Pie Corbett: 16 Things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

16 things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

I developed this idea with Brian Moses about 38 years ago. In those days, we had our children writing lists along the lines of ‘5 things you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag’. This is the version that I wrote at the time to use as a model for children (Ian McMillan has also written several similar list poems).

Six things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

A wasp’s sting to startle unwary goblins.

Two leather-bound books. One titled, ‘Tunnel digging for beginners’ and the other, ‘Wolves and methods for their avoidance’.

A purse of never-ending wishes.

A pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow.

A pair of twelve league boots.

A fur-lined cape, the colour of rock, for keeping warm in the winter and using as camouflage.

© Pie Corbett

  1. Read the model through and discuss the ideas.
  2. Brainstorm a list of other possibilities.
  3. Use shared writing to create a few lines
  4. Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
  5. Children share and polish their ideas.
  6. Hear examples. Copy favourites for display or to make a booklet.

This is an example from working with a year six class.

We started with a rapid class brainstorm of possibilities: a hammer forged from underground mines; a dagger for dragon attack; oat cake or seed cake; a small block of hardened cheese; a flagon of water for rehydration; a clarinet, reed pipe or recorder; flint and steel; a map of The Misty Mountains; a quill and slate for writing runes, communication or sending a message; a silver pen for writing which can only be read by the light of the moon; a diamond for bargaining; a sack for treasure; an invisibility cloak and some pork pie.

We then did shared writing of a few lines:

A silver pen for secret statements concealed safely beneath a moonless night.

An enchanted reed pipe to fool your advancing foe by summoning a slither of moonlight.

Here is a list made by four of the year 6 children:

Sixteen things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

Two fire-flies in a jam jar to light up your way.

A book of myths and legends though some would call them truths.

A quill of wise words that writes runes to summon a thread of starlight.

A silver pen that can only be seen by the light of the moon.

Gandalf’s pocket-watch where you spin the hands to turn time.

An enchanted reed pipe for summoning a slither of moonlight to guide you in the night.

A charmed recorder for fooling or hypnotising your foe.

A cauldron of wishes at the edge of an inquisitive mind.

Homely, hard cheese for a fireless night.

A flagon of never-ending water to quench any dwarf’s thirst.

A golden feather, plucked from the finest eagle and a strip of slate forged in goblin mines to contact the nearest village, using an ancient map of The Misty Mountains.

The fang of a dragon to slay fleeing foe.

A completely crystal dagger, able to pierce through any armour and wound even the deadliest of creatures.

A pair of relatively light boots which can endure months of crossing rivers, navigating woods and stumbling through seemingly endless caves and caverns.

A steel-lined cape to protect you from fire, piercing blades and the strongest of incantations.

Of course, the lists could be about what you would find in a troll’s rucksack, a giant’s suitcase, a unicorn’s saddle bags or a goblin’s backpack!

© Pie Corbett 2020

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice. Talk for Writing.

Andrea Reece: Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Among the anniversaries to be celebrated in 2020 is one very important landmark for children’s literature: Books for Keeps, the children’s book magazine, is 40. In its very first issue, way back in 1980, editor Pat Triggs explained what the magazine would be: ‘Helpful, practical, stimulating, informative, entertaining, sometimes provocative and always enjoyable to read’.  And so it has remained, as a dip into the archives reveals. Past issues are all available to read for free on the website, four decades worth of serious (though never earnest) scrutiny of writing for young people.

Unsurprisingly, poetry for children has been a major preoccupation of BfK editors and contributors, and the archive is a revealing commentary on the contemporary history of the genre, the highs, lows, rise of new poets, and growing concentration on its importance to children themselves.

‘Every teacher needs a personal bookshelf of anthologies and collections of favourite poets. Every classroom needs poetry in the book corner.’ Editor Pat Triggs again, in 1983, lines that are just as true today, and need as much emphasis. She was writing in the era of the Signal Award for Poetry, a period when there was an unparalleled energy in the publishing of the genre, prompted perhaps, as Brian Alderson wondered at the time, by the presence of the Award itself. Such was the healthy state of poetry that in 1988 BfK was able to publish a guide to children’s poetry, edited by Chris Powling and Morag Styles.  It was revised and updated in 1991. Authorgraph subjects of the 1990s include Roger McGough, Kit Wright, Charles Causley, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen and James Berry – and a delightfully playful conversation with Lewis Carroll no less, as imagined by Naomi Lewis. (For non-BfK readers, the Authorgraph is our feature interview, an in-depth discussion with leading writers for children).

In an article in 1996, then Puffin editor now agent Philippa Milnes-Smith was able to celebrate the impact poetry for children was having, and even to grumble that poetry accounted for less than 5% of children’s books published and was never considered for the Carnegie Medal. She was happy to stand up for comic verse too, and just as well, because there was a surprising amount of public hostility, as demonstrated by her favourite press clipping of the time: MUM CALLS FOR BAN ON REVOLTING NOSE POEM.

Come 2001 however and things feel gloomy. Robert Hull is forced to ask, ‘What hope for children’s poetry?’, worried that children’s understanding of poetry is being driven out by the curriculum. Comic poetry is no longer a laughing matter, and Morag Styles, judging the CLPE Poetry Award in 2004, worries about the preponderance of ‘relentlessly jokey books of second rate verse printed on rough paper’.

Jumping ahead a decade however, and things are on the up again. A trawl of BfK makes the reasons clear: the reinvigoration of the CLPE Poetry Award, now CLiPPA, which, like the Signal Award in the 20th century, gave publishers reason again to invest in poetry; the combined efforts of organisations such as CLPE, NLT, UKLA, National Poetry Day and the Poetry Society to promote poetry for children; the work of campaigners such as Kate Clanchy, not to mention that of individual poets themselves in schools, festivals and, significantly, digitally. A search of recent issues will find articles on the influence of rap and hip-hop, on the liveliest techniques for encouraging children’s poetry writing, while round ups of the best new poetry feature books by 21st century stars Rachel Rooney, Karl Nova and Kate Wakeling. Recent Authorgraph subjects have included Joseph Coelho, A F Harrold and Sarah Crossan and the July issue will feature Carnegie winning verse novelist Elizabeth Acevedo.

In fact, as we mark the 40th anniversary, the time seems right to create another Books for Keeps Guide to Children’s Poetry. July seems the right time – coinciding with the announcement of the CLiPPA. What do you think?

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.

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.

 

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.

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Hannah Rolls

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

Tracey Guiry: Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

I don’t remember poetry being spoken of in my house as I grew up and certainly not spoken out loud. We lived on a remote farm and I spent from dawn to dusk outdoors, which in the 60’s and 70’s meant truly outdoors,  being given a cheese sandwich and some orange squash and told to be back before it got dark. The stories I most loved as a child reflected that sense of freedom, of being master of my own destiny, an explorer and an adventurer no less brave or able than my brothers.

From an early age I knew the name of pretty much everything I came across in the fields and woods around our village so it is really no surprise that the first poems which snagged my imagination were about the things I knew best. Poems like John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest, with his lovely made-up words like ‘prog’, and Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox, ‘and again now, and now, and now’ brought a shock of recognition which I can still recall with a smile. These poems filled my mind with pictures even if, at the time, I thought they truly were only about a mouse and a fox. There is nothing can compare to the moment we discover something we know speaks to us alone.  I remembered these feelings as we made the decision to create a Poetry Archive dedicated to children.

The Poetry Archive exists to produce, acquire, preserve and share the world’s finest poetry read out loud and it wasn’t long into our history of making recordings that we knew children’s poetry should have its own website.  We believe passionately that poems are not only words on a page but equally have a life in the mouth and on the ear and we wanted to break down any barriers which might exist between a child and a poem. The quality of writing for children has always been high – children are the most discerning and demanding audiences – but there were few websites specifically designed with a younger user in mind.

Young people today are technologically savvy in ways I couldn’t even have imagined at their age, and our site needed to reflect that. The ‘favourite’ function next to each poem allows users to click on the and save poems to their very own collection in ‘My Archive’. From there they can create their own poetry playlists, listen back to their own curated collections and share the poems they like with their friends. The ‘eyes closed, ears open’ button allows them to switch off all the other sights and sounds on the page except for the poet and their voice.

We want children to discover poetry for themselves. There is no fanfare of description on the Children’s Poetry Archive, no lessons on meaning, or other people’s opinions, though these can be found by anyone wanting to search. When a child arrives at the Children’s Archive they will find only the poet’s voice, the sound their words make, and a head full of pictures all their own which they can recall with a smile all their lives.

Tracey Guiry

Children’s Poetry Archive.

Tracey Guiry is the Director of the Poetry Archive. She worked in the Giant Screen film industry before learning how to build very big cinemas. She then went on to build even bigger Visitor Attractions and Science Centres which brought art, science and nature education to the public, becoming a Director at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol before it launched in 2000. Her passion for poetry and literature led to her co-founding Literature Works with Alex Cluness in 2008 to provide developmental support to writers – this became a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council in 2009. She joined the Poetry Archive in 2016, working to ensure their poetry collections and education materials can continue to be shared free-of-charge with as many people as possible. The Children’s Poetry Archive was developed with the kind support of the T S Eliot Foundation.

James Carter: Poet Laureate… for Children

What better date than National Poetry Day to suggest something new to the children’s poetry world…?

Now. In the 20 years or so I’ve been lucky to be working as a children’s poet – writing and publishing children’s poetry, visiting well over 1200 schools in the UK and abroad – I’ve noticed a gradual but significant sea change. For up-and-coming poets I’d argue it’s a more welcoming place than it ever was. Moreover, there’s a wonderful, thriving and wholly supportive community of UK children’s poets online; check it out on Twitter. I feel that the poetry books – collections and anthologies – we publish now are of a better quality overall and have a more inspiring range of topics than ever before. Many of the wonderful teachers I meet – Primary teachers – seem to be so much more enthusiastic about poetry now and have shaken off that age-old intimidation or reluctance – even saying to me how much their classes love doing poetry – reading, writing and performing it. Not so much do I hear ‘poetry is scary’. Hurrah! Literary festivals are booking more poets. We even have a number of children’s poetry awards. (A couple more would be good though…) Plus, as far as I can see, poetry seems to be read far more at home than it ever was. Allelujah to that!

Yet the ‘p’ word still garners the odd groan amongst adults particularly, and that will never go away entirely – and I partly blame the English Literature curriculum’s obsession with verse deconstruction at GCSE for that.

As a fan of American verse, I often look to see what poetry is happening over the pond. And what I’ve noticed is that they don’t just have a Children’s Laureate, but a Children’s Poet Laureate. So how about having the same over here, in office for say two years, leading conferences, training teachers, advising librarians, doing family shows in communities, training up-and-coming poets on how to perform poems/run workshops, giving media soundbites on why poetry is so vital for the young. And rather than trying to work nationally all the time, they could focus their work regionally, so much more can be achieved and with greater depth. I can think of many contemporary children’s poets that would be ideal for this job.

And though poetry is on the up, there’s still more to be done – more teachers, librarians, parents and carers that need to be convinced and shown the myriad benefits of poetry – in terms of children writing, nurturing children’s reading and developing oracy/performance skills. They need to be shown that prose is a mountain, verse is a hill. The more hills children can climb – and early on – the better communicators, the more passionate readers and committed writers they will become. Poetry writing encourages autobiographical writing (q.v. free verse) as well as figurative and expressive language, full of rich imagery; it actively promotes children writing imaginatively and freely, exploring their own thoughts, ideas and creativities. What’s more, the more poems children write, the better they will be at writing prose. This is not a theory but a fact!

Fancy sponsoring this WH Smiths, Foyles, Blackwells, Amazon? And how about getting National Poetry Day UK / The Poetry Society / Children’s Poetry Summit behind this? If each Laureate does a two year term – after ten years, there would have been five different laureates, say all based in very different parts of the UK, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bringing all of us children’s poets ever closer together, with each Laureate spreading their own interests and expertise, inspiring both adults and children, handing out plenty of the good stuff. There. What’s not to like?

James Carter

National Poetry Day Ambassador

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and non-fiction writer. He travels all over
the UK and abroad (with his melodica, Steve) to give lively poetry/music performances
and workshops, and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1200 Primary schools.
He is an ambassador for National Poetry Day. Once Upon A Star – the story of the sun, James’s non-fiction picture book in verse, is out now in p/b; The Big Beyond – the story of space travel –is out now in hardback. (both Little Tiger Press). His website is here.

 

Imogen Lycett Green: Who Dares, Writes

Photo: © Sam Lane

Who Dares, Writes

“Poetry written by children? But is it any good?” At a funding meeting for the Betjeman Poetry Prize, a board member of an arts foundation asked this very question.

At the time, I was dumbfounded. Whether or not the poetry by 10-13 year olds submitted to the annual poetry prize and judged by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten and Imtiaz Dharker was ‘good’ by adult literary standards (which, presumably, was what the board member meant) was not the point, surely. Later, I began to question myself. Why hold a competition? What was the point of encouraging children to write poetry before – arguably – they had mastered the form? There are now over 100 poetry competitions for under-18s listed on the Poetry’s Society’s Young Poets Network. What is the point of generating all that poetry? Who are the competitions for?

 

Young poets warming up before a writing session at the Betjeman Poetry Camp 2019 with poet Paul Lyalls, and below,  hand-written text showing the workings of a child poet.

Firstly, let’s ask what literature is for: to illuminate, to entertain, to enable readers to see the world afresh, to teach, to moralise, to expose, to dazzle, to help the reader understand the world, to help the reader understand themselves, to make them laugh, to make them cry, to help them feel. These are benefits for the reader. But what of benefits for the writer? Why would any writer put themselves through the heartache, the isolation, the sweat and toil and tears? For some writers, writing is the only way of comprehending their experience; others just want to make money (no guarantee!). For some, it is about curiosity, for others about expressing their inner worlds. For still more it is about the joy of language.

Now let’s translate all these benefits to the space where young people read and write: to feel, to comprehend, to process, to illuminate, to laugh, to cry, to understand, to know, for love of language. Why on earth would we not want our young people to begin all these activities as early as possible?

Year 5 Children from Richard Cobden Primary and Argyle Primary, Camden at St Pancras Station, taking part in a performance of their own poetry for a BPP collaboration project with Paul Lyalls and St Pancras International. They are proudly holding aloft the anthology, Track Record. 

Competition as a concept will always provoke debate. Of course. The naysayers will debate the concept on political terms, on emotional terms, on every term (especially school term) under the sun. But this is a debate amongst adults. I would argue that kids understand competition better than adults do and it is often adult projection (vociferous dads on the side of football matches, Hollywood actresses who buy places for their children at university) that creates a monster out of a teaching tool. Competition teaches kids that they cannot win at everything; while it’s important they strive to be the best version of themselves, there will always be someone ‘better’ than them out there.

That established, you might ask why not just hold a football tournament? There are millions of youngsters who prefer football to writing. Sure, but there are also thousands (maybe even millions) of youngsters for whom writing is vital: I write, therefore I am. While writing competitions are not for everyone, they do provide a goal and a platform for those kids. Is their poetry ‘any good’?  If their poem strikes a chord in the judge’s heart, the young poets will have done their job. If other kids read the poems selected for commendation, those other kids may be inspired to make their own squiggles and marks on the page which – miraculously! – may articulate what they know in their heads and feel in their hearts.

To my mind, any encouragement of that process is worthwhile. Perfection of form may come later. Surely it is enough to draw out a young person’s voice. How much more roundly developed as adults will the next generation be, if, as youngsters, they have played with language, tried to describe, worked through feelings, expressed an individual opinion and crucially, may have been heard.

Imogen Lycett Green

 

Imogen Lycett Green is a freelance writer and educator who runs the Betjeman Poetry Prize, an Artsmark charity inspiring children and young people aged 10-13 to read, write and perform poetry. A former staff journalist on the Daily Telegraph, she is the author of biography and children’s fiction, a judge of the Chiddingstone Short Story Prize and a former chair of the UK International Radio Drama Festival. She was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Southampton University and is an English tutor at Brighton Aldridge Academy working with KS 3&4 students. http://www.betjemanpoetryprize.co.uk.

Rachel Piercey: Conversation and Crossover

Conversation and Crossover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Piercey

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