Rhyme lovers of every age, rejoice, for April is National Poetry Month! We all know that little readers love silly sing song poems, and adults can get lost in the emotions of a good poetry collection, but what about middle graders? Wonderfully, middle grade readers get the best of both poetry worlds, with plenty of funny collections, serious books, and ageless crossovers that can enjoyed all month (and beyond!).
I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups, by Chris Harris, illustrated by Lane Smith
TV writer/producer Harris’ poems are short, high-energy poems that play with words with a smart, sweet, funny punch. Fans of Shel Silverstein will absorb this collection surprises readers, from the ongoing amusing conflict going on between the writer and illustrator, to the inexplicably misnumbered pages that can only be decoded if you crack the code in one of the poems. (“If I ever find myself holding a gecko…/ I’ll lecko.”) Lane Smith’s oil and acrylic images pop off the page. This collection is a New York Times bestseller—as well as A Kirkus Best Middle-Grade Books of 2017 Selection—that’s been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.
Every Thing On It, by Shel Silverstein
For readers who loved Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up, here’s a posthumous collection of Silverstein’s poems and illustrations. His never-before-published poems and drawings includes a witch who rides a vacuum cleaner and a kid who orders a hot dog “with everything on it” (“…it came with a parrot,/ A bee in a bonnet,/ A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake”). There are a total of 130 poems in this book, chosen by Silverstein’s family and published for the first time here.
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander, Ekua Holmes, Chris Colderley, Marjory Wentworth. Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Newbery medalist and middle grade author Kwame Alexander has written a collection of 20 original poems with his friends Chris Colderley (a poet and elementary school teacher) and Marjory Wentworth (the poet laureate of South Carolina) that pay homage to famed poets. You’ll find a diversity of cultures and time periods in this book, from writers Basho and Rumi to 20th-century poets such as Robert Frost and Langston Hughes, and contemporary writers Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, and Maya Angelou. Alexander’s ode to la E.E. Cummings?… “It is such a happy thing to yes the next with you/ to walk on magic love rugs beneath the what”. Holmes’ mixed-media collages are gorgeous metaphors for the words on the pages.
Forget Me Not, by Ellie Terry
This debut novel about Calliope June, a seventh-grader who has both Tourette syndrome and an unstable mother, is told in a mix of prose poetry and free verse. Terry, who has Tourette syndrome herself, writes with such vulnerability and love about Calliope’s anxiety and her longing to be accepted. For example, when Callie’s teacher asks her to tell the class about herself: “Teachers always do/And I hate it more each time…I wish this ugly carpet would swallow me whole.” This is a story of self-acceptance and a hunger for connection.
Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds
This free-verse novel by Reynolds, author of As Brave As You and Ghost, is a good pick for older middle grade readers. This story about what it means to be a black teen in America is told in spare verse and it opens with 15-year-old William talking directly to the reader: “I haven’t/ told nobody the story/ I’m about to tell you./ And truth is, you probably ain’t/ gon’ believe it either/ gon’ think I’m lying/ or I’m losing it,/ but I’m telling you,/ this story is true.” Less than two days have passed since Will witnessed the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn. Perhaps best read out loud, the story unfolds in the time it takes for Will’s elevator to descend.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition, by T. S. Eliot, with drawings by Edward Gorey
T.S. Eliot’s tale of stray cats and their nighttime wanderings has been retold for years, most notably as the Broadway show Cats. Made up of 14 poems, that are both very real and completely unbelievable, readers can enjoy the cat phenomenon the way it was before memes took over the internet. Books like this one are a great bridge between the funny sounds of younger books and the more serious fare of adult lit, but still 100% awesome poetry.
Poems I Wrote When No One Was Looking, by Alan Katz and Edward Koren
A silly take on the mischievous, these poems are just plain fun. Katz is also the author of the charming The Day the Mustache Took Over, among many other books, so he definitely gets middle grade humor. Whether read out loud together, or alone while tucked away in a cozy spot, these bits of verse show that there is a lot more to poetry than serious thoughts and beautiful landscapes. Make sure you have some tissues on hand though—you will be laughing until you cry.
Because I Could Not Stop My Bike … and Other Poems, by Karen Jo Shapiro and Matt Faulkner
This super smart collection is a modern twist on classic poems. From William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, kids won’t even realize they are reading funny takes on the works of some of the world’s most famous poets. Faulkner’s zany illustrations take this book to a whole other enjoyable level. It won’t be until later, when your kids recognize the rhyme and meter of the poems in their textbooks, that they will catch on that you had them reading classic poetry in junior high. This book is so clever that you will probably find yourself reading it, and falling in love with poetry all over again.
Neighborhood Odes, by Gary Soto and David Diaz
Gary Soto and David Diaz take the small moments of childhood, the beautiful little events that stick, and present them in a way that readers of all ages will love. Parties and pets, family celebrations and long summer afternoons; all get the thoughtful treatment that Soto is known for, and the simple black and white illustrations are frame-worthy. This book is a terrific addition to any middle grade reader’s collection, as it will probably turn out to be one of their favorite books—both now and later.
Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings, by Shel Silverstein
An ageless classic that can be read in elementary school, laughed over in middle school, and reminisced about as an adult, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a childhood-defining collection of poetry. The rhymes are silly, the illustrations create a fully fleshed out world, and the quiet meanings can bring adults to tears. Shel Silverstein is a master like no other and the beauty of his writing makes him a must read, and not just in April, but all year long. After your kids have devoured this book, grab A Light in the Attic, Falling Up, and Everything On It for years—really, years—of amazing poetry experiences.
Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, by Billy Collins
For a slightly different twist to your National Poetry Month reading, tackle Billy Collins’s collection, Poetry 180. Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, put together this collection, and its sequel 180 More, to introduce school-aged students to modern poets. His idea is that students should have a love of poetry first; poetry that is written in modern language kids can understand, before jumping into the classics. Given this idea, this book contains 180 poems, one for each day of the school year, from some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry. Before you know it your kids will have a new favorite poet, be it Lucille Clifton, Kenneth Koch, Philip Levine, or Naomi Shihab Nye.
What poetry does your middle grader love to read?