This guest post is by Rachel Piercey, co-editor of ‘Falling Out of the Sky’, one of the CLiPPA 2016 shortlisted books. She shares her first time experiences of writing, editing, performing and running workshops for children.
The Emma Press is partly founded on a love of children’s literature: one of the reasons Emma Wright and I became friends at school was discussing our favourite children’s books, which included (still includes!) Diana Wynne Jones, Hilary Mackay and Eva Ibbotson. The Press began as a poetry-illustration collaboration between best friends and grew from there.
When we came to discuss a themed children’s anthology after a few years of publishing for adults, Myths and Legends seemed like the obvious choice – again, the book reflects the bedrock of the Emma Press in that Emma and I met properly when we were the only two people studying Latin A-level at school. It is a friendship forged in the fire of declensions, a somewhat Bowdlerised collection of Catullus’s poems, and the thundering oration of Cicero!
We discussed how much we’d loved classical myths when we were young – and how learning them early in a memorable way had helped us understand so many other books, references and art works as we grew older. We wanted to create an anthology where children would encounter legendary stories from all over the world in the memorable, slant-told way of poetry, so they could feel excited and empowered by them.
We were delighted that so many poets with whom we’d worked before tried writing for children for the first time. This included me – as an editor, I had an overview of the subjects we’d gathered, and so I decided to write some poems to cover stories I thought we should include: Odysseus and the Sirens, an introduction to the Norse gods, and the idea that Medusa has been treated unfairly by myth-makers.
Writing for children was a revelation – I loved it. It was such a pleasurable challenge to focus on storytelling; to overtly luxuriate in language; to use rhyme in an interesting way; to balance accessibility with the complexity and ambiguity that encourages young readers to make up their own minds. It’s hard to describe what I love about writing for children without making it sound like I don’t try for those things when I write for adults – I do, but somehow writing for children brings it into particularly sharp focus. I think it’s that I feel such a sense of responsibility: children are reading at a formative stage in their development, when a poem (its form, style and message) can make a big impact.
Emma, who works tirelessly to promote our books and poets, got Arts Council support to run a nationwide children’s poetry tour of performances and workshops on the theme of myths and monsters – with me as co-host. I didn’t have much experience of public speaking and I’d never worked professionally with children before. I was, frankly, terrified. How would I establish a rapport with a large audience in a matter of minutes?
Because so many of the poets in the anthology were new to performing and working with children, Emma organised for a theatre practitioner and public speaking coach to work with us for a day. It was a bracing experience – reading for adults, you tend to stand in one spot and read in a fairly undramatic way, but here I sailed far, far away from my comfort zone! It gave me plenty of tools to use (most importantly, to understand the range and influence of your tone, volume and pace of speaking) and it also turned out that a library full of children is less intimidating than playing actors’ games!
We learnt an enormous amount on the tour; I would say my two main lessons were how to read an audience early on and react to and direct their energy, and the importance of involving children as much as possible in the introductions to and performance of poems. I also discovered how much I love working with a group of children to make a poem – the uninhibited freshness of their language and imagery is joyous, and having a conversation with a young person where we properly discuss and develop their ideas is a privilege. It’s the sort of thing I remember from when I was young – the flush of pride at an adult taking your work seriously.
By the time we finished the tour in late 2015, I was hooked – and I’ve been writing poems for children and visiting schools and festivals ever since. It’s been great working with specific year groups, extending my work to KS1 and even occasionally EYFS, and productively frightening to face a whole assembly in an echoey hall and have to carry their attention. I am particularly keen to seed ideas about wonder, feminism and self-worth into my poems – again, that notion of responsibility – and always one of the main emphases is love of language and where that can take you.
It’s only been a year since I started writing and editing for children, but it’s taken me down a whole new path in my life. I attended the FCBG conference in 2009 just for fun, and had a wonderful time – the 21-year-old me wouldn’t believe I am now writing a blog for the same organisation, as someone who writes for children! Thank you very much for reading.
You can find out more at: https://www.clpe.org.uk/poetryline
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.