Recommended poetry

The books recommended below were all published within the last several years and reviewed by The Horn Book Magazine. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.

 

Preschool

Suggested grade level for each entry: PS

Lots of Spots by Lois Ehlert (Simon/Beach Lane)
Frequently funny poems, rhymes, and the occasional tongue twister celebrate the spots, stripes, and colors of animals.The clean white backgrounds of Ehlert’s signature paper collages make the details pop. 40 pages.

In the Sea written by David Elliott; illus. by Holly Meade (Candlewick)
Poetry and striking woodcut-and-watercolor illustrations combine to create memorable portraits of twenty ocean creatures. Tone of the very short poems varies nicely: most are lightly humorous while others are evocative and almost majestic. 32 pages.

In the Wild written by David Elliott; illus. by Holly Meade (Candlewick)
Full-spread woodcut and watercolor art captures the essences and habitats of fourteen worldwide animals: a jaguar prowling the jungle floor, an evanescent polar bear in a blue-green sea, etc. Deftly composed verses include paradoxes and wry thoughts. 32 pages.

Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry selected by Natalie Merchant; illus. by Barbara McClintock (Farrar/Foster)
Showcasing nineteen of the twenty-six poems that provided lyrics for Merchant’s album of the same name, the book works just as well on its own (CD is included). Detailed illustrations add humor and subtext to the sometimes enigmatic words. 48 pages.

A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young written by Halfdan Rasmussen; translated by Pamela Espeland; illus. by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick)
Thirteen of Danish poet Rasmussen’s children’s poems are included in this collection, each with a bright burst of humor. Pencil and acrylic illustrations highlight the whimsy of the nonsense verses while underscoring the poems’ innocence and childlike dignity. 32 pages.

 

Primary

Suggested grade level for each entry: K–3

Everybody Was a Baby Once: And Other Poems written by Allan Ahlberg; illus. by Bruce Ingman (Candlewick)
Short poems are unified by Ingman’s creation of a friendly town of row-houses where children and witches, dancing sausages and animated bathtubs coexist. Ahlberg’s naughtiness and pinches of melancholy keep the whole thing safely on the wry side of cute. 64 pages.

Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems written by Kate Coombs; illus. by Meilo So (Chronicle)
The creatures and allure of the sea are captured in twenty-three poems with as many moods as the sea itself. Shark, sea turtle, coral, or whale, So’s sea creatures are all engaging, but it’s the ocean itself that stars in her beautiful art. 32 pages.

Poetrees by Douglas Florian (Simon/Beach Lane)
Florian celebrates the utility and diversity of trees in thirteen poems on a variety of species, plus five on such features as seeds, roots, and bark. Handsome, freely rendered multimedia art, more evocative than representational, illustrates the quirky poems. 48 pages.

Shiver Me Timbers!: Pirate Poems & Paintings written by Douglas Florian; illus. by Robert Neubecker (Simon/Beach Lane)
Using stereotypical pirate-speak, each poem explores a familiar aspect of pirate lore and takes it to a new level of rhythm and rhyme. Digitally colored India-ink illustrations play well with Florian’s verse, which is balanced between light gore and silliness. 32 pages.

UnBEElievables: Honeybee Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian (Simon/Beach Lane)
Humorous verse echoes bee behavior, as much with sound as with sense; a paragraph of facts elucidates each spread. Repetitive patterns in the mixed-media illustrations reference honeycombs and fields of flowers as well as the bees themselves. 32 pages.

A Dazzling Display of Dogs written by Betsy Franco; illus. by Michael Wertz (Tricycle)
Concrete poems celebrate animals complete with lovable quirks and downright silliness. Stylish digital illustrations pop with color and capture the personality of each dog variety, from pug to maltipoo. 40 pages.

Around the World on Eighty Legs written by Amy Gibson; illus. by Daniel Salmieri (Scholastic)
Fifty-plus animal poems, in a variety of forms, are arranged geographically by region. Funny wordplay matches up with amusing illustrations in watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil that depict each animal accurately but with a twinkle of personality. 56 pages.

One Big Rain: Poems for Rainy Days written by Rita Gray; illus. by Ryan O’Rourke (Charlesbridge)
Illustrated with an appropriate palette of grays, blues, and olive greens, this anthology quietly celebrates rain. The twenty poems favor imagery over bouncy rhyme, with the pictures adding just enough snap to keep things from becoming too sleepy. 32 pages.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North written by Eloise Greenfield; illus. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (HarperCollins/Amistad)
Poignant poems tell the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North. Many of the pieces give voice to unnamed travelers’ thoughts. Mixed-media collages add the right air of seriousness and history to the poetry. 32 pages.

Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart written by Mary Ann Hoberman; illus. by Michael Emberley (Little/Tingley)
More than 120 poems that make good choices for memorization are presented in eleven sections; the collection is a treasure trove of the familiar and the fresh. Emberley’s watercolor, pastel, and pencil pictures both embellish and illustrate the poems. 144 pages.

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You: Very Short Fables to Read Together written by Mary Ann Hoberman; illus. by Michael Emberley (Little/Tingley)
This series gets a refreshing variation, with its signature phrase (“you read to me! / I’ll read to you!”) replaced by pithy rhyming morals. The thirteen fables are mostly familiar; their traditional structure makes them a canny choice for the poems for two voices. 32 pages.

Dizzy Dinosaurs: Silly Dino Poems written by Lee Bennett Hopkins; illus. by Barry Gott (HarperCollins/Harper)
Nineteen dinosaur poems, as promised in the subtitle, poke a little dino-fun. Gott’s paintings exaggerate the animals comically, giving the prehistoric critters a variety of bright colors and showing their disparate sizes. 48 pages.

Nasty Bugs selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins; illus. by Will Terry (Dial)
Children’s poets such as Alice Schertle, J. Patrick Lewis, and Douglas Florian write about the yuckiest of insects, including lice, ticks, bedbugs, stink bugs, and the cockroach. The poets use a variety of styles while maintaining a consistently humorous tone. 32 pages.

Lullaby (For a Black Mother) written by Langston Hughes; illus. by Sean Qualls (Harcourt)
First published in 1932, Hughes’s poem has just the right smooth cadence for a picture book text. Superb accompanying collages, showing a mother and child at bedtime, display a dreamlike quality that suggests a transition from wakefulness to sleep. 32 pages.

The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems About the Presidents written by Susan Katz; illus. by Robert Neubecker (Clarion)
In forty-three poems, Katz gives each of our U.S. presidents their due, with footnotes providing a more complete discussion of the highlighted event or character trait. Neubecker’s illustrations emphasize the playful tone without deconstructing the verse. 64 pages.

Oh, How Sylvester Can Pester!: And Other Poems More or Less About Manners written by Robert Kinerk; illus. by Drazen Kozjan (Simon/Wiseman)
Kinerk covers all sorts of etiquette-related behavior in poems that are varied and funny; along the way readers should also find themselves picking up a tip or two. Slightly retro-looking digital illustrations feature a multicultural cast of characters. 32 pages.

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems written by Gail Carson Levine; illus. by Matthew Cordell (HarperCollins/Harper)
This collection of light verse unapologetically riffs on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say”, showing readers there’s plenty to be un-sorry about. Accompanied by an appropriately subversive cartoon, each poem mimics Williams’s structure. 80 pages.

World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of written by J. Patrick Lewis; illus. by Anna Raff (Candlewick)
Twenty-two obscure but entertaining holidays get their own funny, playful poems, varying in length and style. Raff’s ink washes and drawings feature animals with lots of personality. 40 pages.

All the Water in the World written by George Ella Lyon; illus. by Katherine Tillotson. (Atheneum/Jackson)
Lyon celebrates the essence of life itself in a lyrical poem about the water cycle. In sweeping, digitally rendered art resembling watercolor and collage, Tillotson creates luxuriant ocean swirls and pelting streaks of rain. 40 pages.

Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems written by Jack Prelutsky; illus. by Carin Berger (Greenwillow)
Ingenious book design and inventive poetry (combining a real animal with a quality that fits into its name) create this museum-in-a-book of unusual critters. Berger’s illustrations incorporate found objects and aged paper to tag and label the animals. 40 pages.

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys written by Bob Raczka; illus. by Peter H. Reynolds (Houghton)
Focusing on nature and seasons, each of Raczka’s twenty-four haiku captures with amazing economy specific moments of a boy’s life. Reynolds depicts the characters’ glee and energy as well as natural elements in just a few deft lines. 48 pages.

The Hound Dog’s Haiku and Other Poems for Dog Lovers written by Michael J. Rosen; illus. by Mary Azarian (Candlewick)
Twenty haiku portray a range of dog breeds. Accompanying the poems are Azarian’s woodcut illustrations, printed in black and hand-colored with acrylics. The meticulously detailed woodcuts sturdily capture every dog and its setting, whether inside or out. 56 pages.

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night written by Joyce Sidman; illus. by Rick Allen (Houghton)
Sidman celebrates the world that comes alive after dark; each poem is accompanied by an informative paragraph. The dark lines and subtle colors of the linocut prints make the perfect accompaniment to a book of night poems. 32 pages.

Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors written by Joyce Sidman; illus. by Beckie Prange (Houghton)
As Sidman points out, “99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.” In her fourteen poems, the survivors range from bacteria to us. The pieces vary in tone and form. Entrancing, bold linocuts are drenched in vivid watercolor. 40 pages.

Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins/Harper)
This posthumously published volume is every bit as good as Silverstein’s earlier collections. Drawings add to the entertainment, often providing the punch line. A little naughty and occasionally poignant, the volume has depth and humor. 202 pages.

Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems written by Marilyn Singer; illus. by Josée Masse (Dial)
These poems subvert traditional tales by offering two points of view: what goes down on the left-hand of the page goes up on the right, with line breaks and punctuation revised for strategic effect. The poems require (and reward) close attention. 32 pages.

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse written by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josée Masse (Dutton)
Through a verse form she dubs the reverso, Singer mediates on familiar fairy tales and their shadows. The second stanza of each free-verse poem is the first reversed, providing an alternate perspective. Similarly bifurcated illustrations face the poems. 32 pages.

A Stick Is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play written by Marilyn Singer; illus. by LeUyen Pham (Clarion)
Eighteen poems celebrate the old-fashioned kind of play from morning to dusk. Pham’s illustrations match the retro feel of the games and feature a multicultural group of children, with wide eyes and wide smiles, enjoying the exciting play. 40 pages.

A Child’s Garden of Verses written by Robert Louis Stevenson; illus. by Barbara McClintock (HarperCollins/Harper)
McClintock offers a complete edition of these old favorites in a format generous with white space and spot art as well as illustrative fantasies. Occasional full-page pictures set the scene; eponymous gardens burgeon invitingly throughout. 80 pages.

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku written by Lee Wardlaw; illus. by Eugene Yelchin (Holt)
In a series of haiku (technically “senryu”), a cat narrates the story of his adoption from a shelter and his new life. The animal’s fear, pride, and gradual trust come across clearly; graphite and gouache pictures match the poems’ sensitivity and humor. 40 pages.

Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children written by Lisa Wheeler; illus. by Sophie Blackall (Atheneum)
Mother Goose’s twisted sister stars in this semi-subversive collection. The cautionary rhymes detail all manner of bad or impolite behavior, made even funnier by a mock-formal typeface. Ink and watercolor illustrations maintain a similar balance. 48 pages.

Pug and Other Animal Poems written by Valerie Worth; illus. by Steve Jenkins (Farrar/Ferguson)
Worth is fondly remembered for her books of “small poems” — delicate epiphanies springing from ordinary things. Jenkins’s collages of precisely observed creatures in bold tones effectively dramatize these eighteen welcome additions to her oeuvre. 40 pages.

Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy-Tale Voices with a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich; illus. by Matt Mahurin (Wordsong/Boyds Mills)
Each of fifteen fairytales is distilled into two short poems, one by each co-author. The perspectives are often those of characters — or inanimate objects — not usually heard from in the traditional tales. Painterly illustrations echo each piece’s tone. 40 pages.

 

Intermediate

Suggested grade level for each entry: 4–6

Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems written by Kristine O’Connell George; illus. by Nancy Carpenter (Clarion)
In thirty-four poems, fourth-grader Jess describes the highs and lows of life with little sister Emma. The straightforward, honest poems cover a range of feelings. The illustrations capture both the endearing and irritating qualities of preschool-aged girls. 48 pages.

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery written by Cynthia Grady; illus. by Michele Wood (Eerdmans)
Grady crafts her fourteen poems to honor the art of quiltmaking. Pieces recall quilt squares by using ten lines of ten syllables each. Working in intensely hued acrylics, Wood bases her quilt-shaped designs on the patterns that give the poems their titles. 40 pages.

A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing, and Shout written by Paul B. Janeczko; illus. by Chris Raschka (Candlewick)
Thirty-eight works celebrate the aurality of poetry. Some of the organization is by number of readers or form; another section includes bilingual poems. Impressionistic illustrations feature whimsical combinations of watercolors and torn paper. 64 pages.

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World written by Marilyn Nelson; illus. by Jerry Pinkney (Dial)
Twenty poems voiced by instruments summarize the history of swing, evoking the music, its players, and the time period. Vibrant watercolors capture the players’ courage, the joys of performance, the sober face of war, and the reality of segregation. 80 pages.

The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from Beyond the Solar System written by Jack Prelutsky; illus. by Jimmy Pickering (Knopf)
This macabre journey to unknown (and unpleasant) planets is not for the faint of heart or lazy of mind: the flawless meter rewards careful ears, while trusting the reader to figure out challenging words. Comically creepy illustrations enhance the strangeness. 40 pages.

Lemonade, and Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word written by Bob Raczka; illus. by Nancy Doniger (Roaring Brook)
Raczka makes poems from a single word by rearranging various letters from that word, anagram-style. Some are imagistic: moonlight is “hot / night / thin / light / moth / in / motion.” Some are mini-narratives: friend is “fred / finds / ed.” 44 pages.

Freedom’s a-Callin Me written by Ntozake Shange; illus. by Rod Brown (HarperCollins/Collins/Amistad)
This collection, beginning with a man in a cotton field and ending with three newly free African Americans in Canada, is filled with a sense of urgency. Most of the accompanying paintings are dark, with dabs of white effectively conveying a sense of danger. 32 pages.

 

Older

Suggested grade level for each entry: 7 and up

Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters by Jeannine Atkins (Holt)
Thirty vignettes concerning these three renowned mothers and their daughters offer just a few telling facts, beautifully phrased and skillfully arranged. Portrait photos, introductions, and afterwords round out the stories. 209 pages.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses written by Ron Koertge; illus. by Andrea Dezsö (Candlewick)
Koertge retells, in free verse and from various points of view, twenty-three familiar tales. It’s a swell mix of the comical, concrete, and macabre. Dezsö’s choice of cut-paper illustrations is brilliant, a nod to Hans C. Andersen’s skill in that medium. 88 pages.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman (Candlewick)
Sixty-eight poems present a range of voices in this “historical novel in verse” about the October 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. Newman’s language serves the voices well, the poems always simple, accessible, and moving. 111 pages.

Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25 by Naomi Shihab Nye (Greenwillow)
In this exceptionally well-selected collection, the coming-of-age free verse poems speak poignantly on themes of love, family, heritage, trauma, and identity. What makes these poems so satisfying is their urgency and unabashed courage. 236 pages.

Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing by Gary Soto (Harcourt)
Soto presents seventy-seven original poems about teenage love. Divided into two sections, “A Girl’s Tears, Her Songs” and “A Boy’s Body, His Words,” the free-verse poems ring true: rich with image, accessible, and believable. 100 pages.

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