An educator who believes poetry is everywhere

Nancy Larrick - educator, co-founder of the International Reading Association , and author of ''A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading'' (Bantam, $3.95) and more than a dozen poetry collections for children - lives where the Larricks have hailed from for generations: Winchester, Va.

But to describe her, you wind up applying the sort of adjectives one attributes to the archetypal New Englander - ruggedly individualistic, practical , dignified, steady, sure.

She rarely stays with the same publisher (''an exclusive contract binds the writer, not the publisher''). She worked as an adjunct professor at Lehigh University so she'd be free to teach elsewhere, such as in Nigeria, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico, as well as at Harvard, Purdue, and other universities. And after a highly productive period in New York - where she worked as a children's book editor for Random House, completed her PhD, and helped merge two organizations that wanted her on their boards into the International Reading Association - she moved to Bucks County, Pa., ''because my husband and I liked being outdoors.''

The mission of the organization she helped start 30 years ago is still her chief impetus - to spread literacy. She chooses to do her spreading among children, reaching them through their parents, whom she sees, with increasing despair, as ''generally nonreaders. Oh, they might pick up a newspaper now and then, but they don't read,'' she declares firmly.

A tall, tailored woman with cropped white hair, Dr. Larrick sees childhood today as very different from even 10 years ago. Children ''don't play outdoors anymore,'' she says. ''They don't know games, they don't know how to initiate a conversation, they're losing their oral language. And a rich oral language is the foundation for written language,'' she emphasizes.

She backs up these statements not with sociological studies or suspicious anecdotes, but with years of traveling and talking with teachers, principals, librarians - and children.

''I took a trip last fall through part of Pennsylvania on a beautiful Saturday,'' she says, ''and you know, we didn't see a single child out playing.'' Then she quotes a former student - a principal at a Pennsylvania high school - who started a program to bring seniors into the kindergarten to ''teach those children how to play games. They didn't know how to roll a ball or how to skip. They'd never turned a cartwheel.''

Instead, she maintains, children and parents are spending their time ''in front of the television. People don't have meals together anymore - they watch TV at dinner time.''

It's not so much the television that bothers her; she's seen a positive side to children watching ''The Wizard of Oz,'' say, and then pouring into the library asking for the book. ''It's the hours they spend in front of it - what are those hours taken away from?'' she asks.

She's also concerned about the way the vacuous content of television leeches out the richness of our oral language. ''Harvard University did a study on the language level of 'Laverne and Shirley,' '' she says, ''and found that most of it was below even second grade level.

''And I met a teacher at a conference who told me that her children could come in and imitate the Fonz for hours, but they couldn't initiate a conversation on their own. No one is talking to these children,'' she says.

This is from a woman who, in her own terms, ''borrows'' children. ''I don't seek them out,'' says Dr. Larrick, a stepmother to two teen-agers when she first got married and now a stepgrandmother, ''but they do seem to find me.''

Perhaps that's because she really talks to them: ''There's a fifth grader on my street who's a good reader,'' she says matter-of-factly. ''He's a good one to talk to about books.''

Or perhaps it's because she listens to them. ''I took the poems for 'On City Streets' (Evans, $7.95) into many inner-city schools, especially in Philadelphia , and asked the kids to read them for me,'' she explains.

Dr. Larrick maintains that through television, children today have become urbanized (''they can't relate to dancing daffodils - they don't know what they are''). ''On City Streets'' resulted from her desire to collect city poems that would speak to children where they are.

What she found was a much tougher, more realistic child. ''I'd ask them why they'd rejected a particular poem, and invariably they'd answer, it was too sweet,'' she says.

She used the same criteria of toughness when collecting prayers for ''Tambourines! Tambourines to Glory!'' (Westminster, $8.95), saying that ''most collections of prayers for children are too drippy and sweet.'' Like all her compilations, this one includes poems she has picked up ''just anywhere. That one has a statement from Dag Hammarskjold I found on a Christmas card.''

She reads poetry constantly and keeps a set of files going in her home on different subjects, but says she keeps her eye open all the time for poetry.

''I found one this summer on a trip to Greece, written on the lid of a pottery jar - too late for my first collection of prayers, but maybe the next,'' she says. ''Fortunately, the label at the museum translated it - something like, 'Dear Lord, bless this house as you did the five loaves and fishes.' Isn't that wonderful?''

Poetry is both everywhere and for everyone, she says. ''I started out teaching in the Winchester schools,'' says this daughter of a Latin teacher and a lawyer in the town, ''and it was there I learned that everyone likes poetry - they say they don't, but it's not true.''

Responding to the rhythm and music of poetry comes naturally to everyone from infants on up, she believes, which is why parents should read to their children ''as soon as they're born.''

She cites a library program in Orlando, Fla., called ''Catch Them in the Cradle.'' It teaches parents how to read to their infants - an idea Dr. Larrick calls ''exciting.''

She thinks such reading should continue throughout childhood. ''I have a divorced friend who was determined to keep the family together, and she used to read aloud at dinner time to her children. She tells me that that's the thing her children remember most - it's a warm, binding time, a time you can really share with your children,'' she maintains.

So concerned had she become with the lack of reading and communicating between children and their parents, ''especially in the lower-income group,'' that when her guide went up to $3.95 (from the original 35 cents), she contacted the Dell Purse Books and wrote a shorter, quicker version called ''Encourage Your Child to Read'' for them.

''That's the kind of book you see in the supermarket racks, which usually tell you about astrology or how to lose weight. I wanted to reach the group that would spend 69 cents to learn about their children's reading,'' she explains.

Her approach - since copied by nearly every other guide writer - stemmed from a study she conducted for her dissertation on how parents help children read and what guidance they request. ''I found that they didn't want to know more about phonics or how to drill their children; they wanted some help selecting books, knowing what good ones were available.''

Children's literature today, she says with a sigh, ''certainly reflects the times. The most popular are these choose-your-own-adventure books, which are quick and offer personal choice. But there are no relationships, no building of plots, no commitment to a character,'' she says, sternly. ''You don't get to be an interesting person by reading choose-your-own-adventure books.''

You do get to be such a person by reading widely and well, she maintains. ''All the interesting people I know are people who read,'' says the reading expert, with a firm smile.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.