Mandy Coe and the Story of Let in the Stars

CliPPA Poet Blog Tour with Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe

‘Let in the Stars: New Poetry For Children’

Edited by Mandy Coe, (Manchester Metropolitan University)

“This powerful collection of moving, clever and funny work sends an important message that poetry written for children must be taken seriously, must be cherished and must be made available. It is my hope that others will follow the example set by Mandy Coe and my team in the Manchester Writing School, seeking out, collecting and celebrating the very best new poems in beautiful books like ‘Let in the Stars’, which can be picked up and loved by the next generation of readers and writers.”

Carol Ann Duffy CBE OBE, Creative Director of the Manchester Writing School at MMU.

Thanks to CLPE for promoting children’s poetry with the CLiPPA Award. Congratulations and good luck to the other CliPPA shortlisted poets – MMU, Writing School and I are proud to be in your company!

Our aim? To create a project that helped support poetry for children – and so far this adventure has been one of good will and affirmation of how much people value this genre. We ran an international prize inviting adults to write new poetry for children; we created performance and publication opportunities and designed projects for young readers to share and write poems. We’ve looked at how it is published, promoted, displayed and sold. We’ve written articles on the project, and presented to the National Association of Writers in Education conference… and we’re not done yet.

But at the heart of it all is Let in the Stars; a treasure of a book we hope will accompany young readers through to adulthood. Consciously designed to push the boundaries of what poetry for children is, and can be, I wanted to echo traditional elements of bookmaking – from the woodcut cover to print-press shadows round the illustrations, I wanted this book to say, poetry lasts; poems and poetry books stay with us for life.

A shelf of one’s own…

Early last year a librarian was politely showing me to the Children’s Poetry section of my central library when she noticed a scrap of paper on the floor. “Oh dear,” she said, determinedly sticking it back up. The shelf she gestured to was now labelled, ‘Jokes and Poetry’. “I’m afraid our stocks of children’s poetry don’t warrant its own section anymore.” When she’d gone I tried straightening the label, but it remained askew. This bit of paper more than anything else, gave the impression that the genre of children’s poetry was not so much overlooked as abandoned… Is poetry one lump of blue-tack away from becoming adult only?

Back in 2008, a sharp reduction in the publication of children’s poetry books triggered the creation of the Children’s Poetry Summit. Founding member and Poetry Book Society director, Chris Holifield, spoke of children’s poetry being “close to extinction,” and sharing her concerns about “where the next generation of children’s poets might come from, since it is almost impossible for any aspiring poet to get more than an occasional poem into an anthology.”

Have things improved since then? It seems not. In 2015, Roger McGough, judge for the CLPE CLiPPA Award, and staunch supporter of poetry for children, on BBC news shared how sorry he was to see that “so few publishers are producing books for children and young people,” and last month, children’s poet, Chrissie Gittins wrote, “Booksellers say to me that there aren’t many poetry books being published; book consultants and journalists tell me that they aren’t told about new children’s poetry books when they are published. It seems that the chain between children’s poetry and its audience has many broken links. Some of the broken links are caused by fear.” The Guardian.

How children’s poetry ended up shelved under ‘horror’ and ‘jokes’ is too long a tale to untangle here. Our project can only be one part of a broader campaign. But as the UK has many outstanding children’s poets and national poetry/literature organisations (and a determined band of publishers, bookshops and libraries who share a deep fondness for this genre) we’ve every reason to believe that a movement exploring ways to support poetry for children will continue to gather impetus.

Three wide-ranging anthologies to start with:

We know this simple but radical philosophy only works if, while flagging up this dire situation, we also create momentum for positive change. ‘Let in the Stars’ does that in shed-loads. The momentum created by these talented writers and illustrators working in collaboration is hard to resist! Even so, being short-listed for the 2015 CliPPA Award was a wonderful surprise, (MCBF director, Kaye Tew rang to tell me and we cheered happily). It seemed not a recognition of these poets and illustrators, but of our project’s intent.

Louise Johns-Shepherd (CLPE’s chief executive) says children’s poetry is a “fundamental element in the development of children’s literacy”. Louise is spot on. Like most writers visiting schools through author’s visits I’ve seen first-hand how poetry brings literature to life and into children’s lives in a way no other genre can. Short, re-readable, visual, rhythmic, multi-cultural, subversive, funny, inclusive… no wonder children love poetry. For many UK literacy and educational organisations, poetry is at the heart of their work with children. Schools, parents, poets, we know children love poetry.

Letting in the Stars…

The folk at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Writing School are go-getters. Kaye Tew and James Draper make things happen… Fast. I don’t know why, but they kind of adopted me… a freelance thorn in their side, hanging round the office thinking up ridiculously challenging things to do. ‘Children’s poetry needs the sparkle of major literature prizes,’ I said. ‘Ok,’ they said. ‘We need top-notch judges: Imtiaz Dharker and Philip Gross.’ ‘Ok,’ they said. ‘And will you publish an anthology of the long and shortlisted poems, to stand alone as a classic poetry book for all ages…illustrated, in colour… even though the budget is tiny, and it’s possible no one will even enter the competition, let alone send us poems good enough for a book…?’ ‘Ok-ay,’ they said.

And so, for 2014, Carol Ann Duffy and her team at the Manchester Writing School dedicated the prestigious Manchester Writing Prizes for Poetry and Fiction to poets writing for children. ‘Surprise us,’ we asked entrants, ‘show us what you think children’s poetry is, and can be.’ And they did, poems arriving from all over the world; new poems, new voices and among them, the gems that would become ‘Let in the Stars’.

The prize-giving for the shortlisted poets opened the 2014 Manchester Book Festival, the winners reading with Carol Ann Duffy and Imtiaz Dharker at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Income from book sales goes back into printing more books, and we are in contact with many of the poets so as to swap news on where things go from here.

Building on Let in the Stars, and funded by Arts Council England, MCBF will take over Manchester venues for the 4th and 5th July where schools, libraries, bookshops will host performances and workshops of poetry for children and families. We created posters, poetry-as-a-gift bookplates, bookmarks and…yes… shelf-labels! No more blue-tack…. this genre is aiming for a shelf of its own.
More stars twinkling…

To be inspired by writing is an integral part of the journey towards becoming a writer. My debt to the poets I read as a child is deep. If you want to remind yourself of the affirmative powers of poetry for children… click and sit back to enjoy the voices of these poets reading at the Poetry Archive:

Small Dragon by Brian Patten and Timothy Winters by Charles Causley.

Bin the blue-tack…

Unlike the adult poetry world with its magazines, competitions, small press and pamphlet productions, poets writing for children have no infrastructure at all. We need ways to draw new writers in and places their work can be honed. If you are in anyway involved with literature or poetry organisations, you can support children’s poetry by:

  • Creating a dedicated section within current writing competitions
  • An annual section in open floor events
  • Poetry and literary magazines (even a page or two now and then)
  • Commissioning/featuring reviews
  • Running workshops in writing poetry for children
  • Creating a resource page on your website
  • Reminding your bookshop/library to give it a shelf of its own
  • Ask for a selection of children’s poetry to be displayed in the adult section of your bookshop (adults commonly buy poetry as a gift for a child)
  • Lobby libraries and bookshops for specific labelling

And for schools…

Three wide-ranging anthologies to start with:

P.s. Breaking news… Hey-up! Look a brand new prize for poets writing for children just popped up, deadline, 31 August 2015. The tide turns… three cheers for Bloomsbury Publishing and the National Literacy Trust. 

Joseph Coelho continues the  CliPPA Poet Blog Tour over on Playing by the Book with The Ultimate Writing Tip on Friday 10th July.

Author of seven books, Mandy Coe’s collection for children If You Could See Laughter, is published by Salt. Her latest adult collection is Clay, Shoestring, and There Will be Cherries, will be published in 2016. Regularly reading at poetry events for adults and young people, she has held residencies with Bath Festivals, the South Bank, National Galleries and the Barbican. Her poems have appeared in the Guardian, Radio Times and on BBC’s CBeebies and her work is featured at the Poetry Archive and BBC Schools Radio ‘Talking Poetry’. Mandy’s poems for children have are anthologised by Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Hodder. She works with universities and schools as a lecturer/visiting author and her essays on teaching poetry have been published by Bloomsbury, the TES and Cambridge University Press. She is a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Writing School.
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