Apr 10, 2017

More Timeless Poetry Collections: John Ciardi

My previous post referenced the powerful role of Edward Lear's poetry and line drawings in my early reading life, particularly in my library habits (here). That leads naturally  to this post about another of my favorite poets, John Ciardi. 

Like Lear, Ciardi wrote for a wide range of audiences, but his poetry for  the young was written directly for his own children. Unlike Lear, who often inserted delightfully unexpected and challenging word choices, in at least one collection Ciardi set out to create poems using fewer than five hundred of the earliest sight words for beginners. He was on a mission to become his own children's favorite author, drawing on some of the same elements that made Lear's poems a hit more than a century earlier. Ciardi's poems demonstrate mastery of those elements: rhythm, rhyme,  humor, and wry irony.

YOU READ TO ME, I'LL READ TO YOU, by John Ciardi, with drawings by Edward Gorey, is one of my favorites from among his collections. Gorey's line art is as fanciful and intricate as Lear's, enhancing the comic and compelling storytelling within Ciardi's work. Here's a cheeky example, which is  a screenshot of only one side of a double page spread. You'll have to get the book to see what the Shark is doing on the facing page.

Of all the poems I've shared with kids (of any age), ones from this specific collection continued to be favorites across many decades. They feature young characters with a tongue-in-cheek, cautionary tone, balancing a fine line between being sassy and sublime. 

Other titles offering Ciardi gems are I MET A MAN, illustrated by Robert Osborn (1961), and DOODLE SOUP, illustrated by Merle Nacht (1985).

In I MET A MAN, poems range from three lines to double page spreads. They offer a simple, gentle humor, but are nonetheless charming and they invite recitation. Here's an example:

I met a man that looked about
As sleepy as he could without
Falling over and starting to snore.

If he ever wakes up, I'll tell you some more!

The poems in Doodle Soup tend toward longer, more complex, perhaps aiming for a slightly older audience. Even so, the flawless rhyming and driving rhythms appeal to all ages. An example:

It doesn't do to push too hard
     Against an elephant or a mule
When it's pushing back. If it gains a yard
     You lose one, as a general rule.

If you lose two, it's on top of you,
     If you stand fast. And that
Could weigh on your mind until you find
    You feel like nothing in nothing flat.

Irresistible, right?  I sincerely hope that's how you'll feel about it. These collections have been so popular for so many years that some have been republished in paperback and book club editions, while older copies are readily available from secondary markets. Add them to your family and classroom collections. If you know these and use them with young readers, please chime in with your opinions! If not, get to it, folks. 


  1. I loved learning from you that Ciardi wrote to a word list! Who knew?

    1. I agree, Annette. I've read, loved, and shared his poems with kids of every age, but it wasn't until preparing this post that I learned of his intent, especially with I MET A MAN. I was so tempted to quote a dozen or more of his poems- especially the ones about dads. When i reread them I could see him reading them with his son and have a blast with words. Speaking of which, thanks for stopping by at the blog and joining the conversation. .


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