This year’s CLPE* Poetry Award has been won by Roger McGough’s anthology All the Best. But what does the judging process for the award tell us about the current state of poetry publishing for children? CLPE Poetry Award judge Morag Styles explains.
Look around and what do you see?
Everything touches, you’re touching me. (from Everything Touches)
It is a cliché to say that it was a hard job choosing the winner of a literary prize, but we had a genuinely difficult task with the shortlist this year for the CLPE Poetry Award which took over the mantle of the prestigious Signal Poetry Award in 2003. The ‘we’ refers to Michael Rosen and me who judged the twelve shortlisted volumes of poetry for children with Margaret Meek Spencer as Chair. The sifting process is accomplished by tutors at CLPE working with experienced teachers, but the judges can add extra titles from the long-list, should they wish to do so. Several books were winners in different ways this year. Here are some of them.
Winners in different ways
Tony Mitton’s The Tale of Tales, a mixture of prose and poetry, is his best publication yet for my money; smart storytelling, comical verse with ravishing illustrations which brought Kipling’s Just-So Stories to mind. I cannot praise Peter Bailey’s black and white line drawings and silhouettes highly enough. David Fickling has produced a book to treasure with excellent design, paper, print and cover.
Another beautiful book to look at and handle was Judith Nicholls’ thought-provoking anthology, The Sun in Me: Poems about the Planet from Barefoot Books. This is not Nicholls’ first green anthology, but it is as convincing as her earlier volumes. Working with scratchboard and watercolour, Beth Krommes’ exquisite child-friendly illustrations were moving, luscious and in total harmony with the poetry – a winning combination. As well as raising environmental issues and celebrating the natural world, both poet and artist locate word and image within a wide range of cultural settings.
Lines in the Sand: New Writing on War and Peace is another anthology that demands attention and is a winner in terms of powerful prose and poetry about the sadness and madness of war by a wonderful range of international contributors, admirably edited by Mary Hoffman and Rhiannon Lassiter. This book went from conception to production in a matter of weeks due to the commitment of the editors, writers, artists and publishers, Frances Lincoln. It offers an important anti-war message of peace and hope to the next generation during troubling times.
Single poet collections
Our two top single poet collections of the year are by poets who are also superb anthologists. Valerie Bloom was on winning form with possibly her finest collection yet – Whoop An’ Shout! Don’t let the light title fool you; this is a strong collection by a poet writing in her prime who gets better with every book. Bloom shows her range here: she is about as good as it gets at engaging, often amusing, dialect poems, reminiscent (but not derivative) of another great Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett. But Bloom does standard English equally well, with a nice sense of fun, a lightness of touch and at times, a lyrical note (‘When dusk is a soft blanket over the land,/ And the moon is brandishing her silver wand…’ from The Whooping Boys). Bloom often teaches her audience a little Creole before a reading (she is an electric performer of poetry) and the glossary she provides with this book is most welcome. We also liked Valerie Bloom’s well chosen, wide-ranging One River Many Creeks: poems from all around the world very much; it introduces a young audience to new international voices, opening windows on different ways of looking at the world, while celebrating our common humanity.
Carol Ann Duffy is the outstanding new voice in children’s poetry of the last few years. We loved The Good Child’s Guide to Rock ’n’ Roll (certainly the winning title of the year with its ironical nod to early moral verse for children, as well as the current vogue for guides to anything and everything), but we thought Faber let her down a little with presentation. Their poetry books haven’t quite got the hang of child appeal. Rock ’n’ Roll singers (from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis) take on a kind of fairy tale status to a new generation of young swingers, as they shake, rattle and roll through the pages, accompanied by Duffy’s usual quirky mix of humour, strong women, tender moments, childhood chants, counting rhymes, word play and (this time) references to Scotland (must be good!).
Carol Ann Duffy is a past mistress of the eclectic anthology and Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems (of childhood) is the official runner-up for the CLPE Award. This nicely presented book without illustrations is clearly calculated to appeal to an older age group. Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare and Edward Lear are better represented than contemporary poetry for the young, perhaps reflecting adult nostalgia whenever childhood is concerned, or just underlining the fact that good poetry is universal – good for everyone and for all time. And it was interesting to note who chose what, leading to some unusual or convivial juxtapositions. Some of the best were Gerda Meyer’s own Paper Boat with James Leigh Hunt’s Rondeau; Adrian Mitchell’s forceful Back in the Playground Blues with The Jumblies and Carol Ann Duffy’s Your Grandmother, side by side with Harold Munro’s haunting title poem. If you want to know what Wendy Cope, Jackie Kay, Sophie Hannah and others choose, you will have to buy the book!
But this year’s CLPE Poetry Award had to go to All the Best, Roger McGough’s Selected Poems, every one a winner. Readers enjoyed them the first time round in ten or so different collections; now they can savour the poems anew in fresh arrangements. Roger McGough has been writing poems for children since You Tell Me (with Michael Rosen, 1979), followed by Sky in the Pie (1983) – that’s 25 successful years in the business. Carol Ann Duffy calls him the patron saint of poetry. ‘The writer of this poem/ Never ceases to amaze/ He’s one in a million billion…’ (from The Writer of this Poem) – and so say all of us.
There are a couple of observations I’d like to make before concentrating on McGough’s achievements. During our discussions we were aware that some might think it unusual to select a book with no new poetry in it. (Many anthologies, of course, also fall into this category.) In fact, it was the best poetry book of the year, so our only reservation about McGough’s Selected Poems was that the publishers didn’t follow the normal protocol of letting the reader know which poems came from which collections with dates of publication. Otherwise it’s a lovely book in every way and Puffin are to be congratulated on commissioning a timely tribute to McGough, part of their strong poetry list for young readers. Lydia Monks’ entertaining, exuberant black and white line drawings on every page ably match the inventive imagination of the poet.
The single sour note in our deliberations on the poetry books published in the last year is that there are far too many relentlessly jokey books of second rate verse printed on rough paper. I have always defended the widest possible definition of what could be considered poetry; now here I am, turning up my nose at cheap poetry for kids which, depressingly, sells quite well. A dose of the grumpy old women syndrome, perhaps, but such poor quality fare does not sustain young readers or respect them. I want to pay tribute to those publishers who continue to produce quality single poet collections, who look out for new talent, who invite imaginative, well informed editors to compile anthologies, who keep significant titles in print, and who believe children should have the best of design and illustration.
But enough of that; let’s get back to talented poets and lovely books. McGough has done so much to make poetry ‘sexy’, the rock ’n’ roll of children’s literature. He tells us in A Good Poem, that ‘If I was a poem I’d play football and get picked for England.’ McGough’s great gifts in popularising poetry for young readers centre on wit, accessibility and a very special way with words. His control of language is awesome and his ability to turn well known idioms on their heads while he spins, puns, whirls, somersaults and generally larks around with words is second to none. He makes it look easy, but is very clever indeed; don’t ever doubt the sheer craft involved in minting language brand new, as he does.
The wry, terse, bitter-sweet, sometimes achingly tender, yet playful poetry that McGough is famous for in his work for adults is also evident in his verse for the young. There is no writing down; quite the opposite, as McGough challenges as well as pleases his young audience. Here’s an example:
What I hate about life
is that as soon as you get the hang of it
you run out of time. (from What I Love About School)
He tackles themes of school and family life, comical characters and situations, human foibles and uncertainties, green issues, poetry itself and love in all its guises. These are poems to grow up with – from the agonies of the child who is ‘a millionbillionwillion miles from home’ in First Day at School, to the bullied, friendless Raymond Gough in The Boy with a Similar Name; from the exuberant Mafia Cats – Bugsy, Franco and Tony, to Superman’s weedy little brother, Batman and Robin in their jim-jams, and lollidollops, sound-collectors, dream-stealers and tongue-twisters a plenty. So raise your glasses and cheer him to the rooftops – ‘Five, six, seven, eight / Who do we appreciate?’ (from A Great Poem) – 25 years, not out, of McGough’s particular brand of magic – an outstanding contribution to children’s poetry in the shape of All the Best.
You will not fall under a witch’s spell
You are not Snow White
Nor am I a handsome prince, but still
A kiss, God bless, good night. (from Lullaby)
Morag Styles is Reader in Children’s Literature at Homerton College, Cambridge and the author of From the Garden to the Street: Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children (Continuum).
The Tale of Tales, Tony Mitton, ill. Peter Bailey, David Fickling, 0 385 60517 X, £10.99 hbk
The Sun in Me: Poems about the Planet, compiled by Judith Nicholls, ill. Beth Krommes, Barefoot Books, 1 84148 057 6, £9.99 hbk
Lines in the Sand: New Writing on War and Peace, edited by Mary Hoffman and Rhiannon Lassiter, various illustrators, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 2282 7, £4.99 pbk
Whoop An’ Shout!, Valerie Bloom, ill. David Dean, Macmillan, 0 333 99811 1, £9.99 hbk
One River Many Creeks: poems from all around the world, chosen by Valerie Bloom, Macmillan, 0 333 96114 5, £9.99 hbk
The Good Child’s Guide to Rock ’n’ Roll , Carol Ann Duffy, ill. Emily Feaver, Faber, 0 571 21455 X, £12.99 hbk
Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, Young Picador, 0 330 41556 5, £7.99 pbk
All the Best, Roger McGough, ill. Lydia Monks, Puffin, 0 14 131637 3, £7.99 pbk
Other shortlisted books were Wallpapering the Cat by Jan Dean, ill. Chambers and Dorsey (Macmillan, 0 330 39903 9, £3.99 pbk ); Giving You the Willies edited by Graham Denton, ill. Michael Clark (Hands Up Books, 0 9542710 1 7, £4.99 pbk); How to Make a Snail Fall in Love with You by Lindsay MacRae, ill. Steven Appleby (Puffin, 0 14 131430 3, £4.99 pbk); and The Bee’s Knees by Roger McGough, ill. Helen Stephens (Puffin, 0 14 131495 8, £4.99 pbk).
*The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education