Coral specialises in writing and performing for children, and as well as being in many anthologies, she has three collections; Creatures, Teachers and Family Features, Breaking the Rules, illustrated by Nigel Baines, and My Teacher’s as Wild as a Bison, also illustrated by Nigel Baines. You can read more about Coral in her A-Z entry. Here Coral tells us something about writing poems for children, and also specifically about writing her prize-winning poem for Caterpillar Magazine.
THE CHALLENGE OF WRITING POEMS FOR CHILDREN.
(Written by a poet who still has much to learn.)
I think that many poets would agree with N R Hart, who has said,
“As a writer you try to listen to what others aren’t saying…and write about the silence”. Adults often experience that wonderful moment, when the words in a poem resonate, and make clearer, or change, an area of their understanding. Of course, sometimes a poem simply reflects our experience, which is also valuable; confirmation is a wonderful thing! Humorous poems do this well. They often expose an embarrassing situation, then encourage the reader to relax as they personally identify with it.
Children experience their own areas of silence, and also deserve to hear a breakthrough of sound, as a poem encourages them to look at something from a different angle. ‘Mustafa’s Jumper’, the poem I entered for The Caterpillar Poetry Prize, is about a child losing his belonging in a community, and another child feeling the emptiness. I wanted the image of the empty jumper to become a symbol of the losses children have to deal with, without exploration or explanation. We often feel sorry for children who suffer in some way, we might even post on social media, heart-wrenching photos, but we don’t necessarily listen to their voices. Poets must listen and sometimes write in a way that makes their voices louder.
When we write poems for children, we mustn’t be dishonest. We must write for a child, not for ourselves, or to gain the admiration of other writers. Somehow, we have to marry personally satisfying poetic technique with a sensitivity to the experience of a child, living in a child’s world. When writing for adults it can be exhilarating to express yourself to your wordsmith limit, to push concepts a little further, to develop sophisticated images that make others say, ‘Ah, I can see it now.’ A child needs to, ‘see it now’, too, but we must always show respect to where they are in their understanding, and not usher them into the room of our imagination and experience, insisting that they see what their eyes can’t yet focus on. That doesn’t mean we should avoid writing anything that will challenge and stretch a child, there are many great poets writing poems that do so. However, if we say we are writing for a child, the child must come first, and our responsibility is to meet them where they are, before we take them on a new journey.
I’d add, as a note of balance, never underestimate what a child can understand and respond to, and remember that children vary greatly in all respects. Don’t expect ALL children to enjoy ALL of your poems. That’s okay, you know! It’s also good to remember that a poem written for children, is usually enjoyed by an adult. Again, not ALL adults will enjoy your children’s poems, but if some do, it probably means they’re well written. C S Lewis said of story: –
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I think the same is true of poems.
The way I see it (and the way I see things is often flawed and in need of revision), if a poet only ever writes poems about bodily functions, in the belief that children are only interested in base matters, it’s insulting. At the same time, if a poet only ever writes in a way that insists children ‘grow up’ in understanding, because they think it will ‘do them good’, it’s arrogant. Balance is beautiful. All human beings, whatever their size, need to laugh as well as meditate on serious matters. At the end of the day, whether we’re rising to the challenge of writing for children or for adults, there’s a lot of paper out there; let’s mark it with something meaningful.
If you’d like to read ‘Mustafa’s Jumper’, you’ll find it at the bottom of the article here.