Poetry for Young People: Rudyard Kipling, edited by Eileen Gillooly, illustrated by Jim Sharpe (Sterling, 1998)

I don’t see great children’s books losing their charm as I age, and nor do I think the delights of great literature are lost on the young. This week I have read a book called Mister Pip which is about children in a small village in Bougainville who are entranced by hearing Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations read to them. Having never ventured more than a few miles from where they were born, they can’t possibly picture what nineteenth-century London, or even English marshes, are like. Nor do they understand much of the language they hear. Nonetheless they are completed engrossed by it.

Rudyard KiplingContinuing along in my series on picture books, let me introduce you to my favourite series: Poetry for Young People. The series takes the poetry of great writers, such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Browning, and makes it accessible to children. The meaning of each poem is made clear with a short introduction and a glossary of words that might be new, and the accompanying artworks shows the mood and imagery of the poem. (Given the amount of text to a page, some may consider this a fairly generous use of the term ‘picture book’.)

At this stage in my life I can’t really justify spending too much money on picture books, but I was unable to keep myself from acquiring the collection of animal poems (which includes works by Blake, Yeats, Wordsworth, Keats, Hilaire Belloc and others) and this volume on Rudyard Kipling.

The selection is weighted towards poems written for children, such as those from Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but also includes a few of his more well-known poems about war and imperialism, life in the army and the Orient, which I feel are no less suited to young ears. Kipling wrote with such strong rhythm that even if some words are lost on the young, the tone never is.

Also, his poems are full of the most fascinating people and places. He brings us songs of Viking sailors, British soldiers and, of course, jungle beasts, all beautifully captured in the paintings in this book.

Kipling was a man of strong political beliefs, which is reflected in the didacticism of his poetry. The qualities of humility, responsibility and compassion, as well as British nationalism, are core to his writing. And the introduction to the volume, as well as the brief notes introducing each poem, give insight into the social issues he was seeking to address in particular poems. It’s great to have kids (or grown-ups) reading this book thinking about the history the lies behind texts and wondering how it might have been different if written today.