Lorraine Mariner: Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

As I write this the Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is in full flow and the Royal Festival Hall is bursting at the seams with children and their grown-ups. The Imagine Festival takes place annually during February half-term and for the last five years we have been holding a Day of Poetry in the National Poetry Library for ages 0-11. We like to think of it as a Poetry Festival within the bigger festival.

This year our day of poetry was devoted to eco poetry. The idea for the day was sparked by Poems from a Green and Blue Planet edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, a wide-ranging and majestic nature anthology published last autumn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole day of eco poetry at this time of climate emergency, when so many children, inspired by Greta Thunberg, are taking a stand?

Our day of poetry began at 10.30am with Rug Rhymes for under-5s and Ed Boxall joined us for this Eco Edition. He shared a picture book he has recently illustrated, Dragons’ Wood (Troika, 2019), of a poem by Brian Moses. We all took a walk through the wood with our dog catching glimpses of dragons. At 11.30am we had a workshop run by the UK’s Green Poet Martin Kiszko. Martin has worked with Sir David Attenborough composing music for nature documentaries such as BBC’s ‘Wildlife on One’ and has published two collections of green poetry for children illustrated by Nick Park (of Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit fame). Our workshop was aimed at ages 6-10 and Martin got the children writing in different forms; an animal kenning and a clerihew about an environmental issue.

Ed and Martin were back with us for our 1.30pm reading, aimed at ages 5-7, along with poet Carole Bromley, for Poems Go Green! Ed had realised that sticks feature quite a lot in his poems and his gentle, contemplative poems got us looking closely at nature. Carole took us to Australia, a country she recently visited, and which the children were aware had been tackling catastrophic bushfires. One of her poems reminded us to care for the less loveable animals and insects along with the cute koalas. Martin finished this set with his exuberant, rhyming word play, celebrating, amongst other environmentally friendly energy options, poo power.

Our final event of the day was a 3pm reading for ages 8-11, Poems from a Green and Blue Planet, where poet and editor Sabrina Mahfouz shared poems from the anthology along with contributing poet Liz Brownlee. The UK had just been battered on two consecutive weekends by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, so the reading began with a selection of stormy poems. Sabrina also got the children thinking of words to describe a storm and we combined these with objects. I think my favourite was “clattering candle”. Highlights of some of the classic and newly commissioned poems that Sabrina and Liz shared were Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Peace and Pancakes’, Hollie McNish’s ‘Anything!’ and Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘How to Cut a Pomegranate’ (with pomegranate prop!).

At 4pm it was over. It was a hectic day but all of our events sold out, poets sold and signed books, and I left work feeling less eco-anxious and hope the children that attended felt the same. We’d asked the poets for green tips and Martin advised that you should love the planet in the same way as you would your parents, brothers and sisters or pets. Nature poetry is a great way to foster this love and we have some wonderful collections and anthologies in the National Poetry Library that we recommend – please click here to see our list on the National Poetry Library Catalogue.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014).

Dawn Finch: Poetry for Children – a School Librarian’s Perspective.

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

I have worked with primary school age children for a very long time. I ran a primary school library for over a decade, and all in all have worked with books for primary age children for over thirty years. I am often asked what books I feel are most popular with children of that age, and the answer came from the shelf in my library that was always the messiest. The shelf that was most heavily used (and gave me the most tidying up duties) was the poetry shelf. I had to move the poetry section closer to my desk because it was so busy I decided it was easier to help children if they were right at my desk. In every primary school I’ve worked the situation was the same – kids love poetry. Small children have not yet learned to feel awkward or embarrassed about their love of it, and so they embrace poetry. They read it, write it, share it and love it.

If that’s the case, why can’t we see it on the shelves of more bookshops?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All of my experience tells me that children love poetry and yet buying it is still so hard. We have some superb poets for children in the UK and every day I see details of new and exciting poetry books. This blog is a collective of the most amazing writers, and yet I know that when I walk into a bookshop I’m going to struggle to find most of their books.

If we think the situation is bad for poetry for children, watch that thin line grow ever thinner and vanish as we look at poetry for adults. This is hardly surprising – if you deny a child access to something it’s no wonder that they don’t seek it out as an adult.

Poetry often feels like it isn’t for everyone. I grew up a working class kid in a pretty rough school and past primary age we didn’t really “do” poetry. That was for the posh kids, not for us grubby little estate oiks. Those of us who liked poetry knew it was sensible to keep that to ourselves. This is still how some kids are growing up. Children and young people are still feeling that poetry is not for them and the lack of it on the shelves of bookshops perpetuates that myth.

To experience the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, it has to be just that – a pleasure. If libraries and bookshops fail to stock poetry then that limited choice means that children will never know if it is for them, and that means they will grow up to become adults who feel the same. They will grow to feel that poetry is only for the educated elite and not for us regular folk.

But poetry is for us, and it can be for all of us. I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me, right up to the moment I won first prize in the Brian Nisbet Poetry Award in 2019. Until that moment I was writing poetry in secret because of the feeling that poetry was not for me. Feelings that had stuck with me right from secondary school over forty years ago.

Poetry brings a moment, an experience, an emotion, a place in time all condensed into a delicious capsule. For a small child a great poem can be an epiphany and a gem-like moment of pure understanding. It can be a rolling laugh tangled up in a few short lines, or it can be a sweeping escape in an epic form.

All children deserve that. In fact, so do all grown-ups!

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian. She is a Trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and has recently become the Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG). Her website is here. Twitter: @dawnafinch

Lorraine Mariner: “Burrow in, Borrow on” – Working with Children at the National Poetry Library

“Burrow in, borrow on” – working with children at the National Poetry Library

The children’s collection of the National Poetry Library was founded in 1988 when the children’s literature magazine Signal, which ran an annual poetry book prize, kindly donated their collection. We now collect all new children’s poetry books published in the UK, with a selection from overseas (mainly US), and a selection of rhyming story and picture books. Our young adult collection is also growing at quite a pace thanks to the explosion of verse novels in recent years.

One of our ambitions at the NPL is to create lifelong poetry readers. The Royal Festival Hall is a popular place for new parents to meet with their babies so we started Rug Rhymes (Friday 10.30am in term time) for under-5s and their carers. As well as traditional nursery rhymes and children’s songs we try to slip in some stellar poetry: poems like ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ by e.e. cummings and ‘Give Yourself a Hug’ by Grace Nichols have been big hits! The session is the perfect opportunity for the library to highlight our free children’s membership which allows four books to be borrowed for up to four weeks.

Next up are workshops that schools can book for class visits, all based around work books the library has developed in collaboration with poets and artists. These range from Poetry Explorers for primary schools, where children learn about using a library and also spend time reading and listening to poetry; and Letters Home (our most beautiful booklet, created with Henningham Family Press) which is suitable for primary and secondary schools and introduces the children to experimental First World War poetry.

For secondary schools we also have Poetry Box, a science and poetry activity developed with poet Mario Petrucci where children use science and space exploration to create poems, and Dictionary Story, based on a visual poetry book by artist Sam Winston, which is well-suited for A’ Level students studying art and design. Secondary schools are also welcome to bring small groups to the library for a tour and teacher led activity – these are proving popular currently during the lull between exams and the end of the school year. During the summer holidays teachers looking for new ideas for the classroom may want to check out our section of books aimed at supporting the teaching of poetry.

And the library isn’t just for school visits. February half-term sees our annual Day of Children’s Poetry as part of Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival. This year we held a poem illustration workshop with children’s poet and illustrator Ed Boxall, had a puppy poems reading with Brian Moses, Roger Stevens and, also, Victoria Adukwei Bulley reading from Thinker : My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield. Later in the day we welcomed poets Simon Mole, Karl Nova and Rachel Rooney for a reading for ages 8-11. We’ll be making plans soon to try and top this for next February’s Imagine Festival.

An unexpected personal outcome of working with children at the National Poetry Library is that I’ve started to write children’s poems. Sometimes I would write a poem for the Rug Rhymes session and this led to my colleague Pascal O’Loughlin and I setting ourselves the challenge of writing a new children’s poem each month for a year. It extended into two years and I’ve recently published my first children’s poem in Dragons of the Prime, an anthology of dinosaur poems from The Emma Press, and had a poem shortlisted in the YorkMix Children’s Poetry Competition. The National Poetry Library’s children’s collection is not just a wonderful resource for children and families – “Burrow in, borrow on” says regular visitor John Hegley – but can be an inspiration to aspiring children’s poets too.

The National Poetry Library is on level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall. More information about visiting and joining the National Poetry Library can be found here, National Poetry Library.

Follow this link to find out more about booking one of our schools workshops.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014).