Collage illustration of the Hey Diddle Diddle nursery rhyme, showing a cat playing a fiddle

Go deeper: Poetry for children

Nursery rhymes, ditties and songs – rhymes and poetry have a way of sticking in your head! What makes them so memorable? And how do you write a good one yourself?

Nursery rhymes

What’s the first poem you remember? Do you know any lines by heart?
For me it was a nursery rhyme.

Baa, baa black sheep
Have you any wool...

Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book

Page 29. Illustration depicts a woman wearing a pointy had and a long dress leading a horned black sheep by a rope. The nursery rhyme 'baa baa black sheep' is printed below the illustration.

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My mother sang me this rhyme a long time ago, but children still enjoy it today. It was first printed over 250 years ago in a tiny little book called Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744) with many funny rhymes in it, some of them a bit rude!

Little Robbin red breast,
Sitting on a pole,
Niddle, Noddle,
Went his head,
And Poop went his Hole. (‘6. Robbin red breast’)

Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book

page 6 of Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book. An illustration of a robin sitting on a perch is shown above the printed rhyme. The rhyme reads: Little robin red breast / sitting on a pole / niddle, noddle / went his head / and poop went his hole.

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Nursery rhymes are chanted, sung and written down in almost every part the world, though they often start life through word of mouth. They are popular because they are cheeky, easy to remember and make you laugh.

Over the Hills and Far Away: A treasury of nursery rhymes from around the world: sketches and finished artworks

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You can see, too, how nursery rhymes keep going, often changing over time. Another favourite from Pretty Song-Book is ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ where the mouse runs up, then down the clock. A few hundred years later, John Agard and Grace Nichols collected a book of Caribbean nursery rhymes called No Hickory No Dickory No Dock (1991):

Pussy in de moonlight
Pussy in de zoo
Pussy never come home
Till half past two. (‘Pussy in de Moonlight’, traditional Guyanese rhyme)

A young woman, Jane Taylor, and her sister, Anne, wrote poems for children more than 200 years ago. Some people thought one of Jane’s was an old nursery rhyme because it was so simple and so musical. I wonder if you know it? ‘Twinkle twinkle little star…’ Years later, Lewis Carroll wrote a jokey parody of ‘The Star’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):

Twinkle, twinkle little bat
How I wonder what you’re at
Up above the world so high
Like a tea-tray in the sky.

First publication of 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star'

First publication of 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star' [page: 10-11]

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One of the lovely things about books of nursery rhymes is that they are usually accompanied by brilliant illustrations. Over the Hills and Far Away (2014) was created by over 70 different artists, or going back in time are Randolph Caldecott’s entertaining illustrations to accompany rhymes such as ‘Hey diddle diddle’.

Randolph Caldecott's Picture Books: Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting

A ginger cat is standing on a table playing a fiddle but holding it as if it were a cello. Children are dancing on the floor in front of the table. In the background a lady is standing behind a table of buffet party food.

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Christina Rossetti’s only poetry collection for children, Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), was illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite artist, Arthur Hughes. Below you can see Rossetti’s very special handwritten copy which includes her own little drawings and shows some of the changes she made to her poems. She included riddles, proverbs, counting and colour rhymes, as well as loving poems about mothers and babies.

Manuscript of Sing Song, a collection of nursery rhymes by Christina Rossetti

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New nursery rhymes are still being written today. Have you encountered Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1982), or Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Not Not Nursery Rhymes’ (from The Hat, 2007)?

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl: manuscript and typescript drafts

Handwritten draft on yellow paper. Dahl made several crossings out on the page.

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Having fun, telling tales

Some poems just make you giggle and one of the best humorists of all time was Edward Lear. He was so talented that as well as writing brilliant nonsense verse, he also taught Queen Victoria how to paint and he could play almost anything on the piano by ear. He is remembered for comical songs, like ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ who ‘went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.’ Other crazy characters include the Quangle Wangle Quee who lived on top of the Crumpetty Tree, and the Jumblies who ‘went to sea in a sieve, they did / In a sieve they went to sea.’

Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets by Edward Lear

Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets by Edward Lear [page: first page of 'The Owl and the Pussycat']

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Edward Lear was also the first poet to make limericks popular. In his Book of Nonsense (1861), he drew hilarious illustrations to go with them.

There was an Old Person of Chester
Whom several small children did pester…

You could try making up the rest of the limerick yourself – lines three and four should be rhymed and short, while the final word of the fifth line has to rhyme with ‘Chester’.

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

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Edward Lear influenced later poets including T S Eliot, whose famous cat poems (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939) were partly inspired by the nonsense tradition. And if you look at any poetry collection by Roger McGough, you will find it full of rhymes, ditties, riddles, pun poems, hilarious haiku and nonsense of every kind…

The cabbage is a funny veg.
All crisp, and green, and brainy.
I sometimes wear one on my head
When it's cold and rainy. (‘The cabbage is a funny veg’ from Sky in the Pie, 1983)

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot

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Readers are also drawn to poems that tell great stories. Like Edward Lear, Robert Browning was writing in the middle of the 19th century, publishing The Pied Piper of Hamelin in 1842. Although it has some of the elements of a mysterious ghostly tale, it seems to have been based on real events. A town is overrun with rats, nothing seems to work, the mayor is at his wits’ end, death and disease are spreading… Then, out of nowhere, a colourfully-dressed fellow with a pipe appears, offering to get rid of the rats for a large sum of money. A promise is made but is not kept, and the ending is tragic. Here’s a taste of Browning’s vivid tale:

Rats!
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles….

You might like to read the whole poem to find out what happens if you don’t know. It’s long, but it’s worth it!

Other times, a poem grabs our attention because of how it sounds and how it is performed. Poetry began life as an oral form. Reading any poem aloud brings it to life, and usually involves sharing it with others. But there are particular forms of poetry where the performance is just as, if not more, important than words on a page. Spoken word poetry features repetitions, improvisation and word play, often linked to issues of social justice. Some poets blend words with music to terrific effect. For Grace Nichols, a Guyanese British poet, poetry is created by paying attention to rhythm and sound: ‘As long as you get the rhythm right, the poem works. You have to write for the ear and hear the music...’ Try reading out her poem, ‘Break/Dance’…

Poems by Grace Nichols: typescript drafts including ‘Granny Granny Please Comb My Hair’, ‘Break/Dance’ and ‘Cosmic Disco’

Typed draft of 'Break/Dance'. Nichols made notes and edits to the draft by hand.

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John Agard is a Guyanese British poet whose performances are legendary. His poetry is powerful, witty and ironic, both on the page and on the stage. Poets often work on their poems for some time until, like Goldilocks, they get them ‘just right’. One of Agard’s best is ‘Poetry Jump-Up’, which I was lucky enough to hear him perform for the very first time. A few months later he had changed some of the words. You can see this for yourself (take a look at his notebook below) and listen to him perform it. Here’s a flavour of this wonderfully lively poem. It makes you want to move!

take a look down de street
words shakin dey waist
words shakin dey bum
words wit black skin
words wit white skin
words wit brown skin
words wit no skin at all
words huggin up words
an saying I want to be a poem today
rhyme or no rhyme… (‘Poetry Jump-Up’ from )

Poems by John Agard: notebook drafts and a copy of Say it Again, Granny

Open notebook. John Agard's handwritten drafts of poem. The notebook paper is lined, the writing is in blue ink.

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Writing in a child’s voice

Some poets never really leave childhood behind. They are good at remembering how it feels to be a child and observing children and their ways.

The first poet to write about ordinary things as if he were still a child was Robert Louis Stevenson. His collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses, has never been out of print since 1885. This poem is for anyone who loves sleeping and lying in bed late!

A birdie with a yellow bill
Hopped upon the window-sill,
Cocked his shining eye and said:
“Ain’t you shamed, you sleepy-head?” (‘Time to Rise’)

About 50 years later A A Milne, who is still much-loved for his stories of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh and friends, wrote two winning poetry collections for younger children, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. They too were illustrated by E H Shepard. Milne’s amusing books are full of memorable characters:

There were two little bears who lived in a wood
And one of them was bad and the other was good
Good Bear learnt his Twice Times One –
But Bad Bear left all his buttons undone. (‘Twice Times’ from When We Were Very Young, 1924)

As well as the fun, Milne also wrote about sad, lonely or confusing moments in a child’s life, such as this plea:

All of them say “Run along! I’m busy as can be.”
Every one says, “Run along,
There’s a little darling!”
If I’m a little darling, why don’t they run with me? (‘Come Out With Me’ from Now We Are Six, 1927)

Later in the 20th century, James Berry began to write wonderful poetry for both children and adults. He also spent a lot of time working with children and showing them how to create their own poems. Berry moved from Jamaica to Britain as an adult but often returned to the Caribbean for ideas and wrote ‘in voice’ using Jamaican dialect. He was a champion of Caribbean British writing. In this powerful poem, he engages our senses with his memories of the things that he tasted, smelt, heard and saw when he was a child:

Eating crisp fried fish with plain bread.
Eating sheared ice made into “snowball”
with syrup in a glass.
Eating young jelly-coconut, mixed
with village-made wet sugar.
Drinking cool water from a calabash gourd
on worked land in the hills. (‘Childhood Tracks’ from Only One of Me, 2004)

Everyday life

Perhaps the poet best known today for writing for and about the very young is Michael Rosen (although his work for older children is equally popular). Rosen counts the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and A A Milne as influences on his own writing. Open any of his poetry collections and you will find the ups-and-downs of everyday life made memorable and often extremely funny.

Try reading aloud the middle section of this poem from his first book. Begin ‘get up the stairs…’ as fast as you can, then when the ending arrives s l o w   d o w n.

At night in the dark
When I’ve shut the front door
I try and
get up the stairs across the landing
into bed and under the pillow
without breathing once. (from Mind Your Own Business, 1974 )

Another poet who turns everyday events into warm, brilliant poetry is Joseph Coelho. In this poem he captures that initial feeling of dread at the prospect of going back to school after a holiday…

Back at school tomorrow.

Not tomorrow!
One more day off please.
I'm sick.
I'm not ready.
I haven't done my homework.

We don't do much the first week back.
Miss won't mind if I miss one day.
My uniform is dirty.
I can't remember where school is… (‘School tomorrow – excuses for Mum’ from Werewolf Club Rules, 2014)

It reminds me of a poem written by William Blake over 200 years ago, about a little boy who complains about having to go to school!

But to go to school in a summer morn,
O! it drives all joy away… (‘The School Boy’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1789)

William Blake was a brilliant artist as well as poet. His Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789) was the first poetry book not just to accompany words with pictures, but to integrate them. Blake’s poetry is much admired by adults, but it was also intended for children. The first poem ends with these lines:

And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear. (‘Introduction’)

William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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In one of those ‘happy songs’, the children plead with their nurse to stay out later – and she agrees:

“No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep:
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.” (‘The Nurse’s Song’)

It seems that some things never change!

Poetry about the natural world

Probably the most popular subject in children’s poetry over the last 300 years has been nature. That includes animals, birds and insects, different landscapes, trees and flowers, the changing seasons and, more recently, environmental damage and climate change. Many children feel strongly about this issue and poets have been warning us about the dangers for many years. Christina Rossetti was ahead of her time on the need to care for animals:

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird or butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap… (‘Hurt no living thing’ from Sing-Song, 1872)

Benjamin Zepahiah’s Talking Turkeys (1994) is ‘dedicated to the earth and the children who care’. The poems are mostly funny, but there is a serious message:

Be kind to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos turkeys jus wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate an not on yu plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side. (‘Talking Turkeys’)

Valerie Bloom and Roger McGough gently remind us of pollution in our rivers and, even worse, in the seas we share with the rest of the world:

“Now why do you wait?” I asked the river,
“And why is your current so slow?”
“Something holds me back,” it said.
Its voice was faint and low.

“And is that why you're getting small?
Is that why you sigh?”
“I sigh,' the river said, “because
I know that soon I'll die.” (Valerie Bloom, ‘I Asked the River’)

The sea’s in a panic, unstable and manic
All in time to the music
The earth in its clutches, everything touches
All in time to the music (Roger McGough, ‘All in Time to the Music’ from Lucky, 2012)

These poets are inviting us to think seriously about our environment and climate change. Does it make you want to write your own poem?

Children as poets

After reading all of this poetry, perhaps you now feel like having a go at writing some yourself. You could make up your own nursery rhyme, or take the beginning of an old one and change the ending. Or you might want to write about something you care about – your family, school, your pet, a place or person special to you. Or maybe you want to get your teeth into something more serious like the state of the environment?

Michael Rosen offers good advice to children and teachers about starting to write poetry. So does James Berry, who tells us that, ‘A poem develops over stages. You will need to revise it, polish it, make it better. Make it into the shining spirit of your idea’.

Manuscript note by James Berry saying that 'A Poem Develops Over Stages'

White lines paper, handwritten poem note by James Berry is in black ink.

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As he says in ‘Goodmornin Brother Rasta’:

…a-make peace possess you
and love enlighten you
a-make you givin be good
and you everymore be everybody
a-make Allness affect you always
and you meetn of eye to eye be vision
and all you word them be word of wonderment (my emphasis; from Playing a Dazzler, 1996 and Give the Ball to the Poet, eds Horrell, Spencer and Styles, 2014)

Good luck!

 

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  • Morag Styles
  • Morag Styles was Professor of Children’s Poetry at the University of Cambridge and is an Emeritus Fellow at Homerton College. She is the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children, and has written widely on children’s poetry, edited several volumes on children’s literature, and is editor of numerous anthologies of poetry for children. In 2009, she co-curated an exhibition on the history of children’s poetry with then Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen.

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