Janetta Otter-Barry: Publishing Poetry – Thoughts About Age Level

Publishing poetry – thoughts about age level…

Firstly, there are no precise age-level demarcations in poetry and there never should be! A poem works on many different levels and will light a spark for a reader in different ways, whatever their age.

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James Carter says Take a Poem, published in Zim Zam Zoom! (illustrated by Nicola Colton and categorised as 3 plus), finds many fans with Year Sixes. They love the upbeat simplicity and reassurance, with its universal message.

From Zim Zam Zoom, James Carter, illustrated by Nicola Colton

Secondly – trust the poet! Children’s poets spend huge amounts of time in schools and libraries, performing and workshopping with classes from Early Years to Year Six. They know exactly what works for different year groups. If a poet comes to us with a Key Stage 2 collection, we are generally happy to trust their judgement. And often, if we’ve queried a poem as being too young or too sophisticated, it turns out to be one of the favourites in performance!

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But there are some guidelines. A collection for young children – nursery/KS1 – will work best presented in colour as a picture book, like Zim Zam Zoom! and our new collection, Caterpillar Cake by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Krina Patel-Sage (August). The topics are everyday early childhood experiences, pets, the natural world; the poems are gentle, reassuring, fun, with a touch of adventure and fantasy. They’re perfect for reading aloud, with repetition and interaction, and the pictures are hugely important.

From Caterpillar Cake, by Matt Goodfellow

For KS1/2 we look for a rich variety of topics – family, friendships, school experiences, exploring different forms, and also feelings and emotions. Plenty that a child of around seven plus would relate to in their life, but also cross-curricular poems on historical figures, global issues,  conservation, the natural world. Not much is off-limits but we are wary of poems that seem too dark or frightening, without a positive outcome.

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In Stars with Flaming Tails, Val Bloom and I took out one poem that we felt was too bleak and dystopian, maybe more suitable for a child of 12 plus. Though we did keep in the poignant poem about a child soldier, where the language and approach speaks more gently to a primary-aged child.

From Stars With Flaming Tails by Valerie Bloom, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max

In other places the mood is lightened by funny poems, riddles and wordplay.

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James Carter’s Weird, Wild and Wonderful has exactly that rich variety of styles, moods and interest levels, and appeals to children from Year 2 to Year 6 and beyond.

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Our new KS2 collection about thoughts, worries and feelings, Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, launches ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week in May. This book captures a whole range of emotions that children of all ages experience, but is presented in a way particularly accessible to 7-11s. The characters are primary-age children, going through challenging experiences, drawing recognition and empathy from the reader. Based on personal experience in the classroom and with advice on level from a clinical psychologist, complex issues are explored.  Illustrations by Victoria Jane Wheeler plus exciting fonts and shapes also bring the poems alive, as in Snail by Laura Mucha.

From Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha

At KS3, 12 and up, the level is perhaps easier to identify. In Hey Girl!, Rachel Rooney’s new collection, illustrated by her son Milo Hartnoll and publishing in July, we ‘live’ the poems through a young teenage girl  as she battles her way towards adulthood, navigating life with that intensity of experience that occurs between twelve and sixteen.

The language is still accessible, but richly layered – just right for a teenage reader, as beautifully encapsulated by Battle Call.

From Hey Girl! by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Milo Hartnoll

So, yes, some guidance on age level helps teachers, librarians and booksellers bring books and readers together, but as James Carter says, “Poems don’t come with an age sticker, and who’s to say who they’re for?” Let’s rejoice that a poem can connect with children of all ages, and adults too.

Janetta Otter-Barry

Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award. Otter-Barry Books.

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