Andrea Reece: P is for … Reasons to be Cheerful

P is for … Reasons to be Cheerful

The last time I wrote a blog for the Poetry Summit it was January, eight months and a different world ago. Who would have thought way back then, that the ‘p’ word defining 2020 would not be poetry but pandemic?  My diary (I’m old-school and use a paper one, don’t @ me) is full of crossings-out: the whole of the Oxford Literary Festival including events I’d organised on the children’s and young people’s programme  with (gulp) Nikita Gill, Rakaya Fetuga, Jinhao Xie, Troy Cabida, and another with (gulp again) Allie Esiri, Samuel West, Diana Quick, Hugh Ross and Gina Bellman; a big scribble blots out 13 July, which should have been the date for the joyful and inspiring extravaganza that is the CLiPPA award ceremony at the National Theatre.

Looking back though, even if our year has been marked by a peculiar silence, for me as for many I’m sure, it has been punctuated by poetry. Moments I’ll remember include sitting in the garden listening to Roger Robinson’s new recordings for the Poetry Archive; the brilliant Forward Meet the Poet sessions featuring readings from the ten books shortlisted for the Forward Prizes and question and answer sessions with the shortlisted poets; Laura Mucha’s Dear Key Workers thank you poem to the NHS, created with the help of children cheered me hugely (and still does).

Now though, after all the cancellations and postponements, there are real reasons to be cheerful, amongst them the news that the CLiPPA Show will go on.  Thanks to a new partnership between CLPE and The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, the CLiPPA will be celebrated in the Festival’s programme for schools and families, and the winner announced in a very special Festival Poetry Show on Friday 9 October. The Poetry Show will be introduced live by CLiPPA judges, Valerie Bloom and Steven Camden, and will feature performances by the shortlisted poets.  Schools across the UK and beyond will be able to watch the show for free, and then, thoroughly inspired, join in a special post-event shadowing scheme and create their own poetry performances.  By the way, the shortlist will be announced on National Poetry Day, 1 October, another big date that’s certainly not going to be crossed out.

If that isn’t enough, just take a look at the autumn poetry publication schedules – there are some extraordinarily good collections coming out.  Many of my favourites are highlighted in the National Poetry Day recommended lists, including The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by A F Harrold and Mini Grey, SLAM!, the collection we were so excited to celebrate at the Oxford Literary Festival, and She Will Soar, a superb new collection edited by Ana Sampson, but The Girl Who Became a Tree (Otter-Barry Books) by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Klaus Flugge Prize winner Kate Milner, is heart-stoppingly powerful, a mesmerising exploration of grief and renewal, while I haven’t stopped thinking about Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zobo since I read it this summer.  HarperCollins will publish in the UK on 1 September, make sure you get a copy.

And one other thing that’s making me happy: in my last blog on here, I’d suggested that as part of the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Books for Keeps, the UK’s leading children’s books review journal, we might create a new BfK Poetry Guide, and we’ve decided to do just that.  It will be published on National Poetry Day – when else? – and will be packed full of features, interviews with poets and of course reviews of the outstanding new poetry being published for children. You can get in touch to find out more or with feature suggestions (andrea@booksforkeeps.co.uk), and sign up for our newsletter to get it delivered to your inbox on National Poetry Day. (PS if you missed our July issue, there’s a great interview with Joshua Seigal by Liz Brownlee that I highly recommend).

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.

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.