When Caroline and John Kennedy Jr. (search) were growing up -- in the White House and elsewhere, afterward -- they didn't give presents on birthdays and holidays.

"Instead," Caroline Kennedy (search) tells The Post, "my mother would encourage us to pick a poem we liked or write one of our own, copy it over and maybe illustrate it.

"We complained a little bit, but looking back, John and I really enjoyed it."

One of her brother's favorites was "Careless Willie," an anonymous poem he may have loved for its brevity as well as its sentiment:

Willie with a thirst for gore

Nailed his sister to the door

Mother said with humor quaint,

"Careful, Willie, don't scratch the paint!"

"I have no doubt that it was his older sister," Kennedy says, "and she probably looked a lot like me!"

That poem and many others, which Jacqueline Kennedy lovingly "commissioned" and saved in a leather-spined scrapbook, are included in Caroline Kennedy's "A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children."

Out this week, it features watercolors by Jon J. Muth (search) and well over a hundred poems, divided into such categories as Adventure, Animals and "That's So Silly!" That last is where you'll find John's favorite from long ago, along with such lighthearted limericks as Edward Lear's "There was an Old Man of West Dumpet" ("who possessed a large nose like a trumpet").

Along with the usual suspects -- short, beautifully pointed poems from Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, the poet John F. Kennedy invited to his inauguration -- are a few surprises: Who would have guessed Sylvia Plath had written funny, Dr. Seuss-like poems about beds?

Most Beds are Beds

For sleeping or resting,

But the best Beds are much

More interesting!

Asked about her own favorites, the 47-year-old lawyer and mother of three (Rose, Tatiana and Jack Schlossberg) sighs.

"I'm so bad at that question," she says. "I have too many. But the ones that remind me of definite people are my favorites. I love the bed poem -- it reminds me of both my mother and brother ...

"I have that scrapbook of all those things we chose, and it brings back so many memories of who we were as children, trying to impress Mommy."

Here's what else she told us:

Q. What does poetry do for us that short stories and novels can't?

A. I think poetry is so emotional in a way we don't often realize -- it's just so intense and conveys emotion in very different ways. For children, exploring the world, it really has an immediacy as well as sounds, rhythm and rhyme.

Wallace Stevens said that poetry is intended to help us live our lives. I think that's a pretty good definition. People turn to poetry in times that are difficult, as well. A lot of people tell me they read poetry when they can't get to sleep.

Q. Are your own children avid readers? Do you limit their TV and video-game time?

A. (Laughs). Unsuccessfully. I have a range of avidity in my family. One child loves it more than anything -- she can watch TV but still read; another doesn't.

I think people come to it at different ages. The important thing is to expose kids when they're young and you can do read it together, especially when you can communicate the joy you take in it.

Q. What advice do you have for those who come to poetry late, parents who are stymied by the poems in The New Yorker?

A. Don't be afraid, and don't expect to understand it the first time. Give it a chance. You can start with the poems kids like, too.

Q. Can you remember the first poem you memorized?

A. Yes. It was "First Fig" [by Edna St. Vincent Millay]. I remember reciting it for my father, and I was so proud.

My candle burns at both ends;It will not last the night;But ah, my foes,and oh, my friends -- It gives a lovely light!

Some people think memorization puts too much pressure on kids, but it does stay with you forever.

Q. You were a celebrity since birth. What was it like to have your childhood -- your birthday parties, your pony -- chronicled so extensively?

A. It was my childhood - I grew up that way. Even though people have seen a lot of the pictures, I think we really managed to have a family life that was apart from all that, and it was so real to me.

I think there's so much more competition for kids' attention than ever before, which is why I hope parents will take the time to read to their kids. Most poems are short, so they don't take much time commitment ...

This is a city of books and readers, and if that could be true for the kids in our schools, that would be wonderful!