Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha: Being Me -Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

Clockwise: Liz Brownlee, Laura Mucha, Victoria Jane Wheeler, Matt Goodfellow.

Being Me – Addressing Mental Health in Children’s Poetry

How do you approach such an important and sensitive topic as children’s mental health and wellbeing in a poetry book and get it right? What approach can you, should you take to write about abuse, death, divorce, racism, for a primary-age reader? We wanted to open up the right discussions in difficult areas, both at home and in the classroom.

Luckily, Laura knew a leading developmental psychologist, Karen Goodall, so we set off on our writing journey with excellent guidelines. However we all came at it from different directions.

Liz: I concentrated on accounts of young people’s lived experiences of what goes on in their heads, and read widely about fostering positive self-image, emotional intelligence and healthy habits.

I also spoke to a GP about which mental health concerns he mostly sees in primary age children in his general practice.

Laura:  My approach was quite academic (I have an MA in psychology and philosophy and have completed a foundation course in psychotherapy). I began by devouring The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology, The Handbook of Attachment and countless journals on new relationships, parental sickness, divorce and bereavement. I quickly discovered that we don’t always treat children in these scenarios in the most helpful ways possible.

For example, oncological and bereavement research has found that adults are often scared to tell children and young people the truth when they or the people they love are unwell or dying. But the danger in not being honest is that children’s imaginations can concoct scenarios far worse than the truth. My aim in writing was to give a voice to children’s experiences based on research findings in the hope of opening up essential conversations with teachers, parents and caregivers. 

Matt: As a trio, we wanted to cover as many different issues as we could with the aim of allowing children to see themselves reflected somewhere within the words. As an ex-primary school teacher I knew teachers could choose to focus on one particular poem, allow the children to familiarize themselves with the shape and pattern – and then perform it! Alongside this, they could be discussing the thoughts and feelings contained within the poem – and then use these discussions as a catalyst to have a go at writing their own poem – in their voice, about their life. 

We all felt the illustrations for the book needed to be quirky, less literal than usual. Luckily Matt knew illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler, whose wonderful drawings have definitely added to the life of each poem.

Illustration to Secrets, by Liz Brownlee

Victoria: I had an instinct of the way the illustrations might go after reading the poems a few times, and understanding the rhythm, tone, who the narrator was, and the story being told. My initial ideas often changed a little as they became alive on the page, I let this happen, and tried not to force anything. The poems in Being Me depict a lot of different emotions, so I aimed to capture this through the eyes and the mouth in particular, and the size and angle of the head. To convey a little more I often introduced an awkward stance or a slight tension in texture, scale or surroundings. 

Hopefully children will find themselves in the book and know they aren’t alone in their worries, thoughts and feelings, whatever they are.

Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow, Laura Mucha and Victoria Jane Wheeler

Teaching resources for Being Me and video links and films of the poems featured can all be found here:

Liz Brownlee is a National Poetry Ambassador and award-winning poet – her latest production is a book of shape poems, Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse, Macmillan, 2021.

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. His most recent solo collection is Bright Bursts of Colour, Bloomsbury, 2020.

Laura Mucha is an award-winning poet whose books include Dear Ugly Sisters, Rita’s Rabbit and We Need to Talk About Love. As well as writing, Laura works with organisations such as UNICEF to improve the lives of children.

Victoria Jane Wheeler is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Working to support young people students and communities, she is passionate about promoting and creating creative opportunities and access to the arts.

Janetta Otter-Barry: Poetry and Illustration

Poetry and Illustration – optional extra or indispensable ingredient?

I’ve been thinking about the role of illustration in children’s poetry….  As a publisher it can be tempting not to include pictures, particularly in a collection for older children, but I strongly believe that illustration adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of poetry for all ages.

Take the three Otter-Barry Books new August titles….

In Belonging Street Mandy Coe illustrates her own poems, creating a special relationship between words and pictures. In First Haircut Mandy describes a dragon-claw comb, but then surprises us with a fully grown dragon!In City Seed Song the seeds become children reaching for the sky as they celebrate a new green world. Other pictures offer revelations or playful hints that help us decode puzzles and answer questions.In Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura Mucha’s exciting debut, Lithuanian illustrator Tania Rex provides stylish, contemporary pictures, reflecting the many moods of the poems. It was her decision to establish a narrative thread by following one child through the pages, providing interesting links for the reader.  How Long Until I Can See My Mum, addressing the plight of refugee children in the US, is poignantly visualised and the same child features over the page in I Am Brave, her fears now depicted as a crocodile – but one that can be banished. The pictures and poems work perfectly together, keeping the reader engaged and eager for more.Joseph Coelho’s The Girl Who Became a Tree, a story told in poems for 12 plus, (27 August), could arguably have been published without illustration content – but what a loss that would have been. Visually, there is so much to explore and respond to, as Daphne confronts the loss of her father and enters the dark magic of the forest.Her journey from isolation and grief to acceptance and new beginnings is beautifully captured by Kate Milner’s pen and ink drawings.

Images of trees, branches, leaves, roots, draw us ever closer to Daphne  –  and to that other Daphne from the Greek myth, who also plays an important part in this story and whose illustrations are identifiable as white on black.

There’s no doubt that the extraordinary pictures deepen our understanding of this brilliant verse novel.

In Spring 21 we present three collections for Key stage 2 that all have hugely important contributions from illustrators. For Val Bloom’s eagerly awaited Stars with Flaming Tails, (publishing January 2021) we chose Ken Wilson Max to illustrate, pairing two famous creative practitioners of colour in a wide-ranging tour-de-force, underpinned by verbal and visual diversity.

Weird, Wild and Wonderful – the poetry world of James Carter is an important showcase for James’s most admired and requested poems plus new work, and the incredible verve, wit and energy of Neal Layton’s illustrations make these poems almost leap off the page!

Publishing for Mental Health Awareness Week in May, Being Me, Poems about Thoughts, Feelings and Worries, is a ground-breaking collaboration between Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha. New illustrator Victoria Jane Wheeler‘s quirky drawings play a vital role here, sensitively visualising the feelings expressed in the verses with empathy and a light touch.

Lastly, in July, we publish Rachel Rooney’s first teen collection, Hey Girl.  Rachel’s son, Milo Hartnoll, illustrates, his powerful and empathetic graphic images perfectly capturing the girl’s inner journey as she grows up through the book.

So yes, I’m more than ever convinced that illustrations bring poetry alive in amazing, unexpected ways. They welcome, challenge, reassure, explain and inspire – and I believe they deserve to be at the heart of every children’s poetry collection.

Janetta Otter-Barry

Janetta Otter-Barry is the founder and publisher of Otter-Barry Books, an award-winning independent children’s publisher with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Otter-Barry publish picture books, young fiction, graphic novels and information books as well as an acclaimed poetry list. The first books were published in May 2016, since when six poetry titles have been shortlisted for the prestigious CLiPPA award. Otter-Barry Books.