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Writing poetry for children

Riding on the poetry roundabout

Poet and anthologist John Foster writes about the difficulties involved in getting children’s poetry published and offers some practical advice.

Today’s children’s poetry roundabout started spinning in the 1960s, when it was given a push-start by Spike Milligan, gathered momentum in the 1970s and 1980s with helping hands from the likes of Roger McGough, Allan Ahlberg and Michael Rosen, and increased in speed during the 1990s. You would think, therefore, that it might be easier for a newcomer to break in and to get their poems published these days than it was when I started anthologising and writing poetry some 30 years ago. However, the roundabout has slowed somewhat in the past decade and for the aspiring children’s poet it can be as hard to get your poems published.

One reason, of course, is that there are now many more people specialising in writing children’s poetry than there used to be and the competition is more fierce. Another is that there’s an increasing number of established children’s poets and that those people inevitably stand much more chance of getting a collection of their poems into print than someone who is unknown.

That said, anthologists like myself are always on the lookout for new voices, and if a good poem is submitted for an anthology, it doesn’t matter who has written it – it will go in. When you’re starting out, you have far more chance of getting one or two of your poems into some of the anthologies that are published annually than you have of getting a complete collection of your poems published. So if you are keen to find a ride on the poetry roundabout, it is better to discover what anthologies are in the pipeline and what specific poems are required than to try to place a single author collection. I had been anthologising and contributing poems to other anthologies for over ten years before my first book of original poems, Four O’Clock Friday, was accepted. And there are some very good children’s poets – Julie Holder and John Kitching, for example – who have contributed to anthologies for many years, yet have never had collections of their own published.

Ask a publisher why there are many more anthologies than single poet collections and they will give you a simple answer: anthologies sell more copies. It is much easier to sell an anthology of school poems, such as ‘Why do we have to go to school today?’ than it is to sell ‘The Very Best of A.N.Other Children’s Poet’.

Get inspired by children

If you are undaunted by what I have said so far and still determined that you are going to write children’s poetry and get it published, what tips can I offer?

Starting with the most obvious, get to know children’s language. If you are writing poems about children’s experiences from a child’s point of view you must get the language right. It is, perhaps, not surprising that many of the most successful children’s poets are from a teaching background – for example, Tony Mitton, Wes Magee, Judith Nicholls, Paul Cookson and Brian Moses. Teachers not only know what children’s interests are, but they also know how children think and how they express themselves. So steep yourself in children’s language, not just the language of your children or the children of friends, but of children from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures.

Try to arrange to visit schools in different areas. But always go through the correct channels with a letter to the literacy coordinator, copied to the head teacher, explaining the reasons you would like to visit. Schools these days are, quite rightly, very security-conscious. Visiting schools will give you the opportunity not only to talk with children, but to try out your poems too. There’s nothing like a deafening wall of silence greeting that punchline you thought they would find so amusing to let you know that, in fact, the poem doesn’t work!

    Schools are also a good source of ideas. Many a poem comes from a child’s tale or a teacher’s comment. In one school I met a teacher called Mr Little, who was six foot six inches tall. He told me a story about a girl who had asked him: Were you big when you were little? This led to my poem ‘Size-Wise’ (below).

 

    Our teacher Mr Little’s really tall.

    He’s twice the size of our helper Mrs Small.

    ‘Were you big when you were little?’

    Sandra asked him.

    ‘I was Little when I was little,

    but I’ve always been big!’

    he said with a grin.

    ‘Have you always been small?’

    Sandra asked Mrs Small.

    ‘No,’ said Mrs Small.

    ‘I was Short before I got married,

    then I became Small.

    But,’ she added, ‘I’ve always been little.’

    ‘That’s the long and the short of it,’

     said Mr Little.

    ‘I’ve always been big and Little,

    but she used to be little and Short,

    and now she’s little and Small.’

 

Visiting schools is worthwhile, too, because you can bring yourself up to date with how poetry is being used in the classroom. The literacy curriculum requires that children be introduced in the primary years to a wide range of poetic forms. There is an educational as well as a trade market for children’s poems and it is worth knowing what the educational publishers might be looking out for.

Anthologies

Successful children’s poets will tell you that many of their poems have been triggered by an anthologist’s request for a poem on a particular theme. What then is the secret of getting a poem into an anthology?

It may seem to be stating the obvious but the first thing to do is to read the submissions letter closely. My filing cabinets are full of poems that have been given only a cursory glance, because it has become apparent from the first line that they are neither relevant to the theme of the anthology in question nor appropriate for the age group at which the anthology is aimed.

Having read the letter, one’s first impulse is to consider whether any of the poems you have already written are suitable. There may well be one or two, particularly among those that are already published, but simply trawling through your file of unpublished poems to see if some of them can be made to fit in with the anthologist’s demands is less likely to be successful than actually writing something new.

The key very often is to come up with something slightly different. Let’s say you have been asked to contribute to a book of poems about pirates. You probably stand more chance of getting your poem selected if you write a poem about pirates who have become film stars, specialising in gangster parts, than if you write a poem about traditional pirates burying their treasure or making a captive walk the plank. Similarly, if you are writing about dragons, you are more likely to succeed in placing a poem about young dragons having a flying lesson (as I have done myself), or about a young dragon doing his party trick of lighting the candles on his birthday cake (as Ian McMillan has done) than a poem about a dragon fighting a knight. The wackier and more bizarre your idea is, the more chance you will have of your poem being chosen.

Another way of making your poem stand out from the crowd is to write it in a more unusual form. For example, instead of writing your poem about St George and the dragon in couplets, you could write it in the form of an encyclopedia entry, as a series of extracts from St George’s diary or even as a text message. The more contemporary the form, the more likely it is to appeal, both to the anthologist and the reader.

Getting the idea is, of course, the hardest part. If you are stuck for a humorous idea, one way of trying to find one is to look in a book of jokes. I was racking my brains to come up with a new poem for a book of magic poems, when I came across this joke: Why are the ghosts of magicians no good at conjuring? Because you can see right through their tricks! This led to:

 

    The ghost of the magician said:

    ‘I’m really in a fix.

    The trouble is the audience

    Sees right through all my tricks!’

 

A word of caution: whereas it can pay to be risqué, both in terms of getting your poem selected and entertaining your readers, don’t be rude just for the sake of it and, especially, don’t be crude. Besides, you could easily get yourself labelled! During a performance in Glasgow, I included one or two poems which made references to ‘bottoms’ and ‘knickers’, getting the usual delighted response from the audience. However, I was taken aback when I asked them to suggest why the publishers won’t allow me to illustrate my poetry books. Instead of giving me the expected – and correct – answer that my drawings are no good, the first boy I asked said: ‘Because your poems are dirty!’

Before sending off your poems, make sure your name and contact details are given clearly beneath every poem. It is usually better, too, to put each poem on a separate page. Check with the anthologist before you submit your poems by email. Many anthologists prefer to receive hard copies, since they assemble the anthology by hand, rather than on the computer, and it saves them the chore of

Also, don’t send too many poems. As a rule of thumb it’s usually best to send about five, and not more than ten. Of course, you will include what you think is your best and most suitable poem. But don’t be surprised if it’s not chosen and another one is. I’m constantly being asked why that happens. Usually it’s because someone else has written a poem that’s similar in content or form to your best one and it would not be appropriate to include two such similar poems. Whereas, with regard to your other poem, it either looks at the topic from a different angle or fills a gap that needs to be filled.

You won’t make a fortune from getting your poem into an anthology, but once it is in print there’s also the chance that it will be picked up and used by another anthologist. So my advice is: be prepared to accept any minor changes that the editor proposes, even if you prefer your original version of the poem. My own experience is that nine times out of ten any changes that have been suggested to my poems have actually improved them. One established poet actually calls me ‘the poetry surgeon’ because on several occasions I have suggested cutting whole verses from some of his poems. Professional that he is, he has agreed to accept the cuts, even if privately he knows, and I know, that he does not totally agree with them. And, of course, he has pocketed the fee!

Finally, the big question: how do you get yourself onto the anthologists’ mailing lists? A simple request to have your name added won’t necessarily do the trick. The anthologist needs to know that it is worth taking the time to send you a letter. So it’s worth sending a sample of your poems (about five is enough) with a covering letter. But don’t expect to be flooded with requests. There are only a very limited number of anthologies published annually. However, if the anthologist thinks your poems have potential, your name will be added to the list – the first step towards getting a ride on the children’s poetry roundabout.

John Foster’s latest collections of his own poems include The Poetry Chest (Oxford University Press) and The Land of the Flibbertigibbets (Salt). ‘Size-Wise’ is from Making Waves (Oxford University Press) ©John Foster; ‘The Ghost of the Magician’ ©John Foster. His latest anthology, The Works 8, is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

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If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at our other articles on Writing for Children,  and our section on Writing Poetry.