Joseph Coelho has been announced as the new Waterstone’s Children’s Laureate. He is the twelfth incumbent and takes over from Cressida Cowell. Coelho has written picture books and fiction and has a YA novel scheduled for publication in the autumn but was first and is probably best known for his poetry. Unsurprisingly, poetry is at the heart of his plans for his laureateship. Andrea Reece interviewed Joseph about his ambitions for the years ahead.
The Waterstones Children’s Laureate is the ‘foremost representative of children’s literature’ according to the press release sent out by BookTrust. Certainly, recent occupants of the role worked tirelessly over their two-year terms to promote the vital importance of reading and children’s literature – who can forget Cressida Cowell’s Laureate Charter or Jacqueline Wilson’s Great Books to Read Aloud? Like his predecessors, Joe is ready to hit the ground running. ‘When the call came through with the good news, I was awed and honoured. I had a little cry, then I got excited and started planning… It’s such a privileged position, an opportunity to highlight things that are really important to you.’ He identifies those things as poetry – and getting the nation, young and old writing poetry; libraries; and encouraging new talent. It’s an ambitious list, but energy has never been a problem – as Joe says he’s always been busy, there’s his library marathon for example, of which more later – the difference now is that he has a team behind him to help.
‘I wanted to work to my strengths, and I know a lot about poetry and about getting young people to write poetry. I’ve been going into schools week after week after all, and running poetry workshops, but now I can do that on a much bigger scale.’ Central to Joe’s plans for poetry will be his ‘Poetry Prompts’, a regular programme of activity – much of it delivered online – to get everyone, young and old, geared up about writing poetry. ‘I’ll be drawing on my experiences of performance poetry’, he says, ‘and making it really accessible. I want the nation to feel we can write and share poems.’ He was a little cagey about plans, details are scheduled to be revealed in the months ahead, but partners are in place to help deliver the project.
His own experience of poetry feeds into another of the three pillars of his Laureateship, called Bookmaker Like You. This is intended to showcase new talent within the industry and spotlight their work, ensuring that every child can see themselves as a bookmaker. His own interest in poetry began at school when he wrote a poem for a competition. He’d seen a documentary about the cruel treatment of bears, and that became the subject of the poem, which was called Unbearable. ‘It didn’t win the competition,’ he says, ‘but I enjoyed the process so much that I carried on.’ He didn’t seem himself as a writer however until he was in sixth form. A visit from the late, great Jean Binta Breeze changed everything. ‘She sat on the stage and read a brilliant poem about the softest touch. It just blew me and my classmates away. That was the first time that it occurred to me that poetry could be a job, not just something I wrote, but a career. It was also the first time that I’d seen someone who looked a bit like me in the publishing world.’ As a poet in schools, he has himself seen the particular effect poetry has on children, ‘I’ve seen now a handful of times where there has been a child in the class who doesn’t speak and they have chosen the poetry session as the moment to share their voice – it’s a huge inspiration for [his picture book] My Beautiful Voice. Poetry opens up a space where a child can grow in confidence. It is a natural space to share your voice.’
Poetry was his gateway into the world of publishing, and it’s his firm belief that it will open up the world of writing and creativity for all young people. ‘With poetry I feel like you’re dealing with the units of language, it’s all about honing a skill to use a few words to pack a punch. And that’s what all good writing does. I remember watching a documentary about Toni Morrison in which she said, “Poets write good prose they just cut it up.” That’s so true! If you want to define what makes a poem when you really boil it down, it’s line breaks – we know what a poem looks like, and we know when it’s not a poem and is prose because of how it looks on the page.’
Bookmaker Like You embraces all aspects of the creative process, and is designed to encourage not just authors but illustrators, storytellers, editors, publishers, agents. ‘I want to allow every young person to see themselves as a bookmaker. It’s so important to encourage more writers, more talent into the industry.’ Does he feel a particular responsibility to children like him? ‘I do feel there’s a responsibility to help diversify bookshelves because of my lived experience, and there is an opportunity there. I get that. When I’m in schools, other kids of colour look at me and I can see their eyes light up. Even as an adult, I was surprised at how impactful that can be. Watching Black Panther for example, a blockbuster movie filled with black and brown faces – I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it.’ He adds, ‘It’s so important not only that we see ourselves, but that we get to see and experience other lives. It helps up learn and grow and be kind, all these things we take for granted but which I believe will change the world, if we get it right.’
Changing the world would have been a good place to end, but there’s still the third tenet of his laureateship: libraries. Pre-pandemic, Joe undertook to visit and join every library authority in the country and – without the backing of any team – managed to tick off 140! Then came COVID and an enforced break, leaving 70 to go, plus a few special ones. He’s determined to bag them all during the course of the next two years. ‘The laureates have had a great tradition of supporting libraries so it feels a very natural part of the job but especially as I’d already started my library marathon. Having been scuppered by the pandemic, it’s a silver lining that I get to complete it now as laureate, a chance to shine an even brighter light on libraries I visit.’ He will be borrowing books, highlight children’s authors and illustrators, the plan to get even more people through the doors of their local libraries and enthuse local communities about this amazing, free resource on their doorstep.
What does he hope to see at the end of his two-year reign? ‘People sharing poems widely, a greater awareness of new children’s authors and illustrators, libraries celebrated. This means so much to me, it’s an honour beyond my wildest dreams, beyond anything my younger self could have imagined. I want to give, grow and learn through the process, and I’m so excited about what’s to come.’
We should be too.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Keep up with Joseph Coelho on the BookTrust website.