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.

Matt Goodfellow: A Poet under Lockdown

A  Poet under Lockdown

During the recent Poetry Summit (online) meeting, there was a discussion around how the poets present had been getting on during lockdown – I didn’t say much because I hadn’t really thought about it.

So I had a think.

Firstly, I’m really lucky that no one in my family, immediate or wider, has fallen severely ill – (my 89 year old grandma did contract Covid 19 but defeated it quickly, escaping with just a sore throat). I’m also lucky to be a homeowner with access to a garden.

Aside from health worries, the over-arching effect of lockdown for me has been financial – which has certainly squashed my idea of a poetry-powered Porsche…

Like many of my fellow poets, the lion’s share of my income comes from school visits. My last paid workshops were the week lockdown came into effect. Up to that point, my diary was booked up until the end of the academic year and I was full-speed ahead promoting my Bloomsbury collection, Bright Bursts of Colour, published in February. As schools closed, so the cancellations flooded in. My wife, Joanna, after months of soul-searching had just resigned from her role as a primary school head-teacher, without a job to go to, not envisaging life as we knew it would grind to a halt. I accessed the government scheme for the self-employed and took a payment holiday on our mortgage – this helped – but there’s no doubt that money worries have been more to the fore than ever before. However, there is food in my cupboards and (ever-shrinking) clothes on my back, but am aware how deep the struggle is for some.

With so many creatives and teachers in effect out-of-work, the first weeks of lockdown flew by in a flurry of people posting online readings and educational workshops. I was one of them. Until, well, I got a bit bored doing them: I’m not good with technology and was therefore reliant on either my 10 year old daughter or 14 year old son filming me – and they didn’t take much pleasure in the self-serving ramblings of their show-off dad… although my son, Will, was savvy enough to realise time filming me was time away from home-schooling!  Happily, during this time, Joanna managed to secure a new job which relieved some of our tension.

Then came a lull in proceedings where we settled into a strange ‘acceptance of lockdown’ rhythm and it was then that I imagined I could re-awaken my muse – lazing in my study (overcrowded box-room), shrouded in silk scarves, notebook and pen in hand, reading and writing.

I was wrong.

I quickly came to realise how valuable periods of solitude are to my writing. And with two children, an energetic 9 month old Golden Retriever – and an unceremonious eviction from my study so Joanna could work from home – there was not much solitude to be had!

I have managed to write poems – just, perhaps, not as many as I usually would. Oh, and I quite like writing in pubs and cafes as well… it’s the people watching, honest!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent collection is Bright Burst of Colour (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Matt Goodfellow: How Did I Become a Poet?

Working as a poet in schools, I regularly get asked the same few questions over and over again – one of them is: ‘How did you become a poet?’ The simple answer is: music. My dad is a massive music fan. Throughout my childhood, Bob Dylan’s hypnotic, incantatory voice was the one I heard the most.

‘I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me’

‘Leave your stepping stones behind now, something calls for you’

I had no idea what he was singing about. But it intrigued me.

My mum and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old and both found new partners. Other than me and my sister, Jane, the only thing that unified the four of them was one album: Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen by Jennifer Warnes.

‘Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’

‘And deep into his fiery heart, he took the dust of Joan of Arc’

Beautiful stuff. And again, it interested me. I heard the songs all the time. Still do.

I don’t remember reading much when I was at primary or secondary schools, although Alan Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ certainly left its mark. Precise, poetic language. I used to walk in the woods at Alderley Edge, a few miles down the road from me, hearing the voices of Colin and Susan, the sneer of the shape-shifting Selina Place.

I must have studied ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats at some point during secondary school – and something about it stuck in my head:

seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – I liked that.

As for writing poetry, the only memory I have is of writing a rhyming epitaph in, perhaps, Y8?!:

in this grave, lies a man, who died by means of a frying pan’

I thought it was pretty good. The teacher’s response: ‘you didn’t write that!’

Schoolwork (other than maths!), especially reading and writing, always came pretty easy to me –  and I never really saw the need to extend myself. This attitude towards academia continued all the way to studying English at Manchester Met (where Carol Ann Duffy was my poetry tutor).

By about 15, I began to discover music and words of my own that spoke to me. In 1995, The Charlatans released a self-titled album that I listened to over and over. I didn’t know what it meant. But it sounded great:

‘here comes a soul saver on your record player, floatin’ about in the dust’

‘take your pick who’s your saviour, come in five different flavours’

‘kiss behind the coolest of walls’

I loved ‘immerse me in your splendour’ from ‘This Is the One’ by The Stone Roses. And so, without really reading poetry, by 16 I was full of it. I’d been playing the guitar for a few years and started up some bands. I was a pretty rubbish musician, but I enjoyed performing. And I began to write the lyrics.

I carried on with music and words, bands like Doves continuing my lyrical fascination, until I finally realised I had no musical talent whatsoever – and put down the guitar at about 23. I became a primary school teacher, which filled the entirety of my head for a while. Words began to surface, though, and soon I was writing songs for assemblies and poems to use in class.

Twelve years later, here I am: a poet. Fancy that.

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester, England. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and delivers high-energy, fun-filled performances in schools. His most recent solo collection is Chicken on the Roof (Otter Barry 2018), and most recent book is Be the Change – poems to help you save the world (Macmillan 2019), written with Liz Brownlee and Roger Stevens. His next solo collection, Bright Bursts of Colour (Bloomsbury) is published Feb 2020.