Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha: Being Me -Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

Clockwise: Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Victoria Jane Wheeler, Matt Goodfellow.

Being Me – Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

How do you approach such an important and sensitive topic as children’s mental health and wellbeing in a poetry book and get it right? What approach can you, should you take to write about abuse, death, divorce, racism, for a primary-age reader? We wanted to open up the right discussions in difficult areas, both at home and in the classroom.

Luckily, Laura knew a leading developmental psychologist, Karen Goodall, so we set off on our writing journey with excellent guidelines. However we all came at it from different directions.

Liz: I concentrated on accounts of young people’s lived experiences of what goes on in their heads, and read widely about fostering positive self-image, emotional intelligence and healthy habits.

I also spoke to a GP about which mental health concerns he mostly sees in primary age children in his general practice.

Laura:  My approach was quite academic (I have an MA in psychology and philosophy and have completed a foundation course in psychotherapy). I began by devouring The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, The Handbook of Attachment and countless journals on new relationships, parental sickness, divorce and bereavement. I quickly discovered that we don’t always treat children in these scenarios in the most helpful ways possible.

For example, oncological and bereavement research has found that adults are often scared to tell children and young people the truth when they or the people they love are unwell or dying. But the danger in not being honest is that children’s imaginations can concoct scenarios far worse than the truth. My aim in writing was to give a voice to children’s experiences based on research findings in the hope of opening up essential conversations with teachers, parents and caregivers. 

Matt: As a trio, we wanted to cover as many different issues as we could with the aim of allowing children to see themselves reflected somewhere within the words. As an ex-primary school teacher I knew teachers could choose to focus on one particular poem, allow the children to familiarize themselves with the shape and pattern – and then perform it! Alongside this, they could be discussing the thoughts and feelings contained within the poem – and then use these discussions as a catalyst to have a go at writing their own poem – in their voice, about their life. 

We all felt the illustrations for the book needed to be quirky, less literal than usual. Luckily Matt knew illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler, whose wonderful drawings have definitely added to the life of each poem.

Illustration to Secrets, by Liz Brownlee

Victoria: I had an instinct of the way the illustrations might go after reading the poems a few times, and understanding the rhythm, tone, who the narrator was, and the story being told. My initial ideas often changed a little as they became alive on the page, I let this happen, and tried not to force anything. The poems in Being Me depict a lot of different emotions, so I aimed to capture this through the eyes and the mouth in particular, and the size and angle of the head. To convey a little more I often introduced an awkward stance or a slight tension in texture, scale or surroundings. 

Hopefully children will find themselves in the book and know they aren’t alone in their worries, thoughts and feelings, whatever they are.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha and Victoria Jane Wheeler

Teaching resources for Being Me and video links and films of the poems featured can all be found here:

Liz Brownlee is a National Poetry Ambassador and award-winning poet – her latest production is a book of shape poems, Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse, Macmillan, 2021.

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. His most recent solo collection is Bright Bursts of Colour, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Dear Ugly Sisters, Rita’s Rabbit and We Need to Talk About Love. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Victoria Jane Wheeler is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Working to support young people students and communities, she is passionate about promoting and creating creative opportunities and access to the arts.

Laura Mucha: What Makes for a Happy Life?

WHAT MAKES FOR A HAPPY LIFE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The Guardian 

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

Laura Mucha

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

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.

Laura Mucha: You Think You Like Poetry?

You Think You Like Poetry?

‘You think you like poetry? You don’t like poetry…’ said Mrs Flowers.

‘You’ll never like it until you speak it – until you feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.’

Her student, Maya Angelou, ran out of the house. But Mrs Flowers didn’t give up – she followed Angelou to the store and said, pointing her finger, ‘You don’t like poetry’.

She continued harassing her student for months until finally, after five years of not saying a single word, Angelou spoke for the first time. And when she did, she spoke poetry. (You can listen to Angelou’s account of her experience here.)

Mrs Flower’s description of speaking poetry made me think of the phrase ‘hau gum’ or ‘mouth-feel’ in Mandarin. It’s usually used in the context of food, but I think it applies just as much to poetry. It’s all very well reading poems silently on the page, but, as Angelou’s teacher pointed out, that doesn’t give you a sense of the texture and sound of the language, the ‘mouth-feel’.

That’s why, when I run workshops with young people, I try to get them to co-write – and co-perform – a poem. The performance is just as important as the writing as they both inform the other. It’s only when you perform a poem that you fully appreciate the tiny signposts the poet has left you in the form of commas, line breaks and white space – and can reflect on the signposts you might use in your own writing.

But often, when poetry is taught in the classroom, the teacher is the only one that performs, while the students sit and listen – at least according to Joy Alexander at the School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast.

Teachers can easily solve this by asking students to perform poems in pairs. When one of Alexander’s student teachers realised her pupils were ‘not at all proficient’ in reading or performing poetry, she found it improved drastically with just a little practice. She also found that the practice was helped by playing the audio of the poems to students before asking them to say the poems themselves. Not only did this help them perform better, but it also made them more engaged with the poem more generally. BOOM!

Even if you don’t speak it, listening can be game changing. Seamus Heaney once wrote that until you had found the work of T.S. Eliot, you had not ‘entered the kingdom of poetry’. But for a long time, he found Eliot obscure and bewildering – until he heard the actor Robert Speaight reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. By listening, Heaney discovered that what he ‘heard made sense’.

That’s why it’s so important to find ways to take poetry off the page. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Ariel Bissett, a prominent booktuber at this year’s annual Poetry Summit, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”

Taking poetry off the page and getting it into the mouths (and ears) of young people makes poetry more accessible. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Mrs Flowers said, ‘You’ll never like poetry until you speak it.’

 

Laura Mucha

Audio sample of Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura’s debut poetry collection for children:

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha’s debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters is out now and comes with a free accompanying audiobook (a sample of which is provided above).

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’.

Laura has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Laura Mucha: In the Face of Uncertainty

I was hit by a car when I was 29. I was left virtually bedbound for years and after six months or so, I found myself writing poetry. Somehow, it was a place where I could process thoughts and feelings, a code that allowed me to access parts of me that were otherwise out of bounds.

I also devoured poems. I read this excerpt of a poem called New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge every day for at least two years:

 

Every day is a fresh beginning;

Listen, my soul, to the glad refrain,

And, spite of old sorrow and older sinning,

And puzzles forecasted and possible pain,

Take heart with the day, and begin again.

 

In the face of the stress and uncertainty of the global pandemic, I wanted to use poetry to help young people process what was going on and express themselves. Normally I would work face-to-face with them, getting them to improvise, come up with words and lines, vote on changes and perform – but as we were in lockdown, I had to figure out how to do all of these things via little boxes on a screen.

In my first session, 7-11 year olds were coming up with lines like ‘I’m going to use all the bog roll’, ‘get me out of here’ and ‘my dad’s talking about Boris’. It was fascinating to see how the pandemic was impacting them and help them articulate that in a poem. They told me they appreciated the chance to have a voice, collaborate, be creative and learn – and many parents said that this was the highlight of their children’s lockdown.

I decided to run a series of workshops to co-write a thank you poem for key workers. I enlisted the help of a brilliant friend of mine, Ed Ryland, who normally produces some of the best TV on our screens. I advertised free poetry workshops, messaged everyone I could think of – from every school I’d ever visited to friends I hadn’t seen in years – and prepared a Powerpoint outlining who key workers are and what they do. And off we went.

More than fifty young people role-played, imagined being different key workers, thought about how they would feel, what they would be doing, what difference they would make. And they wrote everything down, sharing hundreds of words in a couple of minutes. I collated them all with the help of teaching assistant and poet, Meg Fairclough, then we worked as a group to create a first draft.

I spent the weekend reflecting and editing (filming my editing so I could share this in the next workshop) and asked for comments from my agent, editor, and four professional children’s poets. In the following session, I showed all of this to the young writers and asked them to vote on the suggestions. “It’s your poem,” I said. “Only accept the comments you agree with.” They rejected many… Then we discussed what costumes or props they had, allocated lines and planned how we would perform the poem.

One thousand videos later – and countless emails and calls with Ed and numerous parents – and we had a film. More than 80 children from the UK, US, Australia, China, Italy and Uruguay took part. It had thousands of views in a couple of hours and made its way onto CBBC’s Newsround.

I know I’m a poetry evangelist. But poems are an invaluable way to process and communicate – particularly in times of difficulty. And as difficulty looks like it will be here for a while, I will continue to evangelise.

Poetry is important. And poetry is for everyone. So please write it.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC.

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love (Bloomsbury) was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’. Her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in August, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

 

Laura Mucha: The Volume of Words

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 MusicBBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, she has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets on the Dublin overground. Laura’s debut non-fiction book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury) was published earlier this year, her debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out in 2020, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) in 2021. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. 

Laura Mucha: Blank Pieces of Paper

Blank Pieces of Paper

Day one of a painting course at the Slade and my tutor asked, “Where’s your source material?” I didn’t have any. She made me leave the class and go and collect images that would help me visualise and think about what I was trying to create.

That moment has influenced the way I approach all creative work, including poetry. Working from ‘source material’ (whether artwork, music or even other poetry) often helps me generate ideas, break out of using predictable language, come up with original images and experience emotions that I can hopefully channel into a poem.

One example is a poem I wrote called ‘The Land of Blue’. I remember sitting in front of a painting at The National Gallery and wondering why there was a blue valley between two very green hills. It really didn’t fit with the rest of the painting and it was all I could think about.

Staring at this valley, I found myself, quite unintentionally, writing about sadness – imagining The Land of Blue as a place we go to when we feel low.

Looking back, it’s not surprising – I’d had cardiac arrest the week before and was being tossed about by a gigantic emotional tsunami. But if you’d simply asked me to sit down and write a poem about what I was feeling, I suspect the paper in front of me would have remained blank.

Instead, focusing on something else brought it out in a much more organic, safe and manageable way.

Here’s an excerpt:

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue.

It’s far and near, it’s strange yet known –
and in this land, you’ll feel alone,
you might feel tears roll down your cheek,
you might feel wobbly, weary, weak.

I know this won’t sound fun to you –
it’s not – this is The Land of Blue.

It’s blue – and when you leave, you’ll see
the crackly branches of the tree,
the golden skies, the purring cat,
the piercing eyes, the feathered hat
and all the other things that come
when you escape from feeling glum.

Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue
and going there will help you know
how others feel when they feel low.

Poems provide me with a safe and structured place to explore and process things that are a bit harder to be honest and open about in real life (like sadness, fear and anger) – and I think it’s the same for younger people too.

One strategy for those working with young writers might be to play emotive music or provide examples of artwork (by students or well-known artists) and ask them to write down words, questions, images or phrases that come to mind, focusing on feelings, thoughts, shapes, colour, texture and sounds. These notes could then be collated (either individually or as a group), and then revisited and edited at a later point.

If collating words as a group, students could be asked to use at least some of the words others had come up with, as this would get them using terms and phrases that didn’t come to them quite as readily.

Poetry provides a sanctuary in which to process difficult emotions and experiences –something that’s essential for good mental health. And I find that the best way to approach writing poems is not to sit in front of an intimidatingly blank piece of paper, but to come at it sideways, by exploring the creative work of others.

lauramucha.com
@lauramucha

Laura Mucha studied psychology, philosophy and flying trapeze, worked as a face painter and swam in Antarctica before becoming a lawyer for an international law firm. Then, when she was hit by a car aged 29, decided to change career – she’s now an award-winning poet, author, broadcaster, performer and speaker.

Her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, in 2016 she won the Caterpillar Poetry Prize, and last year Poetry Ireland featured her alongside Jackie Kay as one of eight poets displayed on the Dublin overground. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters (Otter-Barry Books) is out next year, and her debut picture book, Rita’s Rabbit (Faber & Faber) the year after.

Laura also writes for adults. Her debut book, Love Factually (Bloomsbury), was featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour as well as being Sydney Morning Herald’s Pick of the Week.