Poetry for youth: A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (1981)

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (1981)

(Lexile: Not available ATOS: 2.0; Grade level equivalent: 3.2; see New Research on Text Complexity for more information)

Buckeye Children’s Book Award (Ohio): Grades 6 – 8

Garden State Children’s Book Award (New Jersey): Children’s Nonfiction

William Allen White Children’s Book Award ( Kansas): General Category

When I was a little girl, my Mom read poems to me and my siblings.  She had committed many to memory, delighting us with a perfectly timed poem inserted to grab our attention.  I still have many of those poems at the ready for the times I need to delight a messy group of little ones.  I haven’t met a small child who doesn’t love a well executed poem.

I’ve found that poetry isn’t much of a touchy subject for young children.  Most cherish the rhythmic meter and rhyme of a poem, lending itself to memorization.  It is not uncommon to come across small children joyously repeating a favorite poem as they busy themselves with play, much like the young adult habit of singing a favorite song.  Poems, especially those intended for small children, are often short and evocative, and meant to be read over and over; something every child is hard-wired to demand.  But around the age of 11, when reading resistance begins to take hold over many children’s reading experience, poetry seems to be the first format to go – at least traditional poetry.  By the early teen years, the acceptance and enjoyment for poetry gets replaced with lyrics to popular songs played on the (digital) radio.

In my experience, around the 4th and 5th grade when students have become more independent readers, gravitating toward chapter books with complex story lines and well developed characters (think Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.), collections of poetry begin to gather dust on bookshelves.  But there is one exception:  Silly poems are still a favorite.

Shel Silverstein is a master of the silly poem, complimenting his well crafted words with pen-and-ink images that spring off the page in giggles.

The Sitter

“The Sitter” from A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (1981)


Mrs. McTwitter the baby-sitter,

I think she’s a little bit crazy,

She thinks a baby-sitter’s supposed

To sit upon the baby.


Silverstein’s mastery is in his ability to play with words and ideas, drawing attention to the absurdity of the mundane, and reframing the reader’s perspective to include a deeper or broader meaning of words and ideas.


I can’t afford a skateboard.  I can’t afford an outboard.  I can’t afford a surfboard.  All I can afford is a board.

"Bored" from A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (1981)

“Bored” from A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (1981)

Silverstein’s acumen for soberly addressing topics of human experience with an air of fun and frivolity makes his poetry appealing to children, teens, and adults.  Silverstein’s poetry appeals to the human spirit, which is why his poetry can be taught to a broad age range and to varying depths.

A Light in the Attic is filled with examples of well executed literary devices, like alliteration, consonance & assonance, malapropisms, oxymorons, and hyperbole.  While the vocabulary is not particularly complex (though rich in sight words), Silverstein’s clever use of words, and his knack for drawing from the audience’s background knowledge of common experiences, creates layers of meaning in his poems.  Additionally, the format of the book, with text off-set by wide open spaces and guiding pen-and-ink drawings, invites the reader to linger on each page contemplating the deeper meaning of Silverstein’s rhymes.  These are not just thinking poems, but they are also feeling poems connecting to our sense of self and place in this big world.

Bringing Poetry into the Classroom

April is National Poetry Month, if you were looking for an excuse to bring poetry into focus in your classroom.  Take a look at poetry.org for some ideas for lesson plans or on celebrating National Poetry Month with your students.

One of my favorite activities for emergent readers is “Poem in my Pocket.”  After introducing poetry to your class, exploring different authors, styles, lengths, and tone, have students spend some time reading poetry on their own, with a partner, or at home with parents.  The objective is to select a favorite poem that, on a selected day, the student will carry with them “in their pocket” to share with friends, teachers, or anyone they encounter in their daily routine.  This allows for iterative practice reading, and also gives the student opportunity to (think about and) converse about the meaning of the poem and why they like it.  It might also prove to be an opportunity to memorize a favorite poem, providing a lifetime of entertainment.

AASL: 4.1.1 Read for pleasure; 4.1.8 Use creative formats to express personal learning; 4.3.1 participate in social exchange of ideas; 4.4.1 Identify own areas of interest

CCSS: CC.3.SL.1.d Comprehension & Collaboration: Explain own ideas and understanding in light of discussion; CC. K(1,2,3).L.4 Vocabulary acquisition & use: Determine meaning in unknown words or phrases based on reading context; CC.1.R.L.1 Key ideas and details: Ask and answer questions about key details in text

For late elementary, you might try the Walt Whitman, Poet and Keen Observer lesson plan, or a variation on the same theme incorporating visual literacy skills and finding deeper meaning in a selected poem related to a visual cue (photograph, painting, drawing).  For a large array of photographs and artwork, try exploring The Commons on Flickr, the Library of Congress, or Found on National Geographic (a Tumblr.com blog).

AASL: 2.1.1 Apply critical thinking skills to information to construct new understanding, draw conclusions, and create new knowledge; 1.1.7 Make sense of information from diverse sources; 1.1.9 Collaborate with others to broaden or deepen understanding; 1.3.4 Contribute to the exchange of ideas within the learning community

CCSS: CC.4(5).SL.1.c Comprehension and collaboration: Pose and respond to questions, and contribute to discussion; CC.4(5).SL.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions; CC.1.R.I.4 Craft and structure: Ask and answer questions to clarify meaning of words and phrases in text


American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/CrosswalkEnglishStandardAll1-4.pdf

Literary-Devices. (2010). Literary devices. Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://literary-devices.com/

Poets, A. of A. (2014, May ). Walt Whitman, poet and keen observer. Retrieved March 10, 2016, from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/lesson/walt-whitman-poet-and-keen-observer

Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf

Silverstein, S. (1981). A light in the attic. New York, N.Y: Harper & Row.

Supplemental information for Appendix A of the common core state standards for English language arts and literacy: New research on text complexity. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/E0813_Appendix_A_New_Research_on_Text_Complexity.pdf



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