Chrissie Gittins: A Thoughtful Children’s Literature Festival, and a Thought

A Thoughtful Children’s Literature Festival, and a Thought

At a time when schools are struggling with budgets and ever more pressures it can be too much of a stretch to organise and pay for an author visit. A week-long festival in Oundle near Peterborough invites children to take part and engage with poets and writers.

I received an invitation to appear at the Kid Lit arm of the Oundle Festival of Literature from Helen Shair, the Festival Manager. The email informed me that coach costs would be subsidised so that children from all backgrounds and from a wide area would be able to attend.

Local schools are sent a programme of the authors on offer in good time for them to opt to attend. All the schools involved contribute towards the costs of the festival. I was pleased that Year 3 pupils from 8 schools (including 6 state schools) were expected for my morning event. In the afternoon I would perform at a second event held at a state school which could not afford the transport costs.

Helen sent out a list of my books to each school with a detailed description she had written about each one. This meant that children could decide well in advance which book they wanted to buy. It also meant that after I arrived to stay overnight with Helen, we spent some time attending to a series of cardboard boxes. The boxes were from each of the schools coming to the morning event and contained the children’s book orders. I set to and signed the ordered copies.

As I went up to bed I left Helen pondering on how to ice a coffee cake she’d made.

‘Who’s it for?’ I asked.

‘You,’ came the reply.

The excitement was palpable in the panelled Great Hall of Oundle School the next morning as the schools began to arrive. Helen has a band of volunteers who were on hand to help, and the local bookshop had set up a table at the back of the hall with additional copies of my books. The schools were allotted spaces which were drawn out with Helen’s chunky chalk. These spaces rotate year on year so that the same schools are not always at the front.

As promised in the programme we went on a tour of my poems. The audience joined in with sounds, actions, refrains and when I asked questions they contributed their own stories. When it came to the poem ‘My Dad’s More Embarrassing Than Your Dad’ the children had many suggestions for lines to contribute to a group poem. I wrote these on two adjacent flip charts. Apparently as the children left the hall some were chanting a line from the last poem I’d read. When the hall was empty and we could take a breath Helen served the coffee cake.

I read to KS2 in the afternoon school and this was just as well organised as the morning. Helen had driven to the school beforehand so that she knew just where it was. It was this forward planning and careful attention to detail which made visiting this festival such a gratifying experience. The schools in the area then enjoyed another four days of author visits.

In Scotland author visits are supported by the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature programme. They part-fund 1,200 events a year (funded by Creative Scotland) and fully fund a number of school residencies annually (privately funded). Author visits encourage reading for pleasure and inspire creative writing; they spark imaginations and encourage reluctant readers and writers; they make the link between a book and how it came into being. Perhaps if there was a similar initiative to Live Literature here in England, these valuable outcomes could be harnessed to benefit a great number of children.

Meanwhile happy reading and writing – with or without an author!

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie writes poetry for children and adults, short stories and radio drama. Of her five children’s poetry collections three were Choices for the Poetry Book Society Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, and two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Poetry Award. Her new and collected children’s poems Stars in Jars (Bloomsbury, 2014) is a Scottish Poetry Library Recommendation. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a finalist in the Manchester Children’s Literature Prize 2014. Her poems have been animated for Cbeebies TV and she appeared on BBC Countryfile with her fifth children’s poetry collection Adder, Bluebell, Lobster (Otter-Barry Books, 2016). She visits schools, libraries and festivals, she has recorded her poems for the Children’s Poetry Archive, and she is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

Chrissie Gittins’ Website.

Cheryl Moskowitz: The Wild Woods of Summer

 

The Wild Woods of Summer

 

The year speeds by
like a bullet train –
a ramjet, scramjet
supersonic aeroplane
streak in the night
bright meteorite
a shooting star
from where we started
to where we are.

And soon now soon now
very very soon
like a giant sized
tight-filled
helium balloon
big and bursting
(but lighter than air)
we’ll rise up high
and disappear.

You can search the sky
but we won’t be there;
we’ll be out of sight
we’ll be underground
we’ll be with friends
and heading on down
to the wild woods
of summer…

The poem which begins and ends this post is published in the current issue of The Caterpillar, a gorgeous magazine chock full of quality writing for children. The wild woods in this poem could be a real place, and also a metaphor for the imagination, the place where all poetry begins. I wrote it for a graduating class of yr6 pupils at Highfield where I was Poet in Residence for 3½ years, anticipating the summer along with them.

Now the May half-term is over, the month of May finished (and PM May’s term of office too), we are all, no doubt, looking ahead to our respective summers, wherever we are and whatever we may be planning to do.

Summer, with its long languorous days and warm, balmy nights. Summer, when it feels as if ‘life might be beginning all over again’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby says, ‘with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies’. Or the kind of summer which is ‘everything good to eat…’ and ‘a thousand colours in a parched landscape’ according to Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

For most children, the summer is a time for adventure, play, and time for rest. Away from the hustle and bustle of the classroom it is an opportunity to be by yourself, a time for being outdoors and enjoying a certain peace. For some, it is only when school ends and the summer holidays begin, they can feel free to be truly themselves. In summer it is not only everything around us in nature, but also the imagination that goes wild. No wonder so many great writers pay homage to this season in their poems and stories. Here are some links to three of my favourites.

Lewis Carroll – A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky
Emily Dickinson – As Imperceptibly as Grief
Eleanor Farjeon – It was Long Ago

Poems, summer poems especially, are often about place: the place we’re in, a place we long to go to, or a place we miss. ‘A person can only be born in one place’, writes Palestinian poet and author, Mahmoud Darwish. ‘However, he may die several times elsewhere.’ Darwish was referring specifically to the experience of exile, imprisonment or the way a person is estranged when their homeland is transformed by war or occupation. Childhood, with all its difficult transitions can be a kind of exile, making us feel like strangers, even to ourselves. Each new phase we enter can feel like a mini-death and rebirth. ‘Poetry,’ says Darwish, ‘is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace… with life.’

This time of year, with the pressure of exams and everything out of place with the end of term looming, encouraging pupils to read or write poetry may be low on the school or home agenda. However, for children, parents and teachers alike it might be that poetry is just the thing that is needed to establish a place for yourself and ensure a positive and productive summer.

Here are some opportunities (all FREE to enter):

1) Throughout the summer writers of all ages are invited to write poems about place, heritage and identity, and pin them to the Places of Poetry map. I’ve written some resources to get you started (KS1–KS5, plus teacher guides) available via the Poetry Society or the Places of Poetry website.

2) Betjeman Poetry Prize invites poems on the theme of ‘Place’ by 10-13 year olds.

3) Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for 11-17 year olds invites poems on any theme!

4) The Winchester Poetry Festival runs the Young Poets and Artists Competition for children living in Hampshire aged 4-16. This year they want poems about ‘Seasons’ – why not write about summer?

The days unfold
like a three-toed sloth –
a crawlback, sprawlback
laze in the undergrowth
tar-drip slow
dreams of indigo
time to chill
from the end of your bed
to the windowsill.

So forget about school
(but not completely!)
break a few rules
but do it sweetly
and this time
when that home bell goes,
kick off your shoes
and wiggle your toes,
hang up your things
put your schoolbag down
turn the corner
and head on round
to the wild woods of summer.

 

Cheryl Moskowitz

 

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet, performer, playwright and educator. She studied Developmental Psychology at Sussex University and trained in dramatherapy and psychodynamic counselling. In 1996 she co-founded LAPIDUS (The Association for the Literary Arts in Personal Development) and taught on the Creative Writing and Personal Development MA at Sussex University from 1996–2010.

She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Currently she is working with Pop Up and KSENT, a three-year project bringing authors into schools to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

She is an editor for MAGMA poetry magazine, on the organising committee for the European Psychoanalytic Film Festival (epff10) and co-hosts, together with her musician husband, Alastair Gavin, The All Saints Sessions, a bi-monthly experimental music and poetry performances.

Publications include novel, Wyoming Trail, Granta (1998), poetry for children Can it Be About Me? Frances Lincoln (2012) and poetry for adults The Girl is Smiling, Circle Time Press (2012).

Cheryl’s Website.

 

Roger Stevens: Making Books

Making Books

I know very few poets who do not want their work to be published. Poetry is not the solitary communication with the Muse that it is sometimes thought to be. We poets are driven to express ourselves. We want to tell people how we feel. We want to share our writing journey. We want to show off.

For many of us, particularly those of us who write for children, this desire to share stretches much further than seeing our work in print. We also want to work with those young readers we are trying to reach.

As I often tell teachers when I visit schools to give performances and workshops, we are not trying to teach children how to be poets. We are helping them to improve their writing skills, to write creatively, to communicate and to express themselves, and to enjoy using words.

Of course, we want to pass on a love for poetry and thus motivate young readers to write. And we often succeed, our workshops producing a plethora of poems. And then what? Maybe the children read them to the class, maybe they go straight into folders – often that is it!

But why should these young poets feel differently to we older ones? Perhaps they would like their work to be published, too; to share their poems, not just with their classmates, but with the school, their family and the wider world.

We often see lovely displays in the classroom, in the school hall, in the school entrance hall and even in the local library. But one of the best and most satisfying ways to share poems is to make a book.

So please take note all teachers, but also anyone who has, or knows, talented children who write poetry – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends. This is a great way to help these youngsters share their work.

I had a residency in a Basildon school for a few years. It consisted of one morning a week for one term with one Year 4 class. At the beginning of one term I announced we would write a book. I gave everyone in the class a free notebook, to start making notes and jotting down ideas. I explained that they didn’t have to share anything in the book if they didn’t want to. It would be private and personal to them. A couple of the children lost their books, a couple wrote nothing, but most of the children filled their books with all sorts of things, just as a ‘real’ writer would. We chose animals as a theme. And each week began working on different styles of animal poems.

Towards the end of the term we chose an editorial team, gathered together the best class illustrators, assembled a production group and lastly a sales team. We aimed to mirror the way a ‘real’ book would be made and marketed. We used the ‘old-fashioned’ cut and paste method. Poems were written on, or transferred to, computer and edited. Then printed. Then, finally, poems were cut out with scissors and assembled on the pages. Illustrators illustrated. We gave the book a title – My Name is Fire, wrote a blurb, invented a publishing house and decided to sell the books for £1 each – the money going to Comic Relief.

The whole process was brilliant fun, the children loved it. There was so much creative energy. They were thrilled with the final product, everyone had at least one poem in the book, we photocopied 100 copies (it was cheaper than printing them). We sold every copy! And the book was a permanent reminder of the fun we had and the creative skills of the class.

I was telling this to a group of children at our local children’s book shop (the Book Nook) and a girl in the audience, Evelyn, aged 9, took it to heart. She went home and wrote a book of her own poems – The Magic of Poetry (illustrated with the help of her Dad, using images from the internet). She sold the books at £1 a time and sold 350 copies for Children in Need. I’m very pleased to say that I have a copy signed by the author herself.

I also love making small books. If I have a class for a day we can go through the whole book-making process from beginning to end. We write a poem. The book is A6 size, folded in half. The text is written on a single sheet of A6 paper folded in half, making four pages. The cover is a piece of A6 card, also folded in half. We write a blurb, invent a publishing house, make a dedication, add a pretend barcode, write a biography and so on. At the end we have 30 or so tiny books, and a whole new class library.

Making home-made books is not just for children. If you’re an adult writer you can join in too! Either by using the photocopy method or splashing out and paying to have your work published by a small Press. Indeed, there’s a rich and noble history of writers, particularly poets, self-publishing their work. You must just be wary of vanity publishing – publishers who will tell you that your poem is akin to Wordsworth’s best and will offer to publish it (along with probably five hundred others) and charge you an exorbitant sum for doing so.

When I first began visiting schools as a poet, I’d had several poems published in anthologies, but I did not yet have a collection of my own work. So I self-published my own book, Never Trust a Lemon, to take into schools to share and sell. Nearly 25 years and 40 ‘real’ books later, Lemon is still one of my favourites and still sells!

Making books, especially with children, is great fun, and very rewarding for all who are involved.

Roger Stevens

Website for students and teachers: PoetryZone

Twitter: @poetryzone

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. Some of his most recent books are The Same Inside: Poems about Empathy and Friendship (Macmillan); Apes to Zebras: an A – Z of Shape Poems illustrated by Lorna Scobie (Bloomsbury), I Am a Jigsaw (Bloomsbury), and June 6th will see the publication of his anthology of poems to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing – Moonstruck! (Otter-Barry Books) When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.

 

Brian Moses: Pick a Poet

Pick a Poet

Poetry is a niche genre, those of us who make a living as poets understand that. It is often a genre that is at best marginalised, at worst neglected, in favour of fiction.

Lists of recommended good reads often fail to include poetry books, but poetry can be a life saver for children who find pages of solid text quite daunting. Just as there isn’t one method of teaching reading that fits all, there isn’t one common path for a child’s reading journey once the mechanics have been mastered.

So why not invite a poet into your school to widen the reach that poetry can have among your pupils and staff?

Children do enjoy hearing poems read well, and the best way to do that is through direct contact with the person who wrote them. If children are to learn how to read with expression and to perform plays and poetry (as the curriculum stipulates) then this is vital.

The best visit begins to happen a week or so before the poet arrives. The teachers who explore the poet’s work via the Poetry Archive, the poet’s website or videos on YouTube and those who seek out any books or poems in anthologies that they already have on the school library shelves, will build up anticipation and expectation. There will then be a buzz around school before the poet even sets foot in it.

If children know something about their visitor and his or her work, they will become much keener to be involved on the day. (I once had letters from a class of children who informed me that they had been told to write to me and that they hadn’t read any of my poems but they felt sure they were very good!)

My aim is always to make sure that if there are children who say that they don’t like poetry at the start of the day, they will have hopefully changed their minds by the end of the visit.

Quite often too, teachers feel a little scared of poetry, that there must be some kind of magic formula that they haven’t quite grasped and this makes the teaching of poetry difficult for them. Maybe they had bad experiences with poetry and the way it was taught when they were at school. A poet in school can help to dispel that fear. Besides a performance of my poetry and percussion show, I run workshops for classes or year groups.

Mostly we start by writing a poem together. I draw out ideas from the children and show them how their ideas can form the basis of a poem. We work on the poem, in the way that writers do. We modify, cross out, find better words, change lines around, knock off the odd word or syllable, restructure the poem until we are satisfied that it reads well.

Then the children write themselves and hopefully teachers will then carry on the ideas in their own lessons so that children see a poem develop from initial ideas, through composing and editing, to proof reading and final copy. Better still, if finished poems can be displayed or published in some way.

At the end of the day I offer to do a signing session in the school. This ensures that children can have immediate access to copies of my poetry books if they feel inspired to read them.

I always say to children on my visits – you too can be writers. One day you could walk into a book shop and see your name on the front cover of a book. This is my job as a poet who visits schools and I take it very seriously. We all do. So how about inviting a poet into your school?

(In the interests of fairness, other poets are available!)

Brian Moses

Brian Moses’ Website

Brian Moses’ Blog

Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published Spaced Out, (edited with James Carter), plus picture books such as Beetle in the Bathroom and Dreamer.

Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.

Brian also visits schools to run writing workshops and perform his own poetry and percussion shows. To date he has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad.

He is also founder & co-director of a national scheme for able writers administered by his booking agency Authors Abroad.

 I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze (The Very Best of Brian Moses’ Poems for Younger Children) – Troika books.

Rachel Rooney: Reflections on a Poetry Project

Reflections on a Poetry Project

Several years ago, I happened upon a TV documentary about Limpsfield Grange; a secondary residential and day school for girls with communication and interaction difficulties. My interest was piqued, both as a former SEN teacher and as a parent of someone with an Aspergers diagnosis. Alongside this, the nature of certain girls within the film caught my attention; reminding me somewhat of my former self. Long story short, I returned a year later (with my own relatively unexpected Aspergers diagnosis) to begin an Arts Council-funded autism and poetry project at their school.

There’s a growing recognition of the unique relationship that poetry and (able) autism can hold. Attention to detail, heightened interest in pattern, slantwise thinking, and a desire to communicate that which can’t readily be spoken are just some of the ways that these worlds intersect. I’d wager that a disproportionate number of poets, knowingly or not, are placed somewhere along the autistic spectrum! However, this is not to say the poetry residency itself was a breeze. It took several sessions for groups to settle and fully engage with me. Anxiety, lack of confidence, a resistance to change, and a reluctance to speak in group settings were some of the challenges they might face.

But during my time there, I witnessed definite poetic moments, both in their creative writing and, more importantly, in aspects of personal development. The anxious girl, who leaves the session, only to return in time to successfully complete her poem. The perfectionist who manages to accept that it’s really is okay not to write a satisfying poem that day. The shy student who musters the voice to read her work out, then receiving spontaneous applause from her classmates. These small acts of bravery help to build resilience and self-confidence.

Almost all poetry demands an emotion, but it also requires the control of that emotion. Therein lies its power. To illustrate, here’s a poem written by one pupil, in our last free-write session:

Nightmare

(on losing an elephant lucky charm)

Security waves and slips away
knowing it’s not yet seen.
Sorrow and grief will come around
when I wake up from my dream.

I open it up and look inside.
The empty packet gleams.
My heart begins to shatter
and there’s nothing to be seen.

They don’t quite understand it all,
small as it may seem.
My problem’s large as an elephant
and a drop becomes a stream.

A tiny thing can be so big.
Streams can lead to sea.
I’ll find my way eventually
and wake up from this dream.

That day, the student who’d written this had been very upset. A treasured miniature elephant charm she’d carried around for years had gone missing. At break time I’d noticed she was visibly distressed and I wondered how she’d manage in our workshop later. But I also knew she was a natural poet, one who valued her own creative writing process. So I wasn’t surprised when I was presented with this poem, written in the twenty-minute writing slot that our workshops allowed. Later, in her feedback form she written ‘I liked it because I could say my feelings and writing one of my poems helped me through a difficult time.’

We ended the project with a celebratory recitation from some of the pupils, accompanied by live illustrations, courtesy of Chris Riddell, who’d kindly agreed to donate his time and talent to the day. One the many highlights of the fifteen months there was watching that young poet reading out in a strong clear voice, to a large, appreciative audience. That, for me, is the essence of poetry.

I’m in the process of collating some of their poems to be published in an illustrated booklet Welcome to My World, soon to be available from Limpsfield Grange School. I am also working on a collection of poems in response to my experience there.

Rachel Rooney.com

RacheI Rooney’s poetry collection The Language of Cat, latest edition illustrated by Ellie Jenkins, won the CLPE Poetry Award and was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Her second collection My Life as a Goldfish, Illustrated by Ellie Jenkins, was shortlisted for the CLiPPA 2015. Her new book, A Kid in My Class, illustrated by Chris Riddell and published by Otter-Barry Books, has been shortlisted for the CLiPPA 2019. Rachel visits schools for workshops with pupils and has performed her work at festivals and for The Children’s Bookshow. She was Chair of Judges for the CLiPPA 2017 and the Betjeman Poetry Prize.

Laura Mucha: Blank Pieces of Paper

Blank Pieces of Paper

Day one of a painting course at the Slade and my tutor asked, “Where’s your source material?” I didn’t have any. She made me leave the class and go and collect images that would help me visualise and think about what I was trying to create.

That moment has influenced the way I approach all creative work, including poetry. Working from ‘source material’ (whether artwork, music or even other poetry) often helps me generate ideas, break out of using predictable language, come up with original images and experience emotions that I can hopefully channel into a poem.

One example is a poem I wrote called ‘The Land of Blue’. I remember sitting in front of a painting at The National Gallery and wondering why there was a blue valley between two very green hills. It really didn’t fit with the rest of the painting and it was all I could think about.

Staring at this valley, I found myself, quite unintentionally, writing about sadness – imagining The Land of Blue as a place we go to when we feel low.

Looking back, it’s not surprising – I’d had cardiac arrest the week before and was being tossed about by a gigantic emotional tsunami. But if you’d simply asked me to sit down and write a poem about what I was feeling, I suspect the paper in front of me would have remained blank.

Instead, focusing on something else brought it out in a much more organic, safe and manageable way.

Here’s an excerpt:

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue.

It’s far and near, it’s strange yet known –
and in this land, you’ll feel alone,
you might feel tears roll down your cheek,
you might feel wobbly, weary, weak.

I know this won’t sound fun to you –
it’s not – this is The Land of Blue.

It’s blue – and when you leave, you’ll see
the crackly branches of the tree,
the golden skies, the purring cat,
the piercing eyes, the feathered hat
and all the other things that come
when you escape from feeling glum.

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue
and going there will help you know
how others feel when they feel low.

Poems provide me with a safe and structured place to explore and process things that are a bit harder to be honest and open about in real life (like sadness, fear and anger) – and I think it’s the same for younger people too.

One strategy for those working with young writers might be to play emotive music or provide examples of artwork (by students or well-known artists) and ask them to write down words, questions, images or phrases that come to mind, focusing on feelings, thoughts, shapes, colour, texture and sounds. These notes could then be collated (either individually or as a group), and then revisited and edited at a later point.

If collating words as a group, students could be asked to use at least some of the words others had come up with, as this would get them using terms and phrases that didn’t come to them quite as readily.

Poetry provides a sanctuary in which to process difficult emotions and experiences –something that’s essential for good mental health. And I find that the best way to approach writing poems is not to sit in front of an intimidatingly blank piece of paper, but to come at it sideways, by exploring the creative work of others.

lauramucha.com
@lauramucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, in 2016 she won the Caterpillar Poetry Prize, and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets displayed on the Dublin overground. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out next year, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) the year after.

Laura also writes for adults. Her debut book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury), was featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour as well as being Sydney Morning Herald’s Pick of the Week.