Michael Rosen's Laureate Diary 2007-9
Michael Rosen kept a diary during his time as Children's Laureate 2007-9. Find out more about his experiences of life as the Children's Laureate!
Laureate Log #1
First thing to say, is that I’m enjoying myself. I’m only mentioning that because many kind people have been worried that I might be drowning under the pile of work involved. No drowning, no need to worry!
People outside the book world ask me, what does being the Laureate mean? What do you actually do? What does a Laureate’s day look like?
The first thing I did was come up with some ideas and the second thing I did was come up with some more. Ideas are very cheap. For me, they’re usually the cost of a bus journey, with its free moments of looking out the window and thinking. (And my bus journeys are so cheap, they are in fact free with my over-60s Freedom Pass, thanks Ken.)
So, this is what I’ve thought:
Wouldn’t it be great for children and poets to have an interactive YouTube-like poetry website?
We could have an interactive webpage for teachers to talk to each other about making poetry-friendly classrooms.
There could be Children's Literature Trails all over the country.
It would be good to have a children's poetry roadshow: 'The A-Z of poetry, Agard to Zephaniah'.
There could be an exhibition on the history of children's poetry at the British Library tied in with:
…a conference on the history of children's poetry.
The Book Trust's The Big Picture campaign for picture books is something I really support – and will.
Why isn’t there a Funny Prize for the funniest children’s books of the year?
Now, each of these ideas needs plans and meetings, so we’ve sat in twos and threes at various times looking out over the river at the South Bank, munching curry near Oxford Circus, looking at the roofs from the fifth floor of Waterstones in Piccadilly, or drinking coffee in the British Library café.
We’ve made progress on all eight ideas. Funding is a problem for the interactive website but the poetry-friendly webpage is on its way. A document is being written for the Trails.
Hay Festival is putting its weight behind the poetry roadshow. The British Library have said yes to the exhibition, the conference is less certain at the moment. The Big Picture has been launched and Book Trust are looking into The Funny Prize.
Meanwhile, I’ve been interviewed many, many times. Interesting, probing questions about poetry in education, the language and literacy curriculum, picture books, the schools I went to, my parents, my children, my trousers and much, much more.
Photographers have stuck me up against walls, looking round trees, peeping over the top of books and leaning dangerously over balconies.
When I read the articles back to myself, I just occasionally find things that I think perhaps I didn’t say.
I’m not sure I told the ‘Times’ that I was in favour of ‘chaos’ – ‘freedom’, yes; ‘chaos’, I don’t think so, but maybe it came out like that… And I fear I misled my friend Nick Tucker when I reported a conversation about not having an office to work in.
I think my tenses got mixed up and meant to say, ‘I hadn’t had an office to work in’! Sorry Nick, not your fault! I find myself wondering what it would feel like to be a politician: ‘No I didn’t say, 'We should abolish it', I said, 'We should polish it…'
Then there’s been my first Laureate Event, which was a talk I gave called ‘What is a Bong Tree?’
This was about the kinds of questions we ask children to answer about poems. The answer to the question, ‘What is a Bong Tree?’ comes at the end of the talk, so you can scroll straight to there if that’s the bit you really want to know. Who knows, it might come up on ‘University Challenge’.
I’m not sure that my answer will be of much help, though. You can find it on the Book Trust website or on my website: www.michaelrosen.co.uk.
It was great to help launch The Big Picture campaign to promote and champion picture books at the Early Book Awards. We have a serious task of saving the picture book from being squeezed out of the market by schools and parents rushing to buy phonics books and booklets full of ‘English’ exercises. I think that this is going to be the big challenge facing children’s books over the next ten years.
In the meantime, I’ve had a great time doing my usual things, helping to make ‘Word of Mouth’ for Radio 4, visiting schools and book festivals and running workshops. I’ve had a fantastic time at Brook Sixth Form in Hackney where I live.
I wrote a kind of ‘Under Milk Wood’ ‘voice-play’ about Hackney, and the students rehearsed and performed it to a public audience at a local converted chapel. The 20 or so performers stood round the edge and the audience sat or stood in the middle. I’ll put the text of the play up on my website.
Coming up I’ve got a whole raft of bookings and appearances which you can check out on the Book Trust website or on mine. And you might see me pop up on Matthew Wright’s morning show on Channel Five talking about … yes, books for children.
Laureate Log #2
Since I wrote last, I’ve visited schools and festivals and done performances in Chingford (London), Chesterfield, the Italian Institute in London, Guildford, Belfast, Sheffield, Bedford, Croydon, Kings Lynn, the Tricycle and Soho Theatres and Bookmarks Bookshop in London and a Stop the War benefit in Hackney.
I’ve done three days of poetry workshops as part of the ‘Can I Have A Word’ project at the Barbican, given the Patrick Hardy Lecture for the Children’s Book Circle (to be published in the ‘School Librarian’ and on my website), chaired the Arts Council conference on the ‘Cultural Hubs’ project, taken part in a discussion about children’s literature organised by PEN, helped judge the Poetry Book Society’s Children’s Poetry Competition and presented the award for the Best TV writer for children’s programmes at this year’s Children’s BAFTA ceremony.
We’ve been pushing on with my eight Laureateship ideas. There will definitely be an exhibition at the British Library on the history of Children’s Poetry and I’m working with Morag Styles on that.
We’re working on the idea that there’ll be a conference and performances running alongside the exhibition and a conference – scheduled date: first part of 2009. The A-Z of Poetry tour will kick off with a show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14 February as part of the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival.
The Patrick Hardy Lecture was very much in support of Book Trust’s Big Picture Campaign and we definitely have progress on putting together some kind of ‘Funny Prize’ for the funniest children’s book of the year. The interactive webpage for teachers to talk to each other about poetry-friendly classrooms is proceeding apace. I’ve done some filming for that and I’m hoping that that’ll be up and running by January 2008.
The other projects are proving to be a bit harder to get going. I’m also hoping that off the back of the Patrick Hardy Lecture we can get together some kind of bank of ideas on how schools can help create book-loving environments both in school and in homes. I’m working with Book Trust on this. My argument in the lecture was that the Government seem particularly keen and thorough to stipulate exactly what should go on in Key Stage 1 classrooms in terms of what they think is the best method to teach reading – Synthetic Phonics – but do not seem equally keen and thorough to stipulate a series of specific ways of encouraging the circulation and reading of ‘real’ books. Why not?
I’ve carried on doing my Radio work which has meant finishing the series on the past, present and future of European languages for Radio 3 (‘Lingua Franca’), presenting ‘Word of Mouth’ for Radio 4, including a fun programme about children’s playground songs and rhymes with Dan Jones and a special on the languages crisis in Belgium.
Also coming up is a programme about the 200th anniversary of ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’ featuring amongst others, Brian Alderson, and another on humour under totalitarianism.
As you can see, no day is the same as the next, so my days end with me looking in my diary to see what I’ve got to do tomorrow.
And, yes, I have once had the nightmare experience of not opening the diary till the morning only to realise that I should not have been sitting reading my diary. I should have standing in front of two hundred children doing ‘Chocolate Cake’ ! A flurry of phone calls and some pathetic grovelling managed to shift the booking to two days later. By the time I arrived, I was forgiven. Two pleas: may I not be so inefficient again. If I am, may the victims be as gracious as the teachers at St Mary’s, Chingford.
Laureate Log #3
The National Year of Reading has begun and I’m very interested to see if this is going to be something that seriously improves the way in which schools help to create people who read books. As yet, I don’t see a match between the effort and energy going into the phonics programme and what needs to be done to make schools into book-loving places. I had the interesting experience of sitting in the TV studio of the ‘Daily Politics Show’ and arguing with Hazel Blears and a spokesman from the Tory Party about the need for school librarians and home-school reading liaison. Needless to say, the moment we started talking about money for this, it was punted into touch.
I find it ironic that Monteagle Primary School, which featured on the recent ‘Lost for Words’ series on Channel 4, has a four day a week librarian and its inventive ways of helping parents enjoy books with their children are superb: the reception staff grab the new parents and sit down with them and share the reading of ‘real’ books with them. So, instead of simply saying, ‘reading books is good’, they do something hands-on and practical. Love it.
Ofsted have produced a report on the teaching of poetry. I met its author Phil Jarrett and scurried around a few radio and TV shows responding to the report itself. He makes several points arguing in particular that there isn’t a sufficient variety of poetry reading going on in schools. My own view of this is that if you nail schools to SATs and Literacy Hours, you create a school environment in which teachers run as hard as they can to fulfil the requirements of these.
What happens with poetry is that many teachers, quite legitimately, feel that they’ve ‘done’ poetry if they do what the Literacy Strategy says they should. But on its own, this is meagre stuff. Poetry offers schools the possibility of uniting people through performance, getting to the heart of personal emotions with private, intimate poems and taking children to the point at which they discover they can manipulate language itself. The Poetry Book Society has expressed extreme disquiet over the fact that publishers have become very wary of bringing out new collections of poetry for children. I can see why: as schools fulfil the minimum poetry ‘norms’, these can be satisfied with one school anthology. At this rate, we won’t see a new generation of poets writing about their world, in the way that I was able to.
I’ve carried on with my visits: I’ve been to Nuneaton, Nottingham, Wakefield, Apples & Snakes anniversary celebrations and Crouch End in London. This was a mix of work in a library, secondary school, university, London poetry night and an NUT branch meeting called ‘How not to bore the pants off children’. My visit to Polesworth School near Nuneaton was an absolute delight. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an ordinary comprehensive where the atmosphere was so positive, the work so inspiring.
The immediate reason for my visit was to open a language block at the school and to be part of the school saying goodbye to someone I went to school with and who I once worked with during the school holidays in a building supplies yard!
In between this, I had the amazing experience of going to Brussels for Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’ to report on the language wars going on between the French and Dutch speakers. I’ve never been anywhere where the issue of language was quite such a political hot potato.
I was amazed to hear from Belgium’s Jeremy Paxman (Dutch version) that the Minister of Justice for Belgium doesn’t come on his programme. She’s a French speaker and as the Belgians vote according to the language they speak, she doesn’t see any point going on Dutch TV: no votes in it. And yet she’s a minister for the whole country. This might seem a far cry from Children’s Laureate stuff, but I always find that by immersing myself into language or literature, issues will in the end seep through to how I think about things going on in the area of work with children.
Some interesting work coming up: a term’s work with sixth formers in Brooke Sixth Form College in Hackney, a term of children’s literature with MA students at Birkbeck, University of London and some potentially very productive meetings and developments on my Laureate ideas: the Funny Prize, the exhibition, events and conference on children’s poetry at the British Library, the A-Z of children’s poetry tour beginning at London’s South Bank on February 14, an interactive schools’ poetry performance website and Book Trust’s Poetry Friendly Classroom page on their website.
What’s more I’m almost certainly going to Bologna for the international children’s book fair where Book Trust will be carrying on with The Big Picture campaign for the picture book. And who knows – I might even write another poem.
Laureate Log #4
Since writing last, I’ve visited schools and libraries or done theatre shows in Kent, Wiltshire, Peckham, Finchley, Petersfield, Watford, Camden, London’s South Bank, Twickenham, Basildon, Greenwich and Cambridge. The NUT in Ealing asked me to do a version of the talk I gave in Wakefield called ‘How not to bore the pants off children’. A couple of things struck me: there are some young teachers who weren’t helped in their training (or since) to find a way of getting their pupils to enjoy books. A couple of young secondary school teachers asked me, ‘How can we get our students to enjoy literature?’ Clearly, there is no longer time to answer this question during PGCE and Education degree courses. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know. That said, it was heartening to see some 150 teachers coming to a meeting like this in their spare time. The hunger for a new approach (or is it an old approach?) is there.
My view about this was reinforced by a meeting I had with Jim Rose (he of the Rose report). He was satisfied that he had put into place a structure that gave children what he called ‘the alphabetic principle’ (ie synthetic phonics), but he appeared to me to be genuinely concerned that there was no equivalent programme in place ‘to make books come alive’. Indeed. Isn’t that what some of us have been banging on about for the last ten years ? We parted on good terms in absolute agreement on this matter but since then I’ve heard nothing.
The other official meeting I had was with Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, Creative Industries & Tourism whose responsibilities also include ‘the arts’, heritage, architecture, royal parks, museums, galleries, archives, libraries and science. (I like to get these things right!) It was a curious occasion, because it was several weeks before the Government’s announcement calling for all schools to give children five hours of ‘culture’ a week. However, Ms Hodge invited me and the Book Trust people I was with to think about what was to be announced with particular reference to libraries. How could libraries, she asked us, help ‘deliver’ this ‘offer’? I suggested that the Government’s own initiatives, Creative Partnerships and Cultural Hubs were good models of how to proceed, weren’t they? I thought I detected a certain coolness to this suggestion. If so, then perhaps someone can tell me why. I’ve chaired several big conferences that brought together many practitioners from these two experiments to get schools working with local cultural organisations and there seems to have been some great work going on. Surely they have each created blueprints of how this could work all over the country?
The moment the Five Hours of Culture a Week story broke, I was asked by several news outlets to comment and it quickly became clear that no one in Government has actually worked out how the over-stuffed official curriculum can be squeezed to deliver the five hours, nor indeed what kind of organisation will oversee it. However, if it does become official, statutory policy, then presumably Ofsted will be required to ensure that schools are really delivering it. And will schools get any extra money to pay for the workshops, visits, cover for teachers and the rest? We shall see.
Meanwhile, there’s progress on my Laureateship ideas – perhaps I’ll leave the detail of that till my next log when, I hope, I’ll be able to report something specific. Meanwhile, the ‘A-Z of Poetry Tour’ has begun. John Agard, Valerie Bloom and I did a show for some 900 children at the South Bank. There is a one-camera video of this, which I’m hoping might become available at some point. On that matter, I’ve made what might be the world’s first online video book. My poetry collection, The Hypnotiser went out of print so my son has filmed me performing it. You can find it on my website or on YouTube.
Laureate Log #5
Another couple of months busying about: I've worked with London children as part of the Barbican's 'Can I Have a Word?' project. We wrote poems inspired by one of the most intriguing exhibitions I've ever seen. It was called: 'Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art', and it was full of objects, paintings, photos and installations 'collected by Martians' (!) from humans. I've done shows in Luton Library, St Luke's School in Canning Town, heard wonderful poems from primary schools in Camden at their local secondary Haverstock, announced the Big Picture campaign’s Ten Best New Illustrators at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair before going on to Rome and Naples to work for the British Council. (Interesting, talking for an hour to fifty Italian children who could hardly speak English!) I entertained some four hundred children at Reading Football Club as part of their 'Reading needs Reading' project, another five hundred or so at the Rose Theatre in Richmond and visited the Cobham International School.
In between, I've done some TV – BBC Four are making three programmes about children's literature and I did some filming for that; I've recorded five stories (not mine) for CBeebies and appeared on 'The Wright Stuff', Matthew Wright's morning chat show on Five, where I now have a regular spot offering advice on children's books to people who call the show. One of the most moving calls came from a woman who said that she was 53 and couldn't read – what should she do? On radio, I appeared on Five Live to argue about apostrophes, I finished off five programmes for Radio 4 about the legacy of Iona and Peter Opie in relation to their work of looking at children's play. On Radio 3, I reviewed a new biography of the poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg and carried on with 'Word of Mouth' for Radio 4, which took me to Kingsford Community School in Beckton, East London where they teach compulsory Mandarin to all of Key Stage 3. How interesting to confront a prejudice on my part when I found that I was surprised that children who don't 'look Chinese' could speak a Chinese language!
The Laureate projects are cooking nicely. The Roald Dahl Funny Prize is up and running, so if you think you've read the funniest book published this year by a British writer, give the publisher a nudge to make sure that it gets entered. I think it's great that Roald Dahl's name is attached to this because he was someone who wrote some of the funniest books ever written for children. I'm also chuffed that the bit of my laureateship devoted to being an 'ambassador for fun with books' has come to fruition. The exhibition, conference and performances about the history and practice of poetry for children going on at the British Library next year is developing beautifully, thanks largely to Morag Styles, while a set of performances under the heading of 'A-Z of Poetry Tour' is carrying on round the country – Liverpool, Edinburgh, Dundee and Bath – and more.
Apologies if you know about this, but could I recommend a folder called 'Family Reading Campaign' produced by Read On, the National Reading Campaign, financed by the old DES, and organised by the National Literacy Trust? My only quibble: why isn't such a document backed up with as much force, Ofsted-checking and publicity as the government puts into the Literacy Strategy, SATs and Synthetic Phonics? I feel a speech coming on called 'The Mysterious Politics of Which Literacy Horses the Government Really Backs and Which Ones It Just Pays For!'
Laureate Log #6
I've put myself about a bit in this period! I've done shows at the Brighton Festival and on tour in Scotland taking in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness. I met the wonderful Jack Prelutsky, the US Children's Poet Laureate for a joint show at the American School in Thorpe, and contributed to Write Away's conference on non-fiction at the Institute of Education. Then, it was on to the Hay Festival followed by a week of performances for schools at the Barbican with Francesca Beard and a wonderful four-piece jazz group. I visited Liverpool to do two sessions, one for children (part of my A- Z of Poetry Tour), the other for teachers, and joined in the biggest ever collection of poets for children at the Bethnal Green Museum in London for the forthcoming Oxfam CD of children's poetry. Then it was on to Southampton for their Book Fair, a school near Wellingborough, the Artsmark Award ceremony at London's Southbank Centre, Holland Park Comprehensive, Camden teachers, a conference for the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, an in-conversation session with Jackie Kay as part of her receiving the CLPE Poetry Award for the best poetry book for children this year, then on to a secondary school in Nottingham, the Ledbury Poetry Festival with Jackie Kay and Francesca Beard for an A-Z show, a school in Shrewsbury, a day out in Oxford with the finalists of the Kids' Lit Quiz, a big read-in at Coram's Fields in Camden to celebrate the National Year of Reading, finishing up with the launch of the Summer Reading Challenge at the House of Commons and a conference at Tate Britain on play. In between, it was good to work at Brooke Six, a local sixth form college, to help the students write, rehearse and perform a poetry show, and also at my daughter's primary school to tell ghost stories at their sleepover and work with the children on writing poetry.
I was invited to meet the DCSF Early Years people along with people involved with the National Year of Reading. We decided on things I can do to support the NYR and the new Every Child a Talker project they're launching. I repeated what is fast becoming my mantra: why can't the government be as committed to the reading of books as it is to the teaching of reading? Or, put another way: why is learning how to read compulsory but reading books optional? Is this a political, cultural or educational matter - or all three? I also joined in a big meeting at the DCMS, chaired by Andrew Motion, on the ‘literature offer' element of what will be the five hours a week of cultural entitlement in schools. Perhaps this is how the reading of books will sneak back on to the curriculum.
I've popped up on Channel 5's ‘The Wright Stuff' talking to people who phone in with questions about their children's reading, I've written some more poems - I think a new book is gestating - and I've been to production meetings for a new picture book I'm doing with Joel Stewart and at the Polka Theatre for my version of ‘Pinocchio' coming on in November for their Christmas run.
The books for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize are piled up in my office - judgement day is September 1, award ceremony November 13. That's my holiday reading sorted. The A-Z of Poetry Tour is rolling on (Edinburgh at the end of August). The Poetry Friendly Classroom pages are there for anyone reading this to contribute to and my longstanding pipe-dream of an interactive schools' poetry YouTube-type site is still possible...
Laureate Log #7
My dear Dad, Harold, died in the summer after a yearlong struggle. I cannot imagine what my work, my mind or my life would have been like without all the many ways he affected me. With my mother Connie, the pair of them introduced me to hundreds of books, poems and plays; they told stories about their lives; spoke languages and savoured words, phrases, sayings, jokes, quotations, slips of the tongue and accents and filled my head as a boy with voices, ideas and expressions. They were both teachers and then teacher-trainers and authors of books about language and literature in schools. I was still talking about such things with my father days before he died. He was endlessly curious, endlessly generous, endlessly encyclopaedic - or as his step-son, Ian, put it at the funeral, ‘Harold was a human Google.'
I've been writing plenty of new poems which will appear in a book, provisionally called, ‘Michael's Big Book of Bad Things', which in a way, will be a tribute to my father's way of remembering childhood misdemeanours! I've also got straight back into doing visits, so I was up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, chairing an event about picture books with Polly Dunbar, David Lucas and Catherine Rayner (three of the Big Picture Campaign's 10 Best New Illustrators), followed by an A-Z of Poetry event with Carol Ann Duffy, her musician John Sampson and poet Tom Pow. I've done a couple of local events, first at Hackney Library as part of Team Read, and then at Stratford Circus for the utterly wonderful Newham Bookshop. It was nice to be invited to tell the Society of Authors conference what the Laureateship is all about as well as hear from Alan Gibbons and his great Campaign for the Book. What Alan is highlighting is that under our eyes libraries, library staff and book budgets are being slashed. One point from the conference that really rang a bell with me was when someone said that being able to browse and Google usefully when you're online depends on the experience of having read widely and often in the first place.
Another big leap in the life of one of my Laureate projects: the shortlist for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize has been announced. As you can imagine, the judges, Kaye Umansky, Sophie Dahl, Dara O' Briain, Chris Riddell and myself had plenty of giggles on the way to choosing the books. We noticed that the main humour motifs this year were pirates, dinosaurs and underpants, though we didn't find a book about a crew of pirate dinosaurs looking for their underpants. Perhaps next year. Anyway, the shortlist got into the press as did two crass acts of censorship: a word from a Jacqueline Wilson book and a Carol Ann Duffy poem. Apart from the fact that I think both censorings were unnecessary, I notice that they were done on the say-so of very, very few people. Are we about to enter a phase where all it takes to ban a book is a hostile comment from one person? I can feel a new Puritanism digging in. I feel like Toby Belch talking to Malvolio: ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'
Finally, the British Library exhibition on the history of children's poetry is developing nicely. Morag Styles and I are still wading though wonderful old volumes, including Robert Burns' first edition of ‘To a Mouse'. Please note the dates of the Poetry and Childhood Conference (20 & 21 April 2009) at the British Library as part of the exhibition, with seminars, lectures and readings by Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy and yours truly.
Laureate Log #8
One of the most inspiring occasions I've been to in this period was the prize-giving of the Sheffield Children's Book Award. The City Hall was packed to the rafters with children from schools all over Sheffield, waiting to see which of the books they had read and voted on had won. It was the twentieth anniversary of the Award and Martin Waddell, the first ever winner, was there along with many of the shortlisted authors, illustrators and their publishers. There were wonderful film sequences of the children talking about the books and then afterwards, hundreds of children queued to get their books signed. Halfway through this, my lightbulb went on again: every locality in the country could do their version of the award, with every school and child getting engaged in choosing which are their best books. It would mean cooperation between libraries, the local education authority, schools, parents, bookshops and the Children's Book Group. Is this possible? What's needed to make it happen? Anything I can do to help?
Meanwhile, I've been doing my usual visits. By the way, they are organised by the amazing Jan and Kate Powling at email@example.com or, when it's a Children's Laureate event, by the equally amazing Sasha Hoare at Book Trust. It was Sasha who set up an incredible launch for Children's Book Week at the London Eye, where we had some 200 children up in the capsules and then writing a huge poem at Southbank Centre in which the Eye talks to the Thames. You can read it on the Book Trust website.
The National Year of Reading held a conference where I read my NYR poem:find the poem on the NYR website. I've begun a scary cooperation with scintillating jazz musicians from the Homemade Orchestra who took my nonsense poems and turned them into a jazz oratorio. We've played Newbury, Guildford and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. I've performed in Rye, at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature; did three picture book shows with a wonderful Indian writer, Anushka Ravishankar, in Bexhill, Oxford and the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Children's Book Show. I've performed my own shows for children in schools or theatres in Dartford, Telford, the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, the American School in St John's Wood, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Canterbury and Swindon.
I took part in a seminar at Birkbeck College on social realism in children's literature with Kimberley Reynolds and Julia Bell. I was very pleasantly grilled at ‘Connecting Conversations' at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and at SPACE in Brighton. I read at an event for local writers at Stamford Hill Library; spoke on bereavement in Berkshire, read to students at York St John's University.
My yearlong poetry course for teachers at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has begun. I took part in a fantastic four days of poetry workshops at the Barbican (‘Can I Have a Word?') based on an exhibition of photographs from the Spanish Civil War.
Laureate projects progress with the British Library exhibition (April-June 2009) and conference (April 20 & 21: enrol now!). The first Roald Dahl Funny Prizes were awarded; the schools' performance poetry website - ‘Perform-a-poem' - is being designed at Book Trust and the A-Z of Poetry Tour will become a book with Puffin.
A ‘play for voices' I wrote about my locality, ‘Hackney Streets', was performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre and my version of ‘Pinocchio' is running at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon. The University of Worcester awarded me an Honorary MA, Birkbeck College made me a Visiting Professor, France made me a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In between, ‘The Wright Stuff' (Five) have had me on regularly to do a ‘reading clinic' - advice for parents on their children's reading.
Laureate Log #9
It's always hard to discern patterns and trends, but I fear that we are in a time when libraries are more under threat than they have ever been. In this phase of the laureateship, I've been approached by several local campaigns to support librarians' struggle to keep libraries open. For one of these, on the Wirral, I wrote this in early January:
‘Libraries have played an important part in the cultural and democratic life of this country. We talk of the 'republic of letters' meaning that we have created a world in which we share books as equals. This was only possible when books became free, which, thanks to a mix of philanthropy and municipal goodwill, was achieved through the invention and provision of libraries. Now, more than ever, we need this 'republic of letters'. We live in a time when the main organs of information, entertainment and education (outside of schools) are owned by very few giant multinational corporations. However, within the world of books, there is still more diversity than in any other form of media. In part, this is because of the very process of reading books. Books are portable, durable packages where we can read slowly, toing and froing across the pages at a tempo that suits ourselves. Libraries are the treasure-houses that store these 'packages' and it's here that we can browse for free, to find the books that we want or need to support our lives and interests. It is vital for the lives of us all that these places are supported, expanded, enriched and diversified. If we let them close, we are in effect consigning huge sections of the population to a world either without books, or a world with only the books that the giant corporations want us to read. This is an appalling prospect and I urge the councillors of the Wirral to fight every attempt to destroy your local library service and I will support any action taken by librarians to defend that service.'
I've come to think that a key to the survival of libraries is to be found in the links that they should have with schools. In many but not all places, this is casual, informal and patchy. If schools really put books at the centre of the curriculum, the local library becomes an essential part of that process and would prove to those who have the power to slash the library system that libraries are an essential part of our lives.
I've been doing poetry performances in Winchester, on the Isle of Wight, Bookmarks Bookshop in London, Seven Stories in Newcastle, Southport, the Little Angel Puppet Theatre and St Albans and the poetry and jazz Nonsense project reached the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. I also had the experience of turning up at a school with my voice gone. I did wonder for a few hours what I'd do with my life if it became permanent!
I've finished making a one-hour programme for BBC Four about helping a school become a book-loving place for everyone. It's called ‘Just Read' and it'll be going out sometime in early February. The NHS filmed me along with several celebs performing a poem they commissioned me to write and I introduced a discussion on the French film, ‘Le Ballon Rouge' at the London Socialist Film Festival. In the latest run of ‘Word of Mouth' for Radio 4, I had the fascinating experience of going to Newbury Park Primary School in east London where they have a language of the month and a child who speaks that language is recorded talking. This goes up on the school website and the whole school gets involved in activities around that language.
Laureate Log #10
I get the impression that a head of steam is building, putting pressure on the government to carry on loosening up the curriculum and to make more space for reading for pleasure. What's odd, is that it seems to be happening in a rather low key, almost covert way. As I've said before, I think we need a bold, clear statement from government that asks every local authority and every school to develop practical policies on how to make their respective patches into book-loving places for all. ‘Just Read', the TV programme I did for BBC Four, showed that it's possible. If we don't get going on this, we will lose school libraries, local libraries and end up seriously discriminating against all children who come from homes where there are very few or no books. These are the children who find school so hard. Reading widely and often opens doors, and one of those doors takes you into formal education. It should be a priority to get every child reading many books and many different kinds of books. It's the most pleasurable way we know of getting hold of complex and abstract ideas.
The first months of 2009 have kept me busy. On BBC Radio 4, two programmes I presented about children's books went out - one about the 200 year history of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk' and the other on the Russian ‘Winnie the Pooh', who is known to Russians as ‘Vinni Pukh'. I've also appeared on BBC Four's ‘We Need Answers' (a joyously nutty quiz show), ‘Bookaboo', ITV's book show for children, Sky TV's Book Show, ‘The Daily Politics' and ‘The Wright Stuff'. I've also been a judge on BBC's ‘Off by Heart', a show about children performing poems. It was down to me to choose the overall winner for the London area and I chose a seven year old boy who performed a poem by Grace Nichols as if it was a rock gospel number. Stunning!
Meanwhile I've been round and about doing shows, workshops or talks in Orpington, Southampton, Sheffield, Beaconsfield, Upminster, City and Islington College (for a conference on Gaza), Barbican Centre, Wavendon near Milton Keynes (for a poetry and jazz workshop with Tim Whitehead from the Homemade Orchestra), Edinburgh (Scottish Book Trust conference), the Book Trust Conference in London, Newham, Norwich, The Stables in Milton Keynes, Coram Fields, Haverstock School in Camden, Solihull, a conference of Paediatric Anaesthetists in Brighton and the Bernie Grant Centre in Haringey. Meanwhile, my courses at Birkbeck and CLPE run on and I'm working with Hackney teachers on a Year 5 writing project.
On the progress of my Laureate projects: ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat', the exhibition on the history of poetry for children that Morag Styles and I have curated will open at the British Library on 1 April. Do take a look at it - it's in the foyer and it's free! The conference on children's poetry is a sell-out but there should be a book of the papers and talks to follow. The ‘A-Z' anthology of children's poets (from Agard to Zephaniah) will be published by Puffin in August. Perform-a-poem, my idea of a poetry YouTube for children will happen with the London Grid for Learning and we're just gearing up for the second Roald Dahl Funny Prize for the funniest books for children. As a result of last year's prize, my 8-year old daughter has become an Andy Stanton addict!