Janetta Otter-Barry: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration – optional extra or indispensable ingredient?

I’ve been thinking about the role of illustration in children’s poetry….  As a publisher it can be tempting not to include pictures, particularly in a collection for older children, but I strongly believe that illustration adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of poetry for all ages.

Take the three Otter-Barry Books new August titles….

In Belonging Street Mandy Coe illustrates her own poems, creating a special relationship between words and pictures. In First Haircut Mandy describes a dragon-claw comb, but then surprises us with a fully grown dragon!In City Seed Song the seeds become children reaching for the sky as they celebrate a new green world. Other pictures offer revelations or playful hints that help us decode puzzles and answer questions.In Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura Mucha’s exciting debut, Lithuanian illustrator Tania Rex provides stylish, contemporary pictures, reflecting the many moods of the poems. It was her decision to establish a narrative thread by following one child through the pages, providing interesting links for the reader.  How Long Until I Can See My Mum, addressing the plight of refugee children in the US, is poignantly visualised and the same child features over the page in I Am Brave, her fears now depicted as a crocodile – but one that can be banished. The pictures and poems work perfectly together, keeping the reader engaged and eager for more.Joseph Coelho’s The Girl Who Became a Tree, a story told in poems for 12 plus, (27 August), could arguably have been published without illustration content – but what a loss that would have been. Visually, there is so much to explore and respond to, as Daphne confronts the loss of her father and enters the dark magic of the forest.Her journey from isolation and grief to acceptance and new beginnings is beautifully captured by Kate Milner’s pen and ink drawings.

Images of trees, branches, leaves, roots, draw us ever closer to Daphne  –  and to that other Daphne from the Greek myth, who also plays an important part in this story and whose illustrations are identifiable as white on black.

There’s no doubt that the extraordinary pictures deepen our understanding of this brilliant verse novel.

In Spring 21 we present three collections for Key stage 2 that all have hugely important contributions from illustrators. For Val Bloom’s eagerly awaited Stars with Flaming Tails, (publishing January 2021) we chose Ken Wilson Max to illustrate, pairing two famous creative practitioners of colour in a wide-ranging tour-de-force, underpinned by verbal and visual diversity.

Weird, Wild and Wonderful – the poetry world of James Carter is an important showcase for James’s most admired and requested poems plus new work, and the incredible verve, wit and energy of Neal Layton’s illustrations make these poems almost leap off the page!

Publishing for Mental Health Awareness Week in May, Being Me, Poems about Thoughts, Feelings and Worries, is a ground-breaking collaboration between Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha. New illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler‘s quirky drawings play a vital role here, sensitively visualising the feelings expressed in the verses with empathy and a light touch.

Lastly, in July, we publish Rachel Rooney’s first teen collection, Hey Girl.  Rachel’s son, Milo Hartnoll, illustrates, his powerful and empathetic graphic images perfectly capturing the girl’s inner journey as she grows up through the book.

So yes, I’m more than ever convinced that illustrations bring poetry alive in amazing, unexpected ways. They welcome, challenge, reassure, explain and inspire – and I believe they deserve to be at the heart of every children’s poetry collection.

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.

James Carter: The Poet in the Primary and Prep School

The Poet in the Primary and Prep School

You’re a new children’s poet and want to do paid visits in schools. You’ve got a website, joined an agency like Authors Aloud. What else? You gather a list of schools. You call them up and offer your services. You do mailshots, join NAWE – National Association of Writers in Education – and get DBS-checked.

Teachers/librarians will expect you to have at least one book published – as you’re there primarily to celebrate BOOKS – the reading, writing, performing of.  You don’t need to be the best poet ever but you so need to be able to actively engage/enthuse children. Some poets work with older children ie 7-11s – others like me (I trained as an Early Years teacher) are as happy visiting a Nursery class as Year 6. Perhaps you’re already a teacher/teaching assistant or parent/carer? All the same, offer free sessions – small workshops in a few classrooms, an assembly for a few classes in the hall. Teachers are very accommodating! Don’t be hard on yourself – even pros have tough days, and, over a few visits, find out what works. Crucially, ask teachers for responses.

Make sure you’re not monologuing. Bring it to life – try call and response poems. Try some music (Ukulele? Guitar? Drums? Piano?). Do actions, even live illustrations if you’re arty. Do a Q&A. Modify/ experiment as you go. Go slow. I mean S  L  O  W. My best advice for children is the same as for you: DOUBLE THE VOLUME, HALF THE SPEED. And go for it – I’ve seen some top writers being dull in performance, and some barely published newbies doing some innovative stuff with enraptured children.

Some authors (novelists/picture book writers) do 3 x 1hr talks/presentations. I prefer a whole day and offer –

Half-hour assemblies – Juniors then Infants – always avoid whole school – as 4 yr olds are different to 11 yr olds!

4 workshops around classrooms – even doubling up two classes if it’s a bigger school.

To finish, a BIG FINALE – children reading their poems. Best bit of the day. Children/teachers LOVE this.

Prep schools have labyrinthine timetables and may well insist you are working in the hall/library all day, and you may have to do that. Not ideal, but poets are adaptable bods!

Workshop-wise, why not use a poem as a model, maybe one of yours. Have a range of workshops ready.  Some teachers ask for topic-focused writing – try a cinquain / haiku / kenning / rap / free verse with imagery – on that topic.  My book Let’s Do Poetry In Primary Schools! (Bloomsbury) is crammed with workshops/ideas I’ve used over the last 20 years. And try this fabulous blog – brian-moses.blogspot.com

In the current pandemic, offer Skype/Zoom readings. Do video performances on Facebook. Listen to Radioblogging.net for tips on how to generate creative writing and respond to children supportively.

Other tips? Be modest – teachers are doing a more important job than us poets. Be flexible. And ask for at least a participating teacher in the room. Pace yourself – I’ve heard of poets getting grumpy by the afternoon. Represent your profession well – you may be the only writer those children will ever meet. Respond positively to children’s ideas. Know your poems really well. Don’t dumb it down, you don’t need to do all funnies (I do about 7 poems in a KS2 assembly – 4 reflective poems then 3 daft ones). Don’t be too OTT with Infants – it takes hours to calm them down! Do visits because you really want to, because you love words and you want children to.

James Carter

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and  Ambassador for National Poetry Day. He travels all over the UK and abroad with his melodica (that’s Steve) to give action-packed poetry / music performances and workshops. James has visited over 1300 Primary/Prep schools and performed at various festivals including Cheltenham, Hay and Edinburgh. His next collection, Weird Wild and Wonderful (Otter-Barry Books) will be out Jan 2021.

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.