Matt Goodfellow: In Their Voice, About Their Life

In Their Voice, About Their Life

In my opinion, one of the most brilliant and powerful things about poetry is that it can be a vehicle for children to write ‘in their voice, about their life.’ As a former primary school teacher, I’m acutely aware how narrow the writing curriculum can be in some schools, and how much pressure teachers are under to get children writing in a certain way in order to satisfy those incalculable geniuses who set the curriculum.

Poetry can, if welcomed into the classroom, give a space where teachers and children can learn about the enormous breadth and diversity of poetry together – they can read and discuss and perform different poems from different cultures and different times and say ‘Wow, so these are all poems!’ – they can use these as starting points to have a go at shaping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences into poems which are free from the expectations of the rest of the writing curriculum.

Importantly, when exposed on a daily basis to poetry, children begin to understand that poets play with thoughts, feelings and ideas in their own unique voice – and it’s something they can also do too. As a teacher in Manchester, I was forever correcting verbal and written Mancunianisms like ‘Can I go toilet?’ or ‘I went town with Mum last weekend’ into ‘proper English’ – one day a lad in my class who was a pretty shrewd (if awkward) character to deal with stopped me dead in my tracks when he said: ‘Mr Goodfellow, how come you tell me it’s wrong to say ‘Can I go toilet?’ when my Dad says it, and my grandad says it?’ And I got it. I got the fact that the way a family speaks to each other, the way a person thinks is their cultural heritage – and poetry allows that voice to speak.

I see my job as a poet in schools to open the doorway to poetry for both teachers and children and spark discussions that will hopefully continue long after I’ve gone. I read a selection of my poems that range from silly to sad and all things in between – and try to explain to the children that I try to reflect my life when I write – and my life is silly, sad and all the things in between!

Often the most moving encounters I have are when I’ve discussed the difficulties I had in childhood living between two houses that never felt like home, shuttling between two parents who made no secret of their disdain for each other and who had moved onto new relationships with partners that didn’t seem to have time for me and my sister. In every classroom I visit, I am aware there will be children who have the same experience – who feel as lost and displaced and angry as I did – and I try to show that poetry can give a voice to those feelings.

I have been told many times that some of the poems I write that touch ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness and grief are poems which are ‘not for children’. I disagree wholeheartedly. Giving children an invitation to explore their own life in their own words is absolutely crucial.

I’ll leave you with a poem that was handed to me after I’d done a morning workshop in a school a couple of years ago – we’d looked at a model poem and talked about why poetry was different to any other kind of writing and then had a go at our own poems. After the session, the children went out to play and it was as they were on their way back in that a girl handed me a little piece of lined paper – on it was a poem that was nothing like the one we’d looked at in the classroom session – it was her poem, in her voice about her life:

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. He spent over ten years working as a primary school teacher before embarking on his poetry career. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador and spends his time visiting schools, libraries and festivals where his inspiring performances and workshops open new doors to poetry for both children and adults.

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.

Otter-Barry Books

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!

Otter-Barry Books

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.

Otter-Barry Books

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.

Otter-Barry Books

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.

Otter-Barry Books

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.

Joshua Seigal: “So How Did You Get Into Poetry, Then?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.

Michael Rosen

Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.

Niall O’Sullivan

I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.

Neal Zetter

Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.

Brian Moses

I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.

Roger Stevens

Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award.

Please visit for more info.

A Sense of a Revival, by Michael Rosen

I have a sense that the world of children’s poetry is having something of a revival at the moment. Someone with their nose closer to the details would be able to aggregate what’s going on but as someone who is himself immersed in it all, I can see that there seem to be more single collections coming out, along with more anthologies bringing together the work of several or many poets. On top of that, I see a lot of activity on social media – twitter especially – drawing attention to events, school visits and prizes. I personally know several of the young poets working with schools and bringing out new books themselves and it’s great to see that they’re making a living. The CLPE’s prize for the best poetry book of the year draws a good deal of attention to what’s coming out too.

I can’t immediately put my hand on what is the cause (or causes) for this but I would point at the ‘advocates’ of poetry for children who put in a shift on this: CLPE, the English and Media Centre, Chris and the folks here on this website, the Poetry Archive, the magazines like Carousel, Books for Keeps, English Association 4-11 and Teaching English from NATE. We can also see that several publishers are going the extra mile and working on bringing out beautifully produced books of poetry for children and young people. Another growth point is the increase in the number and variety of rhyming picture books. These provide a base in how parents, teachers and children think about poetry: that it’s accessible and engaging. It’s easy to forget that ‘The Gruffalo’ and the rest of Julia Donaldson’s hugely popular books are of course poems. Alongside this, at the other end of childhood, we’re seeing the rise of the free verse novel (Sharon Creech, Sarah Crossan) which contributes to a wider acceptance of what I might call the ‘poetry way of seeing things’.  I think also that poets themselves have got more media savvy and are using the internet more with news, videos, websites and the rest. My son and I have worked very hard on building up our web presence with regular updates on our YouTube Channel and my website. Obviously, putting poetry through these channels enables teachers, parents and children to access poetry very easily on tablets, laptops and phones.

I think there must also be a new enthusiasm amongst  younger teachers who spend an inordinate amount of time locked into a curriculum obsessed with putting children through tests that only have right/wrong answers. Besides everything else that poetry offers, it provides quick benefits in terms of children’s confidence, interest, enthusiasm and what I call a ‘bridge’ to literacy. What I mean by that is the way in which poetry – particularly in performance – offers children a way in which they can easily make a bridge between the oral and the written. Purely in terms of literacy, poetry is a bonus when it comes to reading fluently.

In saying this, I don’t want to minimise in any way what poetry can offer by way of foregrounding emotions, feelings, a sense of self, a sense of culture, a sense of the plasticity and flexibility of language. More than that too: in its own way, poetry insists on being portable philosophy, carrying a commentary on the interactions between the mind, the world and events as they unfold. Speaking personally, poetry has above all enabled me to explore memory, whether that’s been through a form of ‘naturalism’ or through hyperbole. In all these matters, poetry will insist on not wanting to be reduced to those right/wrong answers but to make its effects known through suggestion, sensation, ambiguity and a movement of feeling across words, verses or a whole poem. And let’s not forget Keats and his ‘negative capability’ – those moments where, as writers or readers, we can sit in a place of not-fully-knowing. Whether teachers put the matter like this or not, I have a sense that for many, poetry has become a great place to do things that are not like the binary world demanded by the teach-and-test regime.

In general though, things are looking good!

Welcome to the New Children’s Poetry Summit Blog!

The Children’s Poetry Summit is a network of individuals and organisations actively interested in poetry for children. It provides a regular forum for discussion, information exchange, sharing of ideas and good practice, and is a pressure group which campaigns for poetry for children and teenagers. The group meets three times a year but has a much larger reach through its mailing list. Please get in touch through our Contact page if you’d like to know more.

Members of the Summit are children’s poets, publishers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, literature and reading organisations and individuals interested in poetry for children and teenagers.

Our principal aims are to:

  • exchange information and ideas, keep up to date with what is currently happening and generally raise the profile of poetry for children and teenagers
  • create opportunities and campaign on behalf of poetry for children and teenagers  through publishing, bookselling, in schools, via librarians, teacher training colleges and literature organisations

This blog will be our public face and you can look forward to lots of articles about poetry for children and teenagers, articles about reading, libraries, inspiration and – of course – lots of poems by some of the very finest poets for children.

Watch this space for everything you’d ever need from the dazzling world of poetry for young people!

You can also follow our lively Twitter account @kidspoetsummit to keep up to date with the very latest news.

~ Chris Holifield