How is poetry for children faring in 2023? Well, very well, it would seem; and here’s a selection from this year’s production in the run up to gift giving time, selected by Clive Barnes. You’ll find more in the reviews in BFK’s back issues and don’t forget to look at the shortlist for the CLiPPA 2023 (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award).
Let’s start with the anthologies. A Whale of a Time is my favourite, a hunky collection of funny poems in large format, generously and cheerily illustrated by Matt Hunt. Here are poets you know and, almost certainly, poets you don’t, cleverly assembled by the enviably well-read Lou Peacock. The price tag matches the book’s size, but it more than delivers on its promise of a poem and a chuckle for every day of the year and would make a suitably impressive gift. The prescription of a daily dose of poetry seems to be popular. Allie Esiri offers A Nursery Rhyme for Every Night of the Year. You might not be able to think of 365 nursery rhymes immediately. But dip in, and I guarantee you’ll find some you remember. Also, Esiri has cleverly widened the field. So, there are verses that, at first, I wouldn’t count as nursery – Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do – but you might very well have sung to your little ones (case in point) and new verses by poets who are not anonymous, but that are comfortable here: Julia Donaldson and Michael Rosen, for instance. And, quite separately, here’s something that might similarly find its way into the family rhyme world. Jason Korsner’s A Zoo in My Shoe plays some wickedly funny rhyming variations around zoo animals, accompanied by Max Low’s illustrations, that will have parents and children giggling night after night. Anyway, back to the anthologies. Ana Sampson’s Gods and Monsters gives us the expected Greek and Norse, but also Celts and some other scary individual figures, like tricksters, witches and sea monsters, more difficult to pigeon-hole culturally, with poets from Homer to our present children’s laureate. These are accompanied by a wealth of Chris Riddell drawings, so keen to be seen they sometimes muscle the poetry to one side.
There are some slimmer collections, too, that are well worth looking at. Publisher Little Tiger follow up on last year’s Courage in a Poem with Our Earth is a Poem and My Heart is a Poem. Aimed at middle school, these are in picture book format, usually one poem to a double-page spread, and feature contemporary poets and new(ish) illustrators. Our Earth looks at the myriad wonders of nature and how we might share and protect them. My Heart explores the world of feelings, from the depth of sadness to the heights of joy and everywhere in between. Both collections are carefully chosen with an eye for diversity, and a warm welcome to individuality, not only in the poets’ and illustrators’ backgrounds but in the way each of them, and us, experiences the world. Joelle Avelino, one of the illustrators of the Little Tiger collections, is also the illustrator of a picture book version of the poem Bookworms by Nyanda Foday, a poem that shows us the solace and inspiration that can be found in books: ‘A good story shows you a new world/The right story shows that you can exist in this one.’ I like this idea of the poem picture book, there’s so much space in a poem for pictorial interpretation.
Diana Ejaita takes inspiration from her Nigerian heritage for her illustrations for Let, a book for older readers from Kei Miller’s poem Book of Genesis, which, not unlike Bookworms, celebrates the liberating and community building power of the word. Last year, Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho gave us two books encouraging children themselves to become poets. This year, there’s another from him in the same vein, Poetry Prompts, full of tips on how to get your poetic juices flowing, and backed-up by Book Trust videos on YouTube, presented by the poet himself.
Finally, there are three individual poetry collections from Troika publishing. The Moon’s Gorgonzola is a second collection from Debra Bertulis and reflects her work as a poet in schools. These are poems for the youngest school children looking at their lives, likes and dislikes; encouraging them to join in with chants, rhymes and jokes; and, like Coelho, encouraging them to write and perform their own poetry: ‘Help me write a poem/So I don’t forget today/So the memory stays forever/And never fades away.’ And I Climbed And I Climbed is Stephen Lightbown’s first poetry for children and it draws on his experience as a wheelchair user after becoming paralysed following an accident. In the first poem, eight-year-old Cosmo addresses the tree from which he fell and broke his back, ‘Now I use a wheelchair/because like you/I can’t walk.’ In subsequent poems, some angry, some questioning, some resigned, some determined, he tells the tree about his feelings and about his experience in the walking, running, climbing world. The tree has a word to say, too, and so does Cosmo’s mum and his sister. How does Cosmo get on? Well, you need to read it to find out. No spoilers here. Let’s stay with the theme of finding your place in the world (as if we could get away from it). Shauna Darling Robertson’s second collection for young adult readers, You are Not Alone, also from Troika, is advertised as talking about mental health. So it does, but ‘Aren’t we all in the spectrum?’ And these are poems that definitely speak to all of us: the strangeness of us, the strangeness of them, and the strangeness of the world. How to navigate that, and how sometimes you can’t. It’s a collection that, like Bookworms or Let, finds in the inspiration of other poets and in poetry itself, a means of conveying, if not entirely understanding, the unbearable oddness of being and making order, beauty, wonder, humour and compassion from everyday discomfort and more than occasional pain.
Clive Barnes has retired from Southampton City where he was Principal Children’s Librarian and is now a freelance researcher.
Jason Korsner, A Zoo in my Shoe, ill. Max Low, Graffeg, 9781802584073, £7.99, pbk
Ana Sampson (ed.), Gods and Monsters. ill.Chris Riddell, Macmillan, 978 1035023011, 14.99, hbk
Nyanda Foday, Bookworms, ill. Joelle Avelino, Andersen, 978 1 83913 149 3, £7.99, pbk
Lou Peacock, A Whale of a Time, ill. Matt Hunt, Nosy Crow, 978 1 83994 201 3, £25.00, hbk
Kei Miller, Let, ill. Diana Ejaita, Cameron Kids, 978 1 951836 45 0, £11.99, hbk
Debra Bertulis, The Moon’s Gorgonzola, ill. Zoe Williams, Troika, 978 1 9127453 02, £8.99 pbk
Shauna Darling Robertson, You Are Not Alone, Troika, 978 1 9127451 7 3, £8.99.pbk
Stephen Lightbown, And I Climbed And I Climbed, 978 1 9127452 9 6, £8.99, pbk
Joseph Coelho, Poetry Prompts, All Sorts of Ways to Start A Poem, Wide Eyed, 9 780711 285118, £9.99, pbk
My Heart is a Poem, Little Tiger, 978 1 83891 440 0, £12.99, hbk
Our Earth is a Poem, Little Tiger,978 1 83891 555 1, £12.99, hbk