Friday, June 13, 2014

Poetry for Children -- Trees

For kids, literature is like food.  We do children no service when we give them empty calories or words.

A few days ago, I discussed "Trees," a Joyce Kilmer piece that was required reading for generations of elementary students.  I suspect teachers were drawn to its simple subject and easy, sing-song rhyme scheme.

Eventually it came to be understood that, while no doubt well-intentioned and honestly felt, "Trees" was not a poem for the ages.

Some years later, another poet took a crack at the same topic.  Here is the result:

Trees Are the Kindest Things I Know
by Harry Behn

Trees are the kindest things I know,
They do no harm, they simply grow,
And spread a shade for sleepy cows
And gather birds among their boughs.

They give us fruit in leaves above,
And wood to make our houses of,
And leaves to burn on Halloween
And in the Spring new buds of green.

They are the first when day's begun
To touch the beams of morning sun,
They are last to hold the light
When evening changes into night.

And when a moon floats on the sky
They hum a drowsy lullaby
Of sleepy children long ago --
Trees are the kindest things I know.

This widely distributed poem was published in 1992 in the format below as part of an Earth Day activities book.

Honestly, this poem is, if anything, worse than Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," which it imitates, badly.  Trees can be beautiful and are essential parts of our natural environment -- but "kind?"  Really?  How?  The poet aims specifically to draw in the young reader, but I doubt any thoughtful child would take to it.  And the illustration is dreadful.

Here is another tree poem for children, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein.

I like this poem.  It plays with alliteration and rhymes.  Its lines swing in a gentle, pleasing way.  It ends with a little humor.  It is illustrated with a picture that invites a child to imagine sitting under a tree while reading a book.

Silverstein, who died in 1999, wrote and illustrated wonderful poems that children love.  Some of his poems work better than others, but there is plenty of engaging material in these Silverstein titles:  A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree.

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