With Burns Night 2021 just around the corner on 25 January, it’s a great time of year to celebrate all forms of poetry. Robert Burns’ anniversary gives us cause to remember the works of the great Scottish bard, many of which are still read and celebrated worldwide. From his transcription of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to his humorous ode ‘To a Mouse’, adults and children have loved Burns’ writings for over two hundred years.
We at Books2All have selected some of our favourite children’s poems for Burns Night and collections from different times and cultures. We hope these offer useful suggestions for any parent or teacher looking to share inspiring, whimsical, or just wildly creative work.
Burns Night choice 1 – The Spider and the Fly, Mary Howitt (1829)
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.”
A widely-known children’s classic that is as relevant today as when it was first published, ‘The Spider and the Fly’ is a straight-forward morality tale. A spider addresses a fly with compliments, persuading it to enter its parlour. The fly resists at first but is inevitably trapped by the predator. The story could pass easily as a fable of Aesop’s, containing an important moral: be wary of strangers and anyone with false interests at heart.
Though the bleak ending is a grim final warning, Howitt’s poem also remains memorable for its use of language, which conveys a powerful sense of movement. The poem was so famous in its time that Lewis Carroll borrowed the rhythm for the opening lines of his ‘Lobster Quadrille’ (not the last time Carroll will get a mention on this list). ‘The Spider and the Fly’ can also be found in a beautiful gothically illustrated 2003 edition by Tony DiTerlizzi.
Burns Night choice 2 – The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning (1842)
“Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.”
Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ is a fascinating take on an old legend. As a faithful retelling, it covers the sequence of incidents most young readers will be familiar with – starting with the plague of rats that afflicts the town of Hamelin, moving onto the arrival of the piper who removes the infestation and concluding with his abduction of the town’s children. Browning does include a few twists, for example, the final revelation that the poem’s narrator was the last child left in Hamelin, unable to follow the others when the piper brought them into his world.
The poem is notable for its rich and vivid imagery and for taking its time with the retelling to create an immersive atmosphere. The lines contain a fast-paced rhythm that pushes through the piece, building a sense of scampering movement. The poem also doesn’t shy away from the piper’s dark mystique, cloaking his appearance and eventual disappearance in uncertainty.
Burns Night choice 3 – Struwwelpeter, Dr Heinrich Hoffmann (1845)
“Just look at him! there he stands,
With his nasty hair and hands.
See! his nails are never cut;
They are grimed as black as soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Never once has combed his hair;
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see Shock-headed Peter.”
The story behind this German poetry collection is that Dr Hoffmann presented it as a Christmas present to his three-year-old son. He was annoyed by the overly moralising cautionary tales children were being forced to read. The poems in Struwwelpeter (translated as ‘Shock-headed Peter’) are almost parodies of stories with clear morals.
The pages of this famous poetry collection are full of misbehaving children punished in surreal and comic ways. (They could be the predecessors of the awful kids in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) The ends they receive are often shocking; in ‘The story of Augustus who would not have any soup’, Augustus wastes away to a stick figure. These dark little poems have endured for almost two centuries, in part because children’s love of macabre tales has always been more prevalent than grown-ups realise.
Burns Night choice 4 – The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll (1876)
“‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.”
Most children will be familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Carroll’s other writings are often just as evocative, strange and entertaining. In The Hunting of the Snark, he uses wild imagery and nonsense verse for the story of a hunting party, made up of the Bellman, the Butcher, the Baker, the Beaver and other characters who set sail to capture the mysterious Snark.
Instead of a single clearly defined narrative, the reader is given a series of absurd scenes following the adventurers as they encounter the strange land’s fauna. Even the conclusion is uncertain, as the quest is left unresolved and mysterious. Nonsense verse is often ideal for reading aloud, and speaking out his rhymes is the best way to experience Carroll’s genius for rhythm and pairing together unlikely images.
Burns Night choice 5 – The Lorax, Dr Seuss (1971)
Jumping ahead almost a hundred years, we come to the incomparable Dr Seuss. This writer requires no introduction, and The Lorax is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces. One of his most politically conscious books, it holds a message to young readers that – like so many other poems on this list – continues to captivate grown-ups as well. The poem is an ode to environmentalism and caring for the planet, with the unseen Once-ler talking to “You” about how he exploited the natural world despite the protests of the titular Lorax.
Seuss’s work appeals to us for his elegant use of language and humour, but also for his refusal to talk down to children. In The Lorax, he doesn’t offer an easy ending for any of his characters. Much of the poem focuses on the uncertainties of the future and the gravity of ecological damage by humans. But its final message suggests that it is still not too late to help.
Burns Night choice 6 – Feminist Fables, Suniti Namjoshi (1981)
Namjoshi’s wonderful collection, which you can read by signing up for free to the Internet Archive, is closer to short prose verse than poetry. The Feminist Fables contains dozens of brief retellings of classic fairy tales, fables and legends, from Arachne to Goldilocks. Namjoshi’s interest lies not simply in rehashing the old but in exploring the political resonances and gender dynamics of classic tales.
This poetry collection is ideal for slightly older readers and fans of Carol Ann Duffy and Angela Carter. The latter included several of the poems in her Wayward Girls and Wicked Women. Namjoshi’s pieces range from funny to melancholy, from provocative to angry, and crystallise whole worlds in only a few lines.
Are there any favourite children’s poems we haven’t mentioned in our Burns Night 2021 blog? Feel free to suggest them in the comments below! And be sure to check the Books2All site to learn about how you can help us keep improving children’s access to books and libraries.
Thank you for visiting our blog. Our vision here at Books2All is a world where every child finds the books that help them reach their true potential. If you have spare books in good condition at home that you think might be appropriate for school children, please sign up for our app’s pre-release waiting list. If you represent a school, please register to receive books for your students.