Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Celebrating folk poetry and Alvin Schwartz

Author and folklore collector Alvin Schwartz was born on this date in 1927, in Brooklyn, New York (and died March 14, 1992). Although he may best be known for the "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series, which are among the most frequently challenged books (or book series) according to ALA, he also compiled over two dozen collections of children’s folklore of many types in very kid-friendly formats. Most of these are completely hilarious, such as:

A twister of twists, a tangler of tongues (1972)
Tomfoolery: Trickery and foolery with words (1973)
Cross your fingers, spit in your hat: Superstitions and other beliefs (1974)
There is a carrot in my ear: and other noodle tales (1986)
Busy buzzing bumblebees: and other tongue twisters (1992)
I saw you in the bathroom and other folk rhymes (1999)

Many children—and adults—don’t realize that the silly songs, rollicking rhymes, and nonsense games we learn in early childhood are indeed a form of literature. Folk poetry is the poetry you don’t even realize is poetry. Rhymes on the playground like "Cinderella dressed in yellow" have no known author and yet are familiar to many generations of children. These rhyming verses can also be included in our poetry collections. Books of riddles, chants, tongue twisters, jumprope rhymes, finger plays, handclapping games, autograph sayings and more often contain poetry and verse. What’s more, children are often intrigued to find in print the verses they have heard and known only orally and only in the domain outside of school—at home and at play.

Alvin Schwartz’s collection of uniquely American verse, And the Green Grass Grew All Around (1992) is one of my all-time favorites and has so many wonderful examples that children will enjoy. You may be surprised, for example, to discover that there are second and third verses to poems you knew only one verse of as a child. One of my favorites is a parody of the song, "I've been working on the railroad"-- "I've been working on my homework/ all the live long day/ I've been working on my homework/ just to pass..." (It ends abruptly on purpose!)

For additional examples of children's "folk poetry," look for Iona and Peter Opie’s I saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocketbook (1992) or Virginia Tashjian’s Juba This and Juba That (1969). Authors and collaborators Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson have also created several collections of folk poetry worth knowing about such as Anna Banana: 101 Jump-Rope Rhymes (1989). And Judy Sierra has gathered a gem with Schoolyard Rhymes: Kids' Own Rhymes for Rope Skipping, Hand Clapping, Ball Bouncing, and Just Plain Fun (2005). And for a scholarly analysis of this "genre" look for Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry (Landscapes of Childhood) by Joseph Thomas.

This medium helps validate children’s experiences, link oral and written modes of expression, and invite active, even physical participation. Children can collect other examples on audio or videotape and explore neighborhood, cultural, and linguistic variations. They can translate their English favorites into other languages represented in their community. Older children may enjoy exploring the historical roots of childhood folklore or writing down new and unfamiliar examples.

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