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.

 

Teresa Cremin: Profiling Poetry this December

Profiling Poetry this December

It’s Yuletide – a time for carols, songs, stories and poetry– a time to tempt children with the words and tunes, rhythm and rhyme that play into this space of celebration. Over the decades, teachers have made this time special in school, offering class, whole school and community events that involve giving, receiving and so much more.

It is also a rich opportunity to read, write and perform poetry together and to seize those liminal spaces when half the class are at a play practice or are finishing making cards for instance. So, in this Christmas blog, given there is scant time for thinking as we rush from job to job, planning food, writing cards and generally panicking (well I am!),  I thought I’d simply share some ideas for profiling poetry this December.

Advent Calendar Poetree: This idea was developed by Miss Graham, an NQT from Edge Hill University who is working at Kingsmoor Junior in Carlisle, Cumbria. Eager to foster children’s reading for pleasure @MissGrahamteach hid 24 wrapped poems in each classroom, children find the day’s poem and share it! Each dated poem also has a challenge on the back- a discussion question relating to the topic or form of the poem to get children buzzing about poetry!

Poems as Christmas Gifts: Inviting the class to write their own poems as gifts for family members always works well. Focusing on a chosen relative or friend, rather than the jolly red stereotypes of Christmas is often more engaging. The key, as George Szirtes highlights, is to avoid platitudes and clichés, but to let the pressure of such avoidance ‘be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like’. You could explore what makes their grandma so special – what are the objects in her house, her voice,  style, typical expressions and so forth. Or you could play the furniture game and encourage them to imagine their grandad as a piece of furniture ‘a deep leather sofa creased and loved’ perhaps? Printed on card and illustrated, this will be given with love.

Poetry Recommendations for Parents: Encouraging poetry gift giving, schools can offer a recommended booklist of their top ten poetry collections, perhaps on the school website or newsletter.

Pop-up Poets: Why not interleave  opportunities to share poetry – the children’s own and others – when parents come to see their children’s work or attend events? You could create pop-up poets who, having prepped their chosen poem in small groups, are at the ready when a governor, parents or others come by? They can then rush off and perform their poem – ‘Talkin turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah or ‘The computer’s first Christmas card’ by Edwin Morgan would work well amongst many others.

Poetry in Christmas gatherings: Most schools will be joining together in a special assembly or performance. Why not interleave the printed programme with children’s own poems? Or offer live poetry during the interval?  Saint Andrew’s C of E Primary school Halstead hold an annual candlelight service for the children who sit in a circle around the candles while each member of staff reads a poem or an extract. One teacher there, Claire Williams (@borntosparkle), tells me that the sense of peace and ‘togetherness’ is tangible, especially when the headteacher closes by reading ‘A visit from Saint Nicolas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Sounds very memorable.

Regardless of the way you enjoy poetry with your class this December, I hope you and the children will be tempted by the words and tunes, the ideas and images that such rich language provides.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.

Kate Wilson: Packing Meaning Into a Small Space

I am lucky.

At so many times in my career, I have been able to… um, let’s call it what it sometimes feels as if it is, indulge my love of children’s poetry.

I wasn’t brought up in a particularly bookish household, but on my seventh birthday, I received a book that was, for me, transformative. It was The Book Of A Thousand poems – small, thick, densely packed with poetry, much of which I can still recite by heart. I still have my copy of the book, the top of it forested with little triangles of faded pink torn paper that I used, at some point, to mark my favourites. These were fairly traditional poems. I was responding, of course, to experiences of rhythm and rhyme and sometimes other language patterns – assonance, alliteration, repetition – building on the bedrock of English-language nursery rhymes that should be the bedrock of every English speaking child, which is not, of course, to discount the richness of children’s rhymes in other languages from Akan to Zulu. But I was also responding to the way that poetry packed meaning into a small space, to be mentally and emotionally unfolded, not just at the moment of reading, but later, on reflection as I rolled remembered words around in my brain.

I went on to study English at university, and emerged with a determination to “get into publishing”, without, really, knowing what that meant other than that I wanted to work with books.

Spectacularly, I got a job at Faber, and so had not only the joy of sharing a lift with Seamus Heaney, but also selling – mine was a sales role –  The Rattle Bag, poetry by Water De La Mere and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Some of the children’s poetry I encountered there was new to me, some was deliciously familiar.

After a while, I found myself as the children’s publisher at Macmillan, publishing, and, once, meeting Charles Causley. Up until that point, I am ashamed to say now, my experience of poetry had been, well, silent. It happened in my head. I read poems. I didn’t read them aloud. But at Macmillan I had the experience of publishing poets who worked in schools: worked with audiences of children – Valerie Bloom, Paul Cookson, Ian Macmillan and Pie Corbett among others. It was an honour to watch children’s responding to poetry read out loud. These were words, I realised belatedly, not just to roll around in your brain, but words to roll around in your ears, roll around on your tongue.

It made me think about picture books, which so often demand to be read out loud too: theatre for an audience of one or two. Macmillan already had on its list Bringing The Rain To Kapiti Plain, a rhyming picture book classic. But I published Valerie Bloom’s funny, sunlit rhyming picture book about counting, Fruits, further brightened by Valerie’s use of Jamaican patois. And I published The Gruffalo. At the time, to publish rhyming picture book texts was risky: the received wisdom was that the challenge of translation made it hard for them to achieve the kind of international sales that make the high cost of publishing books in colour financially viable. But The Gruffalo was a hit internationally, and has opened the door to a panoply of picture books that tell stories saturated with rhythm and rhyme.

Inspired by The Book of A Thousand Poems, though, I kept faith with the idea of the pick ‘n’ mix delights of the anthology. The first, rather glorious, National Year of Reading ran from 1994 to 1995, and, thinking of ways to support it, I came up with Read Me: A Poem a Day for the National Year of Reading, now still published as Read Me: A Poem for Every Day of the Year. It was the best idea I’d had in the bath for a long time.

Still later, here at Nosy Crow, we’re publishing both rhyming picture books – by, among others Caryl Hart, Tracey Corderoy and Lou Peacock – and poetry anthologies. I am interested in sort of combining the two: bringing the richness of picture book illustration to poetry. Our first, hugely ambitious shot at this is I Am The Seed That Grew the Tree: a Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year, published a year ago. It’s a big, beautiful book published in partnership with The National Trust that both invites children into poetry, and invites children into nature, as the poems describe the seasons, animals, weather, and plants that the child can observe, or at least imagine, happening and living outdoors at that moment.

The success of this book – commercial and critical – has been such a justification of its publication: at no point in the making of the book did it seem remotely possible that it would do anything other than lose us a bucket of money. I am proud of it… and seeing that it worked and was welcomed, has made us plan several others that we’ll be announcing in the months to come.

Kate Wilson

Kate Wilson loves books. She read avidly as a child, studied English at Oxford and got into publishing as soon as she could wangle a job typing and taking her boss’s shirts to the dry cleaner. She’s worked in international rights selling and then as a publisher at Faber, Egmont, Macmillan, Scholastic. After being fired from an adult publishing job, she founded Nosy Crow, and is managing director there, working with co-founders Adrian Soar and Camilla Reid and 50 other people to publish over 100 new books for children aged 0 to 12 a year. Nosy Crow has won many industry and business awards, most recently this year, and for the second time, Children’s Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.

Dawn Finch: Poetry for Children – a School Librarian’s Perspective.

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

I have worked with primary school age children for a very long time. I ran a primary school library for over a decade, and all in all have worked with books for primary age children for over thirty years. I am often asked what books I feel are most popular with children of that age, and the answer came from the shelf in my library that was always the messiest. The shelf that was most heavily used (and gave me the most tidying up duties) was the poetry shelf. I had to move the poetry section closer to my desk because it was so busy I decided it was easier to help children if they were right at my desk. In every primary school I’ve worked the situation was the same – kids love poetry. Small children have not yet learned to feel awkward or embarrassed about their love of it, and so they embrace poetry. They read it, write it, share it and love it.

If that’s the case, why can’t we see it on the shelves of more bookshops?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All of my experience tells me that children love poetry and yet buying it is still so hard. We have some superb poets for children in the UK and every day I see details of new and exciting poetry books. This blog is a collective of the most amazing writers, and yet I know that when I walk into a bookshop I’m going to struggle to find most of their books.

If we think the situation is bad for poetry for children, watch that thin line grow ever thinner and vanish as we look at poetry for adults. This is hardly surprising – if you deny a child access to something it’s no wonder that they don’t seek it out as an adult.

Poetry often feels like it isn’t for everyone. I grew up a working class kid in a pretty rough school and past primary age we didn’t really “do” poetry. That was for the posh kids, not for us grubby little estate oiks. Those of us who liked poetry knew it was sensible to keep that to ourselves. This is still how some kids are growing up. Children and young people are still feeling that poetry is not for them and the lack of it on the shelves of bookshops perpetuates that myth.

To experience the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, it has to be just that – a pleasure. If libraries and bookshops fail to stock poetry then that limited choice means that children will never know if it is for them, and that means they will grow up to become adults who feel the same. They will grow to feel that poetry is only for the educated elite and not for us regular folk.

But poetry is for us, and it can be for all of us. I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me, right up to the moment I won first prize in the Brian Nisbet Poetry Award in 2019. Until that moment I was writing poetry in secret because of the feeling that poetry was not for me. Feelings that had stuck with me right from secondary school over forty years ago.

Poetry brings a moment, an experience, an emotion, a place in time all condensed into a delicious capsule. For a small child a great poem can be an epiphany and a gem-like moment of pure understanding. It can be a rolling laugh tangled up in a few short lines, or it can be a sweeping escape in an epic form.

All children deserve that. In fact, so do all grown-ups!

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian. She is a Trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and has recently become the Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG). Her website is here. Twitter: @dawnafinch

Hannah Rolls: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration

The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.

But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.

 

That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.

It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.

A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.

 

Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.

Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).

But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.

Hannah Rolls

Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.

Tracey Guiry: Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

Making the Children’s Poetry Archive

I don’t remember poetry being spoken of in my house as I grew up and certainly not spoken out loud. We lived on a remote farm and I spent from dawn to dusk outdoors, which in the 60’s and 70’s meant truly outdoors,  being given a cheese sandwich and some orange squash and told to be back before it got dark. The stories I most loved as a child reflected that sense of freedom, of being master of my own destiny, an explorer and an adventurer no less brave or able than my brothers.

From an early age I knew the name of pretty much everything I came across in the fields and woods around our village so it is really no surprise that the first poems which snagged my imagination were about the things I knew best. Poems like John Clare’s Mouse’s Nest, with his lovely made-up words like ‘prog’, and Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox, ‘and again now, and now, and now’ brought a shock of recognition which I can still recall with a smile. These poems filled my mind with pictures even if, at the time, I thought they truly were only about a mouse and a fox. There is nothing can compare to the moment we discover something we know speaks to us alone.  I remembered these feelings as we made the decision to create a Poetry Archive dedicated to children.

The Poetry Archive exists to produce, acquire, preserve and share the world’s finest poetry read out loud and it wasn’t long into our history of making recordings that we knew children’s poetry should have its own website.  We believe passionately that poems are not only words on a page but equally have a life in the mouth and on the ear and we wanted to break down any barriers which might exist between a child and a poem. The quality of writing for children has always been high – children are the most discerning and demanding audiences – but there were few websites specifically designed with a younger user in mind.

Young people today are technologically savvy in ways I couldn’t even have imagined at their age, and our site needed to reflect that. The ‘favourite’ function next to each poem allows users to click on the and save poems to their very own collection in ‘My Archive’. From there they can create their own poetry playlists, listen back to their own curated collections and share the poems they like with their friends. The ‘eyes closed, ears open’ button allows them to switch off all the other sights and sounds on the page except for the poet and their voice.

We want children to discover poetry for themselves. There is no fanfare of description on the Children’s Poetry Archive, no lessons on meaning, or other people’s opinions, though these can be found by anyone wanting to search. When a child arrives at the Children’s Archive they will find only the poet’s voice, the sound their words make, and a head full of pictures all their own which they can recall with a smile all their lives.

Tracey Guiry

Children’s Poetry Archive.

Tracey Guiry is the Director of the Poetry Archive. She worked in the Giant Screen film industry before learning how to build very big cinemas. She then went on to build even bigger Visitor Attractions and Science Centres which brought art, science and nature education to the public, becoming a Director at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol before it launched in 2000. Her passion for poetry and literature led to her co-founding Literature Works with Alex Cluness in 2008 to provide developmental support to writers – this became a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council in 2009. She joined the Poetry Archive in 2016, working to ensure their poetry collections and education materials can continue to be shared free-of-charge with as many people as possible. The Children’s Poetry Archive was developed with the kind support of the T S Eliot Foundation.

James Carter: Poet Laureate… for Children

What better date than National Poetry Day to suggest something new to the children’s poetry world…?

Now. In the 20 years or so I’ve been lucky to be working as a children’s poet – writing and publishing children’s poetry, visiting well over 1200 schools in the UK and abroad – I’ve noticed a gradual but significant sea change. For up-and-coming poets I’d argue it’s a more welcoming place than it ever was. Moreover, there’s a wonderful, thriving and wholly supportive community of UK children’s poets online; check it out on Twitter. I feel that the poetry books – collections and anthologies – we publish now are of a better quality overall and have a more inspiring range of topics than ever before. Many of the wonderful teachers I meet – Primary teachers – seem to be so much more enthusiastic about poetry now and have shaken off that age-old intimidation or reluctance – even saying to me how much their classes love doing poetry – reading, writing and performing it. Not so much do I hear ‘poetry is scary’. Hurrah! Literary festivals are booking more poets. We even have a number of children’s poetry awards. (A couple more would be good though…) Plus, as far as I can see, poetry seems to be read far more at home than it ever was. Allelujah to that!

Yet the ‘p’ word still garners the odd groan amongst adults particularly, and that will never go away entirely – and I partly blame the English Literature curriculum’s obsession with verse deconstruction at GCSE for that.

As a fan of American verse, I often look to see what poetry is happening over the pond. And what I’ve noticed is that they don’t just have a Children’s Laureate, but a Children’s Poet Laureate. So how about having the same over here, in office for say two years, leading conferences, training teachers, advising librarians, doing family shows in communities, training up-and-coming poets on how to perform poems/run workshops, giving media soundbites on why poetry is so vital for the young. And rather than trying to work nationally all the time, they could focus their work regionally, so much more can be achieved and with greater depth. I can think of many contemporary children’s poets that would be ideal for this job.

And though poetry is on the up, there’s still more to be done – more teachers, librarians, parents and carers that need to be convinced and shown the myriad benefits of poetry – in terms of children writing, nurturing children’s reading and developing oracy/performance skills. They need to be shown that prose is a mountain, verse is a hill. The more hills children can climb – and early on – the better communicators, the more passionate readers and committed writers they will become. Poetry writing encourages autobiographical writing (q.v. free verse) as well as figurative and expressive language, full of rich imagery; it actively promotes children writing imaginatively and freely, exploring their own thoughts, ideas and creativities. What’s more, the more poems children write, the better they will be at writing prose. This is not a theory but a fact!

Fancy sponsoring this WH Smiths, Foyles, Blackwells, Amazon? And how about getting National Poetry Day UK / The Poetry Society / Children’s Poetry Summit behind this? If each Laureate does a two year term – after ten years, there would have been five different laureates, say all based in very different parts of the UK, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, bringing all of us children’s poets ever closer together, with each Laureate spreading their own interests and expertise, inspiring both adults and children, handing out plenty of the good stuff. There. What’s not to like?

James Carter

National Poetry Day Ambassador

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and non-fiction writer. He travels all over
the UK and abroad (with his melodica, Steve) to give lively poetry/music performances
and workshops, and in the last 18 years he has visited over 1200 Primary schools.
He is an ambassador for National Poetry Day. Once Upon A Star – the story of the sun, James’s non-fiction picture book in verse, is out now in p/b; The Big Beyond – the story of space travel –is out now in hardback. (both Little Tiger Press). His website is here.

 

Debbie Pullinger: Why the Revival?

Why the Revival?

Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless.

Maybe it’s just a pendulum swing thing. The wheel goes round and poetry is recalled and re-cooled.

Maybe it’s because we’re remembering that poetry is all about the ear and the tongue. School poetry, in particular, got rather stuck to the page for all sorts of reasons. But in classrooms as in performance venues, its voice is being heard.

Maybe it’s because a poem is short. It’s all we can manage when we’re so strapped for time and attention.

Maybe it’s part of what David Sax calls “The Revenge of Analogue”.* Like listening to songs on vinyl or writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book, speaking and writing and even learning poems feels like some kind of material resistance in this digital age. A slowing, flowing, real-world sort of activity.

Maybe all those, and maybe more.

Another question might be about why we lost the poetry plot in the first place. Because, the fact is, poetry is where we all started. Our human ancestors’ first foray into language was a kind of singing – whose main purpose was to maintain bonds within social groups once they became too large for everyone to groom everyone else.** Not language to label and manage, but language to connect and enchant. And it’s where we still start. When you arrived to join the world, it was the musical rhythms and intonations of your family’s speech that you recognised, and vocalised, first. Vocabulary and syntax came later.***

So poetic language is primarily primal language. It’s language rooted in music, emotion and the body. It hangs loose with meaning. It’s playful. That’s what all poetry – but children’s poetry in particular – taps into. Its meaning is often enacted in the body through physicality and sensuousness. This much is obvious in many nursery rhymes (‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’), but you can find these subtle mimetic qualities in most poetry. The patterned, musical sounds of poetic language reassure the very young (and perhaps all of us) that language is not an arbitrary, alien assemblage of sound symbols, but something that has a deep connection with our own bodily experience, and connects our embodied selves to the world around.

Most importantly, poems offer a vital sense of containment. The world is vast and feelings overwhelming. Rhymes and songs assure children that both can be contained and ordered.

So maybe this revival is simply our first language reasserting itself, in spite of everything. Normality resumed.

*David Sax, 2016, The Revenge of Analogue: Real Things and Why They Matter. New York: PublicAffairs

**Robin Dunbar, 2004, The Human Story. London: Faber

***Studies of language development in infants indicate that rhythm and phrasing are acquired before vocabulary and syntax, and that this process begins before birth.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Childrens Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2017. Website: Debbie Pullinger.