Children, responding to its rhythm and imagery, take to poetry with natural ease.
Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees and sleepers into dreams. I’ve seen this alchemy at work on countless visits to schools, visits which have convinced me that poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood. But poetry written for children is in danger of dying out, of sliding into fossilised irrelevance, cut off from modern verse. A classic such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses may be lovely, but it can’t sustain the vital connection between children and poetry. Children also need poets who are still breathing.
The delicate machine which brings poetry books into the hands of children is in desperate need of repair. I used to help choose the poems for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf, the Poetry Book Society’s book club for ages seven to 11, and I watched with horror as the submissions from publishers gradually dried up. Starved of funding and support, the club had to stop taking on new members in 2011. As PBS director Chris Holifield said, it seemed that “children’s poetry in book form was close to extinction, with just a small number of new titles being published and not much backlist being kept in print.”
No one doubts that a market for children’s poetry exists. Children relish it, parents appreciate its accessibility and infinite re-readability, and teachers who’ve unlocked its potential in the classroom swear by it. In 2011, children’s fiction and poetry editor Kate Paice summed up the dilemma of publishers is quoted as saying, “A lot of bookshops seem quite scared of poetry. They don’t know how to shelve it or how to sell it, and if we can’t reach our market through bookshops then we can’t sell to our market.”
The fight back began in 2008, when an alliance of publishers, booksellers, educationalists and poetry organisations founded the Children’s Poetry Summit. Now the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University and Carol Ann Duffy’s Manchester children’s book festival have created an international children’s poetry prize worth £2,000. Philip Gross and Imtiaz Dharker have joined me on a judging panel, sifting through more than 2,500 poems to create an illustrated anthology for readers aged five to 12, to be launched during the festival at the end of June. All we need now is booksellers brave enough to stock it.
First published in The Guardian, UK