poetry

Inspiring a New Generation of Space Experts

Stephen Hawking once declared that his goal was simple: “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” At what point do we begin to wonder about the universe, and when to want to understand it? Young readers in the library are often my most inquisitive. The five and six year olds gravitate towards non-fiction, asking questions about genes and trees, dinosaurs and evolution. And they have only to look up at the night sky to ask the big questions.

space kidsSpace Kids: An Introduction for Young Explorers by Andrea De Santis and Steve Parker
Space Kids introduces each element with a first person narrative voice. Nebula speaks first, explaining it is a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Then come Star and Constellation, Solar System and Asteroid. The text is clear and matter-of-fact with small tidbits of information. Steve Parker is a veteran of such non-fiction, and his clarity shines through.

The illustrations, showing a range of children exploring and enjoying their learning, changes tack halfway through, with a strange, almost futuristic look on the double page spread about rocks – narrated by Ariane 5.

The book then reverts to its colourful, child-friendly appearance towards the end, although finishes on a bit of a dud note with the page entitled ‘You’: vastly unnecessary and somewhat patronising.

What’s interesting is that the book leaves the impression of giving a general appreciation of Earth and space rather than imparting bucketloads of knowledge. But perhaps, at this age, some inspiration is necessary – inspiring curiosity is a major asset. You can buy it here.

once upon a starOnce Upon A Star by James Carter and Mar Hernandez
Told in rhyming poetry, this is another non-fiction book that bends to narrative and creative forms to impart information.

The poem tells the story of how the Earth was created, from emptiness and nothing to the Big Bang and through to the formation of the Earth and all that dwells upon it. It’s a feat of ingenuity that the rhyme and rhythm expertly tell the story while remaining true to their forms, and this alone is impressive.

But matching that is the brightness of the images, the almost retro-colour palette that also delights and inspires – the constant use of lines to indicate bursts of sun or energy, and a playfulness with the typeface that swirls the words around the page, whilst always maintaining legibility. It is smart to look at as well as to read.

This book, as the one above, aims to inspire as much as educate, although it gives the ‘sciencey’ bit at the end with some key facts spelt out acrostically.

This book leads to exploration and discovery and is beautifully produced. If read enough at bedtime, it could definitely inspire a future astrophysicist. You can buy it here.

Although both books show that science and the arts can mesh successfully, by taking narrative or poetic forms, sometimes the factual information given can feel a little light. For other space books, check out this blog here.

Charlie and Me by Mark Lowery

charlie and meAt first glance a simple tale of brothers who take a train journey back to the destination they holidayed at the year before, this wonderfully nuanced novel turns into something much more profound and moving.

Thirteen-year-old Martin, and his younger brother Charlie, are travelling 421 miles from Preston to the tip of Cornwall to recapture the wonder and delight they experienced when they watched a dolphin the previous summer.

But travelling unaccompanied has its hazards and pitfalls, and Martin almost stumbles just purchasing the ticket. And Charlie is not a normal child; he was born too early and needs extra care and attention.

There is so much to like about this novel. The detailed compartmentalised journey – each section of the novel separated into the segments of the journey, be they train times or just sitting on a bench on a platform waiting, work brilliantly, because they pace the novel, and set the tone. Each minute is accounted for: visiting the toilets on the platform, taking a train in the wrong direction, and by doing this Lowery captures a child’s anticipation and excitement of a journey, as well as the small details children notice, such as the other people, the atmosphere, the passing landscapes.

Martin takes his notebook along, and encouraged by a teacher at school, he jots down poems as a way to remember what he’s doing, and express his emotions. The physical book reproduces Martin’s poems on lined paper, in between the journey narrative, which is a nice production touch. But the poems also indicate to the reader the journey of Martin’s mind, as his thoughts become more intense and his emotions confused.

There are occasional flashbacks too, to the summer before, when Martin and Charlie first observed the dolphin from the Cornish harbour, and these capture the wonder of nature, the excitement of the dolphin’s leap from the water, and also the local community who track the dolphin’s whereabouts.

Through the present tense journey, and the flashbacks, Lowery cleverly delineates the sibling relationship, expressing Martin’s pride in his responsibility, yet also impatience and frustration, particularly with Charlie, who is unique and vulnerable. There is also plenty of humour wrapped up in the shades of their relationship; the authenticity of sibling kindnesses and annoyance shines through.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the brothers, and in Martin’s thought-process as he spells out his worries and his protective nature. But mainly, the book feels chatty and warm – these characters make you want to journey with them.

Lowery drops clues throughout the story that this journey isn’t all it seems. Four hundred and twenty one miles is a long way to go to revisit a dolphin, and astute readers will work out that something else is awry too. The final denouement is quite devastating, and will be upsetting for many, because in the end this is not a tale of adventure but a story that deals with mental health and loss.

Despite this shattering turn at the end, the story does feel uplifting – exemplified by the care and support around Martin, and kindness of strangers throughout the book. And what’s more the clues and strands tie together neatly at the end, and will provoke thought and discussion.

The style is easy to read, the plot paced beautifully, and yet the book is also emotionally sophisticated. In turns, light and deep, this is an inspiring read. You can buy it here.

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.

 

 

earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

the lost words
This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

Writing poetry and prose: Brian Moses


Human beings like to classify and label things – it’s how we distinguish one thing from another, it’s how we name things to be able to convey and signify ideas to each other. One only has to look at John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to see a grasp of these principles. In writing, we like to clarify the difference between prose – from the Latin meaning straightforward – and poetry. Tomorrow is National Poetry Day, and children in schools up and down the country will be pulling out poetry from their bookshelves, and hopefully reading it and enjoying it. One of our foremost children’s poets is Brian Moses, but this National Poetry Day, he’s also published a prose novel.

Of course sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Both communicate ideas, feelings, a story; and both play with language, crafting it so that what is said is not only communicated in language but also by the choice of language, the positioning of the words, the use of punctuation. Two authors (Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander) immediately spring to mind when crossing the borders between the genres, because most readers think about novels as being written in prose form, whereas these two write some of their novels in free verse poems. There are some who call poetry a form of art, and prose merely communication; but overall I think the distinction would have to be the sound crafted from poetry – the overarching stretch of the meaning by the way the poem sounds. With prose, the meaning is inherent within the text, held within it.

Python doesn’t ring with the same sounds as Moses’s poem, The Snake Hotel, for example (which you can listen to here), but it definitely strikes a chord of fear in the reader, and is written in clear, precise prose.

Daniel lives with his zookeeper father, and also with his father’s pet snake, a python residing in the attic. Unfortunately, Daniel is terrified of the snake and his imagination conjures up the horrors of the snake’s escape from its cage. But added to Daniel’s nightmares is his waking life, in which he is bullied by a girl gang who roam the streets on his way to and from school.

When he starts to study the Second World War at school, as well as taking refuge from the girl gang in his grandfather’s house, the stories of the past start to merge with Daniel’s current fears, and before long snakes, girls and ghosts of the past all converge.

Moses’ prose is certainly more straightforward than some of his poetry, but it still conveys plenty of emotion. A whizz with language, the author uses his prose form to whip the plot at pace, and with economy, so that action is always forefront, all the time managing to eke out enormous authenticity in the characters. From Daniel and his friend Errol and their believable camaraderie, to the relationship between Daniel and his grandfather – the weariness from boys who despair of that generation’s ‘going on about the war’ and so rarely visit, but also seek wisdom and enlightenment and eventually realise that their grandparents are real people with exciting stories to impart.

The book is set in the 1980s with all the freedom afforded to children that this entails – ghost-hunting on their own, and the lack of health and safety implied in keeping snakes in attics, and yet the novel also touches on parental break up and a child returning to an empty house from school – something that feels completely up to date.

An entertaining mix of history, the supernatural, contemporary families, and snakes. You can buy your own copy here.

A Guest Post from Poet Rachel Rooney

The first poems I recall being read to me were those of Edward Lear – The Jumblies, The Owl and the Pussycat and other nonsense poems. I was around four years old, staying overnight at my grandparents’ house. Being read to before bed felt like a major treat, because being the fifth of six children meant those night time rituals didn’t happen very often at home. I’m sure back then I didn’t follow all of what I heard, but I felt the tone and mood of the poems and remember being fascinated and a little scared of the Gorey illustrations. I also enjoyed listening to the lilt, inflections and changing rhythms of my grandfather’s voice as he read.

I have another early of memory of kneeling in church (I was brought up in a devout Catholic family), listening to the incantatory chants of The Latin Mass whilst leaning my head on the pew in front and sniffing the dark aroma of waxed and polished wood. The fact that I had no clue as to what was being spoken about felt almost liberating. I focussed on the music of the words alone and I enjoyed the differences I heard. That was also poetry, of sorts.

Ours was a relatively chaotic and impoverished upbringing, with few toys or treats, but it was full of books and talk of them. I was an avid, early reader and literature was my escape, my entertainment and comfort. Poetry was always part of that other world I entered. I particularly remember enjoying reading the children’s poems of Charles Causely, Ted Hughes and Christina Rossetti. And later on, Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids (which at the time of publication – early seventies – seemed very fresh and modern). My father was an Irish- born English teacher who lived and breathed literature. He would quote apposite lines from poems across the dinner table to prove a point he was making, he’d named one family cat Skimbleshanks after T.S. Eliot’s Book of Cats and the other, Kinsella after the poet Thomas Kinsella. Once, aged around nine, I’d complained to him of the usual summer holiday boredom. So he sourced the Witches’ Speech (Macbeth) and challenged me and my older sister to learn it. Amazingly, we did. It was that sort of household.

I don’t recall studying poetry at primary school although I do remember enjoying the ground-breaking and eclectic educational series of poetry anthologies called Junior Voices and the older, Voices that were published in the 1970’s.

I wrote some poetry as a child too, though only remember doing so at home. I was an enthusiastic writer and had a natural ear for rhythm and rhyme though I never showed my efforts to anyone. It didn’t occur to me to do so, partly because I was writing for my own amusement.

I stopped reading and writing poetry in my early teens. It became just something I studied at school – another subject to get a good mark in. Later, in my teens and early twenties, I subverted my love of words into listening to song lyrics; Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Love. I went on to become a special needs teacher and I raised my family. Though I continued to read literature, I didn’t pick up a poetry book or write until I was entering my forties, when life became tricky and I instinctively reached out for what felt most familiar and necessary. That proved to be poetry. Once I had rediscovered poetry, it became all-consuming. Five years later, I published my first collection The Language of Cat.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I would have continued to explore poetry through my teens and beyond had I been given the opportunities and encouragement to share and develop my writing. What I do know, though, is that the early drip-drip exposure to poetry and its word power lay the essential foundations that made me the poet that I eventually became.

Rachel Rooney is an award winning poet. Her poetry collections include The Language of Cat (which you can buy hereand My Life as a Goldfish (click here).  Rachel will be performing at King’s Hall Ilkely on 3rd October with The Children’s Bookshow in a lively and interactive event where she will also talk about what poetry is, how it makes us feel and where the ideas for poems come from.

Rachel is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.   National Poetry Day is on 28th September 2017. She chaired the judging panel for the 2017 CLiPPA Poetry Award and is a judge of the Betejman Poetry Prize.

For more information about Rachel see http://www.rachelrooneypoet.com or find her on twitter @RooneyRachel

Photo credit: Michael Thorn

An Interview with CLiPPA shortlisted poet Kate Wakeling

Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elina Braslina, has been shortlisted for the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). Past winners have included Sarah Crossan, Michael Rosen, Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Joseph Coelho, John Agard and many more. Before the winner is announced next Friday 14th July, I have the honour of welcoming Kate Wakeling onto the blog. Her collection of poems is broad and varied, both in subject and tone, and has a wonderful mix of word play and storytelling. 

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the CliPPA Childrens Poetry Award for your debut collection of poems for children, Moon Juice. Can you tell the readers a little about the collection?

Thank you! And thank you for having me on your excellent blog! Moon Juice is a mixture of lots of different sorts of poems – there are list poems, riddles, story poems, character poems – I wanted it to feel sort of technicolour in the mind’s eye. Much of the writing is quite mischievous and playful – the book is peopled by some absurd characters like Skig the Warrior and Hamster Man – but amid the mischief, a number of the poems aims to explore (in gentle ways) some more serious things like difficult moods, death, and ideas of authority. I am keen to try and talk about important things in an unsentimental way and with a good peppering of humour. The poem I am most proud of in the collection is called ‘The Demon Mouth’. It explores ideas of compulsion and the need for tenderness, but in the midst of some rascally wordplay and (I hope) a rollicking story.

Theres a huge emphasis on the soundof the words in the poems. At the beginning of Comet, you even instruct the reader how to read it. Do you think poetry should always be read out loud?

Ha! Yes, Comet comes with the instruction that it should be read as quickly as possible. I liked the feeling of adding something of a physical game into a poem’s set-up on the page and have been amazed at how much fun it seems to have generated for readers. I’m definitely going to keep exploring this sort of idea!

In terms of whether every poem should be read aloud, I don’t feel too dogmatic about this. I think the key thing for me is that each poem deserves to be sounded – so much is gained from a poem when the reader lets the full sound of each word really chime. Reading aloud is a great way to capture these riches but it can work pretty well when reading to oneself too. Part of the magic of poetry for me is the sense of quiet and privacy that being absorbed in a poem allows, so I understand that some people want to take their poetry in silence (but would urge them to make plenty of noise on the inside).

And leading on from that, the shape of the poems on the page is also important to their comprehension – the white space of Ghost Sister, which speaks to a sense of loss and absence, the capitalisation of the letter ‘Oin Telescope. Are poems meant to exist both in audio and visual form?

I loved playing with the page when writing these poems. And yes, the look of a poem can be absolutely key to its meaning and effect – this is definitely the case with the two poems you mention. Now I think of it, I very rarely perform ‘Telescope’ or ‘Ghost Sister’ – perhaps because I feel like something might be lost when they are lifted from the page. ‘This be the Scale’ also springs to mind as a poem in the book with a strong visual identity that I rarely read aloud to groups. The poem is structured as a numbered list that charts the world of sound from the deepest noise imaginable to the very very very highest ping. Ha, perhaps the reason I don’t perform it is also because I think the reader is being invited to imagine some extraordinary sounds and so needs the privacy of their own brain to get to grips with them.

You describe yourself as an ethnomusicologist as well as a poet, and in fact work as a writer-in-residence with an orchestra. How does music influence your poetry?

I think music infuses absolutely everything I write. I think I have quite a keen awareness as to the ‘sonics’ of the words I use, and am also pretty obsessed about the rhythm of text, be it when writing couplets or completely free verse – rhythm is central to absolutely every kind of poem. Thinking about the question above, I’m also struck more and more by how the white space on the page in a poem (or lack thereof) creates a sense of rhythm and have been enjoying experimenting with this.

And is there a specific genre or piece of music that inspired this collection of poetry?

Perhaps not one piece of music but I think all the music I’ve played and listened to and studied over the years has played a part in creating a certain energy and enthusiasm for seeking out the musicality in my writing. That said, I lived in Indonesia for a year-and-a-bit to research Balinese music for my PhD, and I think that experience was crucial to me in finding my way as a poet. I find it hard to lay a finger on how, but I feel like my imagination really relaxed there. Perhaps it was having the space to be away from familiar things and spending so much of my time – hours and hours most days! – playing this particularly complex but quite repetitive music. I think playing gamelan (an ensemble of bronze and bamboo percussion instruments) can do something really excellent to a person’s thought process – you are at once freed up while also forced to be precise. And on reflection, I think these are the two qualities I feel I need to hone when I’m writing a poem.

Kate Wakeling

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and yet even claimed in his acceptance speech that songs are unlike literature. Theyre meant to be sung, not read.Whats your view on this?

I think I agree, at least in part, with Bob! Which is not to say lyrics oughtn’t to be read on the page in any circumstances, just that I think music and text interact in such a special way when created together expressly to form a song. And so extracting one bit of that creation and then framing it as something else isn’t always perhaps fair or particularly enriching to that material. But heck, I’m not Bob Dylan so who am I to say what anyone should or shouldn’t do with their sleeve notes.

There seems to be a deliberate amount of play with form and words in the collection. For example Hair Piece looks as if it might be prose, but feels like poetry. Are you trying to pose questions to the readers about the essence of poetry?

Certainly not deliberately, but I did particularly enjoy writing ‘Hair Piece’ and found the idea of infusing this bit of prose with as much sonic punch as I could muster really exciting and satisfying. I love squeezing a bit of semi-secret poetry into things (I get irrational amounts of pleasure from trying to cook up a really good text message to a friend). I should also say that ‘Hair Piece’ owes lots to John Hegley, whose books I love and who writes wonderful prose poems that are full of mischievous and insightful word play. There is an amazing narrative prose poem in his Love Cuts about a break-up and it explores a burgeoning affair with a pensioner, a sliced onion and a piece of cubist art (among other things). It looks just like prose on the page but fizzes with poetry through and through. I still base almost all my internet passwords on various characters from that poem (I here confess this strange but sincere Hegley homage) so I think about it everyday.

With huge thanks to Kate Wakeling for such insightful answers to my questions. Moon Juice is available to buy here. Don’t miss out.

London Days Out and Origami


Last year there was a flurry of colouring-in books for adults, with the aim of providing relaxation and mental health benefits, (and making some money for the publishing industry). Personally I prefer to just read a book, which in itself has many mental health benefits. However, I’m also going to try my hand at origami, because publisher Nosy Crow has teamed up with The British Museum to produce a new collection of books and they’ve started with something rather special.

As part of my summer series looking at places to visit in London that are children’s book related (see also Defender of the Realm and Hetty Feather), this book inspires another trip. Currently at The British Museum there is an exhibition called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, featuring works from Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan’s great artists. So, to link with the exhibition, Nosy Crow have published this rather beautiful book about Japanese culture, featuring haikus, pictures and origami.

The book called Origami, Poems and Pictures, is exactly that. It gives instructions for constructing 13 origami models (with 50 sheets of paper for practice), and alongside each set of instructions is a relevant painting from the museum’s exhibition, the Japanese name for the object, and a haiku – so that different elements of Japanese tradition are explored.

I love that the first offering from Nosy Crow and the British Museum isn’t based on Ancient Egypt – which tends to be the ‘go to’ theme when children visit – but instead they have focused on a culture that children may not have been taught about in such depth.

What’s more, the quality of the book is excellent – I found the pieces of paper easy to tear from the book, and each is patterned and coloured uniquely. The instructions are clear to follow, with a difficulty level chart on each page so that you can work your way up the scale, and there is something rather calming and satisfying about achieving the shape. (And I’m certainly not very adept at these sort of things usually). That’s not it though, for then there is the haiku to read and reflect upon, and also the painting to absorb.

The book and paper are bound separately so that even when all the paper is used, this remains a useful little book, with no rips, just a slightly loose cover. There’s even a tech advanced QR code to watch instructional videos if you find that easier. I can’t fault the book – and it is a lovely introduction to a new culture. What’s more, it could entice me to the British Museum to visit the actual exhibition (which runs from May 2017 to 13 August).

I have a feeling though, that I may be doing origami longer than that. Recommended for ages 5-9 years. You can buy it here.

Bob Dylan, poet, picture book author, Nobel prize winner

forever-youngif-dogs-run-freeif-not-for-you

So Thursday 13th October was a divisive day. Those who celebrated Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and those who wondered if the world had gone completely mad – what next – would Philip Roth be up for a Grammy?

I wrote my ‘literature’ dissertation on some of Dylan’s lyrics when I was, as twitter puts it, “a pretentious undergrad, comparing his ‘poetry’ to the likes of Keats”, although actually my essay was more about the treatment of women in his lyrics, ironic seeing as lots of the criticism about the Nobel awards this year is that they have all been awarded to white males.

But diversity aside, is a songwriter a poet? And what is literature anyway? The definitions are fairly fluid, which I suppose is something Dylan would appreciate. ‘Something written,’ for one – well Dylan’s lyrics are certainly written as well as sung – he famously jots down lyrics on scraps of napkins in the backs of cabs. His lyrics have been published as books.

And ‘works considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’. Well, superiority is completely subjective. Lasting? Dylan would say “Time passes slowly and fades away,” but of course it’s still too soon to tell if his lyrics will last.

One of the reasons people are critical of this award, is that Dylan is primarily a songwriter rather than a poet. He described himself as such, famously in the 1965 press conference when he was asked if he was a poet. “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.” He even wrote that “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”

But poetry is all about rhythm, and the earliest poetry was all about music – it was spoken or sung long before people could write, as a way to convey story, history, laws. Poems often had repetitious choruses for easy memory recall. The psalms were poems that were set to music, nursery rhymes were sung, although can be studied as poetry. The Homeric epics were often put to music and had specific rhythm so that they could be recited. What about modern day performance poets? Rappers too? At what point does poetry that’s performed in rhythm or song stop being a poem and literature and start being mere ‘lyrics’ – at what point does recitation become musical?

Is Eleanor Farjeon a poet? She wrote ‘Morning is Broken’ to a Gaelic tune, but would not be considered a songwriter. But many would argue that it takes the music, the voice working with the lyrics, to form the poem as a whole – to fully convey the emotion within. Strip back the music from ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and what is left? Just a man without an instrument? If you took away the pictures from a picture book would you still have the same story? Where would The Gruffalo be without Axel Scheffler?

One of the many baffling things about Dylan is that he often completely changes his musical arrangements when playing his songs live.  At concerts one of the joys of being a Dylan fan is guessing which song he’s actually playing before he starts singing the lyrics. It’s never like hearing the first chords of Hotel California, for example. But Dylan’s lyrics always stay the same.

The lyrics vs poetry question is not an argument I can fully answer, although the Nobel committee seem to have managed it. I’ve studied and written about the Dylan lyrics in isolation from their music, something for which many critics would berate me. And it seems as if even Dylan hasn’t quite made up his mind.

“Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it
Hope I don’t blow it”

But this is a children’s literature blog, and what’s Dylan got to do with children’s literature? Not much, although you can buy ‘Forever Young’ as a picture book – illustrated by Paul Rogers. Or ‘If Not for You’, illustrated by David Walker, which, for me doesn’t quite fit with how I see the lyrics. Or ‘If Dogs Run Free’, illustrated by Scott Campbell Jr. And many more. I think they’d struggle to fit ‘Visions of Johanna’ into a picture book, but maybe that’s one poem that would do better compared to other great poems in the literature canon!

In the meantime, I’ll remain Tangled Up in Blue about it, and accept the judgement. After all, as they keep telling me, ‘The Times They Are a Changin’.

 

When MG Becomes YA

So I’ve been thinking about age. Not just because this year holds a milestone birthday for me, and for many of my friends, but also in terms of storytelling. I don’t think age matters too much in deciding what we choose to read – I am equally happy to read about Julian Barnes or Philip Roth’s older men as I am to read books with child protagonists; Life of Pi, Room, My Name is Leon etc. It’s more to do with our interests and personalities. However, stories do appeal because they resonate, so I think my father, for example, would more happily read Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett than Not Working by Lisa Owens (two great books I devoured this summer).

With children though, it’s more contentious. There are those that say we shouldn’t ‘gate keep’, and that we should let children read anything – if they don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter because the content will go over their heads. The same people say that censorship by age is nonsense – who are we to know the emotional intelligence or sensitivity of a child? Each one is an individual.

However, several things occurred to me recently. Firstly, I’m running an INSET this week about school library use and helping children to choose books. I’m sure there are some books the Headteacher vetoes (and rightly so, deeming them too old for the primary school library). Secondly, I read two books this summer aimed at the younger end of YA, but which for me, contained too much disturbing detail for me to suggest for that readership. Thirdly I read a review in The Times newspaper of Mal Peet’s newest novel, posthumously finished by Meg Rosoff, in which the reviewer stated that it contained details of rape, and therefore was suitable for 14 years plus – thus putting a direct age censorship on one particular issue.

Michael Morpurgo stated recently that hugely disturbing images come flooding at our children all the time – mainly because of their access to multimedia and because of the media’s access to what’s happening in the world as never before: Earthquakes, floods, war, terrorism. But how much do we protect children from this, or explain it? I have the headlines rolling into my kitchen every breakfast time, but I distinctly remember turning down the volume when, for a while, all the headlines were about Operation Yewtree, and I didn’t want my children (all aged under ten at the time) to hear details of that.

Some may think it’s good that MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books deal with difficult issues. I certainly agree that no literature for children should ‘dumb things down’. Children and teens are intelligent and should be presented with books that are well written, clever and ‘good’ literature, and which confront topics that they don’t necessarily, and wouldn’t want to, experience personally – in fact, sometimes with issues that don’t ‘resonate’ personally but which they want to read about happening to others to explore the emotional empathy it provokes. But, as in all art, there’s a reason that a TV watershed was introduced, that some music is labelled ‘explicit’. It’s to point out what’s contained within.

When I started my website, and my reading consultancy, I gave myself a remit. I would suggest books for children up to about age 14. This covered primary school, and those children who are advanced readers and emotionally astute – thus pushing the boundary slightly above their 11 year old selves, because, as above, I believe in each child being an individual.

And then this summer I read two books from publishers who thought that they fitted my remit. Possibly because they have young protagonists. And yet, although they’re both good reads, and in fact one is stunning, I couldn’t just review them on my site as books of the week without this mitigating introduction. Because the subject matter, well – it’s up to you as your child’s book buyer, hand-holder, confidant, judge of their own emotional intelligence – to decide if it’s appropriate for your young teen.

stars at oktober

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Told in immensely lyrical, poetic, and emotional prose, Alice tells her story. She is 15, but trapped as a pre-teen from her acquired brain injury, a result of a horrific assault (with an implied, although not blatantly stated, rape.) Her speech is slow. Her words, however, fly out on paper, and she writes poems to express herself, leaving them adrift throughout the small town, Oktober Bend, in which she lives. No one takes much notice, until Manny appears in town. A former child soldier, adopted in Australia from his native war-torn Sierra Leone, Manny runs round town to overcome his past, and finds Alice’s poetry. Manny’s story is told from his point of view, in chapters with a different typeface and a starkly different tone and prose style – far more matter-of-fact, much starker. (Personally I felt that Manny’s story was too buried beneath the starkness, but two woeful emotional tales may have been an overload).

In essence, then, this is a love story between the two – but readers will fall in love with the setting, the characters surrounding the protagonists, but most of all with Alice’s voice.

Not only is Alice’s voice poetic – but it is written with a lack of capital letters, and punctuation in unexpected places – some of the prose weaves into poetry. This lifts the voice from the page, so that the reader is fully immersed inside Alice’s head; creating an intimacy as if Alice is speaking aloud to the reader in a way that she cannot speak in her own world. Perhaps, also because of her isolation from the rest of her town – defined by her slow slurred speech and the townspeople inability to understand her/fear of her – the inner monologue creates an intense intimacy with the reader. Some of Millard’s phrases – as seen through Alice’s eyes, are startling in their poetry:

“in seconds we were racing along the damp dirt track beside the river. tiger-striped with sunlight and shadow.”

And yet all the time giving Alice an acerbic and humorous teen perspective on things:

“at day centre they showed us how to make things like paper, aprons and library bags, then they sold them to people who could have made anything they wanted, but didn’t because they went to school and university and got jobs and then there was no time left over for making anything.”

The love story is not just between Manny and Alice though, (as they come through their painful pasts to accept a hopeful future), but also the distinct and clearly written characters of Alice’s grandmother and brother – both Alice’s protectors. As Joey, Alice’s brother, grows older himself, so their relationship twists and changes, and this is one of the most special aspects of the book – an increasing awareness of the bond between the two siblings stretching and changing as they both find love outside the family unit. So too, as Alice’s grandmother grows older and more frail, does the relationship between the two of them change – one protecting the other and then flipping, as relationships do. It feels real, and heartbreaking and is written with expert emotional intelligence.

The setting too adds to the whimsical poetry of the book; a sleepy closed-off town, on a river – which is key to the story – both the place where Alice was attacked, and the denouement where the characters learn about revenge and forgiveness.

This is a book filled with soul, and beautifully written. Compelling and emotive, it’s recommended as a read for ages 13-17 by the publisher. To fully understand the implied issues, I feel that the book warrants a deeper maturity on behalf of the reader, so would recommend for older YA readers (and adults). A great, stunning read. You can buy it here.

what sunny saw

What Sunny Saw in the Flames by NNedi Okorafor

This is a scintillating read, written in matter-of-fact prose from the point of view of twelve year old Sunny. She lives in Nigeria, but was born in America, and struggles to fit into either country. What makes it harder for her is that although her features are African, she is albino. It’s hard enough entering the teenage years, without feeling like a misfit already.

But when she discovers that she has a magical gift – she is one of the Leopard people, imbued with an ability to see into the future with magical power, she is sucked into a fantasy world. Together with her new friends, she visits the city of Leopard Knocks and learns that her destiny is to destroy Black Hat Otokoto, a monstrous serial killer who also happens to be a witch.

By traversing the fantasy with reality, Okorafor poses Sunny in both familiar territory as a skilled soccer player yet one who cannot easily be in the sun, and the difficulties that she faces as albino in Nigeria, along with placing her firmly inside a tightly built fantasy world that draws inevitable comparisons with Diagon Alley and the team pursuits in Harry Potter.

The writing feels childlike – told from Sunny’s point of view, it dances around with exuberance – a running train of thought with observations that are both childlike and yet expose quite brilliantly the difference between the two cultures, which Sunny experiences – even down to the gritty detail of the differences between mosquitoes in Nigeria from those in America. The imagery is quite stunning – from her burning anger to the flames and the sunshine of her name – but also mixing the exotic and the familiar – the imagery of Africa with the more familiar territory of America and her American friend – to the fantasy world of the Leopard people.

Yet, for me, despite it being marketed as being for 10-14 years, Sunny’s battle against the serial killer contains frightening imagery. A killer who focuses only on children, and who maims them in the process – a five year old child found dead in the bush with no eyes or nose, for example.

Of course there’s a difference between fantasy darkness, such as Voldemort, and a darkness that intrudes upon everyday reality. And although there is darkness in Okorafor’s fantasy landscape, it pervades Sunny’s reality too, a familiar world to the readers, and so for me, was too frightening to recommend for the pre-teen market.

However, this is a novel of startling strengths – not least in the mix of the exotic and the familiar, and the ease with which Okorafor shifts between her landscapes. An absorbing book, although with a protagonist who could do with being slightly more dynamic – she is far too reliant on her friends making decisions for her. You can buy it here.

It could be argued that this age-group (Year 7, and so 12 years +) are recommended to read The Diary of Anne Frank for example, and not much is more horrific than the reality of the Holocaust, but somehow I felt that the topics of rape and maiming in the above titles could wait to be confronted. A fictional landscape of such horrors can be dealt with when readers reach a more mature age – it’s not as if there’s a lack of material available to read for ages 10-14.

Disagree? Catch me on twitter @minervamoan