Full circle from Poetry ➛ Stories ➛ Poetry

When my children were really little, I used to read poems to them in the bath. I had a stack of poetry books down by the side of the tub and I found that while they were splashing around, it was a good opportunity to grab a book and read two of three poems to them. Sometimes they completely ignored me, continuing with playing with the bubbles or bath toys. But occasionally, they would stop what they were doing and turn big eyes to me and listen, for a moment, to these words coming from their mother’s mouth.

Obviously I wasn’t reading TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, but that didn’t mean that TS Eliot was off the cards, because they did enjoy his Macavity (Macavity’s a Mystery Cat : he’s called the Hidden Paw). I kept the poems light and fun and, more to the point, short and sweet. But as time went on and they started to shed their toddlerhood skins, to hear my children start to repeat back lines of poems to me or to ask for particular favourites was so gratifying.

Fast forward a number of years (my children are now almost sixteen, fourteen and twelve) and we’re reading poetry again. No, not in the bath. But I love the way this has evolved over the years and come full circle so that this is where we find ourselves once again. Let me explain.

As early as I could beyond those days of reading poetry to toddlers in the bathtub, I started to read books to my children after our evening meal. Over the years, I have read them dozens of books, ranging from classics such as Swallows and Amazons, Little Women and The Jungle Book to more contemporary fiction by exciting new writers. Sometimes one or another of them put a request in; at other times, I would indulge my own bookish interests in wonderful children’s fiction. We’ve had a few misses over the years (for example, The Box of Delights by John Masefield didn’t work for any of us and we abandoned it mid-story) but far, far more hits. One of my personal favourites which will always stay with me and which I missed out on in my own childhood was Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.

Somehow, we’ve always managed to keep this after-dinner tradition going, even with my children in their teens. I’ll never forget a friend from Finland telling me many years ago that her mother read to her until she was sixteen. Not possible, I thought, there’s no way my children will tolerate that into their teens. Well, it turns out that wasn’t true. I’m not saying they’ve always loved it and occasionally they’ve drifted off to do other things if they’re not enjoying the book or zoned out. It has though, on the whole, been a brilliant experience for us all, bringing us back each evening to the quiet power of words, almost like an out-breath.

And so it worked for all those years…until it didn’t. Inevitably, there would come a time when reading to the children just wouldn’t work anymore. This time for our family came at the start of the academic year last September. What with all of their different movements and various activities going on, even dinner together became a sad rarity. I tried reading them the graphic novel of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens in fits and starts. It was brilliant and really engaging, but it just wasn’t working. There was too long of a gap in between readings and two of my three children were losing interest.

The next time I was at the library, I started to browse the children’s poetry shelves. I wanted to get something that would suit all three of them, not particularly easy when 1) we hadn’t read poetry together for years and 2) I was unsure how to bridge the gap with their different ages and interests. But then I happened upon this book:

This felt like it couldn’t be more perfect, especially at at time when we are seeing vast numbers of refugees on the move from Ukraine. Michael Rosen’s grandparents were Polish Jews (as were mine) and Rosen grew up hearing Yiddish being spoken and stories of migration and displacement. Accompanied by Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations (yes, he’s still going strong – age ninety), the poems in this book have hit just the right spot for us all. The have opened up conversations about language (what is Yiddish? Who speaks it?), refugees and war and as we progress through the book, Rosen’s trademark wit and honesty will no doubt generate a number of further discussions.

So, farewell to after-dinner stories, but welcome back to the wonderful soul of poetry.

Rebecca Stonehill

Thank you for reading this blog post. Compliment it with an article I wrote on using poetry to engage and motivate children; listen to a recording of my prizewinning poem, Tripoli Dreaming & read my very personal poem, The Public Library Love Letter.

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