Laura E. Richards, the First American Nonsense Poet for Kids

Laura E. Richards

Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards was an American writer of the late 19th century who published more than 90 books. Born on February 27, 1850, she is best known for the nonsense poems she created for children to enjoy, such as “Eletelephony.”

Laura Richards’ parents were famous before she was born. Her father was Samuel Gridley Howe, who ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind where Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman were educated. (In fact, he named his own daughter after Laura Bridgman.) Her mother, Julia Ward Howe, wrote the words to a famous song called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When Laura Richards grew up, she and her sister wrote a biography of their mother that won a Pulitzer Prize.

In addition to writing many poems and works of fiction, Richards was a philanthropist. She was very concerned about finding ways to help the people in the town where she lived with her husband. For example, Richards helped to change the practice of making children work at difficult jobs as if they were adults, which was common at the time.

One of Richards’s best books of nonsense poetry is called Tirra Lirra. The poems in this book use techniques like rhythm, alliteration, and startling imagery to tell an imaginative story.

Here is the poem “Eletelephony,” in which Richards uses several funny and surprising variations on the word “elephant.” This technique gives us the impression that the poet has gotten all tangled up in her words, just like the elephant gets his trunk tangled in the telephone—or was it a telephunk?

Eletelephony

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I’ve got it right.)
Howe’er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee—
(I fear I’d better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse, by Calef Brown

We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse by Calef Brown

As Children’s Poet Laureate, one of my jobs is to select a collection of poetry each month to feature on the Poetry Foundation’s website. There you’ll find my monthly book picks, and those of the previous Children’s Poets Laureate. My pick for February, 2014 is We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse by Calef Brown.

Interview with Children’s Author and Illustrator Calef Brown

In addition, I interviewed Calef about his life as a poet and about his new book. Here is what he had to say.

How to Write a Poem About Why You Can’t Write a Poem

I Can't Write a Poem

Here’s a type of poem that absolutely anybody can write, even if you’re sure that you have no idea how to write a poem. That’s because it’s a poem about not being able to write a poem! You won’t even have to think up a title for this poem, since you can use the very first line as the title.

The key to success in writing this type of poem is to let your imagination go wild. Your poem might start off with an ordinary excuse, but as the poem goes on, the excuse can get crazier and crazier.

Here are a few different first lines you could use to begin your poem:

Happy Birthday to Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

If you have ever read or watched one of the stories about “Alice in Wonderland,” then you know how much fun it is to enjoy the work of Lewis Carroll. This name is the pseudonym, or pen name, of 19th-century author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He used several pseudonyms in his lifetime, but he wrote his most famous poems and stories under the name Lewis Carroll.

When Carroll was growing up, he had a wild imagination and loved telling stories. His favorite hobbies as a boy were putting on puppet shows and magic shows for his siblings. Carroll also put together a family magazine of his poems and talked his family members into contributing other writings to it. When he got older, Carroll also became interested in math and photography, especially portraits of children. One of the children featured in his photographs was a little girl named Alice Liddell, who inspired the Alice in Wonderland stories.

Carroll’s poems were just as imaginative as his Alice stories. In fact, there are two very famous Carroll poems that are found within the Alice stories, as if the characters in Wonderland were composing and reciting them. These poems include “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and “Jabberwocky.” Carroll is also known for a long poem called “The Hunting of the Snark,” which was published in a different book.

“Jabberwocky” tells the story of a young man who fights a terrible creature called the Jabberwock. Try reading this poem out loud. Notice how Carroll used a lot of nonsense words. He left it up to the reader to decide exactly what each nonsense word might mean. Do you think that the sound of each nonsense word (such as “slithy”) helps you to understand the meaning?

Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry

The following is a guest post written by Karen L. Kilcup, Professor of English, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Angela Sorby, Associate Professor of English, Marquette University. I’m very excited about this new anthology published by Johns Hopkins University Press, so I thought I’d let them tell you about it in their own words.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Who could resist a poem that opens like this:

Have Angleworms attractive homes?
Do Bumble-bees have brains?
Do Caterpillars carry combs?
Do Ducks dismantle drains?

Charles E. Carryl’s “Memorandrums” typifies the animated, modern spirit of our new anthology, Over the River and Through the Wood. We began our project not only because we admire the writing—its ease, its playfulness, its innovation—but also because we realized how many nineteenth-century children’s poems are still vital to Americans—parents and grandparents as well as their children. From the title poem to “Mary’s Lamb” to “’Twas the night before Christmas” (“Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”), many of the verses in Over the River remain part of our collective consciousness, even if we can’t immediately identify the sources. I remember my own grandmother singing “Over the river and through the wood,” though she changed the second line: “To grandmother’s house we go.” Since she prepared the Thanksgiving turkey and mountains of vegetables and pies, I imagine that she felt just fine about this substitution. Our collection includes some other wonderful holiday poems, including one delicious ode to turkey dinner (Cooke’s “Turkey: A Thanksgiving Ode”) and a comic ballad from the bird’s perspective, “The Turkey’s Opinion.” Of course there’s far more to the anthology than holiday poems, but many of the most beloved, familiar pieces live in that section. Many of our poems offer major contributions to America’s literary tradition, including works by authors whom we don’t ordinarily associate with children, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sarah Piatt.

One children’s poem, “Mary’s Lamb” was actually the first sound recording ever made by Thomas Edison; you can listen to a scratchy, slightly later version by Edison here. Sarah Josepha Hale’s famous poem draws from a real story about a girl bringing her pet to the Redstone School, now in Sudbury, Massachusetts. You can visit the school from mid-May through mid-October.

About Kenn Nesbitt

Several times a day, most days of the week, I receive email from students requesting biographical information for a school paper. I love getting email from kids who enjoy reading my poetry, so feel free to drop me a line and say “hi.” As you can imagine, though, I get a lot of email. So please let me save you a little time by telling you a bit about myself. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, please feel free to contact me. I will be happy to answer any specific questions that are not answered here.

Who I Am

Kenn Nesbitt, Children's AuthorI am 53 years old and I was born on February 20, 1962 in Berkeley, California. I grew up in Fresno and San Diego, California.

I now live in a big old house in Spokane, Washington, with my wife Ann, our son Max, our daughter Madison, and our cat, Raki.

My Poetry

My first children’s poem — Scrawny Tawny Skinner — was written in 1994 after having dinner with a friend whose 4-year-old daughter did everything she could to get out of eating her dinner. Shortly after that, I wrote two more poems, My Foot Fell Asleep and Binkley. During 1995 and 1996, I wrote about three or four poems a year (including You Can Never Be Too Careful and A Meloncholy Tale, whenever the mood struck me.

In early 1997 I decided I would like to write an entire book of children’s poems. In 1998, I published my first collection of poetry, entitled My Foot Fell Asleep. I published a sequel called I’ve Seen My Kitchen Sink in 1999 and a third book, Sailing Off to Singapore, in 2000. The Aliens Have Landed at Our School! was published by Meadowbrook Press in 2001. My first collection of poems about school, When the Teacher Isn’t Looking: and Other Funny School Poems was published by Meadowbrook Press in 2005. I have since published many more books with a number of other publishers including Scholastic, Chronicle Books, National Geographic Learning, and Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.

My poems have also appeared in magazines, school textbooks, and numerous anthologies of funny poetry, as well as on television, audio CDs and even restaurant placemats.

I have put together this web site to share some of my poems with kids around the world. I try to post a new poem every week for you to read and grade, so please check back regularly to read new, funny poetry.

Publications

Books

I have written the following books:

Anthologies

My poems appear in the following anthologies:

Audio CDs

I have written lyrics for the following music CDs:

  • What a Ride! by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band (Butter-Doc Productions, 2007)
  • Snail’s Pace by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band (Butter-Doc Productions, 2007)
  • Snow Day by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band (Butter-Dog Productions, 2006)
  • Monkey Business by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band (Butter-Dog Productions, 2005)
  • The Kid in the Mirror by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band (Buter-Dog Productions,
    2003)

Organizations

I am a full member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Miscellany

I met my wife, Ann, in Prague during a one-year trip around Europe.

I’m proud to admit, I love Marmite.

I’m also a big fan of They Might Be Giants Here’s a picture of me with John Flansberg of TMBG.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling (December 30, 1865 – January 18, 1936) was a British writer who spent part of his life in India. He wrote many books and poems, some of which are still very popular today. Later in his life, Kipling was the first English writer to be given the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Some of Kipling’s most famous writings were about the experience of war. In his poem “Boots,” Kipling uses the same words repeatedly in a rhythm that sounds like soldiers marching. Try reading the first three lines of the poem out loud to hear the rhythm for yourself:

Three Ways to Include Poetry in Your Family’s Holiday Traditions

Holiday Season

The winter holidays can be a fun and exciting time for both kids and adults. This year, why not integrate poetry into your family’s celebrations of the season? Add literary flair to your family’s traditions by including poems in your festivities.

Here are three simple ways to incorporate poetry into your seasonal celebrations.

What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by Joyce Sidman

What the Heart Knows by Joyce Sidman

As Children’s Poet Laureate, one of my jobs is to select a collection of poetry each month to feature on the Poetry Foundation’s website. There you’ll find my monthly book picks, and those of the previous Children’s Poets Laureate.

My pick for December, 2013 is What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by Joyce Sidman.

Interview with Children’s Poet Joyce Sidman

In addition, I interviewed Joyce about her life as a poet and about her new book. Here is what she had to say.

Children's Poet Joyce Sidman

Joyce Sidman

Kenn Nesbitt: How did you come to start writing children’s poetry?

Joyce Sidman: I have always been a poet—I think it’s the way I look at the world. When I became a mother and was plunged back into the world of children’s literature, writing for children became my goal. So, I guess I just combined two loves.

KN: Who / what most influenced you as you began writing children’s poetry?

JS: Poet Alice Schertle for sure—her book Advice for a Frog really opened my eyes to the possibility of writing expressive poetry about the natural world. Lots of other children’s poets—Marilyn Singer, Kristine O’Connell George—and adult poets, too, like Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. I just read everything I could.

KN: What do you think poetry does for children?

JS: I think poetry helps children (and us all) appreciate the joy, beauty, pathos, and humor of every day life. With its use of imagery and metaphor, it helps them observe details and connect all parts of their lives. It helps them play with words and meanings. But most of all, it helps them tap into their “deep heart’s core.”

KN: Tell me a little bit about your career as a children’s poet.

JS: I spent many years building up a good healthy rejection pile, with occasional acceptances by periodicals like Cricket magazine. My first break came from Millbrook Press, who published my book, Just Us Two: Poems About Animal Dads. Millbrook published another book of mine (Eureka! Poems About Inventors, which is still in print), and then I found editor Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin, who’d been encouraging me for years and finally accepted Song of the Water Boatman. I have stayed with Ann ever since, and it has been a happy partnership.

KN: Tell me about your new poetry book, What the Heart Knows.

JS: What the Heart Knows is for an older audience than my other poetry books. In many ways, I wrote it for myself . . . for times I needed courage and comfort. But I was also inspired by young people I know, by their strength and willingness to engage with the world. I wanted to celebrate that strength. The book is divided into four sections: Chants & Charms (to bolster courage and guard against evil), Spell & Invocations (to cause something to happen), Laments & Remembrances (to remember or grieve), and Praise Songs & Blessings (to celebrate and thank). It was my third collaboration with Pamela Zagarenski, and I adore her gorgeous, dreamy illustrations.

Favorite Thanksgiving Poems to Read Aloud

Chances are, your Thanksgiving celebration usually includes a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and perhaps a chance for each family member to say what he or she is grateful for. But this year you can add a new and fun twist to your family’s Thanksgiving tradition by giving poetry a place in the festivities. Reading a poem aloud is an engaging way to bring attention to what is most sacred and special about this holiday.

Here are four Thanksgiving poems that are wonderful to read out loud, either in unison (all voices together) or by taking turns reading each verse.

“Over the River and Through the Wood” by Lydia Maria Child

If this Thanksgiving poem sounds familiar, it’s probably because a version of it has been set to music. In the song version, some of the lyrics are about Christmas rather than Thanksgiving. Here is an excerpt from the original poem: