Monday, 1 October 2012

Scary Halloween Poems for Kids - Trick or Treat

Most poets who write for children receive direct feedback from their audience during public readings, school visits or (much more rarely) at book signings. They discover which poems are popular, which are understood and which are 'too diffucult' or ignored for other reasons. As an online publisher children's poetry, I receive feedback via email which I assume represents the extremes of opinion - from gushingly over-enthusiastic to I don't think your poems are funny at all. It may seem paradoxical, but I find the critical emails more encouraging and a great deal more useful than the ones offering praise.

Judging how to pitch poems at the right level for children, or deciding which poems are suitable for which age group, is a tricky business. It's certainly easy to write poems which are too clever or complex for the children you assumed they would suit, as I discovered at early stage when an 11 year old Australian schoolgirl asked for an unpublished shape poem to use in a school project. A sent her a choice between The Ghost of Christmas Past twisted shape poem and a riddle shape poem (both at that time works in progress). She replied that she'd chosen the Christmas shape poem, as she didn't understand the riddle one at all. I'd held off publishing the riddle shape poem as I'd though it ridiculously easy for children above the age of 5 or 6.

The saving grace in all this is that the overwhelming majority of the children's poems I publish are funny, so there's no real harm if a young reader considers a poem entirely humourless, either because it goes over their head or it doesn't tickle their particular funny bone. I am very sensitive to accusations that poems are too rude for the intended age group of reader and do adjust or withdraw poems if necessary. However,  I'm conscious that most kids are much broader minded than their parents or teachers give them credit for, so complaints from kids are given more weight than those from adults. Indeed, the kids versions of some of my poems are more obviously rude and a great deal more popular that the adult version, as I found when I published a kids version of Tickled Pink, retitled as The Christmas Fairy.

The inclusion of the word bum can make a poem both hilarious and dangerous for primary school children!

Halloween presents problems all of its own. For the first few years of the website's existence, I restricted our Halloween offerings to a handful of Paul Curtis's funny Halloween poems for kids. These poems may have presented Trick or Treat as an abomination and so appealed more to adults than children, but the great thing with funny poems is you can't make them too funny. (The idea that a poem can be pant-wettingly funny is fine in theory, but it's much more likely to afflict women in late middle age with stress incontinence than children.)
You can most definitely write poems which are too scary.

Indeed, when we decided to venture into the world of scary Halloween poems for children, I did so with some trepidation and proceeded with extreme caution.

My first mistake was to state, rather blithely, that no poem could be as scary as something seen on TV, film or in real life. In reality, things that are conjured up in the imagination can be a good deal more frightening than those that are seen on screen or in real life and linger much longer. However, children enjoy being frightened, so long as they retain some control over the experience. Indeed, it is one of the vital learning experiences which prepares children for the dangers and horrors of the real world.

My second mistake was to choose The Tale of Long Tom Mouse, as my litmus test poem for Max's Halloween poems. Rather than tell children that a group of poems are only suitable for children aged 8, or 10, or 12, I prefer to get them to read a test piece and then decide whether they want to proceed. For the rude Christmas poems we have a snowman joke - What is the difference between a snow man and a snow woman? snow balls - to separate the sheep from the goats. The problem with choosing a haunting mouse poem to fulfil the same roles is that many children (and indeed adults) are inherently scared of mice, so it's unclear whether the subject, or the poem, or some combination of the two, might make the poem too scary for children. The poems that follow it are objectively more gruesome, but are populated by imaginary creatures and have a nonsensical unreality which distance them from the young reader.

So without wishing to appear cavalier or uncaring, I'll continue to add increasingly gruesome Halloween poems until the kids that make up the readership, or just possibly their parents or teachers, scream at me to stop.

Have a read for yourself and let me know what you think:
And here's an example of what might be to come, a Halloween poem by Paul Curtis which I've held back for the children's site for the time being:
It Happens On The Night Of Halloween
It happens on the night
Of Halloween
When the spirits of creatures
Can pass between
And some spooky spooks
Might well be seen.
Some ghouls are good
And others are mean
Some ghosts have substance
And visibly preen
While others glow
Luminescently green
But watch out for witches
That arrive on the scene
For in the blink of an eye
They’ll whip out your spleen
My own view is that if you are old enough to know what a spleen is, you're probably mature enough not to be frightened by the poem. But if you don't...