems can be impressive. Consider this one that Junior memorized while potty training:
Memorizing poetry has all kinds of benefits for literacy development—for starters, it helps develop rhythm and phonemic awareness. Memorizing poetry also gives a child a way to really get into a text and explore what happens to the meaning with different voices, volumes, inflections, pitches, pauses and speeds.
Short poetry is also pretty easy to work into a child’s day. When Junior was potty training, he sat on the potty for extended periods of time—perfect conditions for learning a piece of poetry. We read poems from The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry, and when he kept returning to “Taking Turns,” I helped him memorize it.
The classic book of children’s poetry is A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Most of the compilations I’ve found include poems from that book. I really also like the Childcraft encyclopedia volume Poems and Rhymes, which has terrific illustrations from Virginia Lee Burton and Maurice Sendak along with short, approachable poems from Christina Rosetti, Edward Lear, and Langston Hughes—among many other poets. The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry also features wonderful illustrations on every page along with poetry from Judith Viorst, Jack Prelutsky, and even Mother Goose, among others.
Here are some more poetry recommendations from across the web.
- Blog Bachelor's Degree picks its 50 Best Poetry Books for Kids
- Joseph Coelho’s top 10 new poetry books every child must read, from The Guardian.
- 30 great poems everyone should know (with links to the full versions of the poems), from The Times of London.
- Poems for Children by Famous Poets (with links to the full poems) from the family friend poems site.
I’ll look forward to seeing you at a party soon—when it comes to my turn, I’ll be reciting Robert Louis Stevenson’s “At the Seaside.”