Mandy Coe: Poetry as the Language of Child

Poetry as the Language of Child

Maybe this is why poets and poetry-loving-teachers encounter such enthusiasm in the classroom, maybe this is why poetry is a multigenerational conversation as jubilant as the dawn chorus! Like much of the arts, poetry is so child-friendly, that if adults present poems with even the slightest hint of invite-to-write, children will respond in kind.

How to best get poetry into the classroom is a common issue for educators; perhaps aimed at boys, reluctant readers, or those excluded from literacy. But what if the poetry is already there?  As we know, poems love classrooms – flapping through doors and fluttering down chimneys. In fact, the only way to keep poetry under control, is to use it as a club to whack-a-mole learning-targets (at which point it flies right out the window!). Hey ho, art is fickle, and a poem is as likely to start a fire as put one out.

But bring a free-range poem into the classroom and watch those writers set to – gnawing at pencils, until up goes the sea of hands, each child excited to be heard. Those who teach poetry have always known it as this: a two-way process of questioning and listening, bringing poems in and drawing them out. Even reading a poem is conversational: what do you think? the poem asks, inviting us to lay our thoughts in the spaces the poet left blank. Perhaps this is why poetry crosses boundaries of age, geography, culture and eras (even translation is dialogue), and perhaps this potential is down to commonality. Poetry as the language of child?

For children, life unfolds as an astonishing, hilarious metaphor of bamboozling goings-on; snow has a taste, animals have magic powers, colours speak and wishes come true, and let’s not forget the heartbeat rhythms and drowsy comfort of repetition. Where do most adults go, inside themselves, to write or read a poem (not the craft; that’s learned), what I mean is, where do we go to pursue the spark of it? Deep down and way back, that’s where. To a time when bees named themselves buzz and the world was a poem. Let’s face it, if children retained the copyright of poetry as a first-language, us adults would be left with catchphrases.

Belonging Street, Otter-Barry Books, Cover Art by Chie Hosaka

I write for adults and children, and on the occasions that I write myself to a point where the two paths meet, I feel… at home. In ‘Belonging Street’ I aimed for a place where this dialogue thrives, between nannas and children, parents and toddlers, between reader and poem (and the book is full of ‘invites-to-write’).

So, let’s keep up our end of the dialogue by taking poetry into schools (and us children’s poets need readers in these times, more than ever!). Poets, illustrators, publishers and librarians pride themselves on creating books perfect for schools: classic, contemporary, funny and serious, poems on nature, the universe and each child’s uniqueness – and not forgetting the call for more books reflecting the rich diversity of our communities.  

But this poetry-conversation centres on the child, and when access/funding to poetry and art in schools is cut again, I am not going to just shake my head, summoning resolve to create yet more projects proving without a doubt that poetry in schools is invaluable. After all, those who dictate curriculum-content have the same access as we do, to decades of research evidencing this to be so. Instead, I shall see it for what it is: censorship, a severance from mother-tongue, and silencing of dialogue. Let’s keep this mother-tongue spoken daily, children are not the poets of tomorrow; they are the poets of today.

Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe is the author of 9 books, and writes poetry for adults and children. She was a recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and is a visiting Fellow of the Manchester Writing School. Her poems have received a number of awards and have appeared on BBC television and radio programmes such as CBeebies, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. Her work on teaching poetry is widely published.

“It sings, so your heart does too.” Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times (Belonging Street)

“A gentle, relatable book full of humour and the wonder of being alive… finely observed poems to share between parents and children, and poems that can be used as models for children’s own writing….” Poetry Roundabout 5 Star review (Belonging Street)

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.