poetry

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


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

 

 

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.