25 Tanka for Children (and Educators)

Edited and with an Introduction by M. Kei
Tanka, waka, and kyoka are five line poetic forms originally from Japan. Composed and published in English since 1899, most work has been by and for adults. Yet tanka, with its short form and concrete imagery, is well-suited to children’s literature. Tanka can be used for pedagogic purposes even as they entertain or discuss serious subjects. Tanka is already used in elementary education in the United States and Canada and has been since the 1950s.

A brief history of tanka in education starts in 1957 when an American educator by the name of Lucille Nixon (CA) won the Imperial Poetry Contest and was honored along with other winners at a reception hosted by the Emperor and Empress of Japan. She introduced tanka to the California curriculum, and it has been used by other school districts in the United States and Canada. Tanka appeared in Ink Spots, the 1969 Tabor City (NC) High School anthology, and continues to appear in various K-12 collections of student work. The first college-level course focussing on North American tanka was taught in 1983 by Dr. Wesley Dunn (AR).

In spite of the pedagogic use of tanka over the last several decades, no body of tanka expressly for children written and edited by well-respected poets and editors in the field has been available. Some teachers have composed their own tanka for use in class (as if a teacher has time to compose original poems as well as grading papers, preparing lesson plans, and all the other obligations of their profession), while others have borrowed or adapted (often without proper adherence to copyright law) from other sources, most of which are intended for an adult readership.

Although some lesson plans and resources for K-12 educators are available online, even those offered by respected cultural organizations are incomplete and even inaccurate. While we are unable to offer complete lesson plans with benchmarks, the notes following the poetry provide commentary and suggestions to help teachers utilize them in their lessons. Should any teacher prepare a set of lessons plans making use of our material, we would be interested in seeing them.

Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka has a generous educational use notice [https://atlaspoetica.org/?page_id=16] intended to facilitate the use of the journal and its supplemental materials in the classroom and is making this Special Feature of ‘Tanka for Children’ expressly available for the use of educators as well as the enjoyment of a general audience. All the poets have indicated their understanding and agreement of the intended not-for-profit educational use of the material by educators, so educators and schools may freely use the material in their classrooms.

Note that all rights are reserved and works may not be reprinted outside the use granted by our Educational Notice or provided for by copyright law. All poets retain their copyright, including the right to reprint their poems elsewhere, provided proper credit is given to first publication here. Our material may not be reprinted on other websites (feel free to link to us), published in textbooks or anthologies, or otherwise used without the express permission of the copyright holders.

1) Alexis Rotella

A photo
of Mom’s
moon belly –
hey, that’s me

2) André Surridge

one frog
two frogs, three frogs
croak, croak, croak
three dead frogs

3) Anne Curran

falling asleep
while apples
Daddy’s footsteps on the stones
scrunch plop scrunch plop plop

4) Bob Lucky

an alligator
ate Aunt Annie’s apples—
angry Aunt Annie
ate an alligator

5) Carmella Braniger

leaf-cutter ants
in my storybook
i pull out
the magnifying glass
for a closer look

6) Chen-ou Liu

fly like geese
never gaze back
at your homeland
but carry it
in your heart

7) Claire Everett

it is hard to listen—
can you hear the stars
hanging on to every word
the moon has to say?

8) Diane Mayr

late to class
my new sneakers squeak
on the wooden floor
the p. e. teacher looks up
. . . nowhere to hide

9) Elizabeth Bodien

I miss all my friends
from the school before this one
I must start over
like these trees, Grandma says
making new leaves each year

10) Gabriel Rosenstock

I will sing a song
for my pet octopus, Pete.
He likes all my songs.
Now, what will I sing today?
He loves songs about the sea.

11) Genie Nakano

I don’t like my Dad’s
new girlfriend
my sister feels the same way
we don’t tell mom
this is our secret

12) Gerry Jacobson

as I was
walking up the hill
I met
a kangaroo . . .
who waggled ears at me

13) Jacob Kobina Ayiah Mensah

On a rocking horse
I am
Thousand five hundred miles
From left to right.

14) James Tipton

I wave wildly
to the honking geese—
a neighbor
I never met
waves wildly back.

Previously appeared in Modern English Tanka, 3:4, Summer, 2009.

15) Joyce S. Greene

zebras in a cage
don’t need to change their stripes
they are all the rage!
even when let out on bail
they’re dressed just right for jail

16) Kath Abela Wilson

train boat plane
I’m planning
our next vacation
colored chalk
on the sidewalk

17) Margarita Engle

at a festival
of glassblowers
and dragons
appear in midair

18) Mary Beth Hatem

I make monsters
into meatballs
I eat them
with sauce, cheese
and toasted bread

19) Mel Goldberg

I read
the books
about scary spaces
by flashlight
under the covers

20) Patricia Prime

who’s that
tapping at my window
with sharp claws?
No! It’s not a bogeyman
only the cat with scary eyes

21) Peggy Heinrich

climbing the hill
on the way home from school
I spot four deer grazing
I hold very still
and pretend I’m in Africa

22) Rodney Williams

trees on their sides
after storms through the forest
some roots still holding—
still hoping dear daddy
you’ll come back some day

23) Peter Newton

my pumpkin’s
when I carve
a pirate’s patch
over its good eye

24) Richard Stevenson

now you see them;
now you don’t:
heads’ juggled pineapples
popping above the fence

25) Vasile Moldovan

suddenly a mole
comes to light;
her body appears just like
a big question mark

For Educators

Most elementary teachers know only that tanka is thirty-one syllables in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. While tanka is so in Japan, the differences between the Japanese and English languages mean that syllable counting was abandoned a long time ago in English with pertinent criticism being made as early as the 1920s. Teachers who wish to introduce students to the exciting world of contemporary tanka should know how much more it has to offer far beyond an exercise in counting syllables.

The fundamental structure of tanka is that it is composed of five poetic phrases. A poetic phrase may be a grammatical phrase, a fragment, a single word, a sentence, or even a punctuation mark or other device. The five parts are conventionally rendered on five lines in English, although that is not always the case. (Tanka in Japanese is written on one line, or with whatever divisions are suitable for the calligraphy.) Thinking in small units (the poetic phrase) that build up together to form a larger unit (the poem), helps students by breaking down the poem into its constituent parts, parts that are determined by logic, meaning, context, rhythm, and format, not by some arbitrary numbering of syllables.

Mere syllable-counting frequently results in enjambment, and although enjambment is a legitimate technique, most examples in novice work come from breaking a poetic phrase in the middle instead of dividing a poem according to meaning and prosody. Emphasis in tanka teaching should be on the five poetic parts that build into a larger whole. This dovetails with the need to teach students structure, organization, and the use of supporting details in the creation of a written work.

Tanka are usually strongly imagistic poems. This lends itself well to the concrete and imaginative thinking of children, as well as supporting writing skills such as use of detail and example. In addition, the bias in contemporary tanka is for autobiography, so encouraging children to use their own experiences as source material also promotes self-expression and demystifies the poetry writing process.

Since students work best with rubrics and framework, teaching them the SLSLL pattern is a useful starting point. Tanka in Japanese are built on a pattern of short-long-short-long-long lines. The same form is common in English, although much looser forms are also used. Generally speaking ‘block’ forms in which all the lines are the same length are avoided; asymmetry is considered desirable. The goal is for fluid, natural diction that avoids unnatural grammar. Vernacular language is preferred, artificially ‘poetic’ diction should be avoided. Grammar is flexible in tanka, but should conform to the goals of clarity and melody. Grammar should not be violated merely to achieve a particular syllable count or line length; lines breaks should (usually) follow natural grammatical pauses. End stops and initial capitals are optional and omitted by most (but not) all major tanka poets.

Poetry for children takes many forms, from pure entertainment to coping with more serious subjects. In the case of the former, word play, silliness, and other elements enhance the entertainment value, while in the latter imagery and emotion can address deeper issues. Nowadays students are often taught that poetry is nothing more than self-expression, but although self-expression is important, in order for it to become literature, skill must be involved. The deliberate and artful use of literary techniques create and enhance the poem’s emotional impact, but studied poesy should be avoided.

The poems chosen represent a variety of approaches to tanka poetry. Notes below provide relevant information to help a teacher in composing lesson plans or using the poems in a classroom setting.

1) Children are fascinated by babies, and also interested in themselves, which can help them understand metaphor as a representation of reality. The ‘moon belly’ is not really a moon, but describes the shape of a very pregnant woman’s belly, and leads to the realization of why and who.

2) ‘Croak, croak, croak’ is an example of zeugma—a word changes meaning depending whether it is paired with the lines above or below, and that in turn forms a bridge in which the two parts of the poem alter and enhance each other. Can also be used in connection with environmental science: why did the frogs die?

3) ‘Visual’ poetry depends on the use of formatting to create a desired effect; in this case, the word ‘plop’ is spread out on multiple lines in imitation of the apples falling from the tree. It is also an example of how the needs of the poem can alter the format, even though the five poetic phrases are still present.

4) An excellent example of alliteration in which all the words begin with the letter ‘a,’ it’s also a good example of SLSLL. The humor and rhythm is especially strong, inviting comparison with limericks, which also contain absurd imagery and a strong sense of rhythm. A humorous tanka in which word play is a strong element is called a ‘kyoka’ in Japan. Many of the poems in this selection are kyoka.

5) A ‘sketch from life’ is like a photograph. An apparently objective image, it invites the reader to imagine himself in a similar situation and starts a train of thoughts based on associations. The tanka also presents a case of ‘controlled ambiguity,’ in which we cannot be certain if the leaf-cutter ants are actual insects crawling in the book, or if they are images on the page.

6) A ‘simile’ likens a wild goose to an immigrant child, but applies equally well to a child displaced by moving to a new school, being taken into foster care, or other life-changing situations. It promotes understanding of those different from the reader by prompting memories of what it felt like to be a stranger in a new place.

7) The tanka begins with a problem common to many children: how to listen, but shifts through an imaginative transition to personify the night sky and provide a lyric and celestial restatement of the central problem. An open-ended question, it cannot be answered with a yes or no but requires the reader to contemplate the question and image to achieve their own interpretation.

8) The strong sound of this poem, the squeaky shoes on the gym floor, give humor to a common situation: a child late for class.

9) This poem in 5-7-5-6-6 syllables is close to the stereotypical 5-7-5-7-7, but slightly shorter. This is a good example of how it is more important to write a good poem than to try and force the material to exactly match a given format.

10) A perfect 5-7-5-7-7, it harnesses the sing-song quality inherent in the form to create a child’s song. The sing-song rhythm that can develop in a strictly syllable-counted English poem is one reason why it is considered unsuitable for adult poetry by some poets.

11) A relatively direct tanka, the speaker describes a situation experienced by many children. Although it appears ‘artless’ the poem is structured in three parts: the first two lines, the third line, and the last two lines forming smaller units that makes up the larger poem. In addition, the first two lines form two poetic phrases that make a single unit of meaning, and so do the last two lines. The organization of the substructures within the poem contributes to its success as a poem; ordinary speech does not normally divide itself into such well-organized and symmetrical units of meaning and prosody.

12) A ‘sketch from life’ with an absurd twist. It appears to be a factual report of some happening, yet the involvement of the kangaroo requires us to question whether it is real. For a resident of Australia it could very easily be an ordinary experience, but for the child who has only seen a kangaroo in a zoo or book, it is absurd. Another example of controlled ambiguity, it requires the reader to step outside of his own assumptions in order to interpret the poem.

13) The use of the British spelling ‘travelling’ and non-standard syntax clues us in that this poet is not from North America, which invites a cross-cultural comparison. The rocking horse provides a touchstone of familiarity, suggesting that this child is not so different from the student. However, once it is revealed the poet lives in Ghana, does the interpretation change? Perhaps the Ghanaian child in the poem is ‘travelling’ in their imagination as they try to picture what American children are like.

14) A case of mistaken communication forms the humor in this poem, as well as making wry commentary on the lack of connection among neighbors.

15) Japanese poetry does not use rhyme, but the use of rhyme with a close (but not exact) adherence to the thirty-one syllable form creates a poem very similar to a limerick: a rollicking, playful poem whose rhythm matches its humorous subject matter. This can lead to a discussion of how prosody relates to subject, and in older students, may lead to a discussion about how tanka and limericks are similar and different. (In Japan, humorous tanka are called ‘kyoka’ and serve a similar role as limericks.)

16) Kath Abela Wilson’s poem omits all punctuation, yet is perfectly coherent. Asking the children to punctuate the poem and then discussing whether and how the punctuation matters can help children appreciate the purpose of punctuation (clarity of meaning) as opposed to simple rote memorization of punctuation rules. The teacher may also want to rewrite the poem on a single line as a sentence in order to discuss differences between prose and poetry.

17) Not a metaphor nor magic; asking the children to deduce what is actually happening can translate poetry into reality. Young children may not know what a ‘glassblower’ is, so using the clues within the poem can help teach the children how to use context to discover meaning, both the literal meaning of the word and the literary meaning of the poem.

18) Monsters are a favorite with elementary school children; not to mention, they often have fears of various sorts. The poem suggests a coping mechanism as well as presenting an amusing image. The narrator of the poem has changed something scary into something silly, and thereby helped herself get over her fear.

19) Some children like scary stories, as the author of this poem apparently does. Asking the children to deduce the state of mind and motivation of the narrator can help them practice drawing inferences, as well as providing a valuable contrast with the previous poem. Since the authors are male and female, it may also be useful to discuss whether boys and girls are inherently brave or scared, and whether it’s okay to be afraid.

20) This poem presents yet another approach to dealing with fear, a rational approach in which investigation yields facts which are not frightening at all. The use of these three poems to discuss fear breaks down the notion of either/or and promotes the understanding that there are multiple valid ways to experience and cope with challenges.

21) Games of make believe are popular with children. Asking why the narrator chooses to pretend to be in Africa and why she’s holding still promote skill at drawing inferences and understanding why others do what they do. This poem works on two levels: first, the children must be able to deduce where the narrator is in reality (where do deer live? how is that different or the same as where they live?); and second, once the narrator’s reality is established, why does she choose to imagine herself in Africa instead of engaging with her own reality, and why does she choose Africa instead of some other place?

22) In this poem the devastation wrought by a storm is a symbol for the emotional devastation suffered by a child whose father has gone away, and can be used to explain what ‘symbols’ are. Divorce and separation being common in modern life, many children may have suffered this experience, so discussion may cover how writing poetry or journaling can be a constructive coping mechanism for problems.

23) An example of personification. This poem can be used as a springboard to discussion of reality versus fantasy (can a pumpkin really be surprised?) as well as the use of personification as a literary device, depending on the age of the students.

24) In this poem the five line convention of tanka is playfully violated with the ‘o’ of trampoline on a line by itself above the body of the poem. Why did the poet do that? How does the unusual format of the poem match the meaning of the poem? How do the images in the poem work with the meaning and format?

25) In this poem a mole’s body appears like a question mark, what does that tell us about the mole? Using the context of the poem, what do we imagine the mole is thinking? Why? How does the poet’s choice of description elucidate the meaning of the poem? The poet is Romanian. Does it matter if we know his nationality? Can we draw any conclusions about what Romania might be like from this poem?


Tanka: a short lyric poem originally from Japan, composed of five poetic phrases, typically written on five lines in English. In Japanese they follow a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. Because of significant differences between the Japanese and English languages, tanka poets writing in English do not usually count syllables.

Example: In English, the word ‘stretch’ is one syllable, but in Japanese, it is five syllables: s-t-re-t-ch. This is because Japanese actually counts morae (sound units), not syllables. Note that Japanese counts sound units differently than English, too.

Kyoka: a humorous tanka, making use of word play, parody, whimsy, irony, absurdity, etc. Like limericks in English, often feature scatological, satirical, or other ‘low brow’ forms of humor.

Several of the poets come from other countries and/or have names that might be unusual to the children:

Alexis Rotella lives in the United States.
André Surridge lives in New Zealand.
Bob Lucky lives in Ethiopia.
Genie Nakano lives in the United States. She is Japanese-American.
Jacob Kobina Ayiah Mensah lives in Ghana.
Chen-ou Liu lives in Canada. He emigrated from Taiwan.
Claire Everett lives in England.
James Tipton lives in Mexico.
Kath Abela Wilson lives in the United States. Her mother is Maltese.
Margarita Engle lives in the United States. She is Cuban-American.
Patricia Prime lives in New Zealand.
Rodney Williams lives in Australia.
Mel Goldberg lives in Mexico.
Richard Stevenson lives in Canada.
Vasile Moldovan lives in Romania.

Links to Additional Resources:

Tanka Online [http://tankaonline.com/]
Tanka Society of America [http://tankasocietyofamerica.com/]
Tanka Canada [http://members.shaw.ca/uzawa/TankaCanada.htm]
Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society [http://tankasociety.com/]

© 2011