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.

Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant

little bits of sky

Every so often a book is published that oozes emotional intelligence. This is one such novel. Told from the point of view of a young girl in the care system in the 1980’s, the book is much more than its plot or subject matter. The author Christopher Edge recently asked on Twitter for examples of a distinctive outstanding voice in children’s fiction. I would recommend this book to him. Written in the first person, eleven year old Ira (the protagonist) steps out of the book and into the reader’s head.

It is an easy read, the writing flows almost as if Ira is saying ‘and then this happened, and then this happened’, and yet with acutely attentive and well-crafted writing, such as in the aftermath of the big 1987 October storm, when Ira witnesses a tree falling and a house with its roof blown off:

“We Skilly [care home kids] were really excited. We already knew everything could be turned upside down at any moment and now everyone else could see it too.”

The prose screams authenticity. Ira’s thoughts spill out fluently but she also creates childlike lists as she goes, such as favourite things, favourite people. At the same time, her thoughts are subtle and understated. Ira is clearly emotionally damaged by her ignorance about what really happened to her parents and her unsettling past (shipped from home to home), but she maintains an equilibrium throughout the novel, a general matter-of-factness that conveys the world around her simply. In this way the prose spells out her personality – a calm veneer with a raging storm beneath. And her perceptions of the people and things around her are conveyed with simplicity:

“Anita says we had a mum once but she couldn’t look after us any more. It’s what people say to care kids. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like saying its cold outside when really it could be stormy or wet or snowy or icy and you haven’t got a window so you can’t check. All you know is you’d better put your coat on.”

Her matter-of-fact voice represses the emotion and hidden complexities that lie hidden just beneath the surface. She manages to size up her situation and other characters in a few words – but at the same time pointing to that which is unsaid between the lines. Durrant does this all the time with her writing. In this case when the children are eating personalised chocolate Easter eggs:

“Eating an egg with your name on is one of the nicest things in the world. But it does have to be your own name.”

Another quality that shines through is the humour, despite the threads of sadness and worry that sometimes interrupt Ira’s thoughts. She is sometimes funny without meaning to be (the author’s influence at playing with the reader is apparent here), and sometimes funny on purpose, but many wry smiles are sprinkled throughout the book:

“Hortense says teenagers need family more than anyone else, which is a shame because teenagers are the least lovely sort of kid.”

There is also a stunning representation of sibling affection. Ira is in care with her younger brother Zak, and the care and protectiveness she demonstrates for her brother is heart-wrenching, but it’s her understanding of him that is truly magical:

“Martha said to Zac, “Do you like it?”
Zac shrugged, which gave the wrong impression. It was because he liked it too much.”

In fact, all the secondary characters are drawn with equal sensitivity and intelligence, from the adults in the care system to the other children in care. In particular, the fairly stereotypical Jimmy, who although represented as the archetypal care child, is in fact drawn beautifully by Durrant, so that you feel an intense sadness when reading about him. Also, Pip, because her hurt is apparent through the protagonist’s insightful way of looking at her:

“She didn’t say anything at tea and she didn’t look at anyone. I tried to catch her eye but it was like she had a wall in front of her face. She looked sad sitting there looking at her wall.”

This wall cleverly blends in with the historical setting of the book, which treads from 1987 to 1990, incorporating the huge storm of October 1987 in Britain as well as the protestations over the poll tax, and finally the taking down of the Berlin Wall. The events are woven carefully into the narrative, and each one resonates with the children in a different way, but again, with layers of intelligence so that they fit into the plot – or rather the plot fits into them.

This is not a complicated plot, a huge tragedy, an outlandish comedy or a blaring book. The whole story is understated, and yet reaches a perfection that few books with wall-to-wall marketing reach. This is a stand-alone title – the author makes this clear from the ending, in which the protagonist is grown up, and it’s refreshing in children’s literature to read about what happens to the characters when they are older – this device reminded me slightly of Carrie’s War.

But this title should be shouted about for the authenticity of Ira’s voice, for the tangibility of the characters – by the end of the novel I was crying for two reaons – the uplifting spirit in which it ended, and because by finishing the book I had come to the end of a beautifully written children’s book. Treat yourself. Read it to your child so that you can both enjoy it. You can buy it here.

Cover and inside illustrations by Katie Harnett

Back in the Day 1980’s

Time travelling is a well-used trait in fiction, particularly in children’s books from A Wrinkle in Time by Madileine L’Engel to A Traveller in Time by Allison Uttley and the timeslips in Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce.

back in the day

Jess Bright’s latest novel, Back in the Day, probably has more in common with Freaky Friday or Back to the Future than those mentioned above, as her heroine, Daisy falls through the back of a PE cupboard and ends up in 1985.

For today’s young reader, 1985 may seem like a long time ago, but for me the timehop in the book spelled nostalgia with a capital N. Jess Bright’s incidental details brought it all flooding back, from mentions of Impulse spray (if I close my eyes I can still smell it), to the fashions of the time:

“She was in her uniform now carrying some trendy neon-pink army type bag plastered with all sorts of cool badges and key rings, rammed with folders and books. You could tell she was a fashionista, even with bad Eighties hair.”

Bright also happily refers to the pop songs of the era (she uses 1980’s song titles as the chapter headings of her book, and I can sing every one!) as well as Daisy searching her brain for which Eighties group she likes (she mistakenly thinks ABBA would be hip, when of course Wham or Duran Duran would have fitted the bill). There are ra-ra skirts, pen pals (snail mail), as well as a lack of mobile phones, and the absence of health and safety and ice packs. Daisy’s friend hurts herself in 1985 and yet the reaction to her suggestion of ice packs is laughter from the teacher:

“Normally if anyone fell and hurt themselves there was a huge fuss…No one batted an eyelid this time.”

In the 1980s there was also more freedom, and certainly no Google:

“Outside the gallery I checked the photocopied A-Z map Mrs Northwood had given us (Googlemaps for the Eighties!)…Back in the future, there was no way any kid would be allowed to sneak off into the surrounding area without at least two adults, a satellite tracking system and an embarrassing day-glow school tabard!”

But what did those roaming children read in the 1980s? In the days before Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams, and even before The Gruffalo or Harry Potter, children weren’t starved for fiction. In fact, I remember a large children’s section at the local library, and remember reading voraciously, yet not running out of titles. We started with classic picture books that are still around today, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, as well as Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. These titles didn’t look dissimilar from how they look today. We pored over the pictures in Brambly Hedge, became obsessed with scratch and sniff books – only a step up from sniffable erasers, stickers and a doll called Strawberry Shortcake who smelled of synthetic strawberries – and we were enraptured by terrible narratives just because they had our names in them – personalised books with names spelt backwards were all the rage.

sleeping beautyameliacarries war

There was no such category as ‘middle grade’ back then, but we progressed onto our stock of Ladybird books – and yes, my Sleeping Beauty looked nothing like Chris Riddell’s latest rendering of her – as well as reading The Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, and then American imports such as Amelia Bedelia and Ramona Quimby, who turned eight a few years before I did. Of course we consumed all the adventures of the Famous Five and Secret Seven, progressed to boarding schools including Malory Towers and the Chalet School, and sauntered through the classics, all still read today, from titles such as I am David to Carrie’s War, The Silver Sword and many many more, although the covers looked a little different then. More American stuff filtered through with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys Mysteries, and for a school which had far more boys than either St Clare’s or Trebizon, we turned to Sweet Valley High.

that was thenforever

YA didn’t exist as a separate category either, but there was plenty of subversiveness and fear for the future in Z for Zachariah, and it was a brilliant time to be reading teen, as SE Hinton had published The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now, in the late sixties and Judy Blume was churning out books in the seventies so that they were readily available for us.

stranger with my faceskin deep

But with the 1980’s came the arrival of the Pan Horizons imprint – a brilliantly marketed array of teen titles that had a distinct look and distinct content; seductive and exhilarating, with the publishers realising that sex was now a key component for the 1980’s teen. With Richard Peck exploring rape in Are You in the House Alone?, Lois Duncan exploring guilt, murder, the supernatural and so much more in her haunting stories, such as I Know What you Did Last Summer and Stranger With My Face, as well as Liz Berry’s tales of the rich and reckless in Easy Connections and Easy Freedom, and authors ME Kerr and many others, Horizons was a huge hit with 1980’s teens.

easy connections


Personal favourite authors of the time included Cynthia Voigt, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Robert Cormier, oh and don’t worry – we still had Roald Dahl.

Jess Bright has captured the time hop in her book, Back in the Day, without delving so far into the past that the modern reader feels neglected. Daisy falls through a portal (in the PE cupboard – the perfect messy place for a time portal), back to 1985, so she’s at school with her teenage Mum. But what will she do in the 1980’s that will impact her present day – and will she warn her Mum that she’s going to die when Daisy is aged four? Would you?

The book is full of tension, emotion, and drama as Daisy battles with the moral dilemma of what to do, and how to get back to the future, and a future that might be changed by her actions – for everything has a consequence. It’s a great rollercoaster of a story, with lovely ‘historical’ details. I enjoyed my trip down memory lane, but I think today’s children will adore this fun book about what would happen if they met their parents when they were children themselves. Buy a copy for your 9+ years child here.

If I’ve missed out any great kids’ books that you really enjoyed in the 1980s, tweet me @minervamoan

And check out the rest of Jess Bright’s book tour.

Blog tour (1)