Janetta Otter-Barry: Publishing Poetry – Thoughts About Age Level

Publishing poetry – thoughts about age level…

Firstly, there are no precise age-level demarcations in poetry and there never should be! A poem works on many different levels and will light a spark for a reader in different ways, whatever their age.

Otter-Barry Books

James Carter says Take a Poem, published in Zim Zam Zoom! (illustrated by Nicola Colton and categorised as 3 plus), finds many fans with Year Sixes. They love the upbeat simplicity and reassurance, with its universal message.

From Zim Zam Zoom, James Carter, illustrated by Nicola Colton

Secondly – trust the poet! Children’s poets spend huge amounts of time in schools and libraries, performing and workshopping with classes from Early Years to Year Six. They know exactly what works for different year groups. If a poet comes to us with a Key Stage 2 collection, we are generally happy to trust their judgement. And often, if we’ve queried a poem as being too young or too sophisticated, it turns out to be one of the favourites in performance!

Otter-Barry Books

But there are some guidelines. A collection for young children – nursery/KS1 – will work best presented in colour as a picture book, like Zim Zam Zoom! and our new collection, Caterpillar Cake by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Krina Patel-Sage (August). The topics are everyday early childhood experiences, pets, the natural world; the poems are gentle, reassuring, fun, with a touch of adventure and fantasy. They’re perfect for reading aloud, with repetition and interaction, and the pictures are hugely important.

From Caterpillar Cake, by Matt Goodfellow

For KS1/2 we look for a rich variety of topics – family, friendships, school experiences, exploring different forms, and also feelings and emotions. Plenty that a child of around seven plus would relate to in their life, but also cross-curricular poems on historical figures, global issues,  conservation, the natural world. Not much is off-limits but we are wary of poems that seem too dark or frightening, without a positive outcome.

Otter-Barry Books

In Stars with Flaming Tails, Val Bloom and I took out one poem that we felt was too bleak and dystopian, maybe more suitable for a child of 12 plus. Though we did keep in the poignant poem about a child soldier, where the language and approach speaks more gently to a primary-aged child.

From Stars With Flaming Tails by Valerie Bloom, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max

In other places the mood is lightened by funny poems, riddles and wordplay.

Otter-Barry Books

James Carter’s Weird, Wild and Wonderful has exactly that rich variety of styles, moods and interest levels, and appeals to children from Year 2 to Year 6 and beyond.

Otter-Barry Books

Our new KS2 collection about thoughts, worries and feelings, Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, launches ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week in May. This book captures a whole range of emotions that children of all ages experience, but is presented in a way particularly accessible to 7-11s. The characters are primary-age children, going through challenging experiences, drawing recognition and empathy from the reader. Based on personal experience in the classroom and with advice on level from a clinical psychologist, complex issues are explored.  Illustrations by Victoria Jane Wheeler plus exciting fonts and shapes also bring the poems alive, as in Snail by Laura Mucha.

From Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha

At KS3, 12 and up, the level is perhaps easier to identify. In Hey Girl!, Rachel Rooney’s new collection, illustrated by her son Milo Hartnoll and publishing in July, we ‘live’ the poems through a young teenage girl  as she battles her way towards adulthood, navigating life with that intensity of experience that occurs between twelve and sixteen.

The language is still accessible, but richly layered – just right for a teenage reader, as beautifully encapsulated by Battle Call.

From Hey Girl! by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Milo Hartnoll

So, yes, some guidance on age level helps teachers, librarians and booksellers bring books and readers together, but as James Carter says, “Poems don’t come with an age sticker, and who’s to say who they’re for?” Let’s rejoice that a poem can connect with children of all ages, and adults too.

Janetta Otter-Barry

Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award. Otter-Barry Books.

Jonathan Douglas: A Smile That Can Never Fade

Every week at the National Literacy Trust I look forward to our ‘poem of the week’ – a poem shared by a colleague that they like or that means something to them. We’ve had everything from Keats to Stormzy via Imtiaz Dharker and Dr Seuss. In one particularly memorable poem of the week, our website manager Greg shared Hello Mr Python by Spike Milligan for Reptile Awareness Day (21st October, in case you’re wondering). It was the first piece of writing he memorised as a 7 year old and he took great pleasure in reciting it to anyone who’d listen. He loved that a grown-up had taken time out of their busy adult life to write a collection of poems for children like him and how daft and irreverent the poem was – coupled with some excellent python facts. It was a brilliant reminder that the poems children enjoy can stay with them well into their adult life. Even if we don’t remember every single word, the memory of the joy it brought us doesn’t fade.

Over the last year the poems colleagues have shared have included messages of hope and positivity. Last week our brilliant knowledge manager (and unofficial poem of the week champion) Emily shared Samuel Beckett’s earliest known poem, written when he was aged between 14 and 16 and found in his friend’s school album:

When a bit of sunshine hits you

After passing of a cloud

And a bit of laughter gets you

And your spine is feeling proud

Don’t forget to up and fling it

At a soul that’s feeling blue

For the moment that you sling it

It’s a boomerang to you.

This one particularly resonated because I think we could all use ‘a bit of sunshine’ in the current circumstances.

As a form poetry connects us with our emotions perhaps more than any other. Our research into children’s writing during the first lockdown showed us that this is true for children too. We saw that for children who wrote more in their spare time during that period, they did so because it made them feel creative and it helped their wellbeing. For children who told us that writing makes them feel better – poetry was the most popular form. In many ways it was not surprising that poetry was more popular than diaries, fiction or song lyrics. Poetry distils creativity and emotions on a page, no matter what age we are.

I’m next on our poem of the week rota and it’s usually a challenging job to pick the right poem but this week I’m going to stay on theme and share a bit of sunshine. The Store Full of Magical Things by Rutendo Tavengerai is included in The Book of Hopes anthology and I hope it will bring a smile to the faces of my National Literacy Trust colleagues.

Over the next half term we’re thrilled to be working with BUPA to produce wellbeing resources on Zone In, our website for young people aged 13 and over; rest assured there will be lots of poetry.

Jonathan Douglas

Jonathan Douglas CBE is Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust. Previously he was Head of Policy Development at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, where he also worked as Head of Learning and Access. Prior to that, he was Professional Adviser for Youth and School Libraries at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. He has also worked as a librarian and in children’s services for Westminster Libraries. Jonathan is on the Advisory Committee of The Booker Prize, a trustee for World Book Day and The Philosophy Foundation, and Chair of Governors at his local primary school. In 2020 Jonathan was awarded a CBE for services to education.

Dawn Finch: The Icy Waters of the Digital Seas

This time last year we were all looking forward to a year of events and school visits and we had no clue that what was about to hit us was going to change the landscape of our work forever. This year all of us have had to rapidly adapt and even reimagine how we work, and I am endlessly impressed by how creatives have managed to navigate these new and very rocky waters and still stay afloat. One question I am being asked a lot is if I think physical school visits will ever return.

It is clear that Covid may place dramatic restrictions on what we are able to do for quite some time yet, and we’d be foolish to not acknowledge that. We have all plunged into the icy waters of the digital seas, but it turns out they were not as shark infested as we feared!

When this all began I was one of those who never did anything digitally (apart from a few frustrating meetings) and I would have resisted taking my presence online. Now, I’m not sure I actually want to go back to travelling up and down the country for things and I’ve become quite relaxed on camera. I’ve had messages from many creatives who have found new and exciting income streams via digital means, and some who have started doing digital and virtual visits after stopping doing physical ones for some years.

The rapid shift to digital visits has meant we’ve all had a lot of extra things to think about. I would strongly advise people to create or adapt their event booking contracts to fit virtual visits. Take into account things like the possibility of last minute cancellations, and to make sure that your rights are protected. If you are a Society of Authors member you can always have your contracts vetted and you can seek advice for contracts you might be writing yourself. The Society of Authors has some very helpful guidance for virtual visits, and you don’t have to be a member to access it.

Yes, the landscape of school visits has changed and I don’t think it will be “the way it was before” and that is because I am hopeful it will be better. I am hopeful that we will move to a time where we have the choice to have a digital and/or a physical presence. We’re not looking to go back to how it was “before”, but to a new way of working where the borders, boundaries and barriers we used to have around us have digitally fallen away.

Everything I’m hearing also leads me to believe that there is a great desire to have “real” visits again. I am absolutely convinced that as soon as people are able they will be booking school visits again. I am hopeful that the hunger for physical visits in schools will be such that we should all be prepared for it!

We all want those wonderful life-affirming visits when we can sign a book and answer questions and hear the live laughter and excitement of the audience. These days will come again because teachers, librarians and booksellers are as desperate for this to start again as we are.

Until then, plan your virtual visits with care, check your contracts, and value your digital presence as much you would value your physical presence.

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is the current chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG). Dawn is a poet and writer and has both written and contributed to many children’s non-fiction books. She has twice won the Brian Nisbett Poetry Award, and is in the process of writing a poetry book for children.

Lorraine Mariner: ELoans for Children and Young People at the National Poetry Library

Though we’re currently unable to welcome visitors to the National Poetry Library, behind the scenes we continue to collect all new UK poetry publications for children and adults, ready for reopening later this year. In 2014 we launched an ebook collection and during lockdown this has really come into its own, enabling our members to continue to read the latest poetry publications. Over the last few months we have added to the books and audio available for children and young people poetrylibrary.overdrive.com

Children’s poets featured range from stellar names such as Roger McGough, Grace Nichols and Michael Rosen, through to new stars on the scene including Joseph Coelho, Matt Goodfellow and Kate Wakeling. Recent additions are the anthologies Midnight Feasts: Tasty Poems edited by A. F. Harrold with illustrations by Katy Riddell (shortlisted for the 2020 Clippa Poetry Award), I Bet I Can Make You Laugh poems by Joshua Seigel and friends, and young adult verse novel Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam. The collection ranges from titles for the very young through to novels in verse for teenagers. Audio highlights include beloved American children’s poet Jack Prelutsky reading his work and The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, read by Edith Bowman, Guy Garvey, Cerys Matthews and Benjamin Zephaniah.

The ebooks work in much the same way as the physical books in our collection. A title can be borrowed by one person for up to two weeks. We allow a member to loan two titles at a time and reserve two titles. They can be read or listened to on a laptop or computer through the web browser, or the Overdrive app can be downloaded and they can also be accessed on a tablet or smartphone. Members can also make recommendations.

We host our eloans through Overdrive, so a title has to be available on the Overdrive platform for us to be able to purchase it for the collection. What has been encouraging for us this last year is to have some publishers contact Overdrive to get their books added to the platform so we can offer them to our members.

The service is free to join. All we require is proof of a UK address via email. The parents or guardians of under-16s can sign up on their behalf. Email info@poetrylibrary.org.uk for more information (and with any other poetry related questions – our enquiry service remains open).

At this time of year we’d usually be gearing up for the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival at Southbank Centre, when we host poetry readings for children in the library. Three of our past Imagine events can be found on Soundcloud:

Poems from a Green and Blue Planet a celebration of this anthology of poems about the natural world led by its editor Sabrina Mahfouz.

Amazingly Magical Poems featuring two of our favourite picture book poets, Peter Bently and Jeanne Willis, and teller of tall tales, Andra Simons.

Incredibly Incorrigible Poems featuring Liz Brownlee, John Lyons and Kate Wakeling.

We can’t wait to welcome families and class visits back to the National Poetry Library when it’s safe to reopen but in the meantime we hope our ebook collection and audio might provide a diversion during the current lockdown.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014). She has recently published a chapbook with Grey Suit Editions Anchorage (2020).

Laura Mucha: What Makes for a Happy Life?


Just before the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics asked young people across the country what makes for a happy life. The answer? Having positive, supportive relationships and feeling loved.

Little did they know that a global killer virus was about to lock them away from friends, family and teachers, leaving them more susceptible to the health and happiness of their relationships at home. One year on, what do we know about how happy and healthy those relationships are?

People living with children are more anxious and depressed than those who aren’t, according to the Covid-19 Social Study. Unsurprising given parents are more likely to be struggling financially right now, which in turn can be difficult for children. “Finance is really stressful… it can stress the family out and then that can have an effect on the child,” said one young person to the ONS, long before the world ended.

Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study
Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study

Many parents are also struggling to balance holding down a full-time job with homeschooling – and it’s not going very well. A significant proportion think homeschooling is having a negative impact on their kids’ behaviour (24%), wellbeing (43%), their own wellbeing (28%) and their job (30%). Perhaps that’s why the current main causes of arguments among couples are children and finances.

Court applications relating to domestic abuse have reached record levels, so for a horrifying number of children, being stuck at home will mean being trapped in an abusive or neglectful situation. Not only is witnessing violence a form of emotional abuse, but those living with parental violence are also more likely to be abused themselves.

If the pandemic follows the trend of other disasters, we’re likely to see a spike in divorces, as well as marriages and births. While some of these will be for the better (e.g. ending an abusive relationship), for other children it will mean yet more transitions in a world that has already been turned upside down and inside out.

Let’s not forget bereavement. Many children have lost people they love – as well the ability to comfort or say goodbye to them, attend the funeral, or get support from friends, family or teachers. Bereavements may also impact their parents or caregivers, who may be overwhelmed as it is. 

If a happy life means feeling loved and having positive, supportive relationships, some children will be living pretty unhappy lives right now. The stats back that up: 75% of teens believe their mental health is worse thanks to Covid. Jennie Hudson of Black Dog, Australia, explains, “All of the factors that we know contribute to children’s poor mental health have been exacerbated by COVID: an increase in poverty, parent mental health problems, overcrowding and/or violence at home, parental substance abuse, and social isolation.”

Of course for some, spending more time with parents or caregivers will be hugely positive – and by having to homeschool their kids, many will get a better understanding of their child’s education and ability. But that’s unlikely to be the case for families under extreme pressure. There’s been a 107% increase in food parcels given to children and 40% of low-income families lack at least one of the resources they need to homeschool. We were one of the most unequal countries in the world before the pandemic – Covid is only making this worse.

Thankfully there is some hope (if you look hard enough). Another ingredient for a happy life, according to the ONS research, is living in a country where children are given a say, a country where their needs are considered by people in power. “They should listen to children,” one young person explained, “because sometimes the children are right.”

Source: The Guardian 

We may not be the people in power, but as children’s poets, teachers, academics and organisations, we’re in a unique position to help children’s voices be heard. And that will only become more important as we start to understand the long-term impact of Covid, both on young people themselves, and the people they love.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an ex-lawyer turned award-winning poet, author and children’s advocate. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters was one of the Independent’s top ten poetry books for children and BookTrust described it as “stunningly original”.  She also writes for adults. As well as writing, Laura also works with organisations around the world (including the National Literacy TrustRoyal Society of Medicine and UNICEF) to try to improve the lives of children. lauramucha.com @lauramucha

Gaby Morgan: An Accidental Year of Dylan Thomas Pilgrimages

An accidental year of Dylan Thomas pilgrimages

While we have needed to stay safe at home, I have been reminiscing about places I have visited over the past few years. In 2019, I went on holiday to Wales with my family. My father is from Swansea and my childhood summers were spent on the beach at Langland, Caswell, Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay, and it was during those holidays that my grandma recited poems that she had learnt by heart and have stayed with me to this day. I remember ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in particular and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which she loved because my grandpa had sent it to her when they were courting. During our trip we went on a tour of all the places they had lived in Mumbles, West Cross, Sketty and in the Uplands where they lived just round the corner from Cwmdonkin Park. On a slate-grey Welsh summer day we crossed the park and ended up at Dylan Thomas’ house at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and that was the start of a year of accidental Dylan Thomas pilgrimage

from ‘Fern Hill’

‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

Dylan Thomas’ house is fascinating – it is the house where he was born, was his home for twenty-three years and was where he wrote two-thirds of his published work. Poems such as ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ were written when he was still a teenager. Here’s a photo of the outside and a picture of his bedroom as it would have been in 1934.

from A Child’s Christmas in Wales

‘It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’

Later that week, a very rainy day led us to take cover in the Dylan Thomas Centre where we visited the ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, which included wonderful recordings of Thomas reading his poems including Prologue – here is an extract:

Image: Gaby Morgan
Image: Gaby Morgan

We had gone somewhere else entirely the day we ended up at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne where Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their three children lived from 1949 until his death. Laugharne is of course the real-life model for Milkwood. It is a lovely house set in a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and just up the hill is his writing shed (photos of both below). We took a different route back to the car and found ourselves at the cemetery of St. Martin’s church where he is buried.

Image: Gaby Morgan

From ‘Poem on his birthday’

‘In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks’

Image: Gaby Morgan

The final part of our accidental pilgrimage happened in November that year in New York where we had gone to Greenwich Village for a literary pub crawl to see where Jack Kerouac, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hart Crane and others lived and drank. The meeting place was The White Horse Tavern – reading our guide book while waiting for the rest of the tour party to assemble, we realised that it was exactly 66 years to the day since Dylan Thomas had died at St Vincent’s hospital just up the street. The White Horse was where he frequently drank in New York and where he had spent his last evening before being taken ill. He was 39 years old.

From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’

‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

All these poems can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition published by Weinfeld & Nicolson and A Child’s Christmas in Wales published by Orion Children’s Books.

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.

Matt Goodfellow: Teachers as Poets

On an actual in-person school visit earlier this year (I know, a rarity, right?), a teacher mentioned she’d spotted how many writers had a background in education. Off the top of my head, I can think of… Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Roger Stevens, Pie Corbett, Coral Rumble, Andy Seed, James Carter, Wes Magee, Rachel Rooney, Me, Sue Hardy-Dawson… I’m sure you can think of more…

So, why, in my opinion, is the teaching profession such a successful spawning ground for writers?

Aspiring teacher-writers are around their target audience all day – they read to them and can see first-hand what they like and what they don’t. There are plenty of opportunities to slip their own writing in – or I certainly did – to gauge reaction.

Teachers enjoy engaging with children. I hated the paperwork, pressure and ever-increasing workload of life as a teacher, but always loved talking to children – having a laugh, hearing what made them tick. It inspired poems…and still does. Teachers who want to write will have their receptors tuned in.

Also, the wannabe teacher-writer will (hopefully!) get to witness in full glorious technicolour those already doing the job – when I was a primary teacher, I was lucky enough to have writers including Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Tom Palmer, Nick Toczek and Wes Magee in school – and watched what they did and how they did it.  Some did assemblies, some didn’t, some only worked with KS2 classes, some did Q+As etc – they all had their own style – and I could cherry pick!

Those with a teaching background will be confident in pitching the level of work they ask children to do in their sessions – and, on a practical level, will have an awareness of how to organise a workshop session: what equipment will all classrooms have? How should a 30min/45min/1hr be structured? How much input is needed in order to get the children writing?

Teaching is one big performance! You can be the finest writer of poetry the world has ever seen – but stand in front of a 3-form-entry infant school, or a 4-form-entry junior school where the streetwise Y6s eye you with the utmost suspicion, and you realise that you have to be able to perform – entertain, engage and hold the attention of children (and the adults sitting round the side!). An audience of adults watching a boring performance will most probably remain polite…. 350 bored 5-7 year olds will immediately let you know they’re bored.

Alongside the day-to-day classroom ‘performance’, teachers will generally have a track record in delivering assemblies, the physical act of standing up in front of large groups of children and being the focal point. This doesn’t come naturally to everyone but those who’ve taught will have had to do it…and will have developed their own style. Even as a class teacher with no leadership responsibility, I was on a weekly rota for Key Stage 2 assemblies (and often had to cover whole school assemblies) – it was a time when the other class teachers stayed in their classrooms catching up on marking etc and crucially allowed me to deliver whatever official message I had to deliver…and then sneak some poems in to get them road-tested in front of mixed ages…what work? What doesn’t? What gets the Y6s joining in as well as the Y3s etc?

No wonder so many writers come from a teaching background!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation. His most recent collection is ‘Bright Bursts of Colour’ (Bloomsbury 2020).  

Cheryl Moskowitz: From The Raven to The Odyssey

From The Raven to the Odyssey

So here we are, a new year and schools closed again.

As a poet writing for children, I want to know: what it is like to be a child at this time? What is most boring, most interesting, most concerning about the current situation from a child’s point of view? How are they spending their time? What games are they playing? What stories and poems are they reading, and what do they themselves most need to write?

When the first lockdown began in March 2020 I spoke to children directly about the pandemic, about not being able to go to school or see their friends. They talked about their worries and frustrations, their wishes and hopes, and their visions for a corona-free world. I wrote poems in response to those conversations to reflect their experience. Back then the coronavirus was new. Scary perhaps but also different, interesting and maybe even for some, exciting.

Children from Margate class with their ‘Poetry Passports’ at The Beacon, a foundation special school in Kent 

Since then we have been through many rule changes, loosening and tightening of restrictions and at the time of writing, we have just entered a new national lockdown and Covid-19 is no longer a novelty.

The pandemic is not the only thing going on in children’s lives – new things happen all the time. Fresh experiences that need processing. That’s why conversation is so important. To converse means literally to ‘live among’ or to be ‘familiar with’ and it is how we exchange important feelings and ideas. Social distancing puts up barriers to conversation, so we have had to find new ways to converse meaningfully, particularly with our children.

Last Autumn, when schools were in attendance, I was fortunate enough to take part in Pop Up’s SEND Festival, usually a hands-on literature programme for pupils in special schools. This time the ‘hands-on’ element needed to be virtual rather than actual but that was an exciting and interesting challenge.

My first task was to find a way to familiarise myself with the children and them with me, before my online visit. Key to this was talking to teachers about their pupils, finding out about individual quirks. I also made a video in which I introduced myself and set the pupils a task of making a ‘poetry passport’. They had to choose an alias instead of their name, identify a distinguishing characteristic, state a like and dislike, a dream, an ambition, and something they would never do. 

This ‘sneak peek’ I had of the children’s personalities, dreams and dreads enabled me to write a riddle-type poem containing hints of all their identities and proved to be an engaging way to start the session. Having recognised themselves in the poem I’d written, they were much more willing to engage and write revealing and moving poems of their own, even though (or maybe because!) I was on one side of the screen and they on the other. 

When we share a piece of writing or a favourite poem with one another this is also a form of conversation. During these past months I’ve been mentoring a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy in creative writing. It has been revelatory to let these young people set the agenda. The boy, who loves dystopian fiction, led me to ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe which, with its powerful incantation Nevermore, is a poem about living with loss.

The girl has steered me towards Homer’s Odyssey and we are still puzzling together whether the eponymous hero should be held responsible for so many of his fellow men’s deaths. There could not be two better metaphors for our times. Schools may be closed but children’s minds are most certainly not.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. 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. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.

Teresa Cremin: A 2021 Poetry Pledge

A 2021 Poetry Pledge

As poetry and fiction have their roots in everyday speech, our first experiences of poetry are often aural. From our earliest years we take pleasure in the playful, rhythmic nature of language which is poetic in nature.  This ‘memorable speech’ (Auden and Garret, 1935) often entices young children to participate orally in word play and encourages them to experiment with and absorb playground rhymes, songs, football chants, jingles, jokes and lyrics.

So as a New Year’s resolution, I invite you to commit to celebrating the power and pleasure in  poetry more regularly. Perhaps, like me, you’ll pledge to read a poem aloud each day during January? I’m going to give voice to verse daily, bringing ‘dead’ words on the page to life and tracking the consequences of this simple act on myself as an adult reader and on those around me. If you’re a teacher, as many readers of this blog are, I wonder what the impact of reading a poem a day will be on the young people? 

If you agree to join me, then I suggest making such a plan public – with the children, with family and even on social media- this is likely to ensure we sustain our commitment and help us pay close attention to any emergent consequences.

Might you set a particular time aside for this? I think I’m going to read aloud a poem just before or after supper, Mark, my husband, might listen in then. In classrooms, (in person or virtually),  I recommend selecting a space that has the capacity to stretch over time, i.e. not at the close of the day or just before a break – who knows what might happen?

What might you read? Personally, I’m going to make a pile of some old but gold, alongside some new and bold poetry collections, and revisit a range of forms and styles, seeking to move well beyond those which are explicitly created/framed to be read aloud.  In schools, maybe themed weeks will develop with female poets or verse about particular topics of interest – food, animals, injustice – and a recommendations table with teachers and children’s favourites bookmarked for reading time.  I guess I’ll be re-reading some too, to discern their nature or to taste them on my tongue again.

How might you share this time with others?  I imagine Mark will browse my collection if I leave them lying around, and my reading will prompt discussion, just as in school. Soon enough, I expect teachers will find children making requests and offering to read aloud too. If this doesn’t happen naturally, I’d trigger it and invite pairs or groups to volunteer to prepare readings or mini performances to share with the class. Developing this idea, Sadie Philips from a London primary school, brought in an old twig tree, introduced it as a special ‘Poet-Tree’ and invited children to copy their chosen read/performed poems onto a leaf ,(later laminated), for others to enjoy.  The children’s ownership of their Poet-Tree had consequences and triggered increased awareness, pleasure and engagement in the form.

Poetry deserves to be heard. Voicing a poem each day will help build poems ‘in common’ in homes and classrooms. Our research suggests that we live through such ‘texts in common’  together and when they are offered for the sole purpose of  shared enjoyment, they represent a rich resource for repeated readings, conversation and connections.  In addition, they nurture our pleasure in reading and play a particularly resonant role in helping build reading communities (Cremin, 2018).

Will you join me?

Teresa Cremin

Teresa Cremin 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 books include Children reading for pleasure in the digital age: Mapping reader engagement (with Natalia Kucirkova, 2020) and the forthcoming Teaching English Creatively (3rd edition).

Teresa leads a professional user-community website that supports over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 30 HEI partnerships across the country in order to support the development of children’s and teachers’ pleasure in reading. @TeresaCremin

Christmas Poems

A huge thank you to all the poets who have contributed to this week of Christmas poems. A very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Better New Year to all our Readers.

Illustration: Sue Hardy-Dawson


One white winter dawn with a crystal glow

a small child asked

what do reindeer do?

Dance on clouds,

said his mother,

drink river’s freeze

gild gem-cloven lawns with their glittering toes.


One crisp, brittle noon with a sun that froze

a small child called

how do reindeer grow?


said his father,

from icicle trees

bound in the bud of a grizzled, dry rose.


One twinkly night with a rattle and blow

a small child cried

but how do you know?

We listen,

said his sister,

deep into sleep

for tinkling of bells and a dusting of snow.


Sue Hardy Dawson


Painting: Jan Dean

One Star


Mary’s son

Just begun


Straw  bed

Tiny head


Shepherd’s keep

Sleepy sheep


Dark night

Angel light


Sent them

To Bethlehem


One star

Travelled far


Three kings

Brought things


The light of heaven’s starry skies

Shines in this small baby’s eyes.


God is born for you and me

A blessing and a mystery.


Jan Dean


For a Hard Winter


When all around you seems to fall away

and, short of breath, the damp air snaps and bites.

When what was once alive sinks in decay

and shadows loom in places that were bright.

When joy and hope and spirits fade to grey

and spring and summer colours shrink from sight.

When daytime seems no different from dark.

Remember, child: within you glows a spark.


Shauna Darling Robertson