Book List: Just Right Poetry for Middle-Graders

It’s National Poetry Month!  What better way to celebrate than to explore some of the great poetry books available for readers ages 8-12?  As you read poetry this month or anytime, remember that poets tune in to the sounds of feeling and the feelings of sound. Please READ  POEMS ALOUD to fully enjoy them.

Here are some appealing collections by single poets:

Marilyn Singer in Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems, ingeniously turns familiar fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella upside down in poems that you can  read forward and backward for opposite meanings! Her other books in reverso form are Follow Follow (featuring more tales like The Little Mermaid and The Tortoise and the Hare) and Echo Echo, based on Greek myths. All three are illustrated by Josee Masee.

Patrick Lewis’s Everything is a Poem: The Best of J. Patrick Lewis, Illustrated by Maria Cristina Pritelli, earns its title. It includes a range of poems written our third Children’s Poet Laureate. Subjects include animals, people, reading, sports (some of the best baseball poems I’ve read–take that, Casey at the Bat!), riddles, and funny epitaphs.

In Animal Poems, Valerie Worth captures the uniqueness of animals ranging from bear to porcupine to mole to jellyfish in brief but rich free-verse word pictures.  Stunning paper-cut animal illustrations by Steve Jenkins accompany the poems.

Joyce Sidman is our premier nature poet for children.  Her extraordinary books explore the natural world with vivid poems in various forms, based on solid science. Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors depicts animals that have adapted around the world and are definitely not endangered. See also her other titles , including her Caldecott Honor Winner Song of the Water Boatman and Winter Bees 

A good way to discover new poems and poets you love is to browse through anthologies with a variety of poets and poems. 
In Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, Kwame Alexander, Chris Coldly and Mary Wentworth have written poems in homage  to great poets past and present who have inspired them., reflecting their styles and ideas.  The subjects include  Maya Angelou, Basho, e.e.cummings, Emily Dickinson, Walter Dean Myers, Pablo Neruda , Mary Olver, Rumi, and even Chief Dan George.  A joyful book with bold illustrations by Ekua Holmes.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye is also a superb anthologist with a special interest in poems from less familiar voices.  See The Space Between our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East, and This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the WorldShe also compiled a collection of poems written by her students in poetry-in-the-schools classes over the years: Salting the Ocean: 100 poems by Young Poets. 

More and more novels in verse are appearing, most of them for at adult readers.
A wonderful exception is Kwame Alexander’s be-bop and free verse Newbery Award winner The Crossover. Here’s what Publisher’s Weeklyhad to say in its review of the book: “The poems dodge and weave with the speed of a point guard driving for the basket, mixing basketball action with vocabulary-themed poems, newspaper clippings, and Josh’s sincere first-person accounts that swing from moments of swagger-worth triumph to profound pain.” A page turner, even if you’re not especially a sports fan.  See also the other books in his Crossover series: Booked and Rebound.

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate is a spare, quieter free-verse novel published in 2007 that still resonates in the present moment. This touching story of a young Sudanese war refugee trying to find his way in America is told through his own eyes and voice.

Middle Graders love humor.  Here are some books that take pitch-perfect aim at the middle-grade funny bone.

I’m loving Chris Harris’s I’m Just no Good at Rhyming and other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grownups.  Of course he is good at rhyming, but kids will find the title poem hilarious.

Caleb Brown is also a humor treasure, especially his Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems about Just about Everything.  See also The Ghostly Carousel: Delightfully Frightful Poems.  He has a new book coming out in June, Up Verses Down: Poems, Paintings, and Serious Nonsense.

Douglas Florian is  best known for his slightly younger books of clever word-play and paintings.  But he has two big books of humor: Poem Depot, Aisles of Smiles and Laugh-eteria. He has also collaborated with  J. Patrick Lewis in the wildly clever Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems.

Younger middle-grade fans of Shel Silverstein are in for a treat with his posthumously published book of spoonerisms  Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook.

What about middle-graders who would not only like to read poetry but to write their own?  Of course the best way to learn to write is to read and write and write some more.  But the following books may give young writers some encouragement and inspiration:

Kathi Appelt, Poems from Homeroom : A Writer’s Place to Start

Ralph FletcherPoetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out and Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You.

Paul B. Janeczko, A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.



Readers, the hardest part about compiling this list was choosing from all the possibilities!  Please use the comments to add poetry titles you think or know from experience middle-graders would love.  Then let’s all get to our bookshelves, independent bookstore, or local library and celebrate National Poetry Month!

Sue Cowing
Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu. She is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel YOU WILL CALL ME DROG (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).
  1. I absolutely love this list! I added so many to my Amazon cart.

    I recently read the Last Fifth Grade Of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan. This book had so many different kinds of poems and then at the end a resource to use the poems in class. I would recommend this to your list.