Friday, 7 March 2014

Join the March Scottish Friendly Children's Book Tour - and pick up 10 great tips on children's poetry from James Carter

Poet James Carter offers some great advice for would-be poets. 

James Carter will be visiting Renfrewshire primary schools in March as part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour, organised by Scottish Book Trust. Find out how your school can get involved at

Top Ten Tips – Writing Poetry For Children

As Allan Ahlberg - the best children’s poet ever – told me a poet can’t tell you how to write, only what they think works for them. Indeed never listen to the advice of one person, take advice from many and then get on with whatever feels right for you. Also don’t let anyone put you off. Keep going.

Write for yourself. If you are not entertaining yourself, why would anyone else be interested? Although I write for me initially, when I’m editing and crafting I have a nine-year old boy on my shoulder saying ‘I’m bored!’ and ‘Why would I be interested in THAT?’ and ‘What does that long word mean?’ As many have said and I heartily agree, there is no such thing as poetry purely for children. Ideally I want all ages to enjoy my poems.

With under 7s you do have to be constantly aware of your audience. Simplicity (without being twee) is key, and that’s a tough call! Under 7s have an innate sense of wonder and, as writers for them, we have to celebrate that. Show a five year old a shell and they’ll go ‘Wow!’ Show an eleven-year old a shell and they’ll go ‘And…?’ Writing for under 7s is a great discipline, but writing for over 7s gives you more freedom. I love both.

No way! Don’t ever think ‘What are children interested in?’ as that will not lead to fresh and original writing. However, there’s nothing new to write about. It’s all been done before…but it’s not what you do but how you do it. There’s always a new spin, a new angle to be had on everything and that’s what I’m constantly looking for. Also don’t write down for children, write UP!

As the fabulous poet Valerie Bloom says. By this she means avoid lazy rhymes. And I’d like to add to that - if you are going to rhyme, you HAVE to make it scan. A poet is a musician, working the rhythms, the magic and the music of language. Reading a poem that doesn’t scan is like riding a bike down a bumpy road. Ouch! Poets are often musicians as well, and so they innately and instinctively understand how to weave words and the sounds and textures of words together - so that they are tight on the page, in the mouth, and ultimately, on the stage. And expect each poem to take months of writing / re-writing / fine tuning / tweaking. If you are stuck, leave a poem for a few weeks. Come back to it afresh. Read it objectively as a reader. Think - what needs to be done next? Keep it snappy. Tighten it up. Can you say as much with fewer words?

Of course children love funny stuff, but the world is full of funny poems for children. Real comedy - genuinely funny poetry - is the hardest thing to write. Strike a balance. Write about all kinds of things in all kinds of ways. Children also enjoy reflective stuff, emotional stuff, serious stuff, narrative stuff, autobiographical stuff, all kinds. Boys do too. Whatever they tell you, boys often get into reading and writing poems.

Good poets read a lot of poetry and read a lot of everything. The wider you read, the better your writing will be. The better you get at reading poems, really reading poems (taking them apart and seeing how they tick), the better you will be at writing them. Research AND write a wide range of verse – from haikus to rhyme, kennings to shape poems and beyond. Equally importantly, read a wide range of children’s stuff – Causley, de la Mare, Dahl, Patten, McGough, Duffy, Zephaniah, Agard, Rosen, and of course, Ahlberg. Try my favourite, the late great USA poet, Lilian Moore.

Get other adults to read your poems anonymously to children. A child audience will often give you the response that they think that you want. Be aware that some people are great performers, some are great writers. You might be in one camp, or even both. You have to find out for yourself.

Go and see children’s poets giving readings or talks. Watch their stuff on YouTube or at their websites. Make notes of what you liked or otherwise. Learn from their strengths and weaknesses! Read interviews with poets online. See how poets approach and discuss their work. Email or tweet contemporary poets if you want tips and advice.

Is it really children’s poetry you want to write? Really? It won’t make you rich! Try other things too. Try a novel or a picture book or a short chapter book too. Hey, you might be the new Charles Causley or AA Milne – or alternatively, you might be the new JK Rowling or Malorie Blackman. Experiment. Find out what works best for you. Read lots of children’s books. But don’t take my word for it. Good luck!

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and educational writer. He is the author of numerous poetry books for children. He travels all over the UK and abroad (with his guitar, Keith) to schools, libraries and festivals to give lively poetry and music performances as well as workshops, Gifted & Talented days and INSET sessions.