April 2, 2020
Finding a market for poetry can be tough. It's not that children don't enjoy poetry. In fact, many young children love verse. The even meter and the rhyme make it an appealing form because the structure helps make verse easier to remember and easier to predict. Also, poetry often employs kid-pleasing elements like onomatopoeia, concrete imagery, and strong word choices.
So if children love poetry, why is it hard to find markets for it? Well, unfortunately, book length poetry collections tend to undersell other formats (so do short story anthologies, so poetry isn't all alone). There are some publishers who publish one very particular type of poetry anthologies: nonfiction poetry, but even those are found far less often than prose nonfiction. Nonfiction poetry collections usually cover one specific science topic such as weather or animal homes or dinosaurs and include nonfiction verse that fall very precisely in the theme. So a nonfiction collection on weather wouldn't include a silly poem about talking raindrops who are afraid to fall because that wouldn't be nonfiction or scientific, even if it might loosely be considered a weather poem.
Obviously, the poetry collection news is probably not the cheeriest for poets. But there is one area of publishing that does use poetry on a regular basis: children's magazines. Though poetry is only a small part of magazines like Highlights, Cobblestone, Humpty Dumpty, and Ladybug, it is a part. As a result, magazines continue to be the most open area of publishing for poetry. Also, being published in magazines only increases your value as a poet when the time comes to try to pitch a poetry collection to book publishers. Because magazines are so valuable to poets, it’s a good idea to pay attention to certain commonalities for most magazine poetry.
1. Magazine poetry for children is usually verse. This means the poem has an even, repeated meter and rhyme scheme. It is simply not enough for the poetry to rhyme. Meter is important too. In fact, it is easier to sell a non-rhyming poem with perfect meter than to sell a rhyming poem without perfect meter. So if you do not understand meter and how it works, now is the time to learn.
2. Magazine poetry for children has concrete imagery. One of the first poems I ever sold was published in Ladybug magazine and featured a simple metaphor that compared dandelions dotting a lawn with buttons on a vest. The poem wasn't about deep emotion or heart-rending family death. It was simply about the way dandelions on a lawn look like buttons. Likewise, in an issue from a Highlights magazine in the spring of last year, a poem in verse, "Little Sister's Drawing" by Cynthia Jenson-Elliott is an extended description of a drawing. The description is clear and concrete and describes how the sister drew the head, hair, legs, etc.
3. Magazine poetry for children often has a surprise ending or punchline. "The Little Sister's Drawing" is a good example of this as well. The description of the sister's drawing isn't entirely complimentary, and the poem opines that the person in the drawing looks sick. In the end, we get the surprise, that the subject of the poem is the poem's narrator. Children love surprise endings (especially when they are funny) so this both makes the poem feel complete and offers a very kid-friendly element.
4. Magazine poetry for children often has an action element. Like concrete imagery, children love action. Even the poem about a drawing included action since the drawing was of the brother dancing. Another poem I sold, this time to Highlights High Five, again focused on dandelions. This time the poem was about picking dandelions and then giving them away. Because the poem had several steps of action, Highlights High Five chose to publish it with an illustration of a maze showing the narrator of the poem delivering her flowers to the various recipients.
Poetry that is very action oriented often falls under the heading of action rhymes or finger play where specific actions are tied to elements of the poem. The poem actually invites the reader to perform the action along with the poem, making the whole experience more interactive. For example, a poem about hibernation might include actions like pretending to look and look for a safe place to sleep, curling up for a long winter's nap, waking up with a yawn and a stretch, and finally going out to look at spring. Action rhymes usually contain fairly simple actions and often illustrate simple science or math concepts offering two values in one.
5. Magazine poetry for children is short. It is not uncommon to find limits on poetry length. Poetry for babies and toddlers, such as used by Highlights Hello or Babybug may be only a couple sentences. Poetry for older children can be longer, but not by as much as you might expect. Cricket, for example, limits poetry to 35 lines and Highlights looks for even less, topping out at 16 lines.
6. Popular types. Magazines are often pleased to receive poetry that does certain things: is funny, shares a new experience, ties to seasonally specific activities, or ties to nonfiction such as science or math. The trickiest of these is probably poetry that ties to seasonally specific activities, as it can be difficult to know what taboos the magazine might have (Highlights, for example, doesn't buy Santa poetry or scary poetry) or what topics may be overdone. Back to school, for instance, can be counted upon to appear every fall, but magazines look for a back to school poem that is unlike the others they've run. So a back-to-school poem can be a tough sell simply because it's hard to come up with something really novel, but because magazines do use seasonal poetry often, if you can come up with something fresh and new to say, your poem can be snapped up for that seasonal spot.
Magazines continue to be the break-in market for many (if not most) children's poets and being aware of the specific needs of magazine poetry should help you get a leg up in submissions. Learning to write short, lively verse is definitely the way to break into these markets. So polish your meter skills and see what you can create to wow an editor with your style. Good luck with it and be sure to let us know when you make a sale.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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