Be alert to the world: Caterpillar Poetry Prize judge Chrissie Gittins on writing for children

A Q&A with the poet and her awardwinning poem, ‘Powder Monkey’, about child slavery

Anyone over 16 can enter, as long as the poem is original

Anyone over 16 can enter, as long as the poem is original

 

How did you start writing for children?
The first children’s poem I wrote was for my nephew when he was eight; it’s called Sam, Sam, Quite Contrary. In it he does all sorts of odd things and finishes up shaving his head to make it hairy! Then his sister Esther got chickenpox and her spots were so graphic that they begged a poem. It went on from there. A dear poet friend encouraged me, and now I’ve published five collections.

What makes a good children’s poem?
Carefully chosen words which take us on an adventure through their stories and subject matter; surprises which keep the reader on their toes; playfulness with language; rhythm and sometimes rhyme; care with layout. Like snowflakes, each poem looks different – line endings and lines per verse are considered to determine their shape.

Is it harder to write for children, do you think?
I also write poetry for adults and I think it’s the same skills which are needed to write both. It’s simply the subject matter which is different for children, or the way the subject matter is handled. Poems for children need to be relevant to their past, present and near future experience.

Does a children’s poem have to be funny or have fairies in it?
Absolutely not! I think funny is good, and I do have a fairy poem – but children have just the same range of difficult and complicated feelings as adults. They have a range of experiences which we can draw on and an imagination we can appeal to. My poem The Powder Monkey is about child slavery. It won a competition where the shortlist was judged by 13-year-old children. So the dark subject matter didn’t put them off.

How important is it you to see your poems in print or to have an audience?
I think it’s very important. If a magazine or publisher wants to publish your poems then you feel your poems are on the right track and that they mean something to someone else. It’s also very exciting to perform to an audience and hear and see their reactions, especially if a child likes a particular poem and remembers it.

Chrissie Gittins: My poem The Powder Monkey is about child slavery. It won a competition where the shortlist was judged by 13-year-old children.So the dark subject matter didn’t put them off
Chrissie Gittins: 'My poem The Powder Monkey is about child slavery. It won a competition where the shortlist was judged by 13-year-old children. So the dark subject matter didn’t put them off'

What are you reading right now?
I’m dipping into A Poem for Every Day of the Year edited by Allie Esiri, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright; I’m rereading Helen Dunmore’s Costa-winning poetry collection Inside The Wave, and Jackie Kay’s award-winning children’s poetry collection Red Cherry Red; and I’m about to start Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, which I’m really looking forward to.

What books did you love as a child?
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Otterbury Incident, The Borrowers, Jane Eyre, Greek and Roman Myths, and substantial quantities of Enid Blyton. Poetry didn’t really kick in till secondary school, when I was bowled over by the War Poets.

What advice would you give to anyone entering The Caterpillar Poetry Prize?
Be alert to the world and relay back to us the frontiers of your mind. Don’t be afraid to explore unusual subjects. Read your poems out loud until they give back to you what you intended. Have fun!

The Caterpillar Poetry Prize is for an unpublished poem written by an adult for children (aged 7-11). Anyone over 16 can enter, as long as the poem is original. The winner will receive €1,000 and their poem will appear in the summer issue of The Caterpillar magazine. Closing date March 30th. See thecaterpillarmagazine.com for details.

The Powder Monkey

This is the moment I dread,
my eyes sting with smoke,
my ears sing with cannon fire.
I see the terror rise inside me,
coil a rope in my belly to keep it down.
I chant inside my head to freeze my nerve.

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,
belfry, capstan, waist.

We must keep the fire coming.
If I dodge the sparks
my cartridge will be safe,
if I learn my lessons
I can be a seaman,
if I close my eyes to eat my biscuit
I will not see the weevils.

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,
shock lockers, bowsprit, gripe.

Don’t stop to put out that fire,
run to the hold,
we must fire at them
or they will fire at us.

Main mast, mizzen mast, foremast,
belfry, capstan, waist.

My mother never knew me,
but she would want to know this –
I can keep a cannon going,
I do not need her kiss.

Before 1794 children aged six upward went to sea. After then, the minimum age was 13.

chrissiegittins.co.uk

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