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In Praise of Reading Poetry Aloud to Children

by Rebecca J. Gomez




I often say that my mother is the voice of poetry in my mind. My mother read lots of poems and rhyming texts aloud to me and my siblings. Silverstein, Seuss, and others that I can’t remember now. The one that stands out to me the most is The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. That poem put her voice into all poetry for me. Not just the poem itself, but the way she read it. She delighted in it. In the language, the imagery, the strange spookiness of the story. I did too.


There was something about it that little me couldn’t understand or appreciate, but I knew it was there. When I re-read it now, I know what it is. It’s the way the verses flow so smoothly, the internal rhymes and alliteration that delight the ears, the word play, the humor, the atmosphere, the imagery that draws you in and almost makes you feel the cold, like magic:

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;

It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.


I remember trying to capture a bit of that magic in my bumbling attempts at rhymes as a first grader and throughout my childhood and teen years. Though my early attempts were far from anything I would now consider “good” poetry, those awkward verses about horses, trees, faith, and heartbreak were helping me to find my voice.


I didn’t have access to a large poetry library as a kid, and I was never fortunate enough to study poetry in any significant way in school. So I learned what I could from Shel Silverstein’s silly poems, the rhythm and wordplay in Dr. Seuss’s rhyming stories, and the songs within the pages of The Hobbit. Those were my earliest poetry teachers, so naturally, they influenced my poetic voice significantly.


Like my mother before me, I read aloud often to my children. I loved reading old favorites and discovering new ones. We shared the rhythmic, rhyming poetry of Robert Frost, Jack Prelutsky, and Joyce Sidman, to name a few. But my love of poetry kept expanding. What began in childhood as a fondness for rhythmic rhyme that was such a delight to read aloud eventually branched into a love for poetry in all its forms as I discovered poets like Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver.


The poetry of Kooser, Collins, and Oliver isn’t exactly like that of Silverstein or Prelutsky. And yet, it is. Their poetry may not be rhyming, silly, or child-like, but all of these favorite poets of mine do one thing really well: capture a little bit of magic and share it with their readers. The very thing I have been trying to do since I was old enough to write my first rhyming verse. All of these poets, and many others, have helped me develop a voice that is uniquely my own.


These days I spend my time writing stories and poems primarily for children, hoping to capture the imaginations of young readers the way Robert Service and all those other poets captured mine. In truth, my attempts often still feel bumbling. It's funny that after all these years, with five rhyming picture books, twenty published poems, and a novel in verse soon to be published with Bandersnatch Books, I still feel like that first-grade girl, eager to emulate my favorite poets, but not really sure how.


That is the part of me that I poured into the writing of Mari in the Margins, a story about a girl who’s struggling to figure out what, if anything, she has to offer—as a daughter, a sister, a friend, and especially a poet. As the middle child of nine, Mari feels overlooked by her family, and with a new girl in town threatening Mari’s one stable friendship, she’s left alone with her thoughts—and her poetry journal. Writing her story forced me to tap into that bumbling, uncertain part of myself in order to express Mari’s feelings about writing and sharing her poems, and how to navigate life from what she sees as the margins of her family:


Maybe


if I win a poetry contest

I’ll be

noticed

no longer

in the margins,

moved from the

side

to the

CENTER


like I’m a small

but important part

of something

BIG.


My journey from eager listener to published verse novelist still feels incredible to me. As a child, I never imagined writing as a profession. I simply wanted to share in the magic of poetry any way I could. But even more magical than the words on the page was my mother’s reading of the poetry. I might have discovered my love for poetry on my own eventually, but it was my mother’s voice—forever the voice of poetry in my mind—that made it personal to me as a child and encouraged me to find my own voice as a poet.


In a way, writing this novel in verse felt almost autobiographical. Mari and I side by side, growing together as poets and artists and human beings. Sharing this story is vulnerable! But it’s also an encouragement to anyone out there who doesn’t know if their art is worth sharing: go, find your voice, and use it to bring a little magic to someone’s life. Why not start by reading some poetry aloud to a child? You could even try The Cremation of Sam McGee!



 

Rebecca J. Gomez is a poet, artist, and author of children’s books. When she’s not writing or drawing, you can often find her reading aloud to her husband or grandchildren and going for walks in the woods. Her middle grade novel in verse, Mari in the Margins, releases May 14, 2024 through Bandersnatch Books. Learn more about her and her work at gomezwrites.substack.com

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