Kate Wilson: Packing Meaning Into a Small Space

I am lucky.

At so many times in my career, I have been able to… um, let’s call it what it sometimes feels as if it is, indulge my love of children’s poetry.

I wasn’t brought up in a particularly bookish household, but on my seventh birthday, I received a book that was, for me, transformative. It was The Book Of A Thousand poems – small, thick, densely packed with poetry, much of which I can still recite by heart. I still have my copy of the book, the top of it forested with little triangles of faded pink torn paper that I used, at some point, to mark my favourites. These were fairly traditional poems. I was responding, of course, to experiences of rhythm and rhyme and sometimes other language patterns – assonance, alliteration, repetition – building on the bedrock of English-language nursery rhymes that should be the bedrock of every English speaking child, which is not, of course, to discount the richness of children’s rhymes in other languages from Akan to Zulu. But I was also responding to the way that poetry packed meaning into a small space, to be mentally and emotionally unfolded, not just at the moment of reading, but later, on reflection as I rolled remembered words around in my brain.

I went on to study English at university, and emerged with a determination to “get into publishing”, without, really, knowing what that meant other than that I wanted to work with books.

Spectacularly, I got a job at Faber, and so had not only the joy of sharing a lift with Seamus Heaney, but also selling – mine was a sales role –  The Rattle Bag, poetry by Water De La Mere and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Some of the children’s poetry I encountered there was new to me, some was deliciously familiar.

After a while, I found myself as the children’s publisher at Macmillan, publishing, and, once, meeting Charles Causley. Up until that point, I am ashamed to say now, my experience of poetry had been, well, silent. It happened in my head. I read poems. I didn’t read them aloud. But at Macmillan I had the experience of publishing poets who worked in schools: worked with audiences of children – Valerie Bloom, Paul Cookson, Ian Macmillan and Pie Corbett among others. It was an honour to watch children’s responding to poetry read out loud. These were words, I realised belatedly, not just to roll around in your brain, but words to roll around in your ears, roll around on your tongue.

It made me think about picture books, which so often demand to be read out loud too: theatre for an audience of one or two. Macmillan already had on its list Bringing The Rain To Kapiti Plain, a rhyming picture book classic. But I published Valerie Bloom’s funny, sunlit rhyming picture book about counting, Fruits, further brightened by Valerie’s use of Jamaican patois. And I published The Gruffalo. At the time, to publish rhyming picture book texts was risky: the received wisdom was that the challenge of translation made it hard for them to achieve the kind of international sales that make the high cost of publishing books in colour financially viable. But The Gruffalo was a hit internationally, and has opened the door to a panoply of picture books that tell stories saturated with rhythm and rhyme.

Inspired by The Book of A Thousand Poems, though, I kept faith with the idea of the pick ‘n’ mix delights of the anthology. The first, rather glorious, National Year of Reading ran from 1994 to 1995, and, thinking of ways to support it, I came up with Read Me: A Poem a Day for the National Year of Reading, now still published as Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year. It was the best idea I’d had in the bath for a long time.

Still later, here at Nosy Crow, we’re publishing both rhyming picture books – by, among others Caryl Hart, Tracey Corderoy and Lou Peacock – and poetry anthologies. I am interested in sort of combining the two: bringing the richness of picture book illustration to poetry. Our first, hugely ambitious shot at this is I Am The Seed That Grew the Tree: a Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year, published a year ago. It’s a big, beautiful book published in partnership with The National Trust that both invites children into poetry, and invites children into nature, as the poems describe the seasons, animals, weather, and plants that the child can observe, or at least imagine, happening and living outdoors at that moment.

The success of this book – commercial and critical – has been such a justification of its publication: at no point in the making of the book did it seem remotely possible that it would do anything other than lose us a bucket of money. I am proud of it… and seeing that it worked and was welcomed, has made us plan several others that we’ll be announcing in the months to come.

Kate Wilson

Kate Wilson loves books. She read avidly as a child, studied English at Oxford and got into publishing as soon as she could wangle a job typing and taking her boss’s shirts to the dry cleaner. She’s worked in international rights selling and then as a publisher at Faber, Egmont, Macmillan, Scholastic. After being fired from an adult publishing job, she founded Nosy Crow, and is managing director there, working with co-founders Adrian Soar and Camilla Reid and 50 other people to publish over 100 new books for children aged 0 to 12 a year. Nosy Crow has won many industry and business awards, most recently this year, and for the second time, Children’s Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards.

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.

But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.

 

That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.

It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.

A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.

 

Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.

Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).

But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.

Hannah Rolls

Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.

Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

I started writing for children a few years ago, when I co-edited the Emma Press anthology Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It has introduced me to a gigantic new group of readers, writers and co-creators, and a whole new library of joyous, devastating, transcendent poems. It has also given me valuable insights, particularly in terms of clarity and energy, into my writing ‘for adults’.

This was a distinction I had never made before, and one I am keen to blur. The world of children’s poetry makes plenty of room for adult poems, in anthologies and school lessons, and children are gloriously open-minded about deep, experimental creativity. The best children’s poems discuss the same big, knotty themes as adult poems, skilfully balancing accessibility with complexity. Now I would like to see the adult poetry world making more space for children’s poetry, which is a vital part of its foundation and future. I would love to get more people discussing, reviewing and enthusing about children’s poetry, and to encourage more poets to try writing for a younger audience.

Kate Wakeling is one of many poets, including me, who published their first poem for children in the Myths and Monsters anthology. Like many of the poets, she got hooked. And just two years later, Kate won the 2017 Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award with her extraordinary debut Moon Juice. I’ve been in the audience when Kate has read children’s poems (my favourite is her shatteringly superb ‘The Demon Mouth’) alongside adult poems – and it’s an exhilarating combination. I wish more readings would mix the two, amplifying in a small but effective way the conversation between poetry for children and poetry for adults. In fiction, the young adult genre acts as a kind of bridge between children’s books and general novels, but we don’t really have an equivalent in poetry. To move, with no turning back, from the warm, fizzy, inviting world of children’s poetry to the secondary school canon can be disorientating. But if children’s poems were part of the general poetry conversation, sharing the same space, young people could study new, chewy works alongside more digestible ones.

So, let’s disrupt the distinction wherever we can. Let’s make more noise about the many children’s poets who are writing well-crafted, sensitive, probing poems about human emotions and the world around us, and zingy, experimental poems which push and pull language like plasticine – via social media, blogs, readings, and conversations with poetry friends. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the Children’s Poetry Archive is a great resource, as are the fabulous archives of the CLiPPA award. The Emma Press children’s list is also full of excellent, eclectic poems – many by poets new to writing for children.)

If you are a poet writing for adults, try reaching back the other way – remembering and celebrating the poems you loved as a kid. Try your hand at writing for children and share what you write, enjoying the licence for giddiness and experimentation. And costumes – see photo above!

Ultimately, what I would really love is to see magazines and journals accepting children’s poems and reviewing children’s poetry books as a matter of course, and even to see children’s poetry potentially in the running for the big prizes, acknowledged for its world-altering potential. Welcoming children’s poetry into the ecosystem of adult poetry would be such a powerful message that what we read when we are young is as precious and important as what we read when we are older. And the more young readers and writers of poetry we can nurture, the more secure that ecosystem will be.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Gaby Morgan: In Praise of Anthologies

In Praise of Anthologies

1993 was an interesting year. Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the USA. Sleepless In Seattle was released. Three members of One Direction were born and Macmillan Children’s Books published two slim anthologies, Doin Mi Ed In – Rap Poems by David Orme and Martin Glynn, and ‘Ere We Go! Football Poems by David Orme, launching a poetry list that is still going strong twenty-five years later. They introduced an exciting new band of very lovely poets to the world and I am so very lucky to be working with them all half a lifetime later. These were collections written for kids rather than at them and introduced them to a wide range of themes viewed from all kinds of different angles.

The biggest revelation that first year was Glitter When You Jump – Poems Celebrating the Seven Ages of Women by Fiona Waters. It was the most astonishing thing I had ever read and introduced me to ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou and ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph.

Over the years I have read an awful lot of anthologies and was delighted to find that you often can hear the anthologists ‘voice’ in a collection. Brilliant anthologists such as Fiona Waters and Anne Harvey weave the most fascinating stories with incredible skill. When Roger McGough delivered the manuscript for Sensational he had written poem titles at the bottom of each page and I could very clearly see how each poem inspired the next – it was such a delight to follow his thoughts.

After many years of learning from these masters I was lucky enough to be asked to compile anthologies starting with Read Me: A Poem for Every Day for the National Year of Reading.

In my youth I spent days on end compiling the perfect mixed tape. A single song was often the spark for an entire C90. I crafted the perfect collection of summery songs, a tape to impress a new love or even one full of please-stay-in-the-friend zone songs. I still use these mixed tape skills today and that is how I compile anthologies. You have to have album tracks or the hit singles don’t shine. For people who dip and browse you need a very strong beginning and end. You need enough familiar poems – ‘Daffodils’! – for people to feel comfortable and enough brand-new to make people look beyond the collection. You start to tell a story and then the poems suggest themselves.

Poems pop into my head and bring their friends with them…

The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W. B. Yeats, ‘I hear it in the deep heart’s core’,

Beattie is Three’ by Adrian Henri, ‘How her fist fits my palm/A bunch of consolation’,

The White Cat of Trenarren’ by A.L. Rowse, ‘My cat and I grow old together’,

Let No One Steal Your Dreams’ by Paul Cookson, ‘Your only limit is the sky’.

They are joined by poems that I have heard performed such as ‘Dear Hearing World’ by Raymond Antrobus, ‘I have left Earth in search of an audible God’, or poems that I have come across on social media like ‘Saltwater’ by Finn Butler, ‘Everyone who terrifies you is 65 per cent water’ – look them up, they will bring you joy!

The world has changed enormously in the past quarter century and our poetry list has followed the curve of the earth and the signs of the times. We have published a wide range of poetry titles including landmark anthologies such as The Works: Every Kind of Poem You Will Ever Need for the Literacy Hour chosen by Paul Cookson for a new primary curriculum in 2000. Books to echo trends in popular culture like pirates and wizards, or to reflect upon historical events such as the 50th anniversary of the moon landings and the centenary of the end of WWI. To mark sporting events like the Football World Cup or the Olympics; or delve deeper to demonstrate hope and light in challenging times with poetry about extraordinary women, poetry promoting empathy and tolerance, poetry that celebrates our history and heritage and great big gift anthologies which celebrate poetry itself.

Poetry is powerful stuff – from nursery rhymes, to song lyrics, to poetry shared on social media to verse novels. We turn to poems to soothe or rally, to praise, to celebrate, to comprehend, to grieve, to shout ‘I love you’ or to pick ourselves up when it seems impossible – they are words for life.

Gaby Morgan

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

I love editing the Otter-Barry Books poetry list – it’s probably my favourite of all tasks. It feels like a huge privilege to immerse yourself in a poet’s carefully crafted collection, written over months or even years, and to be possibly the first person to read those poems other than the poet.

Generally I don’t actually ‘edit’ the poems much at all. I feel quite strongly that a poem is what it is and stands on its own terms. Occasionally I will suggest deleting a verse to tighten things up a bit, or, if I feel a poem isn’t working in terms of level or tone for the current collection, I’ll suggest taking it out. Though if the poet feels very strongly and has good arguments for its inclusion I will usually defer to the poet! Trust and respect in both directions are absolutely vital.

Punctuation – well, that’s another matter! Some of our poets like writing verse completely unpunctuated and in many cases that’s great – and gives a real sense of freedom from constraint to the reader. But I have to admit to liking punctuation – and I think it can also help with pacing and comprehension – and just keeps you on track with a longer, more complex poem. So a balance is always good. Again, I hope I’ll be sensitive to the poet’s view.

Gradually the collection emerges into a beautiful entity, with an opener that’s not too long or super-demanding – something to whet your appetite – and then moves to more challenging poems as you get into your reading stride. Surprise and humour are vital ingredients and, though this may sound banal, making sure there’s a balance of shorter and longer poems. It can be great to turn a page and find just one very short poem. Giving poems ‘space’ is really important. And then end with a satisfying conclusion or maybe look to the future with a question or a big idea…

So how did it work with our CLiPPA-shortlisted titles, A Kid in My Class by Rachel Rooney, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson?

Daydreamer, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Both books were true collaborations. Rachel and Chris had already decided they’d like to do something together so the book came to us that way. Our team just loved the poems and we knew we had something special in our hands. At our first meeting with Chris and Rachel – straight after CLiPPA 2016 – we agreed there should be a gallery of portraits of all the kids in the class running through the book, and that the class hamster should also be present, though he doesn’t get his own poem till the very end. We felt strongly that this book should be generously illustrated so we allocated a double spread per poem and came up with the idea of the blue wash throughout as a special effect. We’d probably imagined illustrations in classroom settings but Chris quite rightly leapfrogged this brief and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing, with Rachel and our art director Judith Escreet, the amazing full-size drawings on Chris’s work-table.


Fidget, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

With Dark Sky Park, the collection came to us through poetry guru Pie Corbett, who knew Philip and recognised that these poems had huge cross-curricular science potential as well as being creative masterpieces. Philip had the idea to give each poem an accompanying ‘info-tweet’, providing fascinating facts about all the creatures and topics in a fun way. We chose the brilliant young Bristol-based artist Jesse Hodgson to illustrate, after seeing her brush-and-line drawings of tigers.

Tardigrade, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

She was perfect for the natural history aspect of the book as well as portraying the sense of time, space and wonder that the poems create. A meeting between Philip and Jesse to discuss his visual take on the poems was an inspiring start to the project and Jesse took off from there.

Snow Leopard, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

Editing and punctuation? Well, I can honestly say I hardly had to change a single word or comma in either book! These two poets are truly masters of their art.

Janetta Otter-Barry

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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.