Poetry & Folklore

In our Book Reviews section, between Fiction and Nonfiction, you can often find reviews of Folklore and/or Poetry. This is an “and/or” because we don’t always have both, and sometimes we have neither. Our coverage tends to ebb and flow, as do the trends in books being published. In our earliest days, for example, and throughout various past decades, the Magazine spent more space on both poetry and folklore (for these purposes, and per The Horn Book Guide’s classification, the ­latter expanded to encompass folktales, myths, legends, and nursery rhymes).

Issue two of the Horn Book­ ­(November 1924) included a piece of original poetry (at right) “by” ­Alice-Heidi, the Bookshop’s resident doll: “When at home alone I sit, / I never seem to tire of it. / I only have to take a look / Along the shelves and choose a book.” Issue three saw “Peter and Poetry,” an article about a bookstore encounter between a father and son. “At first, perhaps the child got no more than the rhythm and sway…but surely rhythm and mood are among the ­essentials of poetry and bulk large in that first love of poetry which a child may begin to feel long before he is even five years old.”

When we first began ­publishing, poetry was perhaps a bigger part of ­children’s formal education. ­Memorizing poems and reciting them in class was very common. ­Nevertheless, poetry remains a vital, necessary art form today. Much of what contemporary young readers encounter in books may be in forms other than straightforward­ collections.­ The emergence and ­popularity of verse novels in recent decades, for example, notably since Karen Hesse’s 1998 Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust, has led to further innovation in form, content, and readers’ engagement. Visit hbook.com for many recent examples and to find original poems and articles by our own impressive list of contributors (­Eloise Greenfield, Ted Kooser, Elizabeth Acevedo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nikki Giovanni, Ashley Bryan, and Arna ­Bontemps, to name just a few).

Folklore was an important part of Western children’s literature history, with European examples including the Grimms’ and Langs’ collections and the illustration work of Cruikshank and Rackham. Nursery rhymes showed up on our early pages, with a 1924 New Editions column arguing that “the comparison of various editions of the same book can be very illuminating, and instead of being bored by the appearance of ‘still another’ Mother Goose…you will find that each new one brings a bit of freshness, a wider knowledge, and perhaps a better understanding with it.” That same New Editions column includes Japanese Fairy Tales by Lafcadio Hearn and other examples. An excerpt from Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer begins a 1925 article on mythology by Louise H. Seaman (later Bechtel); and Greek mythology made many appearances throughout the years, not least involving the d’Aulaires, who ­contributed several articles.

Much of early folklore published — and lauded — in the U.S. was written by those outside of the cultures where the stories originated; 1925 Newbery winner Tales from Silver Lands, for example, and 1926 winner Shen of the Sea. As time passed and people began to tell and reclaim their own stories — Pura Belpré being a wonderful early example — the definitions and classifications of folklore and mythology began to shift toward cultural authenticity. The 1960s saw the rise of identity-based awards, with, for example, many Coretta Scott King Book Awards since then going to folklore (among many others, The People Could Fly; Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale; and works by Ashley Bryan and Jerry Pinkney). In 1975 the Caldecott Medal winner, Arrow to the Sun, a retelling of a Pueblo Indian tale by a non-Native author, brought ­critical discussion to an important ­conversation that continues today (see Kathleen T. Horning’s article in our September/October 2013 issue and the work of Debbie Reese). As people from underrepresented groups took back their own narratives, the previous practice of outsiders looking in on — and winning awards for — stories from “other” cultures became less of a given.

In recent decades, folklore has taken creative, genre-bending twists and turns that have proven popular with readers. We’ve seen a rise in retellings, reimaginings, and remixes that play off well-known tales to create something new. Early work by Donna Jo Napoli, Robin McKinley, and others who helped deepen and complicate common tropes helped usher in this trend. Rick Riordan’s wildly successful Percy Jackson books (starting with 2005’s The Lightning Thief) made mythology a major presence in middle-grade fiction. More recently, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone burst onto the scene in 2018 — a fantasy with elements from West African ­mythology — and we’ve seen many YA and middle-grade fantasies taking similar approaches to elements from various underrepresented cultures since then.

When it comes to poetry, as ­Editor Emeritus (and poetry aficionado) Roger Sutton always made sure to note with our Boston Globe–Horn Book Award categories: “Poetry tends to jump around.” In 2023, for example, a verse novel was honored in ­Fiction and Poetry (When Clouds Touch Us by ­Thanhhà Lại); former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy ­Harjo’s 1983 poem “Remember,” illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade, was honored in Picture Book; and Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison’s­ “modern retelling of the classic spiritual” Standing in the Need of Prayer was the other picture-book honoree. And it’s not just BGHB: see also “A Place for Poetry” by Sylvia Vardell (May/June 2022 Horn Book Magazine) for a look at the handful of Newbery winners that use poetry in some form.

There are other ways that poetry and folklore can be similar in their variability and flexibility. Both can range from the silly to the serious. Both benefit from reading aloud. And both will probably continue to evolve in the ways they’re shared. Whatever “jumping around” poetry and folklore do in the next hundred years, we’ll be happy to follow them.

From the March/April 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more Horn Book centennial coverage, click here.

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