Round and round the garden
Like a teddy bear
One step – two steps –
Tickledy under there!
or played ‘This little piggie went to market’ with their toes will know how easy it is to engage young children with rhythm and rhyme. There are always plenty of giggles and squeals and choruses of ‘Again!’
Playing with sounds and rhyme helps young children find out how language works – its spaces and patterns and beats – and is an important bridge to reading. We learn about words I think through our ears as much as our eyes, which is why it’s so important to read out loud to children – poems and nursery rhymes as well as picture books – from an early age.
Poetry has always played a big part in my own life. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a house with lots of stories and books. We read and recited poems with tantalising rhythm such as ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes and ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc – along with his many ‘cautionary tales for children’. I can still remember most of ‘Matilda, Who Told Lies and was Burned to Death’ many years later! Other favourites were the poems of AA Milne, best known of course for Winnie-the-Pooh.
This early love of poetry was reinforced at the tiny rural school I attended, on the Koo Wee Rup Swamp in Victoria. Every week we read and recited poems from an ancient and decaying set of Victorian School Readers – Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ or William Blake’s ‘Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright’. Heady stuff for nine and ten-year-olds – but so dramatic when they were read out loud! Other favourites were the wonderful poems for children by CJ Dennis. We were given exercise books to copy out poems in our best handwriting, and to decorate with our Derwent (if we were lucky) and Lakeland (if we were not) coloured pencils. Poetry was given as much weight in our classroom as maths and spelling and social studies.
My head was so full of rhythm and rhyme, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own poems, often during my long bike rides to and from school. When I was nine I submitted a poem to the children’s section of The Age newspaper, and was amazed when they paid me what seemed like a fortune for it. It made me determined to become a writer when I ‘grew up’. I continued scribbling poems throughout my school years – maudlin ‘teenage angst’ poetry, a long poem about the teachers at my school based on The Canterbury Tales, birthday rhymes for family and friends – and haven’t ever stopped.
Eventually I decided to pull a few of my poems for young readers together into the collection that became Doodledum Dancing. The poems here reflected everything I’d absorbed in my childhood about rhythm and rhyme.
My latest picture book, My First Day at School, is also a collection of poems. I’ve dubbed the book a ‘verse picture book’ in that the poems build up to tell a story, in the way that a verse novel does. But each poem in the book can also stand on its own as a poem – with (very simple) poetic devices such as similes, alliteration and assonance, and – my favourite! – onomatopoeia – a big word for a term that just means words that sound like what they mean, such as ‘crash’ and ‘tinkle’.
Michelle Mackintosh’s delightfully clever illustrations help ‘explain’ many of these devices as they allow young readers to visualise what I’m trying to get across with my language: a boy with ‘frog hands’ for example, or another boy who is ‘as hungry as a lion!’
I decided to write about the first day at school because it is an event which can inspire many different reactions, from excitement to anxiety. I visited a few different schools on the day of their prep intake and sat quietly in the corner, scribbling notes as I observed the kids’ and teacher’s – and parents! – behaviour.
Once I had this goldmine of material, I set about shaping it into a set of poems from the point of view of four different ‘narrators’ that form a narrative – beginning with the children arriving at school, and ending with them leaving. In ‘the middle’ come the experiences that make up their day: meeting their teacher, making friends, learning new ways of doing things – and making it to the toilet in time!
Poetry is infectious. Reading it can help you to see the world in different ways and writing it can help you express thoughts and emotions you perhaps didn’t realise you had. Do yourself a favour. Read – and write! – poetry. Every day. And read it to your children as well.
Meredith's favourite childhood poems:
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
Tarantella by Hilaire Belloc
Matilda who told lies and was burned to death by Hilaire Belloc
Disobedience by A. A. Milne
The Eagle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The Tyger by William Blake
Meredith Costain's latest book, My First Day at School, is illustrated by Michelle Mackintosh and published by Windy Hollow Books. Visit Meredith's website to find out more about her books and events.