Sue Hardy-Dawson: The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

The Room I Write In and Cathartic Writing

Years ago I was asked to write about the room I write in, difficult as I’ve no such room. Eventually, I wrote my room as a metaphor for the many places I’ve actually written. I wrote it on a train returning from London. It was winter, late at night and pitch black outside. I was a bit worried about a number of things, about the journey, missing my connection or my train getting cancelled. The thought of being stranded overnight in a freezing empty station was not appealing so I disappeared into my little world of writing where there was a magical box, doors leading to fields and beaches, warm summer meadows and safe comfortable places. Writing made the journey spin by and hours later I arrived safely back home with a useful piece.  I could have written about my fears of course, but escapism’s ever been my chosen coping mechanism.  Besides I had a deadline and however I felt needed to become my inspiration.

Over time I’ve found reading and writing poetry a wonderful escape in times of stress, it’s completely portable and whilst I’m creating or indeed reading I’m immersed in my thoughts. I don’t suggest it’s a cure but a momentary respite. At the moment when many of us are living slightly surreal lives I find there’s a great need for us all to both create and think creatively as well as to find hope in the words of others. Especially as a children’s writer, when we as adults are doing our best to make them feel safe, to make ourselves feel safe and to give the impression, at least, that eventually everything will be ok.

An interesting side-effect of social distancing is that social-media has become, for many of us, our only means of communicating with the outside world. This has led to all manner of amazing things from virtual book launches, poetry performances, stories to illustrating and writing workshops. Many delivered by authors, in some cases actors and on the whole uplifting. Mostly people are coming together, virtually, to support each other, to provide poetry, stories, happy thoughts and distractions.

It’s all too easy to forget the uplifting psychological impact and power of words when we’re stressed. After all many of us are trying to cope with the unfamiliar and difficult combination of suddenly becoming teachers and child development-experts and all whilst juggling home working. We’re our own support network/all-round-care-givers in what is essentially a siege situation. We don’t have time talk about how we feel or admit even to ourselves that we’re scared too. Yet children often sense these things and feel anxious whilst perhaps not really understand why. Maybe they even think with all these suppressed powerful emotions around that they did something wrong.

So now, more than ever is a really good time for our children to escape into both writing and listening to poems and stories, indeed there’s never been a better time for accessing the many wonderful free resources or to keep a personal note book, to use it to talk to, to write poems, to write letters to write stories, anything at all. Free-writing is above all things cathartic because even if children don’t write about what scares them, they may write about what gives them hope. In any case the process itself without levels or rules is escapism. And should they write about their fears it may help put them into perspective. At the least getting your children to free-write may give you a way of exploring how they feel and open discussions so you can challenge any misconceptions.

Sue Hardy-Dawson

Sue Hardy-Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. The poem Dog Explains the Moon is from Sue’s new collection, If I Were Other Than Myself, Troika.

 

Gaby Morgan: Cats

Cats

I spent a long time thinking about what this blog would be about – most of it thinking about poems of hope and consolation, and some of it thinking about poems about spring, but in the end it turned out that what I was writing about was cats. I have two cats who are fond of me, but not each other, and both well into middle age. They have been very attentive while I have been at home. The Orange Cat sits by my computer as I work, next to me on the sofa as I read and follows me around in the garden digging up all of the things I have just planted. The Blue Cat – asks for food and sleeps on my bed. We serve our purpose for him.

I have enjoyed seeing all the photos and videos of other people’s pets on social media and during work video calls. I probably know more about my author’s pets than any other part of their lives, and the very first author pet that I met belonged to Charles Causley. He had a magnificent ginger cat called Rupert. Rupert was an excellent correspondent and I still have photos and postcards that he sent me. When I was compiling Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year Charles suggested that I include a poem by his friend A. L. Rowse called The White Cat of Trenarren. It is sublime and begins:

 

‘He was a mighty hunter in his youth

At Polmear all day on the mound, on the pounce

For anything moving, rabbit or bird or mouse –

My cat and I grow old together.’

 

Charles wrote about cats too – from I Had A Little Cat in which our narrator takes his cat Tim Tom Tay to market to sell but ends up bringing him home again:

 

‘But when the people came to buy

I saw such a look in Tim Tom’s eye

That it was clear as clear could be

I couldn’t sell Tim for a fortune’s fee.’

 

To In Sam Remo about Edward Lear’s cat Foss:

 

‘Deep in the garden of the Villa Tennyson,

Under a Fig tree, end of the orange walk

(Where, in his life, he’d often sprawl and snooze)

Lies the good gatto Foss, for sixteen years

Daily companion of Edward Lear.’

 

I was lucky enough to work on a few of Robert Westall’s books – and happily look after Blitzcat and The Machine Gunners to this day. Robert loved cats and always had several – he wrote in a letter to a friend ‘Cats to me are one of life’s great and certain plusses. When I get angry with God I can forgive him because he made cats – a divine and beautiful joke.’ He put together Cats Whispers and Tales: A Treasury of Stories and Poems as a tribute to them. This was also the book that introduced me to the magnificent Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, which begins ‘For I will consider my cat Jeoffry’,

 

‘For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.’

 

… and Pangur Bán (the scholar and his cat), an old Irish poem, written in the ninth century at or around Reichenau Abbey. I like to imagine the monk hard at work illuminating a manuscript with his white cat looking on. It begins:

 

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

 

And ends:

 

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.’

 

I would love to hear what your favourite cat poems are.

 

Gaby Morgan

 

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.

Imogen Lycett-Green: The Poem Inside

The Poem Inside

 

Going to the Dentist

Starting to tap on my teeth

With a silver metal spoon

Look at each of my teeth

Like a teacher looking at her class

I can’t move, sitting perfectly still

While he stands there

Holding a tiny little drill.

 

Maryan, Argyle school, 5Q

 

This poem was written for Track Record, a community project in Camden, supported by HighSpeed1. Maryan was one of 120 Y5 pupils who participated in six class workshops over six months, delivered by the truly inspiring poet for kids, Paul Lyalls. In July last year, at the project’s closing ceremony, Maryan (10) stood up and read her poem out on a stage at St Pancras International station. In front of friends and strangers – including passers-by who paused to listen under the sky blue railway shed, sitting on suitcases – Maryan’s tiny voice told a story. Maryan had never read a poem out loud before, let alone written one. English is not her first language, yet she finds herself in the UK education system, at a school where over 30 languages are spoken, trying to communicate in a foreign tongue. Through the simple act of writing a poem, she finds her voice.

 

My Cousin’s First Steps

A very wobbly first step.

Like a loose tooth in a happy smile.

Everyone in the room watches with excitement.

Staring at this small foot.

He walks, he falls over.

 

Nasif, Richard Cobden School, 5L

 

Nasif has a little cousin. ‘Everyone in the room’ does not necessarily speak English. Yet here is Nasif, aged ten, painting pictures in our hearts of his toddler cousin taking precarious first steps in front of an audience. Nasif’s classmates cheered as he stood up to read. They waited, while he too, like the toddler, faltered. But Nasif did not fall over. His poem flew to the rafters to a volley of whoops and cheers. Toot toot went the train, ready to leave the station. Toot toot!

Track Record is in its second year now. The fantastic Paul Lyalls is at it again. This time he has signed up a third school. Track Record is a simple project; we don’t even have a website – though we are thinking about that. We publish a booklet of their poems for the kids to take home, and over 30 poems are printed onto boards at St Pancras, to the delight of the thousands of commuters and tourists who pass through the station daily. The poems stay up all summer. The dream is to expand the project, school by school, year by year.

How many times have you rummaged through that old box in the attic to find a scrap of a picture of a house you drew when you were eight? A story you wrote about dinosaurs when you were nine? Perhaps, like Nasif and Maryan, you wrote a poem when you were ten. Think about what that means to you now.

Connecting with the imagination, seeing life with fresh perspective, celebrating the everyday – these are life skills which lead not only to improved literacy, but an invaluable  sense of oneself in the world which can last a lifetime. It’s pure magic, not rocket science (though, according to some of the young poets on the project, who wrote about racing to the moon, it can be that too!) As adults working in the children’s poetry sector, all we have to do is open the door. We can do that on small budgets, with scant resources. We only need to use our own imaginations to think of new ways of ensuring every child finds their poem inside.

Imogen Lycett-Green

Imogen Lycett Green is an independent arts producer, working on community projects across the poetry sector. Formerly director of the Betjeman Poetry Prize, Imogen judges the Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival Short Story Prize for children. She is co-founder of the Narrative Medicine programme at the Brighton Health & Wellbeing centre where she runs poetry workshops for doctors as well as adults with chronic illness.

Lorraine Mariner: Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

As I write this the Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is in full flow and the Royal Festival Hall is bursting at the seams with children and their grown-ups. The Imagine Festival takes place annually during February half-term and for the last five years we have been holding a Day of Poetry in the National Poetry Library for ages 0-11. We like to think of it as a Poetry Festival within the bigger festival.

This year our day of poetry was devoted to eco poetry. The idea for the day was sparked by Poems from a Green and Blue Planet edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, a wide-ranging and majestic nature anthology published last autumn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole day of eco poetry at this time of climate emergency, when so many children, inspired by Greta Thunberg, are taking a stand?

Our day of poetry began at 10.30am with Rug Rhymes for under-5s and Ed Boxall joined us for this Eco Edition. He shared a picture book he has recently illustrated, Dragons’ Wood (Troika, 2019), of a poem by Brian Moses. We all took a walk through the wood with our dog catching glimpses of dragons. At 11.30am we had a workshop run by the UK’s Green Poet Martin Kiszko. Martin has worked with Sir David Attenborough composing music for nature documentaries such as BBC’s ‘Wildlife on One’ and has published two collections of green poetry for children illustrated by Nick Park (of Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit fame). Our workshop was aimed at ages 6-10 and Martin got the children writing in different forms; an animal kenning and a clerihew about an environmental issue.

Ed and Martin were back with us for our 1.30pm reading, aimed at ages 5-7, along with poet Carole Bromley, for Poems Go Green! Ed had realised that sticks feature quite a lot in his poems and his gentle, contemplative poems got us looking closely at nature. Carole took us to Australia, a country she recently visited, and which the children were aware had been tackling catastrophic bushfires. One of her poems reminded us to care for the less loveable animals and insects along with the cute koalas. Martin finished this set with his exuberant, rhyming word play, celebrating, amongst other environmentally friendly energy options, poo power.

Our final event of the day was a 3pm reading for ages 8-11, Poems from a Green and Blue Planet, where poet and editor Sabrina Mahfouz shared poems from the anthology along with contributing poet Liz Brownlee. The UK had just been battered on two consecutive weekends by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, so the reading began with a selection of stormy poems. Sabrina also got the children thinking of words to describe a storm and we combined these with objects. I think my favourite was “clattering candle”. Highlights of some of the classic and newly commissioned poems that Sabrina and Liz shared were Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Peace and Pancakes’, Hollie McNish’s ‘Anything!’ and Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘How to Cut a Pomegranate’ (with pomegranate prop!).

At 4pm it was over. It was a hectic day but all of our events sold out, poets sold and signed books, and I left work feeling less eco-anxious and hope the children that attended felt the same. We’d asked the poets for green tips and Martin advised that you should love the planet in the same way as you would your parents, brothers and sisters or pets. Nature poetry is a great way to foster this love and we have some wonderful collections and anthologies in the National Poetry Library that we recommend – please click here to see our list on the National Poetry Library Catalogue.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014).

Sue Hardy Dawson: Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

I was born into a house full of poetry. Nightly my father lulled me to sleep with the many poems he knew by heart. On long journeys or stuck in traffic-jams we played rhyming games or changed the lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes. Mum too wrote funny verses for family birthday cards. So from an early age I experienced everything from AA Milne to WH Auden. I grew to love each softly spoken syllable; the portent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the drumming beat of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the gentle rhythms of Night Mail and wistful repetition in Hiawatha. Each night, anew, I marvelled at Tygers and green eyed yellow idols, lamented on Bessy the landlord’s daughter awaiting her highwayman or lost myself in exotic cargoes of stately Spanish galleons. I took them for my own begging for my favourites. Naturally enough, whilst young, I didn’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, I learned to love lyrical words to love their musicality and my father was a very enthusiastic performer.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, I began to write myself. Like most beginners, I made mistakes, using words that were archaic or didn’t quite fit. However, the more poets I read the more I got a sense of what worked and didn’t. I fell in love with Hughes at secondary school. I went on to read any and every poet I could lay my hands on, I still do. Then I liked poems for many reasons, they weren’t hard to read because they were usually smaller with more white space, yet there was often a lot to understand. Despite my dyslexia I could learn them well enough to risk reading them out. Writing poems too required less stamina and even if I had to rewrite them many times, they were only short and I could keep them inside my head and work on them. Poetry gave me something I could succeed at.

Whilst I’m not suggesting everyone who enjoys poetry will or should become a poet I believe I was very privileged to experienced poetry as few do in an unpressurised joyful way. I remain convinced that even in this multimedia world or in a busy school with all the demands of curriculum, making time for purely enjoying poetry really matters. Well any poet would I suppose. However, apart from being great fun, something that should never be underestimated as a learning tool, there are many positive effects from poetry for all children.

Like music poetry is multisensory, research suggests it lights up our brains in a similar way, triggering emotions, developing brain cells and improving memory. Historically our ancestors exploited this quality to record stories as ballads handing them down for generations long before the general populace could read or write.

Equally this memorizing characteristic helps children to learn new words in context whilst rhythm and rhyme help with pronunciation and stresses.

Similarly, rhyming, assonance and alliteration promote literacy, building phonic awareness and grouping phonic patterns.

Learning and acting out poetry also develops physical and verbal coordination laying the ground for all manner of public speaking or performance skills.

Perhaps, equally important though, I feel, an early pleasure in poetry for its own sake is more likely to lead to a lifelong love. For even those who claim to dislike it often turn to it in times of need; to express and explore otherwise inexpressible emotions. Finally though poetry is not alone in allowing us to walk in another’s shoes it is more open in making spaces for our own experiences and uniqueness in each footprint.

Sue Hardy-Dawson (Sue’s new collection, If I were Other than Myself, Troika Books is out soon.)

Sue Hardy-Dawson a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts’. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers.

Pie Corbett: 16 Things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

16 things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

I developed this idea with Brian Moses about 38 years ago. In those days, we had our children writing lists along the lines of ‘5 things you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag’. This is the version that I wrote at the time to use as a model for children (Ian McMillan has also written several similar list poems).

Six things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

A wasp’s sting to startle unwary goblins.

Two leather-bound books. One titled, ‘Tunnel digging for beginners’ and the other, ‘Wolves and methods for their avoidance’.

A purse of never-ending wishes.

A pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow.

A pair of twelve league boots.

A fur-lined cape, the colour of rock, for keeping warm in the winter and using as camouflage.

© Pie Corbett

  1. Read the model through and discuss the ideas.
  2. Brainstorm a list of other possibilities.
  3. Use shared writing to create a few lines
  4. Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
  5. Children share and polish their ideas.
  6. Hear examples. Copy favourites for display or to make a booklet.

This is an example from working with a year six class.

We started with a rapid class brainstorm of possibilities: a hammer forged from underground mines; a dagger for dragon attack; oat cake or seed cake; a small block of hardened cheese; a flagon of water for rehydration; a clarinet, reed pipe or recorder; flint and steel; a map of The Misty Mountains; a quill and slate for writing runes, communication or sending a message; a silver pen for writing which can only be read by the light of the moon; a diamond for bargaining; a sack for treasure; an invisibility cloak and some pork pie.

We then did shared writing of a few lines:

A silver pen for secret statements concealed safely beneath a moonless night.

An enchanted reed pipe to fool your advancing foe by summoning a slither of moonlight.

Here is a list made by four of the year 6 children:

Sixteen things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

Two fire-flies in a jam jar to light up your way.

A book of myths and legends though some would call them truths.

A quill of wise words that writes runes to summon a thread of starlight.

A silver pen that can only be seen by the light of the moon.

Gandalf’s pocket-watch where you spin the hands to turn time.

An enchanted reed pipe for summoning a slither of moonlight to guide you in the night.

A charmed recorder for fooling or hypnotising your foe.

A cauldron of wishes at the edge of an inquisitive mind.

Homely, hard cheese for a fireless night.

A flagon of never-ending water to quench any dwarf’s thirst.

A golden feather, plucked from the finest eagle and a strip of slate forged in goblin mines to contact the nearest village, using an ancient map of The Misty Mountains.

The fang of a dragon to slay fleeing foe.

A completely crystal dagger, able to pierce through any armour and wound even the deadliest of creatures.

A pair of relatively light boots which can endure months of crossing rivers, navigating woods and stumbling through seemingly endless caves and caverns.

A steel-lined cape to protect you from fire, piercing blades and the strongest of incantations.

Of course, the lists could be about what you would find in a troll’s rucksack, a giant’s suitcase, a unicorn’s saddle bags or a goblin’s backpack!

© Pie Corbett 2020

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice. Talk for Writing.

Rachel Piercey: Ode to my Tap

Ode to my Tap

With World Water Day coming up in March, I thought I would use my blog to share a poetry workshop which always seems to inspire lovely poems: ‘Ode to My Tap’. The workshop, which I use with Years 4, 5 and 6, explores the importance of access to clean water, as well as encouraging imaginative imagery and metaphors.

Children are naturally passionate advocates for environmental and humanitarian issues and in my experience they really take to this theme, blending the overt message with playful language. It is also an accessible introduction to the concept of an ‘Ode’.

First, I share with the class some of the shocking statistics around access to clean water:

  • 1 in 4 people on the planet don’t have a decent toilet of their own.
  • 1 in 10 people don’t have access to water close to home.
  • 31% of schools around the world don’t have clean water.

(There are lots of useful resources including lesson plans and videos on www.wateraid.org).

I explain that many children have to miss school and skip playing with friends to go and collect clean water, which is often miles away from their home. If children and adults must spend hours each day collecting water, it can prevent them from training for and pursuing the jobs they would like to do.

I tell them that this got me thinking about the importance of something I have always taken for granted – my taps! And so I decided to write an ode, which is a poem in praise of a particular thing. Poets have written odes to all sorts of things – autumn, wind, sadness, music, silence, “a large tuna in the market”… you can write an ode to anything you like!

 

Ode to My Tap

 

My tap is a silver swan.

My tap is a silken roar.

My tap knocks shyly

on its own white door –

drip, drop, drip…

My tap is cold sips.

My tap grows a twisting vine.

My tap is tea-time,

and bath-time,

and squeaky-clean teeth

feel just fine.

My tap speaks tap,

which to the human ear

is a judder in the pipes.

My tap has a hot temper

and a cold shoulder.

My tap is ease.

My tap is a liquid key.

My tap is me being free

to be me.

 

We spend a couple of minutes looking at the different poetic techniques – metaphor, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, contrast, use of the five senses, use of rhyme (which I have kept deliberately fluid…pun half-intended…!). Then they are off writing their own poems!

If pupils are having trouble getting started, I ask them to draw a little picture of their tap, then we chat about what the shape reminds them of (e.g. the spout could be a rainbow, a candy cane, a giraffe…the tap handles could be a flower or a hand…). If they don’t want to draw, we might collaborate on some sound effects – a dripping tap, a tap turned on fully etc – and discuss what these sound like.

These Tap Odes lend themselves to illustration – the poem flowing out of the tap is particularly popular. You could also build on this workshop by asking pupils to write a poem in the voice of water, or to write an ode about something else surprising.

If you do write Odes to Your Taps, I’d love to see them! Please feel free to contact me through my website for some class feedback or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She co-edited and contributed to the children’s poetry anthologies Falling Out of the Sky: Poems about Myths and Monsters (shortlisted for the CLiPPA award 2016), Watcher of the Skies: Poems about Space and Aliens, and The Head that Wears a Crown: Poems about Kings and Queens, all published by the Emma Press. She regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools, and she has taught courses on writing poetry for children for The Poetry School. Her poems for adults have been published in The Rialto, Magma, Butcher’s Dog and The Poetry Review, as well as pamphlets with the Emma Press and HappenStance. rachelpierceypoet.com

Chrissie Gittins: Files Not Found on a Computer

‘Files Not Found On A Computer’ is the title of a poem from ‘Stars in Jars’ (Bloomsbury). I had been thinking about computers, and that however useful they are they cannot replicate the variety of lived experience. I imagined three files which can’t be found on a computer, each containing a list of sensations relating to three of the five senses.

When I use this poem in a workshop in schools I first ask the class what a computer can do that human beings can’t do, and then the reverse. We read through the poem twice, as a class and/or with different voices, so that the children become familiar with the concept and the patterning in the poem.

Files Not Found on a computer

 

The Touch File

a son stroking his father’s cheek,

fingers folding a hamster’s fur,

a face buried in cherry blossom,

enclosing arms of goodnight.

 

The Taste File

 

the saltiness of boiled ham

against soft white bread,

the sharpness of marmalade

melding with butter on solid wholemeal toast,

the twang of rhubarb with ginger

hiding beneath crumble,

the cut of iced sparkling water

swilling down my throat.

 

The Aroma File

a wet dog in the rain,

garlic squashed beneath a knife,

lavender steaming from my bath,

croissant warming Sunday morning.

 

After writing the title and the three verse titles on the board/flip chart I explain that I chose the word ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’ to inspire appealing experiences for the nose, rather than ‘bad smells’. I then ask for contributions for each file in turn – something they like the feel/taste/smell of. If their answers are brief I quiz the contributor about their suggestion, encouraging them to expand their answer with precise details and descriptions. I ask for examples from the natural world, and ask them to use specific names of any birds, plants, trees etc. they might want to include. I point out that it’s difficult for their reader to imagine ‘a bird’ or ‘a flower’ in their mind’s eye, but much easier to imagine ‘a magpie’ or ‘a snowdrop’.

I had the opportunity to run this workshop in the middle of a field during the North Cornwall Book Festival in the hamlet of St Endellion with children from a local primary school. The workshop was filmed by BBC Countryfile for a piece concerned with nature words which are in danger of disappearing from children’s vocabularies. This tied in with my most recent poetry collection ‘Adder, Bluebell, Lobster’ (Otter-Barry Books) which takes forty of these endangered nature words as titles for new poems. Before beginning the workshop I usually read several poems from this book, choosing the ones which give plenty of scope for audience interaction such as ‘Blackberry’, ‘Cauliflower’ ‘Mint’ ‘Otter’, ‘Newt’ and ‘Raven’.

Of course there are other verses which could be written on ‘The Sight File’ and ‘The Hearing File’. As we wrote our group poem in Cornwall we were able to hear a lark overhead and the rustling of birch trees, and to see ‘sage green hills melting into the horizon’ (a line from the group poem). We could have also included the wind whipping up the flipchart, or the man who drove his car down the side of the field while his dog ran alongside.

A material-gathering-walk could be incorporated into a school-based workshop with periodic stops to look and listen, smell and touch (maybe not taste?), and to make notes and/or quick sketches.

Wishing you much enjoyment of writing and reading poems in 2020 both inside and en plein air.

Chrissie Gittins

Of Chrissie’s five children’s poetry collections three were Choices for the Poetry Book Society Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, and two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Poetry Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a finalist in the Manchester Children’s Literature Prize. Her poems have been animated for Cbeebies TV and she has recorded her poems for the Children’s Poetry Archive. She visits schools, libraries and festivals, she has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Chrissie’s website.

Morag Styles: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Of Rossetti, Robins and Rhymes: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c1744, Children’s Chapbook, Public Domain, Held by British Library

My head has been deep in the British Library collection of early children’s poetry, some of which has been digitised and is soon to be showcased on a forthcoming website. To be able to see Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744 in all its glory on the screen is a rare treat. And likely to please young readers as it is full of delightful rhymes and illustrations – and rude in parts!

Little robin red breast

Sitting on a pole

Niddle, noddle,

Went his head,

And poop went his hole.

I haven’t yet looked online at Christina Rossetti’s manuscript copy of Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book, 1872, but as I have actually held it carefully in white gloved hands I can tell you it is quite wonderful to see her handwriting and her own little pencil-drawn illustrations. Even better is to witness some of the small changes she made to her text. This exceptional collection is not as well known as it ought to be with its tender and lively variety of poetry for young readers.

‘Sing Song’: a volume of 121 nursery rhymes, 1868/70, Christina Rossetti, Copyright Unknown, Held by British Library.

Something must have been in the air as Lear’s brilliant Nonsense Songs and Stories was published the same year as Sing-Song and Carroll’s inspired parody of Jane Taylor’s The Star just a few years earlier in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Twinkle, twinkle little bat

How I wonder what you’re at…

Even now, hard to beat those two great humorists in verse.

Songs of Innocence and Experience [A facsimile of a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition], 1923, William Blake, Held by The British Library, Public Domain.
I’ve also been revisiting Blake’s dazzling Songs of Innocence of 1789, Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1842, his tragic and thrilling tale of mayhem, madness and mendacity, and A.A. Milne’s much loved When We Were Very Young, 1924, with E.H. Shepard’s outstanding illustrations. So many poems in these volumes are still winners with the young. If you haven’t looked at them for a while, they are more than worthy of your attention on the British Library’s website. The new Discovering Children’s Books site will launch in late February 2020.

I was delighted to be asked to write about these works in the context of making connections with contemporary poets writing for children, especially if the British Library or Seven Stories, with whom they have worked in partnership, hold their manuscripts. John Agard, James Berry, Valerie Bloom, Jackie Kay, Roger McGough, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and others come into this category and are perfect choices for considering links and contrasts with early poetry when talking about nursery rhymes, humour and storytelling in verse. Many themes that work in children’s poetry are timeless and one of those is the natural world. Poets have always served children well in drawing environmental issues to their attention in a way that makes them care.  Never more important than now.

Morag Styles

Morag Styles is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Poetry and the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children. She has written many books and articles on children’s poetry, edited several volumes on children’s literature, and is editor of numerous anthologies of poetry for children.

 

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.