Some poetry books for children will be returned to again and again. But what are the ingredients that make it more likely that a book of poems will enter a young reader’s ‘personal mythology of meanings’? The annual CLPE poetry award affords a useful forum for such debate. Poet and judge, Tony Mitton, discusses the winner and honour books of 2005.
Some people like to say that there’s no such thing as children’s poetry, in the sense of poetry written expressly for children. Poetry is either good or bad, they argue, and some of it may be accessible to children. But people disagree about what’s good and bad, and they’re bound to disagree about what’s accessible, and everyone will agree that what’s accessible to a particular person depends upon such things as experience, culture, education and intelligence. And when we use the term ‘children’ – well, what a vast generalisation! Why, it’s as broad as ‘people’. Ask any primary teacher.
The secret life of poetry books
In the English speaking world of the early 21st century there is an established practice of publishing books of poetry intended for children. Some are well-reviewed. A few win prizes or commendations. And some sell well regardless of such accolades. And then there is the secret life of poetry books. Somewhere, shall we say, in a child’s bedroom in Anytown, is a well-thumbed copy of a poetry collection containing several poems that are returned to over and over again. They have entered that reader’s personal mythology of meanings. One poem may be written out, or photocopied, and pinned up on the wall just above the reader’s/sleeper’s pillow. Another may be learned by heart and recited, often, at the breakfast table.
Evidence of such things may bring as much warmth to a writer’s heart as any number of awards, reviews and public acknowledgment. This is the real purpose of publication, the transferring of the work to other minds, the spreading of discourse, interest, pleasure. Just being published multiplies the possibilities of such things happening to a poem or a story. The news that one’s writing has truly galvanised a particular reader can be a deeply gratifying experience.
The CLPE award
As a writer of poems for children myself, and having been on last year’s shortlist (now termed honour list, to give the listed books celebrated status rather than the dubious pleasure of not having won in the end), I was asked this year to be one of the two writer judges for this award. The bulk of the work had been done, I felt, by the CLPE panel. There were seven books, comprising four anthologies and three solo collections, to assess. Along with the poet Valerie Bloom, my co-judge, I had to establish which of these seven books should take the prize, leaving the other six as ‘honour books’. So, mercifully, I did not have the invidious task of ranking the books in order.
Still, there were the issues of anthology versus solo collection, of books younger in feel as against older, the matter of overall tone, the balance of serious and dark as against light and exuberant. And the dilemma of giving encouragement to newcoming or younger poets as against rewarding the long-term achievements of older poets and habitual prizewinners. Also, as so often, anxieties about giving the award to the same recipient more than once within a short space of time. Two of the contending books were the work of the two previous winners.
When it came to final judgment, all my worries were allayed. I was not to worry about such fairnesses. I need not issue handicaps. I simply had to decide, with Val, which was the best book overall, in terms of excellence. The CLPE award concerns itself with encouraging excellence in the writing of, or showcasing of, poetry for children. Instead of worrying about the disparity between a solo collection (the cumulative work of one single writer) and an anthology (the careful selection and arrangement of poems by others ranging across space and time) the assessment focuses simply on which book is best.
The ultimate criterion
My ultimate criterion here, after all the very careful reading and note taking I had done, the listing of pros and cons, the weighing of this against that, was simply: which book would I be most likely to return to after the judging was over, which would I keep on my bookshelf, which would I value most in my classroom were I still a primary teacher, which would I cherish most if my children were still young enough to be read to at bedtime or on the sofa?
I had come to the judging with two titles in mind and an uncertainty as to which I would place as my winner and which as runner-up. Up until that moment I was biased in favour of the solo collection for several clear reasons, most of which I’ve already touched on above in this article. But in the end I had to admit to the others that in my opinion the anthology took the prize. It was overall the best book, the one that most surely presented excellence.
And the runner-up? Well, this year the policy had moved away from a secondary preference. There was to be a single winner. The rest would all be ranked equally as honour books.
Was there a problem with awarding the prize to the same person two years running? Roger McGough won it last year for his retrospective collection All the Best . This year he’s won it for his anthology Sensational! Well, we posited, the art of anthologising is very different from that of writing and accumulating a collection. The choosing and arrangement of an anthology was a discrete skill in itself. And this book brought many surprises beyond its unenticing threshold ‘Poems Inspired by the Five Senses’. We all agreed, poems about the five senses… bound to be a lot of repetition here, probably quite a lot of overlaboured ideas and figures, what a very limiting brief for any poets attempting new material for the volume. And probably a lot of well-known excerpts from classic poems.
Not a bit of it. What a crop of gems! An array. Such variety. What a range of moods and types and styles. Traditional and contemporary, serious and humorous, coherent and whimsical. At every turn of the page something new, fresh, bright, different, engaging. And so very hard to find a poem that hadn’t truly earned its place. This was the book of all seven that I kept wanting to go back to.
So we weren’t deterred by the fact that Roger McGough won the award the previous year. It was a simple matter of choosing the best book. See for yourself and decide whether you agree or not.
You’ll find plenty to admire about the other six books, plenty of reason to acknowledge their place on the Honour list. Here they are, with not enough words to give them their due.
Daft as a Doughnut by Adrian Mitchell. A retrospective collection by a very seasoned popular poet, undervalued in my opinion as a children’s poet. This book sets the record straight. Witty, playful, kind, poignant, moral but fun, with apt illustrations by Tony Ross, this is a book that I can see real children picking up and enjoying for themselves, unassisted.
Only One of Me by James Berry. A book with a strong Caribbean flavour by a poet who has lived and aged in Britain while maintaining a gaze back to his place of origin. His voice is a curious mixture of here and there, now and then, the poems having one foot in this culture, one in that. The book gives a strong sense of how displacement sharpens the senses, and this writer’s senses are shown acutely aware in the poems. Another retrospective collection.
Sardines by Stephen Knight. A book by a poet acknowledged in the adult poetry world and now stepping into the world of poetry published for children. Keenly, cleverly crafted, many of these poems have a dourness, a dark edge, that might go down well with the teenage reader. The ex-primary teacher in me felt that much of this work might prove oblique to the mass of primary children, but that this volume should earn its place in the secondary canon of books for teenage readers, alongside the work of poets like Norman Silver.
Blood and Roses compiled by Brian Moses. An anthology strong on content. Poems about historical situations and events from prehistory to the present day. A mixture of classic and contemporary material. I thought a lot of the work chosen was strong on quality and high in interest. Here is a book which should prove useful to teachers and of interest to children with an appetite for history.
From Mouth to Mouth – Oral Poems from Around the World selected by John Agard and Grace Nichols. This book put me in mind of the Opies’ work. This husband and wife team have put together a bookful of chants, quips, verse games, a miscellany of oral culture from round the world, past and present. It’s a celebration of the poetic impulse in the ordinary, everyday (not necessarily literary) world. A portable archive, this, which can give a lot of pleasure.
Something Beginning With P – New Poems From Irish Poets edited by Seamus Cashman, illustrated by Corrina Askin and Alan Clarke. An extremely busy book absolutely crammed with lyric text and vivid illustration. Almost like walking round a thriving fairground, high sensory stimulation wherever one looks. There are some very celebrated poets in this book and some less well known ones, which gives the book a very democratic feel. Some of the poems are in the Irish and there is a very wide mix of tone and style throughout. You’ll chance across some lovely surprises if you go browsing here.
So, all that remains for me to say is… Happy Reading!
Tony Mitton ’s most recent books are Once Upon a Tide , a young verse narrative illustrated by Selina Young (David Fickling, 0 385 60418 1) and The Tale of Tales (David Fickling, 0 385 60517 X). My Hat and All That , poems by Tony Mitton, illustrated by Sue Heap, will be published by Corgi Yearling/Random House (0 440 86725 8) in Spring 2006.
The CLPE Poetry Award was set up two years ago by the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education). It is presented annually for a book of poetry published in the preceding year. Further information from CLPE, Webber Street, London SE1 8QW or email@example.com
Sensational! Poems inspired by the five senses , chosen by Roger McGough, ill. Sara Fanelli, Macmillan, 0 330 41344 9, £4.99 pbk
Daft as a Doughnut , Adrian Mitchell, ill. Tony Ross, Orchard, 1 84362 685 3, £4.99 pbk
Only One of Me , James Berry, Macmillan, 0 330 41831 9, £4.99 pbk
Sardines and Other Poems , Stephen Knight, Young Picador, 0 330 41356 2, £4.99 pbk
Blood and Roses: British history in poetry , compiled by Brian Moses, ill. Chris Mould, Hodder, 0 340 89388 5, £4.99 pbk
From Mouth to Mouth – Oral Poems from Around the World , selected by John Agard and Grace Nichols, ill. Annabel Wright, Walker, 0 7445 8383 7, £5.99 pbk
Something Beginning With P: New Poems From Irish Poets , edited by Seamus Cashman, ill. Corrina Askin and Alan Clarke, O’Brien, 0 86278 906 0, £17.99 hbk