Chrissie Gittins: Files Not Found on a Computer

‘Files Not Found On A Computer’ is the title of a poem from ‘Stars in Jars’ (Bloomsbury). I had been thinking about computers, and that however useful they are they cannot replicate the variety of lived experience. I imagined three files which can’t be found on a computer, each containing a list of sensations relating to three of the five senses.

When I use this poem in a workshop in schools I first ask the class what a computer can do that human beings can’t do, and then the reverse. We read through the poem twice, as a class and/or with different voices, so that the children become familiar with the concept and the patterning in the poem.

Files Not Found on a computer

 

The Touch File

a son stroking his father’s cheek,

fingers folding a hamster’s fur,

a face buried in cherry blossom,

enclosing arms of goodnight.

 

The Taste File

 

the saltiness of boiled ham

against soft white bread,

the sharpness of marmalade

melding with butter on solid wholemeal toast,

the twang of rhubarb with ginger

hiding beneath crumble,

the cut of iced sparkling water

swilling down my throat.

 

The Aroma File

a wet dog in the rain,

garlic squashed beneath a knife,

lavender steaming from my bath,

croissant warming Sunday morning.

 

After writing the title and the three verse titles on the board/flip chart I explain that I chose the word ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’ to inspire appealing experiences for the nose, rather than ‘bad smells’. I then ask for contributions for each file in turn – something they like the feel/taste/smell of. If their answers are brief I quiz the contributor about their suggestion, encouraging them to expand their answer with precise details and descriptions. I ask for examples from the natural world, and ask them to use specific names of any birds, plants, trees etc. they might want to include. I point out that it’s difficult for their reader to imagine ‘a bird’ or ‘a flower’ in their mind’s eye, but much easier to imagine ‘a magpie’ or ‘a snowdrop’.

I had the opportunity to run this workshop in the middle of a field during the North Cornwall Book Festival in the hamlet of St Endellion with children from a local primary school. The workshop was filmed by BBC Countryfile for a piece concerned with nature words which are in danger of disappearing from children’s vocabularies. This tied in with my most recent poetry collection ‘Adder, Bluebell, Lobster’ (Otter-Barry Books) which takes forty of these endangered nature words as titles for new poems. Before beginning the workshop I usually read several poems from this book, choosing the ones which give plenty of scope for audience interaction such as ‘Blackberry’, ‘Cauliflower’ ‘Mint’ ‘Otter’, ‘Newt’ and ‘Raven’.

Of course there are other verses which could be written on ‘The Sight File’ and ‘The Hearing File’. As we wrote our group poem in Cornwall we were able to hear a lark overhead and the rustling of birch trees, and to see ‘sage green hills melting into the horizon’ (a line from the group poem). We could have also included the wind whipping up the flipchart, or the man who drove his car down the side of the field while his dog ran alongside.

A material-gathering-walk could be incorporated into a school-based workshop with periodic stops to look and listen, smell and touch (maybe not taste?), and to make notes and/or quick sketches.

Wishing you much enjoyment of writing and reading poems in 2020 both inside and en plein air.

Chrissie Gittins

Of Chrissie’s five children’s poetry collections three were Choices for the Poetry Book Society Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, and two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Poetry Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a finalist in the Manchester Children’s Literature Prize. Her poems have been animated for Cbeebies TV and she has recorded her poems for the Children’s Poetry Archive. She visits schools, libraries and festivals, she has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Chrissie’s website.

Morag Styles: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Of Rossetti, Robins and Rhymes: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c1744, Children’s Chapbook, Public Domain, Held by British Library

My head has been deep in the British Library collection of early children’s poetry, some of which has been digitised and is soon to be showcased on a forthcoming website. To be able to see Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744 in all its glory on the screen is a rare treat. And likely to please young readers as it is full of delightful rhymes and illustrations – and rude in parts!

Little robin red breast

Sitting on a pole

Niddle, noddle,

Went his head,

And poop went his hole.

I haven’t yet looked online at Christina Rossetti’s manuscript copy of Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book, 1872, but as I have actually held it carefully in white gloved hands I can tell you it is quite wonderful to see her handwriting and her own little pencil-drawn illustrations. Even better is to witness some of the small changes she made to her text. This exceptional collection is not as well known as it ought to be with its tender and lively variety of poetry for young readers.

‘Sing Song’: a volume of 121 nursery rhymes, 1868/70, Christina Rossetti, Copyright Unknown, Held by British Library.

Something must have been in the air as Lear’s brilliant Nonsense Songs and Stories was published the same year as Sing-Song and Carroll’s inspired parody of Jane Taylor’s The Star just a few years earlier in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Twinkle, twinkle little bat

How I wonder what you’re at…

Even now, hard to beat those two great humorists in verse.

Songs of Innocence and Experience [A facsimile of a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition], 1923, William Blake, Held by The British Library, Public Domain.
I’ve also been revisiting Blake’s dazzling Songs of Innocence of 1789, Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1842, his tragic and thrilling tale of mayhem, madness and mendacity, and A.A. Milne’s much loved When We Were Very Young, 1924, with E.H. Shepard’s outstanding illustrations. So many poems in these volumes are still winners with the young. If you haven’t looked at them for a while, they are more than worthy of your attention on the British Library’s website. The new Discovering Children’s Books site will launch in late February 2020.

I was delighted to be asked to write about these works in the context of making connections with contemporary poets writing for children, especially if the British Library or Seven Stories, with whom they have worked in partnership, hold their manuscripts. John Agard, James Berry, Valerie Bloom, Jackie Kay, Roger McGough, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and others come into this category and are perfect choices for considering links and contrasts with early poetry when talking about nursery rhymes, humour and storytelling in verse. Many themes that work in children’s poetry are timeless and one of those is the natural world. Poets have always served children well in drawing environmental issues to their attention in a way that makes them care.  Never more important than now.

Morag Styles

Morag Styles is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Poetry and the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children. She has written many books and articles on children’s poetry, edited several volumes on children’s literature, and is editor of numerous anthologies of poetry for children.

 

Cheryl Moskowitz: In Their Words

In their words

Here we are in January, the first month of the year, and only a week or so into a new decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on time and change and redefine priorities.

January takes its name from Janus, meaning ‘archway’. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways, who presided over difficult transitions, the beginning and the ending of conflicts, and was one who could look backwards as well as forward.

Last year, through worldwide school strike action, young people rose to the surface, inspiring a global movement to fight climate change. Less than a month ago on December 11, 2019, 16 year old Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Speaking at a UN climate change summit in Madrid before the announcement, she urged world leaders to face up to the crisis we are in and take immediate action. The next decade, she said, would define the planet’s future.

The two faces of Janus represent the middle ground between the old and the new, between youth and adulthood.  This dual gaze reminds us we must look to our young as much as to our elders for wisdom and understanding. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to our young people, join forces to find a common language and work creatively with them towards a safe and productive future.

In this second week of January 2020, we are one month on from a general election that children, by virtue of their age, are given no voice in. We enter this new decade still negotiating conflict and in a process of transition, surfacing from an intense period of time where rhetoric and vitriol became the dominant modes of expression. It is vital now that we communicate differently, learn to express ourselves with more clarity, more beauty, more hopefulness, more kindness and more truth. Children and poetry have a big part to play in making that happen.

The Children’s Poetry Summit is made up of adults who believe passionately in the value of poetry and the importance of making it available to children. So, in the spirit of Janus and giving children a voice, I thought I would begin this new decade by looking back at work done during my poetry residency at Highfield Primary School in North London from 2014-18 and publishing a list, a manifesto if you like, written by the children there about why they think poetry is necessary.

As teachers, creative educators and poets writing for children it is always good to remind ourselves, from the child’s perspective, what a child thinks a poem is, what a child knows that a poem can do and why a child believes that the presence of poets and poetry in their schools could play a key part of defining their world’s future.

Here’s what members of the Highfield school council from years 3, 4, 5 & 6, had to say on poetry, in their words.

 

What is a Poem?

A poem is a lie that tells the truth

a poem is a sword, sharp and sly

a poem is a light in the darkness, a single star in the night sky

a poem removes the blindfold so that we can see the world more clearly

a poem is a rainbow leading to treasure, a lost treasure drowned in tears

a poem is a memory, a poem is remembering, a poem is being remembered

and never forgotten

 

What can a poem do?

A poem can blow you away

a poem can be an embrace

a poem can change people’s minds

a poem uses rules, lets you make your own rules, makes you the ruler

a poem can be a doorway to history and new understanding

a poem helps us know the world and our place in it

a poem tells others who we are, what we know, what we want and what we believe…

a poem can change your life!!!

 

Since having a poet in our school…

we are thinking creatively about what we want for the future

we are learning about ourselves and other people

we are sharing memories, spreading messages

we are changing people’s minds about children

we are raising standards, gaining confidence

we are imagining new possibilities

we are feeling inspired

we are making the headlines

 

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. Cheryl’s website.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Planning Poetry

Planning Poetry – a glimpse behind the OB Books publication schedule

At Otter-Barry Books we’ve planned for five poetry titles to publish in 2020. This is the optimum number of poetry books we can handle editorially and give the necessary marketing time to, given our small team, and it feels the right number for the market too.

We’ve been in business for three years and our poetry list has developed a reputation for quality, diversity and inclusion – so it’s important that our 2020 titles build on this. I thought it might be interesting to explain a bit about the way we’ve planned the year’s publications…

So… our two February term-time slots go to two poets who work a lot in schools.

Paul Cookson’s There’s a Crocodile in the House is a performance collection, pitched a bit younger than his previous collections and we really like that it works for KS1 as well as KS2, that it’s funny and will appeal even to children who think they don’t like poetry – and that it has friendly, clear instructions to the adult on how to perform the poems and get the children joining in. Paul will be taking the book into hundreds of schools this year. It’s going to be perfect for World Book Day and has brilliant illustrations by Liz Million.

Alongside this we’re publishing Justin Coe’s The Magic of Mums. A companion to The Dictionary of Dads, his successful 2017 collection, this one is perfect for Mother’s Day. We’ve worked hard to select a strong balance of comic, heart-warming and thought-provoking poems and the final selection includes Two Mums, Windrush Mum, Action Mum, Earth Mother, Everybody’s Mum and Dad-Mum – 46 mums in all. It’s a beautiful celebration of every possible kind of mother, with huge performance potential – and with great pictures by Steve Wells.

Our August slots are back-to-school pub dates, but also with summer holiday and festival sales potential. We’ve planned two amazing collections for 7-11s for this month.

I’ve loved Mandy Coe’s poetry for a long time, both her adult and children’s poems, and we are thrilled to be publishing her new children’s collection. Mandy is a poetry powerhouse, with fantastic links to the lively poetry scene in the north-west, and the soon-to-be-opened Manchester Poetry Library. Belonging Street is a wonderful mix of poems about nature and the environment, family and community – peppered with puzzles and wordplay. All illustrated by Mandy herself. A beautifully crafted collection that works equally well on the page and in performance.

Dear Ugly Sisters, Poems by Laura Mucha, Illustrated by Tania Rex, Draft Cover.

Also in August we’re proud to be publishing Laura Mucha’s debut solo collection. Laura burst onto the children’s poetry scene quite recently but she’s already been widely anthologised and won two prestigious prizes, plus her high-energy performances are becoming legendary! We were blown away by the quality and maturity of Dear Ugly Sisters. Fairytale, magic, science, nature, feelings – it’s an incredibly wide-ranging and exciting debut and we can’t wait to share it. The illustrator is Tania Rex, an emerging illustrator who’s perfectly captured the atmosphere of the poems.

The Girl Who Became a Tree, A Story in Poems, by Joseph Coelho, Illustrated by Kate Milner, Draft cover.

Last but not least, in September comes the new collection by Joseph Coelho. We believe that with Joe’s profile and award-winning track record we can publish this book in hardback in the September hot spot and it will be a stand-out title for our customers – and readers. The Girl Who Became a Tree is Joe’s first teen collection and it’s a powerful, original and extraordinary ‘ story told in poems’ with links to the Apollo and Daphne myth. Growing up, bereavement, fantasy, gaming, family relationships. All these and more are woven into the poetic narrative, matched with amazing illustrations by Kate Milner.

So, five very different poets, five distinctive and powerful voices. We believe passionately in the importance and value of their work and we’ll be working closely with all of them in 2020 to make sure their books reach the widest possible audience. Happy new year!

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.

 

A Christmas Poetry Feast!

Today we have no blog, but a feast of Christmas poems, chosen by or written by Children’s Poetry Summit members!

 

William Shakespeare, Chosen by Allie Esirie, from Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esirie, Macmillan.

Christmas Morning

 

Last year

on Christmas morning

we got up really early

and took the dog for a walk

across the downs

 

It wasn’t snowing

but the hills were white with frost

and our breath froze

in the air

 

Judy rushed around like a crazy thing

as though Christmas

meant something special to her

 

The sheep huddled together

looking tired

as if they’d been up all night

watching the stars

 

We stood at the highest point

and thought about what Christmas means

and looked over the white hills

and looked up at the blue sky

 

And the hills seemed

to go on forever

and the sky had no bounds

and you could imagine

a world at peace

 

Roger Stevens

 

For Christmas

 

I give you a wooden gate

to open onto the world,

 

I give you a bendy ruler

to measure the snow that swirls,

 

I give you a prestidigitator

to make your woes disappear,

 

I give you a hopping robin –

he’ll be your friend throughout the year,

 

I give you a box of mist

to throw over past mist-akes,

 

I give you a slice of ice

to slide on mysterious lakes.

 

Chrissie Gittins, from The Humpback’s Wail.

 

Liz Brownlee, first published in Christmas Poems, Chosen by Gaby Morgan, Macmillan.

 

Christmas Blessing

Into our home
bring fairy lights
colour to shine
on darkest nights.

On the tree
hang figurines
absent friends
returned to me.

Wrapping paper
fills the room
generosity
in bloom.

On the table
the pudding flames
all winter long
its fire remains.

 

Lorraine Mariner

 

 

Christmas Day

 

It was waking early and making a din.

It was knowing that for the next twenty minutes

I’d never be quite so excited again.

It was singing the last verse of

‘O Come all Ye Faithful’, the one that’s

only meant to be sung on Christmas Day.

It was lighting a fire in the unused room

and a draught that blew back woodsmoke

into our faces.

It was lunch and a full table,

and dad repeating how he’d once eaten his

off the bonnet of a lorry in Austria.

It was keeping quiet for the Queen

and Gran telling that one about children

being seen but not heard.

(As if we could get a word in edgeways

once she started!)

It was ‘Monopoly’ and me out to cheat the Devil

to be the first to reach Mayfair.

It was, “Just a small one for the lad,”

and dad saying, “We don’t want him getting ‘tipsy.”

It was aunts assaulting the black piano

and me keeping clear of mistletoe

in case they trapped me.

It was pinning a tail on the donkey,

and nuts that wouldn’t crack

and crackers that pulled apart but didn’t bang.

 

And then when the day was almost gone,

it was Dad on the stairs,

on his way to bed,

and one of us saying:

“You’ve forgotten to take your hat off….”

And the purple or pink or orange paper

still crowning his head.

 

Brian Moses

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teresa Cremin: Profiling Poetry this December

Profiling Poetry this December

It’s Yuletide – a time for carols, songs, stories and poetry– a time to tempt children with the words and tunes, rhythm and rhyme that play into this space of celebration. Over the decades, teachers have made this time special in school, offering class, whole school and community events that involve giving, receiving and so much more.

It is also a rich opportunity to read, write and perform poetry together and to seize those liminal spaces when half the class are at a play practice or are finishing making cards for instance. So, in this Christmas blog, given there is scant time for thinking as we rush from job to job, planning food, writing cards and generally panicking (well I am!),  I thought I’d simply share some ideas for profiling poetry this December.

Advent Calendar Poetree: This idea was developed by Miss Graham, an NQT from Edge Hill University who is working at Kingsmoor Junior in Carlisle, Cumbria. Eager to foster children’s reading for pleasure @MissGrahamteach hid 24 wrapped poems in each classroom, children find the day’s poem and share it! Each dated poem also has a challenge on the back- a discussion question relating to the topic or form of the poem to get children buzzing about poetry!

Poems as Christmas Gifts: Inviting the class to write their own poems as gifts for family members always works well. Focusing on a chosen relative or friend, rather than the jolly red stereotypes of Christmas is often more engaging. The key, as George Szirtes highlights, is to avoid platitudes and clichés, but to let the pressure of such avoidance ‘be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like’. You could explore what makes their grandma so special – what are the objects in her house, her voice,  style, typical expressions and so forth. Or you could play the furniture game and encourage them to imagine their grandad as a piece of furniture ‘a deep leather sofa creased and loved’ perhaps? Printed on card and illustrated, this will be given with love.

Poetry Recommendations for Parents: Encouraging poetry gift giving, schools can offer a recommended booklist of their top ten poetry collections, perhaps on the school website or newsletter.

Pop-up Poets: Why not interleave  opportunities to share poetry – the children’s own and others – when parents come to see their children’s work or attend events? You could create pop-up poets who, having prepped their chosen poem in small groups, are at the ready when a governor, parents or others come by? They can then rush off and perform their poem – ‘Talkin turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah or ‘The computer’s first Christmas card’ by Edwin Morgan would work well amongst many others.

Poetry in Christmas gatherings: Most schools will be joining together in a special assembly or performance. Why not interleave the printed programme with children’s own poems? Or offer live poetry during the interval?  Saint Andrew’s C of E Primary school Halstead hold an annual candlelight service for the children who sit in a circle around the candles while each member of staff reads a poem or an extract. One teacher there, Claire Williams (@borntosparkle), tells me that the sense of peace and ‘togetherness’ is tangible, especially when the headteacher closes by reading ‘A visit from Saint Nicolas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Sounds very memorable.

Regardless of the way you enjoy poetry with your class this December, I hope you and the children will be tempted by the words and tunes, the ideas and images that such rich language provides.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

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.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.

Rachel Rooney: Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the Sweet Spot

Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed  as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.

Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.

 

The 20a Bus

 

In the line you hear a chatter

Up and down a clatter, clatter.

Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout

pushing in and pushing out.

 

Down the street the red bus trundles.

Girls surge forward all in bundles.

On at last, but what a rush

Banged my elbows in the crush.

 

‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’

said the lady with big buttons, who

had a habit to pursue

the trivial things young children do.

 

And when the bus stops in the street

I kick her underneath the seat

And when the lady stops her chat

I pull the cherries from her hat.

 

Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.

The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?

I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.

And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.

 

The Long Holidays

 

The day stretches ahead – nothing but

grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky

as far as the eye can see

 

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

 

and the wind galloping hard over the fields

like a riderless horse.

 

Esther Morgan

 

If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.

 

Rachel Rooney

Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).

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

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Finch

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