Thursday, April 30, 2009

Parodies of Famous Poems

In recognition of National Poetry Month, Morning Edition's Renee Montagne talked with Karen Jo Shapiro on Tuesday about her poetry books. In the story Author Makes Famous Poems Fun For Kids, Shapiro reads some of her work and talks about her poetic parodies.
I enjoyed the story and the exercise of guessing which famous poem each parody was based on. After listening I read through the comments, which were highly polarized. Here are a few examples (both in favor and against).
  • I am not just disappointed, but saddened that NPR would encourage the dumbing-down of poetry for children.
  • I think it is wonderful to introduce children to poetry in ANY form.
  • Perhaps we should lighten up a bit. So, I offer poets like Charles Ghinga, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak who write wonderful children's poems that I love!!! No need to dumb down other poems.
  • These poems were written for small children, to get them interested in a lifetime love of poetry reading. Once a child's ketchup and macaroni filled mind are entertained by the thought of reading these 'oversimplified' versions, they might actually be moved to read the classic poems that Ms. Shapiro is introducing to them.
  • After hearing Mary Jo Shapiro's poems that were "inspired" by classic poems, I plan on teaching the original poem along side Shapiro's version. I'll do anything to help a student make a connection, so that when they do encounter a classic poem (or its poet) later on in school, they will have some background information with which to make a connection.
  • I am a believer in lifting children UP to the level of the literature. We NEVER dumbed down great authors to our kids.
  • Getting kids away from the ever-present screen and into the page is the first step in getting them to be readers, and Karen Jo's book of poem "makeovers" might be a doorway into the unplugged world.
I found this whole conversation about "dumbing-down" poems both fascinating and irritating. Since when is parody dumbing-down? Frankly, to parody well you need extensive knowledge of the original work. I think kids, particularly those in middle school could really exercise some poetic muscle by writing parodies of their own. I haven't seen the books (yet), but they seem like they might make wonderful mentor texts.

During the interview when Shapiro was asked what kids would get out of these poems, she responded this way. (My apologies for the punctuation. I was typing while listening and a transcriptionist I am not!)
I always meant the books to work on two levels at the same time, and so, the poems stand alone. I go in and read them to kindergartners, first graders, second graders who have never heard of William Shakespeare and they just appreciate the funny story, 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 Allan Poe . . .

The older kids, the middle schoolers that are just starting to learn about some of these famous poets, it kind of gives them an entryway 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.
You can learn more about these titles by clicking on the images above. Teachers will find that they can download the full text of the original poems (in PDF format) that inspired the parodies for both I Must Go Down to the Beach Again and Because I Could Not Stop My Bike.

To hear a few more of these poems, listen to this podcast from LAPL (Los Angeles Public Library). For more information about the author, visit her web site.

So, what say you dear readers? How do you feel about such parodies? Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. This is a terrific post. I am amazed that people would be upset about parodies. They get kids reading and writing. How can you argue with that? I can't wait to add these books to my classroom library and can't wait to check out the links you provide. And now I'm off to tweet about it!

  2. Well, color me common and dumbed-down, because I think it's great. I would *definitely* teach the poems side-by-side, and we'd talk about how we liked one or the other better, and we'd write our own parodies, but jeepers - what a way to make poetry of The Greats accessible.

    Because I could not stop my bike, it kindly stopped for me?! I can imagine that a lot easier than I can imagine death kindly stopping for me -- but with a little practice even my fifth-grader's sense of self could rise. Children have to learn to rise, they need time and practice falling and picking themselves up to rise again. Lovingly, we give them that time. It's called childhood.

    Sheesh. Don't get me started.

  3. Hi from the publisher, Charlesbridge. Thanks so much for sharing these books. An FYI to any teachers, the original poems are available for download on our website at, if you are interested in sharing them alongside Karen Jo's parodies.