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A New Spin on Classic Poems

If science isn't up your kid's alley maybe a little verse will spark their imagination. The Chicago-based Poetry Foundation is trying to create new generations of poetry lovers by making great poems accessible to children. Starting this month, the Foundation is teaming up with HBO Family, a cable channel, to present animated versions of poems by writers ranging from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. Contributor Judy Valente has more.

SCHATZ: Our thinking has always been that kids can respond with very deep understanding to the best and most sophisticated of poems, whether they be poems about love or loss or longing or the meaning of life.

That's Amy Schatz, the mother of two young boys and a poetry lover. Schatz also happens to be the producer and director of the HBO Family channel's Classical Baby programs. The series uses clever animations to introduce children to masterpieces of classical music, painting and dance. And now, Shatz has created a Classical Baby poetry show.

SCHATZ: In ‘How Do I Love Thee?' Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beautiful sonnet which is read by Gwyneth Paltrow // The way we set it up is we had a mother and child bunny at bedtime sitting on a rocking chair. There is the sound of crickets at night. The stars are shining. The moon is out. And the baby bunny is asking the Mommy …

Child on poetry DVD asking: “How do you love me?”

PALTROW: “Hmm, that's a tricky one // ‘How do I love thee? Le me count the ways/ I love you to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach  // I love thee to the level of every day's most quiet need, by sun and candlelight //I love thee with the breath, smiles and tears of all my life/ And if God chooses, I shall love thee better after death  …'”

VALENTE: Children seem to have a natural affinity for poetry. But as they grow up, that changes, says The Poetry Foundation's Stephen Young.

YOUNG: I think towards the end of elementary school and middle school, poetry is often dropped from the curriculum, and if it's not, it's often made harder than it needs to be. // It becomes a puzzle and a mystery that is primarily experienced on the page. One of the things this HBO show does is remind us poetry is pleasure.”

VALENTE: Schatz and The Poetry Foundation selected poems that would not necessarily make it into children's books of verse. Works like Gertrude Stein's befuddling poem “A Very Valentine,” read by the poet herself.

From the DVD, sound of typing, then Stein's voice reading:

“Very fine is my valentine
very fine and very mine …”

SCHATZ: One of the things we were thinking about is that it would be really wonderful to see a poet at work, typing, working. The animator originally came up with the idea of an ostrich typing and it didn't exactly fit with the quality of Gertrude Stein's voice. It occurred to the animator that a ladybug hard at work in her dark studio typing out this poem, this valentine, would be the perfect solution.

Stein reading:
“Very fine is my valentine, and mine
Very fine and very mine
And mine is my valentine.”

VALENTE: The half- hour program does include some well-known childrens's poems, like Edward Lear's “The Owl & The Pussycat,” given a spirited reading by the actor John Lithgow.

Lithgow reading:
“The owl looked up to the stars above
And sang to a small guitar,
Lovely pussy, oh pussy my love,
What a beautiful pussy you are, you are!”

VALENTE: Equally engaging are the segments in which children themselves talk about their experience of poetry.

SCHATZ: This little boy was seven and he came to the interview with a bag full of his favorite poems. One of the wonderful moments in the interview is when he read a William Carlos Williams poem to us, “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

“So much depends on a red wheelbarrow
Glazed with rain water
Beside the white chickens.”

BOY: Do you hear it? It has a rhythm. It's sort of da dum, da dum dum da.

VALENTE: How have kids reacted to the program? Five-year-old Zelda Morris who attended the Chicago unveiling of the program, was inspired to recite her own favorite poem at the event.

ZELDA MORRIS: I liked it because I didn't know you could put animation and poetry together. It made me feel pretty good, actually.

VALENTE: Zelda's father, Ian Morris, says parents are a child's most important teachers when it comes to poetry.

IAN MORRIS: I do think we have some responsibility to pass these traditions down from one generation to another, especially when so much of the culture that's moving away from print to other noisier forms of entertainment. I would hope everyone would at least in some way feel it's something they should have time for, to pick a poem or couple of poems that's their favorites and show them to their children.

VALENTE: Stephen Young of the Poetry Foundation calls poetry “the pathway to literacy” for children. For her part, Amy Schatz says she hopes The Poetry Show will simply remind children – and their parents – of the power of poetry to challenge and delight.

John Lithgow reading ending of “The Owl & The Pussycat:”
“And hand in hand
At the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon, the moon
They danced by the light of the moon.”

Classical Baby (I'm Grown Up Now: The Poetry Show) airs on HBO Family, and it's available on DVD.

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