poetry

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

 

 

Poetry Pie by Roger McGough: a video special

poetry pie

The CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award) is the only children’s poetry award in the UK. The winner will be announced on 13th July.

This year’s shortlist includes One by Sarah Crossan, Dancing in the Rain by John Lyons, Falling Out of the Sky, edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, illustrated by Emma Wright, A Great Big Cuddle by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and Poetry Pie by Roger McGough, whom I’m delighted to feature on today’s blog.

Poetry Pie is a collection of more than 50 poems, ranging from topics including food and animals, wordplay and poetry, school and recycling. There’s a bit of everything in bitesize chunks. McGough plays brilliantly with the words on the page – not only twisting and rhyming, but playing with placement, typeface, the space on the page, and formatting. There are calligrams, and concrete poems. There’s a poem about letter writing that is set out like an email at first, and ends in handwriting like a letter.

The mix is exhilarating, witty and thoughtful, with McGough’s own illustrations interspersed throughout – and these also make the reader think. The cleverness of the poems is that McGough chooses subjects (particularly food) that are appealing to a young reader, and yet he incorporates some complex ideas by choosing different viewpoints from which to tell the poems, playing with form, and being deliberately deconstructionist.

From beautiful assonance in the poem Besotted – about otters, to the cool sophistication and emotion of The One and Lonely – opening up a bank of ideas and discussion – there is the perfect mix of poetry to be read aloud, and poetry to be read alone and deconstructed in its own way. For readers young and old. See the video below of Roger reading Poetry Pie

Roger McGough – Poetry Pie from CLPE on Vimeo.

and the video here of Roger giving advice to young poets:

Roger McGough – What advice would you give to young poets from CLPE on Vimeo.

For more information on CLPE and poetry, click here. And to buy the book, click here.

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

National Poetry Day

The Crossover

It’s National Poetry Day tomorrow. Quite often, we assume that children will be introduced to poetry at school – they will be asked to memorise a poem, write an acrostic poem of their own, or find a poem in a special poetry book. But if we ask ourselves, ‘what is poetry?’ we will discover that our introduction to poetry comes much earlier than school.

Poetry is an art form in which the language displays rhythm or verse. It’s not easy to define, and why so often children are quick to ask if poetry is something that rhymes.

Children also ask this because for some of them the earliest poetry they’re exposed to is the rhyming kind. Nursery rhymes are poems. And they’re important too – research shows that early exposure to rhymes increases a child’s ability in spatial reasoning.

Modern day nursery rhymes can be found in picture books. Whereas old nursery rhymes can be attributed to historical meanings, such as ‘Ring a Ring ‘o Roses’ representing the Black Plague, (although no factual evidence of this is available) our modern day picture books tell us stories in rhymes that can help us make sense of the world. Julia Donaldson’s Superworm is about teamwork, A Squash and a Squeeze teaches a reader to be thankful for what they have. Other picture books use free verse to weave their wonderful narratives.

For many of us, poems of our youth stay in our memory far longer than passages of prose. This may be because the predictability of some rhythm and rhyme narrows down the chances of available choices. The emotions in a poem (and I’m generalising here) are often heightened simply by the brevity of the words. And emotions and attention are linked, so we remember poetry more easily. I can certainly recite from memory many of AA Milne’s poems – particularly Disobedience, but there is much repetition and the rhythm is so perfect that even the verse written only in initials scans perfectly.

For children, poetry in the library is often shelved near the jokes section. Children love the nonsense and breaking of rules in poetry. Nonsense poems are a key entrance point into a love for poetry – I defy you to find a child who doesn’t love On The Ning Nang Nong.

But, lastly, free verse poetry is being used more and more frequently in contemporary narratives for children or young teens, particularly those which deal with difficult or sensitive subjects. I reviewed One by Sarah Crossan on this blog a few weeks ago, which deals with issues surrounding conjoined twins. Another book came my way this week, which is publishing in the UK tomorrow, and it is equally stunning and impressive in its quality and narrative content.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is about 12 year old twins, Josh and Jordan, who are stars of their school basketball team and have hopes of being professional players. The story is told through Josh’s eyes as the twins’ relationship begins to deteriorate when Jordan gets friendly with a new girl. The verse works cleverly – with pulsating bursts of fizzing energy to describe his basketball games, hip-hop in style, the words moving and using the white space on the page as a ball player would use the court:
“Be careful though
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING
FLOSSING
flipping”
and more delicate simplified poetry without as many adjectives or movement of words to describe Josh’s feelings off the court.

It isn’t sentimental, Josh’s feelings come at you from behind the words on the page. Kwame Alexander also uses Josh’s reports of text messages and phone conversations to tell the story, as well as using his vocabulary homework – every so often Josh uses a new word from his school vocabulary test as the starting point for a poem and weaves it into his life. It is clever and effective:
“pul-chri-tu-di-nous
Having great physical
beauty and appeal…
As in : Wait a minute –
why is the pulchritudinous girl
now talking
to my brother?”

Josh is an extremely likeable character, despite his jealousy of his twin, and his family and relationships with them are expertly portrayed. Kwame Alexander also touches on the racial elements of the story – his Dad gets pulled over by the police, but it is subtle and well-handled.

For boys who are reluctant readers and only into sport or music, this may be the perfect way into reading – short bursts of text – ongoing references to basketball (even the book is divided into the four quarters of the game), and yet a crackling narrative underneath. Kwame Alexander told The Washington Post that he wrote it “to show boys and girls that poetry can be cool.” He succeeded. My only fear is that the text is so basketball-led it may put off UK readers. Not that it was a disincentive for me – I devoured it. I wish someone would write a similar one based in football. That would be my perfect children’s book. To purchase a copy, click here or ask for it at your local children’s bookshop.

 

Poetry: It Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Lend a Handstars in jarsWerewolf Club Rules

So it’s one thing buying your children fiction or non-fiction. But how about poetry? Have you ever bought your children a poetry book? Recited poetry to them? You definitely have, but you probably don’t know it. When you told your baby a nursery rhyme you were reciting poetry. When you bought them a picture book, you were buying them poetry. I bet The Snail and the Whale would look and most importantly, sound great written out as a poem without the pictures (sorry Axel Scheffler).

Poetry has had a bad reputation. It’s often labelled as boring, reflected in our recollections of poring over the Romantic Poets at school and trying to extract meaning in each word, each line. But in today’s age, we should be embracing poetry. Is expressing ourselves in a 140 character tweet that different from expressing an opinion in a haiku? Is a poem of rhyming couplets any different from a rap song? In the same way we disregard rules of grammar and syntax in text messages, poets do the same with poetry. E. E.  Cummings didn’t bother with capital letters at all. In fact, by using poetry as a means of expressing emotion, we can let children strip away all the rules and regulations of writing, and concentrate on the pure emotion, expression, opinion and feelings within the language. For children who struggle to read a large amount of text, the jumble and randomness of poetry can be hugely appealing. They can interpret and describe what they see and hear and feel in an artistic way rather like drawing, but using words instead; a mood board of words.

Lend a Hand

Lend a Hand by John Frank, illustrated by London Ladd
This landed on my desk a while ago; a large hardback with full page illustrations and small quiet poems alongside. It exudes a calm even from the cover; the illustrations are unusual for a children’s book – they are portraits of ordinary people doing ordinary things in acrylic paints, realistic and fairly muted in colour, yet they suit the poems in this collection. Each poem depicts an individual making a difference to their community, from the child planting trees in her street and the child clearing rubbish from a communal stream, to the child who helps another at P.E instead of laughing, and the child who befriends a lonely elderly gentleman. John Frank has not only captured the magic of these small incidental acts of kindness, but also the different points of view. The child collecting rubbish remarks that she didn’t make the mess – perhaps someone else should be tidying it not her – the child who watches the rest of the class nearly fall over with laughter at the ‘klutz’ in PE. I particularly liked the poem called ‘No Charge’, which shows how one good deed deserves another. There are other excellent ideas hidden within the poems – in ‘No Bounds’, the multiplication tables suddenly make sense to a child when she spends time quilting with her grandmother.
Although highly American in language and style, I think these poems are particularly plaintive and appeal to a wide audience. The illustrations show a good diversity too. Ages 6+. You can buy a copy here or see the Amazon sidebar.

stars in jars

Stars in Jars by Chrissie Gittins
A book which I suppose is what you imagine when you think of a collection of children’s poetry. Silly poems, heartfelt poems, school poems, worry poems, poems about everyday things and about fantastical imaginings. It’s perfect for showing children how poetry can stretch the boundaries of our language and grammar, can mix vocabulary – can use the space on the page to define the poem. These are poems to get lost in. Ones that I particularly like include ‘Me, Myself, and I’, which does rhyme, although not many in the collection do, and points out the importance of self in simple, clear repetitive language. There is much poignancy in ‘The Way He Used to Be’ about watching your sibling grow up and be at a slight distance from you; as well as the very simple ‘Three’ about three best friends. It’s a great little riddle and lesson to learn. My favourite is ‘Lullaby’, which implores the child to pack away their worries, or concerns or frustrations and embrace the night as tomorrow is another day. It’s told beautifully, with wonderful imagery playing with childhood illusions of the ‘cheesy moon’ and preoccupations with homework and fights, but is a grown-up way to approach bedtime thoughts. The whole collection contains silly poems too, but the ones with truisms stand out. One to be treasured and dipped into again and again. Chrissie Gittins is no stranger to poetry, having been shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Awards on more than one occasion, and working with the BBC many times.You can buy it here, or on the Amazon sidebar.

Werewolf Club Rules

Werewolf Club Rules, poems by Joseph Coelho
A scintillating collection of poems about the primary school environment, and also about language and writing. These may be simple in tone, but they demand to be spoken. Joseph Coelho is a performance poet, and it shows in his writing. From ‘Onomatopoeia’, exemplifying that words that sound sounds need to be spoken, to ‘Skateboarding’, where the rhythm of the poem belies the speed and force of the skateboard, the words Joseph uses can almost be tasted in the mouth – rolling around on the tongue like taste explosions. Many are told from a child’s point of view, which makes them all the more appealing to the age group – from observations about teachers to the taste and feel of a jam tart. Like Chrissie Gittins, there is some playfulness with the space on the page, but it’s mainly the language in this collection that pulls it above the rest. Not only does Joseph explore vocabulary within classroom depictions –his description of the teacher Miss Flotsam and her seeming life experience:
“Miss Flotsam had climbed peaks
circled by vultures,
waded rivers with unseen bottoms,”
but he also uses language to explore language itself in ‘Collective Pool Nouns’:
“A school of pools
a loud of bubbles
A soak of splashes’.
My favourites were ‘If All the World Were Paper’, which cleverly explores wrapping a baby sister in bubble wrap and smoothing out the creases of a grandfather, and the stunning and unusual imagery of a piece of artwork in ‘Make it bigger, Eileen.’ This has been shortlisted for the CLPE 2015 Poetry Award. You can buy it here, or on the Amazon sidebar.

Towards the end of the summer I’ll revisit poetry, as I’ve just been sent the most powerful young teen book I’ve read for a while – and it’s all in verse. I can’t wait to tell you about it. In the meantime, you can see that from the very young to teen, poetry is a great way into story and narrative.