Michaela Morgan: Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.

But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.

 I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words.  Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.

I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.

I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets.  I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.

My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.

At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

He fell off and cracked up after all.

All the psychiatrists, psychologists too

Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)

In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.

In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own. 

Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.

We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.

At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?

Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.

Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:  

Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award), 

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)  

Reaching the Stars  – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee  

For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.  

Helen Bowell: 10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the world’s biggest competition for 11-17 year old poets in the world, and it’s changed hundreds of lives – including mine! After I was commended in the competition as a teenager, I got to meet other young writers at the Foyle Young Poets winners’ ceremony, take part in a young people’s reading at The Poetry Café, and even interview Imtiaz Dharker the day before sitting an English GCSE exam. Those encouraging initial experiences with poetry are partly why I am a poet today, and why I work for The Poetry Society, championing its programmes for young people.

Nowadays, I run Young Poets Network (YPN), The Poetry Society’s free online platform for writers aged 25 and younger worldwide. We run regular writing ‘challenges’ and publish the winners’ work, and help young people to discover new authors, techniques and ideas for writing. We also keep an up-to-date Poetry Opportunities page for young poets. And by publishing young people’s work and running events and workshops, we do our best to foster a global community.

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

In April 2021, we celebrated Young Poets Network’s tenth anniversary. In the midst of the pandemic, working on these celebrations was so uplifting. Since 2011, YPN has been visited over two million times, and received poems from young people in every single county in England and 88 countries worldwide, from Cyprus to Hong Kong, Mauritius to North Sudan. We’ve published 813 poems and five special edition anthologies, and sent young people to perform at the House of Lords, the National Maritime Museum, UniSlam, professional recording studios and to explore the Bloodaxe Archives in Newcastle. If you’d like a cheering read, you can browse the fond memories and generous reflections of a number of Young Poets Networkers who have grown, gained self-belief and found their tribe with us over the past decade. Here’s what one of those young people, Ellora Sutton, says: “What does YPN mean to me? Friendship. Encouragement. Warmth. Opportunities. And, of course, poetry. I will never not be grateful for it.”

Though I got into poetry as a teenager, there’s no lower age limit for Young Poets Network. Some of the most brilliant poems we receive are by children under 10 who manage to see the world more clearly than the rest of us. A 2019 challenge inspired by the 50th anniversary of the moon landings attracted hundreds of entries; and two of the nine winning poets were young children. Sophie Orman’s poem ‘Moon Watching’ was written when she was 7, and Max Dixon (whose poem ‘Christmas Moon’ won third prize) was just 6 at the time. I love receiving poems by young children, and I hope that as parents, teachers and poets you’ll find our resources helpful in inspiring people of all ages to write.

As I am now officially no longer a ‘young poet’, where possible, I invite young writers to write for the website. Every August, we commission four Foyle Young Poets to set writing challenges, keeping people busy over the summer holidays. This year, Sinéad O’Reilly, Mukisa Verrall, Euan Sinclair and Anisha Minocha will be challenging young people to explore conversations, the absurd, objects and letter-writing. You can check out their resources and submit by 12 September 2021, and join our worldwide community as it embarks on its second decade.

Find the latest Young Poets Network challenges here.

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.

A. F. Harrold: Poems For Your Pockets

Poems for your pockets

The human condition being what it is, I like to write comedy.

And life being short, I like to write poems, because they take much less time to write than novels.

Even quite a long poem is shorter than quite a short novel, unless you and I have different definitions of ‘quite’, ‘long’ and ‘short’, in which case I wish you luck with your dictionary and all who sail in it.

Little funny poems are the small change of the poetry world, they fill our pockets and jangle when we run too fast, but we can put our hands in when we’re nervous and turn them over between our fingers. We can practice saying them, make sure we’ve got the words right, mutter them under our breath when it gets too dark.

When I was small there was a poetry anthology in the house called Poetry for Pleasure (Ed. Ian Parsons, (Chatto & Windus, 1977)), and it was filled with long dull dusty poems in olde fashioned writing that I simply couldn’t get my head around, but the penultimate section of the book was titled ‘Epigrams, Epigraphs & Epitaphs’ and most of the poems in there were short.

I love short poems.

Here’s one from that section.

Just and Unjust

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella;

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

(Written by someone called ‘Lord Bowen’.)

The words were a bit olde worldy (‘The rain it raineth’ sounds distinctly Biblical in age), but I understood what they said, and the fact that they said what they said, and that they rhymed ‘fella’ and ‘umbrella’, made me warm with delight.

Or this:

Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife

He first deceased; she for a little tried

To live without him, liked it not, and died.

(Written by ‘Sir Henry Wotton’, whoever he was.)

Again, it feels solemn and dignified at first, and then you read it and realise all pomposity has been pricked and, whether kind or unkind, true or untrue, there is a joke here, but a joke, not in the punchline kind, but in the sense and shape of its own expressing itself… something subtler and harder to define, but delicious like a salmon and jam sandwich.

One last example from this book:

John Bun

Here lies John Bun,

He was killed by a gun,

His name was not Bun, but Wood,

But Wood would not rhyme with gun, but Bun would.

(Written, of course, by our trusty friend, ‘Anon’.)

It was a puzzle, at first, to get one’s head around – every rule you know about poetry and about tombstones is being broken here, in front of your eyes – metre, common sense, truth… Is a lie really a lie if in the same breath it’s owned up to and corrected? Was this really something on a gravestone or is it just a bit of fun in the book? How do you get away with elongating lines like that without summoning the poetry police down on you?

And how wonderful is the sound ‘Bun would’ to say? It’s up there with ‘cellar door’ for sure.

These little poems are the sort of things that fill up the corners of my brain. I tend to keep them secret just for myself, but they belong to anyone who reads them, without diminishing my store of them – that’s a lovely thing about words, they can be shared. If you like them, take them, let them make you smile when you reach into your pocket on a dark day.

Here’s an extra one from me, for you:

The Dangers of Rock and Roll

Don’t put a rock in a roll,

unless you hate having teeth.

And be careful when rolling rocks,

In case you end up underneath.

From my and Mini Grey’s new book, The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice (Bloomsbury, 2020).)

A. F. Harrold

A.F. Harrold is a poet, performer and children’s author. He has a beard and a hat and enjoys showing off in front of people and hiding at the end of the garden, but not at the same time. His most recent books are The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with Mini Grey, and The Afterwards with Emily Gravett.’ www.afharroldkids.com

Andrea Reece: Celebrating the CLiPPA 2021

Celebrating the CLiPPA 2021

Is there any prize more joyful than the CLiPPA? The CLiPPA highlights the best new poetry for children and, through the Shadowing Scheme, allows schools and children to get up close to the collections on the shortlist, turning thousands into lifelong poetry fans.

The celebrations for this year’s shortlist announcement were particularly exciting, even for the CLiPPA, a prize that regularly takes over the National Theatre. The five books were announced live on stage at The Globe, part of a day of magnificent poetry performances for this year’s Poetry By Heart project. Congratulations to Tim Shortis and Julie Blake for creating the event and delivering it so successfully.

Before the shortlist announcement, the audience was treated to performances from two of the winning schools in the 2020 CLiPPA Shadowing Scheme. First up were ten-year-olds Freddie and Zane from Swaffield Primary School, Wandsworth with their lively recitation of the poem Brother and Sister by Lewis Carroll, which appears in A. F. Harrold’s collection Midnight Feasts. (Both boys, incidentally, claim they thoroughly approve of the poem’s concluding moral: ‘Never stew your sister’.) Then, with a ‘Boom-ba-da-Boom!’ seven-year-old Benji from Norwich Road Academy, Thetford performed Fireworks by Anna E. Jordan, which features in The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog, edited by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Richard Jones. Benji says he loves the rhythm of the poem, which shows him how to read it.

After that it was time for this year’s chair of the judges, Allie Esiri, to take to the stage to announce the 2021 shortlist. And it is (deep breath), alphabetically by poet:

Slam! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This, chosen by Nikita Gill, Macmillan
This inspiring collection, curated with great skill by Nikita Gill, brings together ‘some of the fiercest voices in British verse’. It’s a book to excite young people about the potential of poetry, say the CLiPPA judges.

Bright Bursts of Colour, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff, Bloomsbury Education
The poems in Matt Goodfellow’s collection range from the silly to the sensitive, and all will resonate with children aged 7 – 11. The judges loved Matt’s dynamic representations of real-life experiences, and clear understanding of a child’s sensibilities.

Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann, Penguin
Compelling, powerful, and authentic, Manjeet Mann’s verse novel speaks directly to its YA audience. The judges loved the fresh voice and how a form used by Coleridge is made new.

Big Green Crocodile Rhymes to Say and Play, by Jane Newberry, illustrated by Carolina Rabei, Otter-Barry Books
Beautifully presented and perfectly illustrated, this collection of new nursery rhymes is a perfect post-lockdown book, allowing grown-ups and small children to connect.

On the Move, Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake, Walker Books
On the Move is both personal and universal, with messages of home, identity and family. Full of emotion, delivered with a perfect sense of understatement, words and illustrations provide readers with spaces to pause and consider.

Poets Jane Newberry, Manjeet Mann, Matt Goodfellow and Michael Rosen were there to read poems from their shortlisted collections, icing on the CLiPPA cake!

The winner will be announced on 11th October alongside the launch of the 2021 Shadowing Scheme. Do explore the books on the shortlist, because each of these collections reminds us what the best poetry for children can do, which is of course the point of all the CLiPPA celebrations. 

This year’s judges are poets Zaro Weil, 2020 CLiPPA winner with Cherry Moon; Amina Jama, whose debut poetry pamphlet A Warning to the House that Holds Me was published by Flipped Eye Press in 2019; Julie Blake, co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart; and Charlotte Hacking, Learning Programmes Leader at CLPE.

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece reviews for Lovereading4Kids, is managing editor of Books for Keeps and the children’s programme director for the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. A former manager of National Poetry Day, she is very happy to be working now with CLPE on the CLiPPA

Teresa Cremin: Poetry Possibilities This Summer

Poetry possibilities this summer

How recently, I wonder, did a colleague recommend a poetry book to you or read you an extract from a poem?

Maybe as you’re a reader of this blog, you’re positively inclined towards poetry, associate with other enthusiasts, and do receive such recommendations. Nonetheless, I suspect you know friends and teachers who are not so well versed in the living language of poetry.

Certainly, over the last year, working with teachers from 40 schools (from Birmingham, Sheffield, Rotherham and Derby), it’s been noticeable that in audits of professional knowledge of children’s texts, poets and poetry remain the poor relation. The forgotten uncle. This reminded me of the Teachers as Readers survey (Cremin et al., 2009) in which we found 22% of 1,200 teachers from across England were unable to name a single poet – dead or alive!

It appears primary teachers’ professional knowledge of poets continues to be dominated by a few well-known writers such Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah, William Blake and W H Auden. But as we all know, myriad other talented poets are writing for children today; their work also deserves to be read, heard, discussed, dramatised and delighted in.

We could spend time debating why and how this sad situation seems to persist, (and there are stunning exceptions), but surely far more important is to find ways forward. So, in this last blog of the school year, I’m offering a few possibilities, and inviting you to select one that will not only enrich your own knowledge, pleasure and understanding of poetry, but critically that of others.

~ Join the Teachers’ Reading Challenge run by the Reading Agency and The Open University and set yourself a target of reading 6 poetry books. Sharing your Certificate and the poetry read.

~ Devour a Poet each week, read their work, check out their website and share their unique voice with others.

~ Re-voice Poems in person or virtually to at least 4 friends or family.

~ Create a Poetry Scrapbook to share, with poems, collages, and illustrations to evoke their meanings.

~ Initiate Poetry Book Swaps, triggering discussion with other readers, at home or at work.

~ Make a Poetry Poster of poems or poets whose work you want to highlight with next year’s class or the staff.

~ Co-author a Poem with your own children/family, fostering a more collaborative stance towards composing poetry.

To close I’d like to offer my own recommendations of a pair of engaging new books that involve child poets and help us see the world through their eyes.

My Sneezes are Perfect is a delightful collection in the voice of a small boy, Yusuf Samee, who moved from the Netherlands to America, and makes use of poetry to reflect on his new life. His mother, Rakhshan Rizwan, explains she wrote the poems with the help of six-year-old Yusuf. Benjamin Philipps illustrations too drew me in, their childlike directness is appealing. Do read ‘Beards’…!

Take off Your Brave : Poems Just for You by four-year-old Nadim is a rich treat too. Nadim’s mother Yasmine,  on the advice of Kate Clanchy, wrote down his words and read them back to him, triggering his desire to voice more poems. With simply stunning visuals by Yasmeen Ismail, this enticing collection captures his perspective and made me feel young again!

Do read ‘Scared Sugar’… and enjoy a summer full of poetry possibilities!

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa researches teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her most recent book is Children Reading for Pleasure in the Digital Age: Mapping Reader Engagement (with Natalia Kucirkova, 2020)

Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website informed by her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups annually and 34 Initial Teacher Education partnerships across the country,  in order to develop children’s and teachers’ delight in reading. @TeresaCremin

Mónica Parle: Why Do We Put Poetry in a Corner?

Why do we put poetry in a corner?

Several times across the last year, I’ve heard poetry described as a “niche” art form. I realize in this blog I’m preaching to the choir (as we say in the US), and maybe this niggles most because I myself struggled with poetry as a teen.

But as this choir knows, children have an innate love of rhyme and word play. My five-year-old can rattle off books by heart, and often he sings songs after hearing them once, the words rolling around for hours afterward.

So I’m hopeful that for younger generations, this affinity holds true for longer. This research Forward commissioned from the National Literacy Trust in 2018 showed that almost 1 in 2 young people engage with poetry in their free time, and it’s more true for children in receipt of free school meals (55.7%).

But if these stats are true, when did poetry get pegged as “niche”?

It worries me because poetry feels all the more critical in an era where children and young people have been increasingly isolated due to the pandemic. Poetry offers a valuable medium to help build bridges.

Bringing poetry into schools can support literacy skills and language learning by integrating reading, writing, speaking and listening in meaningful ways. It offers inroads to sometimes-thorny topics such as culture and identity, and it can help promote students’ empathy. Creating poetry can help alleviate anxiety and improve emotional resilience. It can be empowering for children and young people to discover their voices, and improve their self-awareness, self-expression and self-esteem.

For me the proof of poetry’s value lives in 2020. It was a thunderous year for poetry. Millions turned to poetry to make sense of a rapidly shifting world. 131 million people participated in National Poetry Day last year, and poetry’s popularity was spurred by a number of actors sharing poetry on social media and digital readings. 2.3 million shared glimpses of their locked-down worlds via Liv Torc’s #haiflu (which Susannah Herbert celebrated here).

For eons, we’ve turned to poetry at weddings and funerals. We know it can illuminate and console like nothing else can. So why do we put it in a corner?

I make no bones that for teenage me the fustiness of the poetry we read in school was a problem. Diversity of voice is obviously key, and diversity of form too. Many of those young people surveyed back in 2018 were reading poetry online (32.6%), watching videos (31.7%) or listening to spoken recordings (18.6%). And this groundswell of the last year springs from the digital innovation of this collective (poets, teachers, librarians, publishers, organisations).

We are a sector that promotes participation because poetry at its heart is agile, connective, and inclusive. And in an age of uncertainty, it helps us ‘imagine other ways of navigating into our collective future’ (Adrienne Rich).

Mónica Parle

Mónica Parle is Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation. She was previously the National Poetry Day Manager and prior to that Executive Director at First Story. She is a Mexican American from Southeast Texas, and extracts of her novels in progress have been selected as the Longlist Winner of the 2020 Bath Novel Award and Highly Commended in Faber’s 2018 FAB Prize. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Fay Lant: Celebration is Essential

23rd March 2020 should have been a day of celebration for the Young City Poets project. Instead, it went into the history books for a different reason.

At the National Literacy Trust we are on a mission to get children writing poetry. We work with brilliant teachers and poets across the country to demystify the writing process and encourage children and young people to express their thoughts, creativity and experiences through poetry.

Crucially, we always celebrate the children’s poems.

In previous years we have loved hosting performance events for our young poets and their parents at the end of each project. One memorable afternoon in Bradford in 2018 we heard poems that covered everything from outer space (“yet another standard spiral galaxy”) to a dog named Spike, and a broad range of experiences from panic attacks to ballet dancing “Carve each chord into the air”. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly that poetry is for everyone and everyone has a poem to share.

In particular, the poem We Live in a Modern World written and performed by pupils at Dixons Cottingley Academy sparked that special tingly feeling for everyone in the audience that is only possible from live performance.

Yorkshire family portrait photographer

But there’s more to performance than just a ‘feelgood’ moment. Through our project evaluations we have consistently seen that the opportunity to publish children’s poems in an anthology or to perform at a live event improves their confidence and motivation to write, and helps them to feel more proud of their work. With children’s enjoyment of writing at the lowest level for a decade, opportunities to share and celebrate writing can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice to have’.

Over the last year we have continued to deliver our poetry programme, working with 77 schools and 22 poets across the country. Along with the whole world, we were faced with choices about which elements of the programme could be delivered digitally. From the beginning we knew that we would celebrate the poetry of our participants. We are about to begin the very serious business of hosting virtual celebration events for schools in Birmingham, Bradford, London and Nottingham and supporting them to perform for parents in the playground where possible. Children and young people’s performances will be MC’ed, and in some cases serenaded, by some of the stonking poets who have inspired their writing: Laila Sumpton, Antosh Wojcik, Paul Cree, Lexia Tomlinson, Simon Mole and Gecko. And the best bit is that all this fun will have an impact on pupils’ literacy outcomes.

We can’t wait!

We live in a modern world

We live in a modern world

There’s encouragement of expression and freedom

       “Express yourself!”

       “The right of free speech!”

What an achievement!

Yet

We’re told to – hold ourselves back

We’re told to – act like we’re old

We’re told to – wear uniforms

We’re told to – do what we’re told

We live in a modern world.

Yet

Our society is set back

Every message we send

On-line makes us feel connected

But each friend we add

Loses our friendship with reality.

We live in a modern world

There’s encouragement of expression and freedom

But

       “You won’t be loved looking like that”

       “How many names can we call her today?”

Failed by our society

We live in a modern world.

Open your eyes to the world around you

Don’t look through a screen

Look with your eyes

See the people talked about daily

See they’re not just a headline

They’re lives

Being lived

People that are real

We live in a modern world

Some have no voice and no freedom

A story briefly flashed across a screen

Condolences and prayers mean nothing

If not backed up by actions

Empty words

Help no one.

We live in a modern world.

Pupils at Dixons Cottingley Academy

Fay Lant

Fay Lant is Head of Schools Programmes at the National Literacy Trust and was previously a secondary English teacher.

Chrissie Gittins: Libraries Do Change Lives

Libraries Do Change Lives

I grew up in a household with few books. My parents enjoyed the play of language and my mother was a talented raconteur. My father told me about a local man called Peter Nut (P. Nut) who married a woman called Hazel. My mother received a proposal of marriage from a man called Mr Jump who subsequently married a woman called Mrs Stamp. In school holidays my brother and I would sit down at the dinner table and ask my mother to tell us about ‘the olden days’. She would spin a detail into an elaborate story – the uncle who hung the apple wallpaper upside down, the hole that was knocked into a wall so they could listen to the radio next door.

Poster from the Great School Libraries website

It was through borrowing books from libraries that my interest in literature and language grew – both local and school libraries. It is a statutory, legal right for every community in the UK to have access to a local library. But 773 public libraries, a fifth of the libraries once in service, have closed since 2010. Statistics in a report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finances and Accountancy (CIPFA) show that use of public libraries has fallen by 70% in the past 20 years.

It is well documented that children who read for pleasure make marked progress in Maths and English and benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore their imagination. Children with books at home are six times more likely to read above their expected reading age. But if a family can’t access a library and haven’t spare money to buy books where are they to find them? In their school library perhaps? Astoundingly it is not a statutory requirement for every school to have a library. But it is a statutory requirement for every prison to have a library. In the UK 50% of prisoners are illiterate. How many of those prisoners could have widened their opportunities and avoided incarceration if their literacy had been nurtured through reading at an early age?

Recent issue of The School Librarian, the quarterly journal of the School Library Association

One in eight schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland does not have a library. The bleak irony is that children on free school meals are twice as likely to be attending a school which doesn’t have a library. The Great School Libraries Campaign (https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk) addresses these inequalities in its objectives which include encouraging Ofsted to recognize libraries and librarians in their school inspection framework, and securing funding for school libraries. This has been a long-standing issue and in 2014 a report from the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group asserted that it was ‘vital’ that all schools ‘have a good library to ensure children … fulfil their potential’. But this has not resulted in statutory school libraries.

Cordwalles Junior School, Surrey, school library. Photograph: Cordwalles Junior School

I was heartened to see that the current Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, wrote an open letter in April to Boris Johnson calling for ring-fenced funding for school libraries to the tune of £100 million annually. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2021/april/libraries-change-lives-read-cressida-cowells-open-letter-to-prime-minister-boris-johnson/) ‘How is it fair,’ she writes, ‘that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?’ She states that £28m would enable the one in eight primary schools without a library to develop space, stock and expertise; £75m per year would employ a part-time librarian; and £60m per year would allow a school to buy one new book a year for each child. Here’s to this government ensuring that a well-run, well-stocked library is provided for each and every child.

This is the contact information for Boris Johnson should you wish to email your thoughts: https://email.number10.gov.uk

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections selected as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

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.

Rebecca O’Connor: Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.

This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.

Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.

It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.

Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.

The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.

The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.

Rebecca O’Connor

Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the GuardianPoetry ReviewThe Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize.  Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.