Posted in Poetry News

New Songs for Old – by Piu DasGupta

New Songs for Old! Re-inventing Nursery Rhymes.

Nursery rhymes – we all know and love them.  Who didn’t grow up with ditties like Hey Diddle Diddle, Mary Mary, Quite Contrary, or Humpty Dumpty?  They’re part of the furniture of the nursery of childhood.

What is less well known is that many of these rhymes – some hundreds of years old – have themes and subject matter of a decidedly adult nature.  One theory about Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, for example, is that the rhyme refers to Queen Mary I of England, the “silver bells and cockle shells” referencing the instruments of torture that she used to convert recalcitrant Protestants to Catholicism.  Other rhymes have somewhat dubious content – like the Old Woman who lived in a shoe, with her multitude of children who could only be dealt with by a sound smacking and sending off to bed.  As a child growing up in Kolkata, India, I remember being mildly frightened by rhymes such as this, as well as bemused by the very English world they created: Dr Foster getting drenched in Gloucester, the Grand Old Duke of York marching his men up and down the hill.

These rhymes are known and loved by generations of children.  They form part of our collective childhood memory.  But memory is a living thing, not a mausoleum.  It should be added to, if we’re to have dynamic and not fossilized childhoods.  Modern nursery rhymes are diverse and inclusive: Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie, which gave Canadian children a whole body of nursery rhymes referencing their own landscape; or Jane Newberry’s gorgeously illustrated, interactive book of rhymes for young children, Big Green Crocodile, shortlisted for the 2021 CLiPPA award.

For older children, fractured and re-worked nursery rhymes provide a rich source for honing critical and analytical skills, for questioning clichés and exploring history.  In my poem What Are Little Girls Made Of?, for example, gender stereotypes are turned on their heads in a joyous mish-mash, encouraging children to think critically about them, and to explore their individual identity:

What Are Little Girls Made Of?

What are little girls made of?

What are little girls made of?

Swords and roars and dinosaurs

pirates, Death Stars, dragons’ claws

castles, pistols, ragged shirts

bows and arrows, finger-dirt

grubby knees and paint-stained faces

every lack of social graces.

That’s what little girls are made of.

What are little boys made of?

What are little boys made of?

Ribbons, bows, curly locks

Lady Gaga, sparkly socks

fluffy diaries, friendship bracelets

secret notes in hidden places

cupcakes topped with chocolate sprinkles

fairy wands that wink and twinkle.

That’s what little boys are made of.

But, you say, hang on a mo –

I am a pirate with a bow.

Or actually, I’d rather be

making cupcakes up a tree.

No, I’m a princess with a patch –

Don’t stress, it’s fine to mix and match.

By far the best is to be true

to the bestest person: YOU.

©Piu DasGupta.  First published in The Dirigible Balloon, August 2021

Activities for KS3 pupils based on this poem could include: looking through newspaper and/or magazine articles and cutting out clichéd or recurring descriptions of men and women; are some adjectives considered “male” (handsome, strong) and some “female” (pretty, sweet) – what could be used instead?  Or the children could create their own “fractured” nursery rhymes, replacing key words to turn stereotypes on their heads –

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater

Had a wife and did mistreat her

She waved a wand and winked and eye,

And turned him into pumpkin pie.

Older children and teenagers would enjoy more grown-up nursery rhyme parodies, such as that of This Little Piggy Went to Market in Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (William Morrow, 2006).  For a sample Year 7 lesson plan based on examining gender stereotypes in nursery rhymes and modern media, see the end of this article.

It’s also fascinating to unearth the hidden significance of nursery rhymes, the historical and political roots from which they have been cut loose to float free over the years.  One theory about the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice is that, like Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, it may refer to the martyrs, the Anglican bishops Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs (and therefore “blind”):

Three blind mice

Paid a high price

The Queen’s beliefs they all three spurned

So at the stake she had them burned,

Those three blind mice.

For many years, the nursery rhyme Ring a Ring of Roses was believed to have its roots in the Great Plague, the “ring” of roses referring to the rosy rash that was one of the symptoms of the Black Death, the “pocketful of posies” the nosegay that was carried to defend against infection, “Atishoo, Atisshoo, we all fall down” referring to a final death.  Although this explanation is now generally disputed by scholars, it does give the rhyme a dark relevance in the context of these pandemic days.

“A nursery rhyme shapes your bones and nerves, and it shapes your mind. They are powerful, nursery rhymes, and immensely old, and not toys, even though they are for children.”  So says a character in Katherine Catmull’s exploration of myth, fable and nursery rhyme, Summer and Bird (Puffin, 2012).  We who read, write and teach nursery rhymes must tread carefully in the magical forest, mindful of their power.  

Piu DasGupta

Piu DasGupta is a British/French/Indian writer based in Paris, France. Although poetry has been a lifelong passion, she turned to writing it quite recently. Her children’s poems have been published to date in magazines such as The Caterpillar, Northern Gravy, and The Dirigible Balloon.  She is on Twitter as @PiuDasGupta1.    

Posted in Poetry News

Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Met University- the Wonders of the Wind

‘Blow Wind Blow’ a celebration. For librarians, teachers, parents and children – Thursday 29th July, 2021.  7pm.

‘Blow Wind Blow’ is a poetic and visual introduction to the many wonders of wind, the third in the ‘Wild Wanderers’ series for younger readers.  Join poet Dom Conlon and illustrator Anastasia Izlesou for this celebration, hosted by the Manchester Children’s Book Festival and the Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Met University.  Dom and Anastasia will be in conversation with CLPE’s Charlotte Hacking and Plymouth Grove Primary teacher Sarah Thompson, to discuss how this beautiful book can have an impact in classrooms. 

Children also welcome; there will be a reading of the book and we will also be sharing some creative responses from Plymouth Grove pupils, who have been working with the book.  And we will be laying down a summer writing/drawing challenge for children to respond from home.  To join this free online event please register on Eventbrite.

Posted in Poetry News

CLiPPA Shortlist Announced Today!

HUGE congratulations to all the CLiPPA (CLPE) shortlisted poets, who were announced today!

The fabulous books are:

Slam! You’re Gonna Wanna Hear This, chosen by Nikita Gill, Macmillan

Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann, Penguin

Big Green Crocodile Rhymes to Say and Play, by Jane Newberry, illustrated by Carolina Rabei, Otter-Barry Books

On the Move, Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake, Walker Books

…and my favourite, because it’s by my poet friend (and because it’s stupendous):

A Bright Burst of Colour, Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff, Bloomsbury Education.

Congratulations to all the shortlisters, and good luck for 11th October at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, when the winner is announced!

Posted in Young Poet Laureate

Apply to be Coventry Young Poet Laureate!

As part of the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival Coventry 2021, Coventry Libraries and Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 are recruiting for this exciting role:

  • Coventry Young Poet Laureate – 13 years or older and under 18 years old on 31 August 2021.

The Coventry Young Poet Laureate is an honorary post appointed by Coventry Library Service and the Coventry UK City of Culture 2021. The post will be run until 5 October 2023 at which date a new Young Poet Laureate will be appointed. Applicants must be able to work in English but having knowledge of other languages is welcomed.

When applying you will be asked to upload short poems, one of which should be about Coventry and a short statement about your interest in the post and what you think you can bring to the role. The deadline for applications is Monday 19 July 2021 at 12:00 BST

Posted in Being Me, Poems About Thoughts, Worries and Feelings

What To Do With Worries

All children worry about all manner of things – some children more than others. They may have a store of big and little worries that they carry around, which just gets bigger if not attended to. One day a little worry added to the top may cause them to have what seems to be an out-of-proportion reaction. Talking about worries, writing them down, solving the ones that can be solved and recognising the ones that cannot, and putting them to one side can help. Here’s a little poem about worries, read by Sophia.

Posted in Being Me, Poems About Thoughts, Worries and Feelings

Being Me, Out Today!

Being Me, Poems about Thoughts, Worries and Feelings, by me, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, wonderfully Illustrated by Victoria Jane Wheeler, and published by Otter Barry Books.

The launch for this book of mental health poems was last night – what a lovely event it was.

Mental health problems among primary children are at an all-time high – and no wonder with all the pressures they have nowadays on top of all the thoughts, feelings and worries youngsters experience anyway.

We have attempted to cover a wide range of issues, poems to reassure, poems to find yourself in, poems hoping to start thought processes that might lead to asking for help, poems to open discussions between guardians, teachers, parents and youngsters.

Very much looking forward to sharing this book!

Posted in Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse

Come the Launch of Shaping the World!

Are you a teacher? Do you have a class you’d like to introduce to female and male historical heroes – via shape poems?

Are you free at 9:30 am on the 22nd of April?

Are you a shape poem fan?

If so. come and find out how penicillin was discovered (by being messy!), why Shakespeare is so loved, who invented the first sliced loaf of bread, or the system known as the Socratic method still used to solve crime today, and hear why Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on that bus!

There are 20 female and 20 male heroes in the book, and many of the poems will be read by their authors – me, Matt Goodfellow, Roger Stevens, John Dougherty, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Jan Dean, Cheryl Moskowitz, Chitra Soundar, Dom Conlon, Shauna Darling Robertson, Kate Wakeling, Laura Mucha, Myles McLeod, Suzy Levinson, and Penny Kent – all hosted by Gaby Morgan, Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books

At the same time as the readings, you will also see the wonderful shape poems themselves!

Opportunities to ask the poets questions included, FREE!

In fact the whole event is free, get your tickets here:

Posted in Shaping the World, 40 Historical Heroes in Verse

Shaping the World – Out Today!

Yes, today is the day this book arrives in the shops!

I can’t thank the poets who sent poems and shapes and ideas for shapes enough – or Gaby Morgan at Macmillan who is always so brilliantly helpful.

I’m really pleased with the resulting book – it has a fabulous, shiny cover, and 40 hero poems inside, twenty women and twenty men who helped shape the world, in a variety of voices and all the poems are shaped to represent the people, an aspect of their lives or life’s work.

Here’s an example from the book – Penny Kent’s fabulous poem about Ravi Shankar. Each poem has a mini-biography alongside the shape:

Shaping the World is available at all good bookstores of course!

Posted in Poetry Review

James Carter: Weird, Wild and Wonderful

Published by Otter-Barry Books

This is a book of James’ most popular and most requested poems (along with a few new ones), and you can certainly see why they are requested over and over!

It contains the cream of James’ ability to write charmingly pitched-perfect poems on any subject under the sun (or the moon), in the dark (or light), about the big (or little), and it covers deeply important subjects such as how to paint an elephant or play air guitar.

Excellent stuff, beautifully illustrated by Neal Layton. Recommended.

Here’s one of my favourites:

Posted in Poetry Review

Shauna Darling Robertson: Saturdays at the Imaginarium

Troika, Cover art by Jude Wisdom

Step out of your daily grind and into Shauna’s imaginarium – where humdrum is injected with colour, feelings and emotions with clarity, and empathy is just how and where you need it to be. You know those somethings you catch out of the corner of your eye but which disappear when you try to look them in the face? Here they are pinned down and given names.

This book is brimful of fantastical reality, a universe of exploration into worlds of words; words that float and sink and climb and swing, beckon, entice, challenge and sing. Exciting words, gentling words, lit along their paths with Shauna’s delightful sense of humour.

This is a fantastic work in every conceivable way, and what is more inside its covers I have found what is in my opinion THE PERFECT POEM (below) – but you can count on finding your own perfect poem there, too.

Published by Troika and beautifully illustrated by Jude Wisdom, this is definitely a winner for the classroom and home – HIGHLY recommended!

The Dreamcatcher

The old man gave me

this weird looking thing.

A stringy, beady

feathery thing.

A dreamcatcher, he whispered.

Yeah, whatever.

Still, I did as he said,

hung it over my bed

and that very night

I caught my first one

brim-filled

with treasures –

gold, silver, rubies, rings.

Nice and all,

but I’m not what you’d call

huge on jewels

so I held out for another

and sure enough, on night two

I was blessed with adventures –

castles and dragons,

galloping stallions, damsels

in varying degrees of distress.

Come night three, I confess

I was hooked

and from that moment on

I spent most of my days

killing time till day’s end

and then sinking to sleep

and waking at dawn to check my net

for a freshly-snared dream.

Six months in, I’m now the proud owner

of five-hundred-and-fifty-eight.

Some creepy, some soothing

some crazy, some straight.

But lately my dreams feel hemmed in,

suspended up there

in my stringy, beady, feathery thing

so I’ve hatched a plan for their urgent release

and tonight’s the night I’ll let my dreams fly.

Thing is, I’m thinking I might go with them.

So please keep this quiet.

Goodnight

and goodbye.