Lorraine Mariner: What Rhymes with Rug? Writing Poems for Children

Image: Pete Woodhead

What Rhymes with Rug? Writing Poems for Children

I’ve been writing poems for adults for over 20 years now but it was really through working on Rug Rhymes at the National Poetry Library that I started to write poems for children. I feel like a newbie but I realise it’s almost 9 years since I wrote my first children’s poem. It grew out of some copy we’d written to promote Rug Rhymes: “What rhymes with rug? Join Poetry Library puppets Federico and Firebird on their poem rug to find out!” What does rhyme with rug? I found myself wondering, so I wrote a poem that Federico and Firebird could say:

Rug Rhyme

What rhymes with rug?
            A slow slimy slug
            A buzzy bug
            A pudgy cuddly pug (Woof!)

What rhymes with rug?
            A juice-filled jug
            A milky mug
            A big thirsty glug glug glug

What rhymes with rug?
            A sleepy shrug
            A bath time plug
            My friend’s special hug

Working on Rug Rhymes also coincided with my becoming an aunt which gave me further inspiration for poems for children. I’ve always remembered a quote from Ted Hughes, that when he had his children, poems for them “welled up like mother’s milk”, but a very small portion of adult poets who have children end up writing children’s poems. And some of the best children’s poets never have children of their own. Eleanor Farjeon is one such poet and I find this quote of hers quite heartbreaking, that “In my youth, I dreamed of being a “real” poet, but half-way through my life the dream died, and whatever figments remained went into writing songs and verses for children”. I don’t agree that children’s poets aren’t “real” poets but I find it very intriguing that some poets seem destined to write for children rather than adults and I wonder sometimes if maybe I shouldn’t be attempting to write children’s poems.

I’ve edited the ‘Rug Rhyme’ poem over the years and can understand why some of the finest children’s poets are also school teachers; having your target audience to try poems out on can be invaluable. I recently added some more alliteration after taking a course on writing poems for children inspired by Charles Causley, probably the most famous teacher children’s poet, led by Rachel Piercey for the Poetry School. One of the things I loved about the course was that for the first time in a long while I got out my rhyming dictionary and thesaurus. My adult writing tends to be very direct and not formally structured and I had a lot of fun tapping into Causley’s rhythms and rhymes and wordplay.

Image – NPL Children’s Collection Shelves by Takis Zontiros

In 2014 we ran a book club at the National Poetry Library looking at classic children’s poets every adult should read and Causley was one of them, along with Eleanor Farjeon. I feel very lucky to have access to over a hundred years of children’s poetry as part of my day job and I would recommend any aspiring children’s poets to join the National Poetry Library.

Books by James Berry

As well as being able to read your way through the back catalogue of the likes of James Berry, Tony Mitton, Grace Nichols, Jack Prelutsky and Naomi Shihab Nye, you can get your hands on the most recent UK children’s poetry publications and make unexpected discoveries. I’ve recently been charmed by the work of Finola Akister who started writing poems to entertain her grandchildren.

Poems by Finola Akister, illustrated by Colin West

If you can’t get to London we also have an eloans collection that includes ebooks for children and young people.

I produce children’s poems at a much slower pace than adult ones. Over the years I’ve attended many courses and I belong to a workshop group and this has really helped me develop my adult poetry but there aren’t so many opportunities for poets starting to write for children. I was thrilled when following her Causley course Rachel Piercey set up an online Poetry Society Stanza group for children’s poets, Zig Zag Stanza. It’s been great to meet other poets writing for children, workshop poems and discuss different aspects of children’s poetry. Hopefully, it will lead to more poems I can pretend Federico and Firebird have written!

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), and two pamphlets Bye For Now(The Rialto, 2005) and Anchorage (Grey Suit Editions, 2020). 

National Poetry Library:

Poetry Society Stanzas:

Lorraine Mariner: Rug Rhymes at the National Poetry Library

The Imagine Children’s Festival took place at Southbank Centre in February this year and it was a chance for the National Poetry Library to hold its Rug Rhymes session for under-5s for the first time since March 2020. That final Rug Rhymes in 2020, just before the first lockdown, was very surreal with just two mums and two toddlers in attendance, though I do remember one of the mum’s talking to her child about a friend they had recently visited who didn’t have real grass in their garden but artificial grass – which on reflection sounds a great subject for a children’s poem! We came back with a bang this February and held 3 sessions over 3 days with roughly 40 children and 40 adults at each session, filling up the foyer outside the NPL.

Rug Rhymes was established in Autumn 2013 as part of our mission to create lifelong NPL members. We sometimes get people in their late teens and early twenties who join the library and tell us they first visited the library on a school visit and it’s our hope that in a few years a young adult will say the same thing about Rug Rhymes. Before we launched Rug Rhymes I visited a few public libraries and sat in on their rhyme time sessions to see how it was done. They seemed to consist of traditional nursery rhymes, action songs and a picture book but we wanted to make sure our sessions also included poems and a rhyming story so it was more of a unique offer drawing from our children’s collection.

As well as gathering together animal puppets that we could use to act out different poems and songs, artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer made two puppets for us who lead the sessions and they’ve become known as Federico and Firebird. We say that they’re Spanish poets who live with us in the Poetry Library because Sophie made them while she was visiting Spain.

Over the years we’ve put together many different session plans, including animals (from the specific – bears, cats, dogs, owls – to more general – pets, jungle, zoos, under the sea), themes that appeal to young children like bodies, food and transport, seasons and festival days and also Southbank Centre festivals such as WOW (Women of the World) and Poetry International. In 2015 Poetry International focused on poetry of the Middle East and we put together a session that included rhymes and poems from Afghanistan and Pakistan thanks to the books in our collection My Village : Rhymes from Around the World (collected by Danielle Wright, Frances Lincoln, 2010)and Children’s Songs from Afghanistan : Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar (edited by Louise M. Pascale, National Geographic, 2008).

Since we started Rug Rhymes, something that’s been really great for the sessions is the publication of wonderful books of poems for very young children. We regularly drew on Margaret Mayo’s Plum Pudding (Orchard Books, 2000), but since Michael Rosen’s CLiPPA winning A Great Big Cuddle (Walker) was published in 2015 it’s been good to see other books of rhymes for young children being published and shortlisted for the CLiPPA, such as James Carter’s Zim Zam Zoom! (Otter-Barry, 2016) and Jane Newberry’s Big Green Crocodile (Otter-Barry, 2020). The theme of our recent sessions was Back Together with a focus on children being able to attend parties again, and ‘The Queen Comes to Tea’ from Big Green Crocodile went down a treat and will be used again with the 70th Jubilee celebrations fast approaching.

In May and June we’ll be running Rug Rhymes every Friday between 11.30am-12pm. It takes place in our Little Library space just outside of the National Poetry Library on Level 5, Blue Side, of the Royal Festival Hall. Please check out our website for more information http://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk

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), and two pamphlets Bye For Now (The Rialto, 2005) and Anchorage (Grey Suit Editions, 2020). She also writes poems for children and writes poems for Rug Rhymes from time to time.