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I’m a big believer in presenting advanced but appropriate work to young people; I find that they respond positively to being treated as equals in potential (if not experience). That being said, only the first three selections and the last one are age specific, while the rest of the books can be used with students at any level. You’ll find some “traditional” or “expected” authors and books alongside writers who will challenge and inspire young readers to work with new ideas.
1. I Looooooove You, Whale! by Derrick Brown (Preschool through 4th grade)
DB is a master of everything he tries, from slam-poetry tours to filmmaking to publishing. Here he applies a poet’s imagination to a charming story about non-traditional friendship (and do check out DB’s other work through his “Write Fuzzy” project).
2. Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose by Dr. Seuss (Preschool through 4th grade)
This is one of the lesser-known Dr. Seuss offerings, but its crisp verse and engaging narrative make it a huge hit with young people. While the climax is one of the more violent (though gently treated) of his works, it provides a wonderful lesson on the very real consequences of not being honest with yourself and others.
3. The Travels of Marco Polo (translated by William Marsden, 5th through 12th grade)
This classic travelogue has somehow been forgotten about over the centuries, but its evocative, poetic structure and perspective of ancient lands make it a rich springboard for creative activities.
4. The Cricket Sings by Federico García Lorca (translated by Will Kirkland)
Few people know that Lorca wrote poems for young people. These poems still retain all the unique and surrealistic romance of his other more well-known works.
5. Facing the Snow by Tu Fu (translated by Sam Hamill)
It never ceases to amaze me how young people seem to grasp the wisdom of Eastern poetry and thought much more readily than their elders. Tu Fu’s tender, heartfelt images allow students to connect with and express their more serious thoughts, while keeping a celebratory tone toward human relations.
6. The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens
Playful without flippancy, edgy without inappropriateness, there are literally hundreds of poems in this collection to thrill and amaze your classroom no matter what the age.
7. The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari (translated by Jack Zipes)
If you ever wanted a window into creative expression or were simply looking for 10,000 (or more) writing prompts, then this “non-fiction” book is for you. In reality, I recommend this book for every single bookshelf in the universe and beyond. Your students will find the “fantastic binomial” and characters like “The Glass Man” endlessly fascinating and malleable. This is a “If I was trapped on a deserted island and could only have one book" book!
8. Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works
Lorine’s short, wry meditations have a way of resounding with people young and old and continue to reveal new layers upon multiple readings. She also penned a series of poems to Louis Zukofsky’s son Paul that are among the most moving and whimsical children’s poems of all time.
9. Lyrics of Lowly Life by Paul Dunbar
Dunbar’s poignant and musical poems confirm all the best preconceived notions about “traditional” poetry, while yielding numerous possibilities for cross-curriculum discussion.
10. Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan (translated by Georgina Kleege, 9th through 12th grade)
This short, dramatic novel is one of the most powerful stories ever told, and Adnan is a writer who will surely one day receive the attention and readership she deserves.
Matthew Conley is the Executive Director of the Tucson Poetry Festival and author of several chapbooks, including My Friend Billy, Kapow! and The Soft Hells, Destructible Heart. He's traveled across the United States as a member of several National Slam teams. And in 2009, he graduated from the University of Arizona with his MFA in Poetry.