Blog – Mary Harwell Sayler

As the New Year begins, expand your options and improve your writing and publishing success with these tips and helps.

Source: Blog – Mary Harwell Sayler


Tips for writing poems kids read

If you like to write poetry and like to keep company with children, you might enjoy writing poems for kids. These tips will help:

Get to know children of all ages well.

Find out what encourages, worries, or speaks to kids from preschool through teen years. Being around your unique readers will help you to know how to write for a particular age group, but you can also research their most likely areas of interests and typical stages of child development. For example, most children are interested in animals and nature, but often fear spiders! Fortunately, facts and fun can help to overcome those fears.

Questions for a Spider

Spider, Spider,
eight-legged glider,
how do you spin those threads?
You don’t have a needle
to wheedle a beetle,
so what do you use instead?

Spider, Spider,
how does your sticky web spin?
Can you duck from the guck
without getting stuck?
How do you get out and in?

by Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Poem included in Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books.

Read poems published for children.

Include Mother Goose nursery rhymes and other classics but focus primarily on contemporary poems written with kids in mind.

Keep each line in line with the age of your readers.

The younger the child, the simpler a poem needs to be. For instance, young children love a regular rhythm or bouncy beat. Since they’re learning words themselves, toddlers and preschoolers like the sounds of words such as those sound echoes they can easily hear in rhyme and alliteration.

Turn up the volume.

By repeating the first sound of a word within a line, the resulting alliteration will enliven the sound and tempo of your poem. For example, “Big, bright beads of rain wet down the window.” If you carry sounds to extreme, alliteration creates kid-friendly tongue twisters such as “Suzy sells seashells by the seashore.” (Guess Suz didn’t live in FL where shells can be found for free 🙂

Use strong nouns and active verbs for your rhyming pairs.

The nouns you choose can quickly sketch a picture of a person, place, or thing for the child to envision. The active verbs will then move those noun-pictures along. For instance, a rhyme of “bird/ stirred” brings to mind all sorts of possibilities you can play with as you create sense with sounds. However, word pairs such as “of/ above” and “in/ when” do not provide a clear sound, a clear picture, nor a clear meaning for anything.

Develop a sense of play.

Good-natured humor appeals to all ages of readers, but the catch comes in knowing what a preschooler, kindergartner, elementary school child, junior high kid, or older teen will find amusing, especially since that can change from one age level to the next or one mood to the next! For instance, a child needs to be able to read to enjoy the wordplays and line breaks in this poem:

All Broken Up!

Hey! What’s going on tonight?
My fingernail broke.
A bird broke into flight,
and, oh! The mirror broke!
Will it be all right?
Then someone breaks
the silence.

I went to bed closing
my eyes to these sights –
hoping and praying the breaks
might not last,
then morning broke
into dawn-light,
and I happily hopped down to break-

by Mary Harwell Sayler. This poem originally appeared in the Kindle e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun published in 2012 and then in the book of nature poems for children, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published in 2014 by Kelsay Books

Repeat well-chosen phrases for a lively refrain.

Purposeful repetition will help children to join in the fun, get playfully involved in your poem, and remember information. Similar to the refrain of a song, a poem’s refrain can be the same from one verse to the next. Or, vary a word or two each time to develop your theme fully and keep readers interested.

Read each poem aloud.

Tap out the beat. If the rhythm gets too regular, the poem will sound like a nursery rhyme. That’s perfect if you write for nursery school children but not for older kids, teens, or young adults, who might be more apt to like free verse freed of regular rhyme, rhythm, and other patterns.

Read aloud each version and revision of a poem.

Does anything seem “off” in the sound, sense, or rhythm? If so, keep playing with words, sound echoes, or line breaks until you find what works for the poem.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. For help with your poems, get professional feedback in a poetry critique or writing consult for your children’s poems, poetry book, chapbook, or children’s picture book for a reasonable fee. You’ll find more info on the Contact & Critique page of Mary’s website.

Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, paperback


Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun, Kindle e-book


Writing a ballad

From ethnic histories to hymn lyrics to words in a country music song, the ballad has been a favorite for centuries and continues to provide a vehicle for contemporary story-telling and narrative poems.

To discuss this highly popular literary form, I’ll post the entry from my Kindle e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun. [Note: The capitalized words in the text below let you know you’ll find A to Z entries on those subjects too.]

ballad [Rhymes with salad.] Some of our oldest English poems were written in this FORM. Often ballads told the history of a person, place, or event. To help people remember, the poem might include RHYME. Sometimes one or more lines were repeated in a REFRAIN. The ballad also had a strong BEAT. Some became lyrics to a song or HYMN. As people sang a ballad, another poet might add a verse. Then the next poet might change words in a REVISION. Usually, early ballads had unknown or ANONYMOUS writers. Later poets began new ballads but kept the same form. As you read aloud the following, listen for the beat on each line. Keep count of each strong beat by clapping your hands or tapping your foot.

Where The Pelican Builds
by Mary Hannay Foott (1846-1918)

The horses were ready, the rails were down,
But the riders lingered still—
One had a parting word to say,
And one had his pipe to fill.

Then they mounted, one with a granted prayer,
And one with a grief unguessed.
“We are going,” they said as they rode away,
“Where the pelican builds her nest!”

They had told us of pastures wide and green,
To be sought past the sunset’s glow;
Of rifts in the ranges by opal lit;
And gold beneath the river’s flow.

And thirst and hunger were banished words
When they spoke of that unknown West;
No drought they dreaded, no flood they feared,
Where the pelican builds her nest!

The creek at the ford was but fetlock deep
When we watched them crossing there;
The rains have replenished it thrice since then,
And thrice has the rock lain bare.

But the waters of Hope have flowed and fled,
And never from blue hill’s breast
Come back—by the sun and the sands devoured—
Where the pelican builds her nest.

Like most ballads, this one repeats a LINE, “Where the pelican builds her nest.” That refrain adds to the poem’s RHYTHM. The ballad also follows the typical pattern of 4/ 3/ 4/ 3. That means each verse has four beats in the first and third lines. Then three beats go on lines two and four. Here’s another way to show a common ballad pattern:

Line 1 = 4 beats
Line 2 = 3 beats
Line 3 = 4 beats
Line 4 = 3 beats

Some ballads have four beats in every line. That’s TETRAMETER. Three beats make a line of TRIMETER. What difference does it make? Maybe none! However, the more you know about poetic terms or TECHNIQUE, the more choices you have when you REVISE.

To write a ballad, start with research. Ask a parent, teacher, librarian, or elderly neighbor about interesting people or events in your town. Or ask someone to tell you a lively story about your ancestors. Write that story in a poem with rhymes and a strong beat.

To hear and feel the typical beat of a ballad, read the above poem again. Then write to that rhythm. Read your FIRST DRAFT aloud. Check the beat by clapping your hands four times for each four-beat line and three times for a three-beat line. If a line loses its beat, change your WORD CHOICES or rearrange words as you revise.

©2013, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Please do not use without permission, but please do order the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun from the Kindle store on Amazon. Teachers in your local schools might want to know about the book too. Thanks!


Syllabic Verse counts on syllables

Accentual verse poetry, which we discussed last time, counts on your counting the accents in each line, whereas syllabic verse relies on an account of every syllable.

Either means of measuring off each line in a poem will add rhythm to your work, but if you put those two together, you’ll have the accentual syllabic verse that measures most of the traditional verse forms written in English.

Many, many, many poets get hung up here, which leaves only free verse in the toolbox, but none of this needs to be hard! To show you what I mean, here’s the “syllabic verse” entry from my Kindle e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun, which “big people” poets just might enjoy too.

[Note: Capitalized words indicate other entries in the book.]

syllabic verse [Pronounced suh-LAB-ick.] For this type of poem, count the number of syllables you place on each LINE.

Some poets use a FORM with a particular number of syllables. For example, HAIKU has a count of 5, 7, 5 syllables on three lines. A CINQUAIN has 2, 4, 6, 8, 2 syllables on five lines.

Follow those patterns. Or design your own.

Your syllabic verse can have any number of syllables you choose. And, that number can change from line to line or stay the same.

As you keep count, the words may break, but that can add a WORDPLAY. For example, these lines have been broken as the title says:

Learning To Leave Well Enough
Alone In Five Syllables Or Less

by Mary Harwell Sayler

In the edited
edition of a
collection of me-
mories, syllables
start to pile up like
unread magazines
with missing labels
and dog-eared corners
and advertisements
of worthless products
of the I-magi-
nation with full words
yielding an index
of painstakingly
catalogued topics
that no one wants to
investigate to
find who wins the cash-
ew crumbs wedged in the
inside cover of
this otherwise closed

© 2012-2013, Mary Sayler, all rights reserved.


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