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.

Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

After every poem, job or project that involves shape poems I think, never again. They are uniquely testing in every conceivable way, and perhaps that is why, despite the agony, I inevitably find myself contemplating another shaping idea – because the challenge of, and the enjoyment in interlacing words, poem and art, is irresistible.

In 2018 I proposed editing an anthology of shape poems about people who have shaped our world, called Shaping the World.

Shape poems must start with an excellent poem, and require a certain degree of artistic talent, experience to know what will and won’t work, piles of patience and a skill and joy in playing with form. I received numerous excellent poems, some already brilliantly shaped, and a number with ideas for a shape, many of which worked and some which didn’t.

There are a plurality of things to consider – too many words and too few words can both present problems. The way a form lies on a page – it might be too wide for instance for the dimensions of the book. When presented as a shape, the poem must still be easy to read, and read left to right as much as possible.

Concrete poems are made entirely from words that convey the subject of the poem. They do not have to be the shape of the subject, but do communicate the meaning – this is Jane Clarke’s concrete poem about Socrates in Shaping the World, which uses only words to make the shape:

Socrates, © Jane Clarke, from an idea by Jane Clarke, shaped by Liz Brownlee

Sue Hardy Dawson’s Florence Nightingale poem is a shape poem, using words plus shapes available in the word processor of the computer:

Florence Nightingale and Athena, poem and shape © Sue Hardy-Dawson

Kate Wakeling’s Rosa Parks poem fills a shape already made:

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

I use everything available in the word processor, whatever makes the most engaging shape!

Which brings me to Word. Word is amazingly powerful. Put a word into a text box and another tab opens in the top of your document – in this tab, ‘shape format’, you can remove the background to your text box, remove or add a line around it, and most thrillingly, you can warp the text in numerous ways within the text box. This is very helpful when making a shape. You can also insert a geometric shape, and warp it using ‘edit points’ to produce small details, things which have proved impossible to make in letters or words – a beak perhaps, or a foot.

It involves much trial and error. I look at images and try and find my subject in a position which allows the poem to begin and finish in appropriate places, that will be clearly recognisable made out of words. I might find it hard to shape a bird from above. A bird from the side on a branch is much easier!  This shape uses only Word:

It’s great if you can use a word or letter in its correct place to suggest part of a shape – conjunctions like this are very pleasing, but it’s not always possible. Here the hippo’s ears are made by the B in ‘but’:

Children do enjoy shape poems and are also open to turning the page to follow text as it curls in a spiral or loops to create a shape’s curve. I think a good shape poem should accurately describe the subject of the poem and pique interest in reading the poem itself – as well as be pleasing on the eye. I don’t believe there should be any other rules.

Hopefully there is someone, somewhere reading this, that has been inspired to experiment with their word processor!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is an award-winning poet, poetry editor, film-maker and performer at all types of poetry and natural history event. She is the author, collaborator or editor of 7 books of poetry and is proud to be a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Shaping the World, 40 historical Heroes in Verse is published on the 1st April, 2021. Poetry Roundabout LizBrownleePoet @Lizpoet

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.

A Christmas Poetry Feast!

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

 

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

Christmas Morning

 

Last year

on Christmas morning

we got up really early

and took the dog for a walk

across the downs

 

It wasn’t snowing

but the hills were white with frost

and our breath froze

in the air

 

Judy rushed around like a crazy thing

as though Christmas

meant something special to her

 

The sheep huddled together

looking tired

as if they’d been up all night

watching the stars

 

We stood at the highest point

and thought about what Christmas means

and looked over the white hills

and looked up at the blue sky

 

And the hills seemed

to go on forever

and the sky had no bounds

and you could imagine

a world at peace

 

Roger Stevens

 

For Christmas

 

I give you a wooden gate

to open onto the world,

 

I give you a bendy ruler

to measure the snow that swirls,

 

I give you a prestidigitator

to make your woes disappear,

 

I give you a hopping robin –

he’ll be your friend throughout the year,

 

I give you a box of mist

to throw over past mist-akes,

 

I give you a slice of ice

to slide on mysterious lakes.

 

Chrissie Gittins, from The Humpback’s Wail.

 

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

 

Christmas Blessing

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

On the tree
hang figurines
absent friends
returned to me.

Wrapping paper
fills the room
generosity
in bloom.

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

 

Lorraine Mariner

 

 

Christmas Day

 

It was waking early and making a din.

It was knowing that for the next twenty minutes

I’d never be quite so excited again.

It was singing the last verse of

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

only meant to be sung on Christmas Day.

It was lighting a fire in the unused room

and a draught that blew back woodsmoke

into our faces.

It was lunch and a full table,

and dad repeating how he’d once eaten his

off the bonnet of a lorry in Austria.

It was keeping quiet for the Queen

and Gran telling that one about children

being seen but not heard.

(As if we could get a word in edgeways

once she started!)

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

to be the first to reach Mayfair.

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

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

It was aunts assaulting the black piano

and me keeping clear of mistletoe

in case they trapped me.

It was pinning a tail on the donkey,

and nuts that wouldn’t crack

and crackers that pulled apart but didn’t bang.

 

And then when the day was almost gone,

it was Dad on the stairs,

on his way to bed,

and one of us saying:

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

And the purple or pink or orange paper

still crowning his head.

 

Brian Moses

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liz Brownlee: Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

Having Fun with Children’s Poetry

In 2014 the wonderful people at National Poetry Day made me a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

My journey as a children’s poetry promoter started in 2008, after meeting with a group of children’s poets who all felt the same way; we vowed to find as many ways as possible of supporting children’s poetry. Later that year we gathered again to be filmed sharing poems, to put out into the world in as many places as possible. Out of that fun-filled few days came this video of the wonderful and much-missed Gerard Benson and his River Song.

Just as I was thinking what to try next, and wondering if targeting families might help to engage the parents that buy books, I was asked by Bristol Poetry Festival 2009 to organise a Poetry Exhibition.

A Bristol Poetry Festival grant, an Arts Council grant, sponsorship money and six months preparation led to a poetry submersion room at the Arnolfini, Bristol. Into a brightly painted room was introduced an explosion of poems, poetry toolkits, and our group of talented and willing poets.

ITV Television workshop supplied children who relished reading poems for us.

It was an interesting experience in that many of the people who came hadn’t been expecting it (the Arnolfini is a cutting-edge modern art gallery), and yet they stayed sometimes for hours. Very few left without writing a poem.

Undoubtedly however, the biggest hit were the giant magnetic words. I have used these ever since in a variety of combinations and venues and highly recommend them. It’s a very easy way of enticing anyone to play with words.

It  is impossible it seems to pass a giant magnetic poetry board without picking up words and placing them together. Few were satisfied with that, they went to hunt in the boxes for more poetic or more meaningful juxtapositions. One of the most  gratifying aspects was the total involvement of whole families, parents helping, inspiring and joining in by writing their own poems.

Other projects include marking most National Poetry Days by a range of poetry videos. My favourite theme was light.

We filmed people whose lives in some way touched on light (a fireman, a projectionist, a cosmologist, etc.) reading poems, sent to me by children’s poets, about light. We also roamed the streets of Bristol and asked children and their families to read poems for us – surprisingly few turned down the offer!

Sometimes you’ll find me in a school, inspiring children to use words as exciting tools to express themselves. And of course I also write poems most days, for a variety of rewarding projects. It is what I love most. At the minute I’m collecting and editing my first anthology, a book of shape poems for Macmillan, and thoroughly enjoying it. This also involves the frustrating fun of drawing with words!

I also run Poetry Roundabout, a website devoted to promoting everything about children’s poetry – at the minute there is a series of poets and their favourite children’s poetry books, and tweet for Children’s Poetry Summit.

I feel very excited about starting on my next new project – and I’m so grateful to the lovely NPD  people for giving a focus for my ideas, and to my lovely supportive poetry friends who supplied all the above poems and more.

In the meantime, this year’s NPD theme being Truth, soon I’ll be choosing climate crisis truth poems that poets have kindly sent, and filming them read by people who work in Climate Crisis in some way.  Please look out for them!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is a poet and poetry event organiser. Her latest book Be the Change, Poems to Help You Save the World, Macmillan, is out on September 5th. (Poets included in above exhibition, Roger Stevens, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Andrea Shavick, Philip Waddell, Bernard Young, Gerard Benson, Cathy Benson, Jane Clarke, Michaela Morgan, Graham Denton).