When you’re engaging a young child in early literacy, it can be so much fun for both you and the child that you hardly realize you’re doing it. Children are naturally drawn to rhythms and rhymes and word play, the building blocks of literacy and even poetry, and when you find a great collection of poetry and verses for wee ones, it’s a pleasure for all involved.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard to find those solidly good collections of early rhymes or early poetry for very young children. Some of them make the mistake of diving too far into the cutesy and head straight for a patronizing tone, and some can be simply dull.
There’s a new one on shelves I really like—and that I’ve child-tested at multiple story times. (It passes with flying colors.) A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young, illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a collection of original poems from former British Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. It’s a keeper.
With 35 short poems, there’s something for every toddler here. There is a good selection of poems that delight in the sounds of the English language (“Tippy-tappy / Tippy-tappy / Tap, tap, tap. / Nippy-nappy / Nippy-nappy / Nap, nap, nap”), including poems that embrace the fact that children are the natural audience for onomatopoeia. There’s a lively poem called “Music” that features words and rhythms that will get children on their feet. And the best of this type of poem, “Let Me Do It,” starts out with the logical request of “Let me cook the beans / Let me lick the jar / Let me kick the ball / Let me drive the car.” But then it devolves into the splendidly absurd “Let me drive the beans / Let me kick the jar / Let me lick the ball / Let me cook the car.” Cue happy squeals from those who toddle.
There are entertaining narratives in many of the poems as well, and what I love most about many of these is the way the poems tap so directly into the raw, unfiltered emotions of the very young. “I Am Angry” features a mouse who declares his frustration right off the bat: “I am angry / really angry / angry, angry, angry.” The rest consists of the various things he’ll do as a result of his wrath—“pull down posts / Hunt down ghosts / …Silence birds / Boil words”…and much more. Another poem features another mouse, lost and terribly frightened. “I Don’t Want,” arguably the best of all the 35 entries here, features a big, angry blue creature—holding a toddler’s sippy cup, no less—yelling about all the things he (or she) does NOT want, thank you very much. “I don’t want the jelly / ’cause the jelly’s too smelly.” Toddlers live and breathe this, and they will laugh and gasp and wonder in recognition. Sure, you can hardly expect a toddler to sit through the entire collection at once (though you never know), but I’ve read this to toddlers in bursts—a few poems here, a few verses there—and you could hear a pin drop in the room. Many of the poems are hypnotizing for this age.
The entries in this smartly designed book also take great advantage of font type and color to communication emotion. The ticked off creature in “I Don’t Want” yells right at the reader. Placed in the center of the blackness that is his mouth and in bright, angry red letters is the poem’s title.
Though strong emotions are the name of the game with toddlers, there are some genuinely sweet moments in the book too; the verses strike varying tones. The poem from which the book’s title comes features a young girl in a blue raincoat. She cuddles her toy panda: “Mo’s in a muddle / She slipped in a puddle / Mommy gives Mo / A great big cuddle.”
But the moments of utter ridiculousness are what really shine here, and toddlers will thrill at the more nonsensical rhymes that leave them room to ponder, scratch their heads, and even create their own wild stories. A bear saying “I’ve got a sausage / You’ve got a pie / I can’t whistle / And I don’t know why”? Well, that makes all the sense in the world to toddlers and preschoolers. They are the perfect audience for such absurdity. The preposterousness of it all will draw them in. As the Kirkus review notes, “Despite (or perhaps because of) the odd bits, this book successfully celebrates the private, gleeful, imaginative world of toddlers.”
Riddell’s watercolor and pencil illustrations, dominated by warm blues, reds, and browns, feature a cast of characters, including the human kind and the made-up–creature kind. They are dramatic and funny (be sure to check out the dinosaur being scolded in the way of table manners by the child), and he taps into the emotions of young children in a way that never overwhelms the text, yet still catches the eye of the children listening and taking it all in.
One of my go-to books for baby shower gifts is Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, which includes poems collected by Andrew Fusek Peters and Jane Yolen, and the carefree illustrations of Polly Dunbar. I might have to switch things up for a while and make A Great Big Cuddle the gift of choice; better yet, I’ll bundle them together as one gift. They’d be such excellent additions to the bookshelves of new parents.
As for A Great Big Cuddle, don’t be surprised if your copy of the book becomes the most tattered collection of poetry in your home. That’s okay. The most loved become the most well-worn. Faded spines and dog-eared pages: they are signs of great devotion.
A GREAT BIG CUDDLE. Text copyright © 2015 by Michael Rosen. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Chris Riddell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.