Why are booksellers afraid of children’s poetry?

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


6 thoughts on “Why are booksellers afraid of children’s poetry?

  1. Pingback: Friday updates | Australian Children's Poetry

  2. This is a great article.

    It is really important, living in ‘far off Australia’, to gain an international perspective such as this.

    I get the impression that children’s poetry in the U.S. is in a pretty healthy state. There seem to be quite a number of publishers, and of course they have the position of “Children’s Poet Laureate”. But perhaps the situation is not as rosy as it might seem.

    The U.K. has always been something of a mystery to me, so far as the health of children’s poetry is concerned. It is fascinating to read not only of the problems, but the attempts to resolve them.

    I have no doubt at all that children appreciate poetry, but children don’t purchase poetry books – parents and grandparents do. Poetry was really at its peak – certainly in Australia – a hundred years ago, before the onset of radio, TV, movies, DVDs, and the internet. Even popular music was yet to arrive on the scene.

    All of these forms of entertainment are more superficially attractive than poetry. They require less effort, less imagination from the person who is listening/viewing.

    Of course, poetry hung on reasonably well for quite a while, because adults retained fond memories of their own childhood experiences of poetry. Eventually, though, and inevitably, this generation of adults was replaced by a new one who had not been exposed to poetry when young. This was the real crunch time for children’s poetry.

    So we now have the entrenched problem of two – or perhaps even three – generations who have not learnt to appreciate poetry.

    Poetry will never completely die, just as vinyl records and black and white movies retain a certain appeal. But can it ever reach beyond this niche audience?

    The other problem for poetry is that it has become generally less accessible. Free verse has replaced rhyme and metre, and is generally only appreciated by an elite few. The world of children’s poetry, certainly in Australia, finds itself divided between the ‘rhymers’ and the ‘free versers’ – and they really are like oil and water.

    I am very much in the ‘rhyming’ camp. I have no objection to free verse, other than that it simply does not excite me in the way that rhyming verse does.

    With my own volume of rhyming verse, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, about to hit the bookshops, I can only hope I will be able to prove all the naysayers wrong. Time will tell. I am propelled by personal enthusiasm, and blinded by personal bias. Of course, I am extremely grateful to Walker Books for their support. I hope most fervently to justify their faith, and am confident I will.

    Can interest in children’s poetry be revived? Will a time come when bookshops welcome volumes of children’s poetry on their shelves? Of course, I like to think so, but who can really say? We can but try!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen. Yes, the children’s poetry scene in the US and UK is far healthier than here in Australia. What we need are champions of poetry — and you are most certainly one of those, and so is Sarah Foster of Walker Books who is publishing your new collection. An organisation that ought to be a champion of children’s poetry in Australia is the Children’s Book Council — it’s national and its about children, books and reading. So it’s incumbent upon those of us who care about poetry and children being on the same page to exert pressure on it.

    With regard to poetry for adults — far too often I have read poems that are incomprehensible to me. Yes, mostly it’s free verse, but I often just don’t even know what the poet is trying to say. And I think I’m not the only puzzled poetry reader. What does make poetry accessible to adults is Poetry Slams which attract good crowds. So maybe what needs to happen is that children’s poets need to be more proactive in marketing themselves to schools so that children can hear poetry that they often don’t read (because they don’t have access to poetry books). Let’s see what we can do to stir the poet, shall we?

  4. In Australian primary schools, the teaching of poetry has been linked to writing in different text types, so the emphasis is on writing poetry, not on reading and enjoying it. The writing itself scares teachers, and schools have resorted to teaching poetry recipes: acrostics, limericks, haiku, ‘Dylan Thomas couplets’, catalogue poems, and so on. Teachers and children rarely borrow poetry books from the library, and so cash-strapped teacher-librarians don’t spend money on them. Children need frequent opportunities to enjoy all sorts of poems,long, short, narrative, moment in time, funny, sad, modern, old, Australian and international, without the need for any assessable task. Teachers need access to and recommendations of poems they can read and share as lesson breaks. Kids need to be introduced to the fun of choral reading (leading eventually to natural memorisation). And we need to revisit the good ideas we used in the 1980s for sharing poetry. Finally, someone with expertise and energy should convince someone (publishers?) to produce some poetry apps for the Smartboard: imagine seeing the poem writ large in front of you, highlight bits you like, move the words around, etc.
    Because of family illness I don’t have the time to take these ideas further currently, but there must be those who can. And we need lists (something I can do: starting perhaps with Australian verse novels for primary), My point is this: poetry is easy to love!

  5. What a great response, Vivienne! I wish I had the skill to create poetry apps — I have so much to share, and I’m sure others do, too. Let’s hope that publishers are reading what we are all saying about making poetry more accessible to children (and teachers).

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