I’m going to try desperately to stay as on-topic and positive as I can here.
This past weekend I had to do some research that required visiting my local independent bookseller. I was doing some recon on a couple of areas, to see what was out there and available. My local store has a decent (not stellar) children’s department and you can learn as much about sales and trends by what isn’t on the shelves as much as what is there.
You know what’s not there? Poetry.
One shelf for poetry, shared with nursery rhyme collections. Half of that shelf was Shel Silverstein, with a face out of Where the Sidewalk Ends. Two Jack Prelutsky’s, one recent collection edited by Mary Ann Hoberman, a Douglas Florian, a Patricia Boynton, and an Edna St. Vincent Millay collection. I think any adult with a passing familiarity with children’s literature could name at least one book or author not represented, if not a dozen. Put all of us together and we could fill a store with what wasn’t on the shelves.
I’m pretty sure I saw this question come up recently. Kids love poetry, they love wordplay and the fun of what poetry can do, so where are all the poetry books? Is it simply a question of shelf space in a store, of low sales demand? Have the children’s poets exhausted all possible subjects? I’m so full of thoughts and ideas I can barely think straight. Here’s some of what’s in that jumble of a head of mine.
Poetry books are too expensive to produce, or purchase. When the children’s book market shifted its focus from institutional sales (libraries, schools) to retail, few consumers (parents) saw the value in a book that would be read while waiting in line to purchase it or might not be reread. Hardcover poetry in particular has the feel of a “gift book” in the children’s market, and unless each poem is accompanied by full color illustrations the perceived value of words-to-page versus cost is too dear.
Let’s set aside the fact that a poem shouldn’t require an illustration at all if done correctly. I mean, talk about painting mental pictures, poems should produce whole galleries of images to the reader. Why can’t these be simple line illustrations on the page? That takes care of production costs right there. Ditch the hardcover until a book has proven itself worthy of “gift editions,” and make them portable enough to be carried everywhere. If a mass market paperback can hold 200+ pages and come in under $10 there’s no reason a 48-page chapbook of poems with line illustrations can’t be sold at less than half that.
Think about all those series books kids gobble down (and parents purchase) like Magic Tree House and the like. You expect me to believe a series of poetry chapbooks the same size and cost as those books can’t be as successful, given the same marketing emphasis?
Editors and agents actively discourage children’s poets. I think there is a fear, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of bad poetry in the world, and editors and agents already have a tough enough time with lackluster submissions as it is. Fair enough. It would be nice to go back to the golden days when Ursula Nordstrom and William Cole would put together showcase collections of poets that could serve as trial balloons for what readers respond to, but those days are behind us.
Or are they?
Recently I came across an interview with an editor who suggested that poetry collections should be pitched as picture books. This seemed like a novel solution for the serious poet looking for a way past the “no poetry” edicts handed down: if you could sell the theme of the collection as a picture book then clearly you’ve considered the market and understood what is and isn’t saleable. The problem with this line of thinking is that a picture book is an expensive undertaking – color pages and all – and poems on a particular theme don’t have as wide appeal as omnibus collections.
The solution: bring back the poetry collections. Let the houses put out trade paper editions twice a year – fall and spring – edited in-house from submissions taken during limited windows. Put some interns to work sorting, discover some new voices, encourage children’s poetry. Something akin to the way the Evergreen Review used to be, with an editor at the helm.
Poetry is marginalized and destroyed in schools. First, it’s segregated late in the school year during National Poetry Month, and after third grade poetry is “taught” to the extent that the joy is removed from it. Once reading moves from pleasure to purposed – around the fourth grade – poems (and fiction for that matter become object lessons in simile and metaphor and theme and structure. This is where the joy of wordplay is beaten out of kids, and right about the time kids start to lose their interest in poetry.
So first thing we need to do is turn National Poetry Month into National Poem of the Week. I think Robert Pinsey tried to do this when he was poet laureate, with a weekly syndicated column in the national newspapers. Maybe one of the duties of the Library of Congresses Children’s Poet Laureate would be to select the weekly poems to be featured and sent to educators so that there’s a national dialog about poetry going on, in addition to filling in those lessons with poems selected and shared by kids. Yes, meter and structure and the finer points of poetry should be taught and discussed, but more time should be spent in reading and sharing in the schools.
Ultimately, I think the real solution will come from e-readers. Once they become cheap enough that kids are downloading books, the e-book market will be ripe for consumers of poetry (like kids) hungry for poems. Publishers could hardly claim that poetry collections are too expensive to produce as e-books, but by then they might have totally alienated the poetry market altogether; it’s already easy enough to upload chapbooks to Scribd or as Kindle original books. And it isn’t like it’s hard to break into the kidlit poetry market when it hardly seems to exist as it is.
Personally I would much rather see dozens of new poetry books published for children every month, simple books with nice line drawings, designed with care by inexpensive, given the same marketing as other books. I’d like to walk into a book store in my home town and find dozens of titles and hundreds of poets crammed into that one shelf of space.
As long as we marginalize poetry, give it short shrift on the shelves, and provide no incentives for reading or owning poetry, how can we ever expect children to accept, much less enjoy, poetry?