This is the website of Ed de Cario who for the past three years has run an online competition March Madness Poetry (#MMPoetry) which is “an event designed to bring the excitement of the NCAA March Madness tournament to the world of kids’ poetry. 64 poets from around the world participate in the event; together, these poets write 126 new kids’ poems in just 21 days: IT’S MADNESS!”
The rules for the competition and the resulting poems (some fantastic ones!) can all be seen on the website. What I also found interesting was the discussion after the event of voting patterns which emerged. Children were able to vote and their votes were registered separately from adult votes. In the final reckoning they were found to be widely divergent.
There are quite a few posts on the site discussing this fact – both ‘for’ and ‘against’ children as judges. Here are a few of them – and I admit I have selected those I support.
…When the New York Times or Publishers Weekly reviews a book of children’s poetry, they hire an adult to write the review. When book publishers or Highlights for Children or Cricket or Ladybug evaluate poetry submissions, they use adult editors. While it’s superficially appealing and logical to say that the best judges of children’s poetry are children, it’s simply not true. Children are not literary critics and have not been exposed to enough poetry to know the good from the bad. A bad old joke that every adult has heard a thousand times may be a comedy revelation for a child, but the poem that tells it is still bad, and will be recognized as such even by the child when he or she grows up. It’s quite possible that a poem consisting of nothing but the word “fart” repeated 32 times in italicized capital letters and arranged in stanzas with exclamation marks could get enough of a reaction in a classroom to win the kid vote, but that doesn’t make it good poetry (which is what the rest of us are judging).
I think we all know that the best children’s poetry are poems that a child will not grow out of when the child grows up, not poems that are good for a quick laugh today but which will seem merely juvenile and embarrassing in a couple of years from now when the child develops more judgment and discernment. In some cases, I believe, children who voted for one poem may well remember only the other a year from now, having voted for the giggle instead of the sigh, or having rewarded the instantly-accessible poem over the superior poem that may take a few more readings to sink in and do its magic.
While I can’t help but echo the sentiments of my two writer friends, I’d also like to share a thought. As Robert said, children know what they like, but can’t differentiate between what’s good and bad. If a child prefers candy instead of spinach, do we declare that candy is better? Lee Bennett Hopkins once told me he surmised that children would probably love cocaine if you gave it to them…so their opinion of what’s good and bad, while important to understand, is not something upon which we should base our standards. It’s our duty as purveyors of what kids are consuming to provide them poetry that is of the highest quality – whether they realize it or not.
Another way of saying what I’ve been trying to say is that the best poems “for” a 7-year old (to give an example) are only “for” a 7-year old in the sense that there’s nothing in them that a 7-year old cannot process because of life experience and complexity. This does not mean that the poem cannot *also* be “for” older readers, and I still maintain that our goal as children’s poets should be to write poems that will be enjoyed by the target age and everyone above it, right to adulthood. Bonnie says that 20 years from now her child will likely not be reading children’s poetry, but I don’t accept that. I agree that she won’t be reading children’s poetry if the kind of poetry we’re talking about is poetry written exclusively for children, but if we aim a bit higher and try to write really good poems that happen to be accessible to children as well as enjoyable for adults, rather than poems that are only meaningful to children, there’s no reason anyone has to outgrow the poems of their childhood. My own goal as a writer of children’s poems (which I have never achieved) is to write truly great and timeless poems that will be cherished by people of all ages for centuries to come, and I’m not much interested in poems whose only ambition is to patronize a given age group for a brief moment in time when they are at a certain age.