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.

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.

 

Janetta Otter-Barry: Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

Making Poetry Books – an Editor’s View

I love editing the Otter-Barry Books poetry list – it’s probably my favourite of all tasks. It feels like a huge privilege to immerse yourself in a poet’s carefully crafted collection, written over months or even years, and to be possibly the first person to read those poems other than the poet.

Generally I don’t actually ‘edit’ the poems much at all. I feel quite strongly that a poem is what it is and stands on its own terms. Occasionally I will suggest deleting a verse to tighten things up a bit, or, if I feel a poem isn’t working in terms of level or tone for the current collection, I’ll suggest taking it out. Though if the poet feels very strongly and has good arguments for its inclusion I will usually defer to the poet! Trust and respect in both directions are absolutely vital.

Punctuation – well, that’s another matter! Some of our poets like writing verse completely unpunctuated and in many cases that’s great – and gives a real sense of freedom from constraint to the reader. But I have to admit to liking punctuation – and I think it can also help with pacing and comprehension – and just keeps you on track with a longer, more complex poem. So a balance is always good. Again, I hope I’ll be sensitive to the poet’s view.

Gradually the collection emerges into a beautiful entity, with an opener that’s not too long or super-demanding – something to whet your appetite – and then moves to more challenging poems as you get into your reading stride. Surprise and humour are vital ingredients and, though this may sound banal, making sure there’s a balance of shorter and longer poems. It can be great to turn a page and find just one very short poem. Giving poems ‘space’ is really important. And then end with a satisfying conclusion or maybe look to the future with a question or a big idea…

So how did it work with our CLiPPA-shortlisted titles, A Kid in My Class by Rachel Rooney, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Dark Sky Park by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson?

Daydreamer, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Both books were true collaborations. Rachel and Chris had already decided they’d like to do something together so the book came to us that way. Our team just loved the poems and we knew we had something special in our hands. At our first meeting with Chris and Rachel – straight after CLiPPA 2016 – we agreed there should be a gallery of portraits of all the kids in the class running through the book, and that the class hamster should also be present, though he doesn’t get his own poem till the very end. We felt strongly that this book should be generously illustrated so we allocated a double spread per poem and came up with the idea of the blue wash throughout as a special effect. We’d probably imagined illustrations in classroom settings but Chris quite rightly leapfrogged this brief and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing, with Rachel and our art director Judith Escreet, the amazing full-size drawings on Chris’s work-table.


Fidget, from A Kid in My Class, 2018, by Rachel Rooney, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

With Dark Sky Park, the collection came to us through poetry guru Pie Corbett, who knew Philip and recognised that these poems had huge cross-curricular science potential as well as being creative masterpieces. Philip had the idea to give each poem an accompanying ‘info-tweet’, providing fascinating facts about all the creatures and topics in a fun way. We chose the brilliant young Bristol-based artist Jesse Hodgson to illustrate, after seeing her brush-and-line drawings of tigers.

Tardigrade, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

She was perfect for the natural history aspect of the book as well as portraying the sense of time, space and wonder that the poems create. A meeting between Philip and Jesse to discuss his visual take on the poems was an inspiring start to the project and Jesse took off from there.

Snow Leopard, from Dark Sky Park, 2018, by Philip Gross, illustrated by Jessie Hodgson

Editing and punctuation? Well, I can honestly say I hardly had to change a single word or comma in either book! These two poets are truly masters of their art.

Janetta Otter-Barry

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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.