Monday, April 18, 2011

Poetry in the Classroom - Snakes!

After writing a thematic list for dog poetry and one for cat poetry, I was encouraged (thanks, Tanita!) to give snakes equal time. Since I could not find a single book of snake poetry out there (though there are plenty of poetry books with snake in the title), I decided to focus on books that included poems about snakes. There are many animal poetry books that include snakes among the topics. These are some of my favorites.
Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs by Douglas Florian - In 21 poems, brilliantly illustrated, Florian introduces readers to all manner of amphibians and reptiles. You'll find poems about the python, cobra, and diamondback rattlesnake. Here is my favorite of the three.
The Diamondback Rattlesnake

Fork in front,
Rattle behind.
The lump in the middle?
Don't pay any mind.

Scales up high,
Scales down low.
The lump in the middle?
You don't want to know.

Diamonds above,
Diamonds below.
The lump in the middle?
A rabbit too slow.

Poem ©Douglas Florian. All rights reserved.
Turtle in July written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney - This collection of nature poems includes poems that pair animals with the months of the year as well as four seasonal poems focused on the bullhead (a type of catfish). The pairing of the animals with the months is nicely made. For example, October is the Canada goose, January the white-tailed deer, and March the brown bear. My favorite poem is the book is for the month of September.
Timber Rattlesnake

Summer it still is
September stones
Warm bones
Warm blood
Strike I still can
Snare and swallow the harvesting mouse
                            the shuffling rat
But slant they do the sun's rays
Shorter grow the days
Soon September stones
Chill bones
Chill blood
Stiff shall I grow
And so below I'll slide
Beneath stones
Beneath soil
Coil I still can
Sleep safe
Sleep sound
Snake underground

Poem ©Marilyn Singer. All rights reserved.
Bees, Snails, & Peacock Tails, written by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Steve Jenkins - This one isn't a book of poems, but rather a poetic text that explores surprising and hidden shapes and patterns in nature. Here is an excerpts on snakes.
On diamondback snakes
and on copperhead snakes
you'll recognize diamond and triangle shapes.

The snake rubs its nose on a branch or a rock,
then takes off its skin like a knee-high sock.

Off comes the old skin and waiting below,
repeating designs appear in a row.

Text ©Betsy Franco. All rights reserved.
Creatures of Earth, Sea, and Sky , written by Georgia Heard and illustrated by Jennifer Owings Dewey - This is a collection of 17 poems about a range of animals from hummingbirds to elephants. There is one snake poem in this book.

A snake changes it clothes
only twice a year.
Beginning with its nose,
peeling down to its toes:
new clothes suddenly appear.
Wouldn't it be nice
to dress only twice
instead of each day of the year?

Poem ©Georgia Heard. All rights reserved.
Desert Voices, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall - In this collection of free verse poems, the rattlesnake, buzzard, coyote, cactus wren, jackrabbit, lizard, and other animals tell why they like living in the desert. Here's an excerpt from the rattlesnake poem.

I move so flat against
the earth
that I know all
its mysteries.

I understand
the way sun
clings to rocks
after the sun is gone.

I understand
the long cold shadows
that wrap themselves
around me
and slow my blood
and call me back
into the earth.

On the south side of
a rocky slope
where sun can warm
my hiding place,
I wait for the cold
that draws me into

Poem ©Byrd Baylor. All rights reserved.
This Big Sky, written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Steve Jenkins - The 14 poems in this collection bring the sights and sounds of the desert southwest to life. Poems about the sky, an old snake, a horned lizard, an urban raccoon, jays, coyotes, and more are included.
Old Snake

Old Snake knows.
Sometimes you feel
you just can't breath
in your own tight skin.
Old Vibora says, "Leave
those doubts and hurts
buzzing like flies in your ears.
When you feel your frowns,
like me wriggle free
from I can't, I can't.
Leave those gray words
to dry in the sand
and dare to show
your brave self,
your bright true colors.

Poem ©Pat Mora. All rights reserved.
Now that you are in a decidedly reptilian frame of mind, here are some additional resources for thinking about snakes.
  • The Highlights web site has a poetry player that includes artwork and audio for poems. They have a poem entitled S is for Snake.
  • Kidzone has a page devoted to snake activities.
  • The San Diego Zoo has an Animal Bytes page with lots of information about snakes.
  • The National Zoo has an interesting article entitled Why Ireland Has No Snakes.
  • Take a virtual tour of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo. Click on the squares to learn about animals on exhibit, and click on the question marks to learn about a topic. I was drawn in by the page entitled How to Swallow Something Bigger Than Your Head!
  • Learn about the snakes at the Saint Louis Zoo. Here you'll find pictures and basic information about each species living at the zoo.
I know I've left off Valerie Worth's book Animal Poems, Wade Zahares' book Big, Bad, and a Little Bit Scary: Poems that Bite Back, and many other good selections. Won't you share your favorite snake poetry with me?


  1. Though I suggested snake poems, except for the Emily Dickenson "zero at the bone," poem, Sylvia Plath's Snakecharmer and a random Robert Service poem, Reptiles & Roses, I don't actually KNOW any snake poems...

    I did find evidence that they exist elsewhere - there's a Donald Graves poetry book called Baseball, Snakes & Summer Squash, kind of a summertime coming of age book of poetry. I found a silly one from The Tighty Whitey Spider by Kenn Nesbitt:

    Snake Mistake

    One morning in my bedroom
    I was startled by a snake,
    so I picked him up and took him out
    and threw him in the lake.

    He returned a minute later,
    meaning, no, he didn't drown,
    so I put him on my bicycle
    and rode him out of town.

    It was hardly half an hour
    till he turned up in my room,
    so I packed him in a parcel
    and I shipped him to Khartoum.

    When I found him back again
    on the succeeding afternoon
    I went looking for a way that
    I could blast him to the moon.

    When I couldn't find a rocket
    it was then I knew that, dang,
    a snake is yours forever
    once he eats your boomerang.

    --Kenn Nesbitt

    Thanks for these - it seems children's poets write often about rattlesnakes, with the idea that they're the most familiar, but I daresay of snakes one actually sees and touches, it'd have to be the garden/garter snake!

  2. Snake poetry: who knew? The only one I know is from the Florian collection. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wonderful post! I don't know any snake poems because I don't really like the creatures.... but you have made me wonder and respect and admire them some right here! I will pass this link on to our science teacher, for one.