A Distant

Poetry in the U.K., 2001

Ruth Allen

Prizes for children's poetry are uncommon creatures in the U.K.; the only representative is The Signal Poetry Award. Signal is a U.K. magazine which concentrates on children's literature. It is circulated largely among librarians and teachers and contains reviews and articles -- think of a rather slighter Horn Book concentrating on the U.K. market. It has been running for some 30 years and was the creation of Aidan and Nancy Chambers. Still edited by Nancy Chambers, it remains very much the child of its original progenitors:

We wanted especially to encourage critical writing; not always in conventional academic terms but in ways that take account of the reader reading and the writer writing. From the beginning, poetry for children has been a special SIGNAL interest, and in 1979 we set up a Poetry Award, which guarantees an annual focus on the subject. The award articles appear in each May issue.

Unfortunately, outside the contained world of children's librarians and primary school teachers (children up to Year 6; a U.K. "Year" equates roughly to a "Grade" in the U.S. and Canada) news about children'poetry books, let alone children's poetry, is sparse. On a typical weekend, the broadsheet papers contained reviews of some of the autumn's crop of children's books -- apart from nursery rhyme collections, poetry was not represented.
The first hundred children's poetry books listed by Amazon.co.uk contains only eight titles published in 2001. Of these, five are anthologies, and one of these is a collection that was the result of a voluntary survey of BBC listeners, The Nation's Favourite Children's Poems. At number 25, one anthology, Because a Fire was in My Head, edited by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Quentin Blake (the first U.K. Children's Laureate -- Anne Fine has succeeded him) seems to have been put together with some flair, selecting from modern poets such as Stevie Smith, John Lennon and Spike Milligan, with the stated aim to set children's imaginations alight. Another anthology, 101 Poems to Keep You Sane, compiled by Daisy Goodwin, is aimed at older children and adults and is part of a series "101 Poems to..." of which two previous titles were edited by Goodwin. Of the three single poet collections, one is A Children's Treasury of Milligan, containing stories as well as verse by Spike Milligan; one is Friendly Matches, a book of football (that's soccer to you) poetry by Allan Ahlberg; and the other is an edition of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum illustrated by Edward Gorey. In case you are wondering about the older books in that list of a hundred "in print" poetry books, seventeen are Dr. Seuss titles, six are A.A. Milne, four are Roald Dahl, two are Edward Lear, two Chaucer(!), and four are Flower Fairy titles by Cicely Mary Barker.

Admittedly Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and Brian Patten are represented with books less than two years old, but Zephaniah's Too Black, Too Strong, published near the end of 2001 -- and probably aimed at an adult audience, but what a title! -- doesn't feature at all.

Yes, we have people writing good poetry for children and young adults. Yes, we have the Signal Poetry Award -- the 2000 winner, announced in May 2001, Carol Ann Duffy's The Oldest Girl in the World, comes into Amazon's list at number 77 -- but how are people to know?

I worry that I know as much as I do about these poets and their published work because I have a background of library training, over 20 years experience of working in public libraries, am computer literate and have become reasonably adept at searching the Internet. This puts me in a minority -- particularly for my age group. Then I remember that children are far more "computerate" even than I; that they can find out as much if not more than I did. The only question then is, will they want to look?

I am comforted by the knowledge that poetry generally is more popular than once it was, that poets do school and class visits and appear on the radio. I switched on Radio 4 quite by chance the other day, to hear Zephaniah's "Talking Turkey" -- a recording made as he read it to a group of children -- and their delighted laughter ("...'coz turkeys just want to have fun...") gives me hope. It seems certain that children themselves are "getting" poetry in all senses, and that poetry awards at least mean that their winners are taken seriously by adults.

How we can persuade the broadsheets to give these awards more coverage, I don't know -- in the U.K. we are lucky to get the result of even the Carnegie Medal (rough equivalent of the Newbery) printed on the day after it is announced. The Kate Greenaway (equals Caldecott, sort of) never makes "news". Maybe it is something that our new tradition of "children's laureates" could be canvassed about. The first was an illustrator, Quentin Blake and the current one is a children's novelist, Anne Fine. Wouldn't it be great if number 3 was a poet!




Ahlberg, Allan. Friendly Matches. Illus. by Fritz Wegner. Viking Children's Books, 2001. ISBN 0670889938

Amazon.co.uk children's poetry page

Duffy, Carol Ann. The Oldest Girl in the World. Illus. by Marketa Prachaticka. Faber Children's Books, 2001. ISBN 0571205763

Eliot, T.S. Old Possum. Illus. by Edward Gorey. Faber Children's Books, 2001. ISBN 0571207464

Goodwin, Daisy. 101 Poems to Keep You Sane. HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0007127960

Milligan, Spike. A Children's Treasury of Milligan. Virgin Books, 2001. ISBN 0753504545

Morpurgo, Michael, ed. Because a Fire was in My Head. Illus. by Quentin Blake. Faber and Faber, 2001. ISBN 0571205836

The Nation's Favourite Children's Poems. BBC Consumer Publishing (Books), 2001. ISBN 0563537744

Zephaniah, Benjamin. Talking Turkeys. Puffin Books, 1995. ISBN 0140363300

Zephaniah, Benjamin. Too Black, Too Strong. Bloodaxe, 2001. ISBN 1852245549


Ruth Allen

Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2002

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