Author Makes Famous Poems Fun For Kids

April is National Poetry Month, and one author has come up with a way to make poetry fun for kids. Karen Jo Shapiro has taken the rhythms of famous poems and turned them into poetic parodies for children. She talks with Renee Montagne about some of her poems.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

April is National Poetry month, and one author has come up with a way to make poetry fun for kids. Karen Jo Shapiro has written poetry set to - not exactly the tune of famous poems, but the rhythm of the works. You could say, in some cases, she's pilfered the pentameter. Karen Jo Shapiro joins us to talk about some of her poems. Good morning.

Ms. KAREN JO SHAPIRO (Poet): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So why don't we begin with an example of your work. You based one poem on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet "How Do I Love Thee?" And I'll read the first few lines of that.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth, and breadth, and height my soul can reach when feeling out of sight.

And you have a counter-poem, a children's version of this, if you will. The title is "How Do I Love Ketchup?"

Ms. SHAPIRO: Yes. How do I love ketchup? Let me count the ways. I tried it first on burgers and fries. That's all I did for many days, until I bought more in a larger size. I tried it on my eggs and toast, spaghetti too, sure tasted nice. I add it to all my soups and stews, on vegetables, a little spurt, a dash on fruit, and if I choose, I'll even have it on dessert.

And the picture is of the boy putting ketchup on pie and vanilla ice cream, and the kids always go, eew.

MONTAGNE: So in that poem, in that children's version, you're pretty much sticking with the form, the rhyming scheme, pretty much the original except for all the words.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Most of the time I try to follow, pretty closely, with the original but putting it into kid-friendly and fun and engaging topics for kids.

MONTAGNE: Let's take another example that's very short. It's called "Bubbles." Why don't we let listeners guess what this is, and we'll tell them at the end.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Okay, "Bubbles." Bubbles, bubbles, singles and doubles, soapy bath in fishy pond, blow some from a plastic wand. Here a moment, then they're gone.

MONTAGNE: Very short, little poem with apologies to…

Ms. SHAPIRO: William Shakespeare and that's from "Macbeth": Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. And when I do this with kids, we pretend to be blowing bubbles from a wand. I do this with the preschool - 'cause I do these poems with kids of all ages from preschool up through, like, middle school, and it could be for high school - but with the little kids, we pretend we're blowing bubbles from a wand when we do this one.

MONTAGNE: Well, how did you get this idea?

Ms. SHAPIRO: When my daughter was 3, I decided that I really wanted to get serious about writing a children's book. And I had actually studied the classics when I was an English major, and it all came together for me. I thought it would be really fun if I could take the classical poems and change them around and make them kid-friendly. So I took some poems that I remembered pretty well from my English major, like "A Red, Red Rose," which is by Robert Burns: Oh my love is like a red, red rose that's newly sprung in June. And it came to me that I could do, oh my nose is like a red, red rose that's newly burnt in June.

And so I would do it - I would sort of say the poems out loud. I would go through classical poems in my mind, and then kind of work out my own versions. And bit by bit, a couple of them would come together, and by the time I had 10 of them, I knew that it was something I really wanted to do, that I really wanted to work on it and get the whole collection.

MONTAGNE: Well, this would clearly to seem to be a lot of fun for the parents, who would know the originals that you were making a play on. But what about kids? Aside from the fun of the poems, blowing the bubbles and whatnot, if they don't know the originals, what are they getting out of them?

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, that's a great question. I always meant the books to work on two levels at the same time. And so the poems stand alone. I go in, and you know, read them to kindergartners, first graders, second graders who have never heard of William Shakespeare, and they just appreciate the funny story, you know, eating ketchup or eating macaroni and cheese, and they appreciate it at that level.

But what I wanted to give them that was extra, is that it has these beautiful meters and rhythms taken from such wonderful writers, like Edgar Allen Poe - I mean, I just love his rhythms - and Emily Dickinson. And so kids that are younger can get that out of it.

The older kids, the middle schoolers that are just starting to learn about some of these famous poets, it kind of gives them an entry way or a way to connect with poets whose language is often difficult. And so this gives them a way to see that they can connect to poems in a more familiar way.

And I also feel sometimes like, this is all so serious. You know, like, you have Emily Dickinson who wrote that - she wrote a letter to the world that never wrote to her. So I turned around and wrote about, you know, this is my letter from the world that it once wrote to me. So in some ways, I kind of wanted to make a healing experience 'cause her poem is so sad to me.

MONTAGNE: Well, in that spirit, why don't we finish up with a quite famously dark poem, Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee," and see how you've changed it into something quite in the opposite spirit.

Ms. SHAPIRO: "Macaroni and Cheese," with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe "Annabel Lee."

It was many and many a week ago that I and my sister Louise first tried out a food that you might know called macaroni and cheese. Now I was so hungry and she was so hungry, we ate it as fast as you please. When we emptied our plates, we said, boy that was great. Let's have more macaroni and cheese.

Now the moon never beams without bringing us dreams of macaroni and cheese. And the stars never rise, but you'll hear our loud cries for macaroni and cheese. And every noon we sing a bright tune for we know we'll be eating it soon. No matter how others will marvel or tease, we eat macaroni and cheese.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Karen Jo Shapiro has written two books of poetry for kids set to the rhythm of the world's most popular poems: "Because I Could Not Stop My Bike" and "I Must Go Down To The Beach Again." Thank you very much.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Absolutely. Happy poetry month.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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