How to write a children’s poem (that might win €1,000)
Caterpillar Poetry Prize judge Brian Moses on writing poems for children (and a poem about a cat)
The UK children’s poet Brian Moses is judging this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, closing on March 31st. The prize is for the best poem written by an adult for children. Anyone over 16 can enter, and poems on any theme or in any style will be considered.
Regarded as “one of Britain’s favourite children’s poets”, Moses has published over 200 books from publishers such as Macmillan, Hachette, Puffin, OUP, Collins, Longman, Heinemann & Frances Lincoln, and he is Reading Champion for the National Literacy Trust & Co-director of the Able Writers’ Scheme he founded in 2002.
When did you write your first poem?
I was 16. I wrote my first poem to the girl who lived up the road from me because I wanted to go out with her. I spent ages writing it and when I thought I couldn’t make it any better, I put it into an envelope. Then when it got dark I crept up the road and pushed it through her letter box. Then she went out with somebody else. He had a motorbike and I didn’t! Bitter disappointment! My first poem could so easily have been my last one.
What did you like to do as a child? Did you read a lot?
I read an enormous amount, racing through Janet & John thinking that there had to be more to reading than that dull stuff, and there was. Enid Blyton established the reading habit for me, then Jennings, Biggles, Just William etc. I’ve read and read and read ever since. I also had the freedoms in the 1950s and ’60s that children don’t have today. I went adventuring with my mates, climbing cliffs to get to caves, skating on icy ponds, exploring the three miles of old air-raid tunnels under the town. The adventures we had fuelled our imaginations and terrified our mothers. But I survived. My mother used to say I must have been holding the hands of angels.
You wrote a poem for the Queen’s 80th birthday. Did you get to deliver it to her in person?
I didn’t unfortunately. But CBBC put it in a frame and sent it to her. The poem was about her corgis and is called Happy Barkday. I like to think it’s hanging up in one of the lesser bathrooms in Buckingham Palace or around the back of the dog kennels. I think Prince Charles must have seen it as three months later I had a letter from him inviting me to speak at a teachers’ conference he was organising at Cambridge University. Maybe he’d also read Aliens Stole One’s Underpants to Wills and Harry when they were younger!
You have a huge audience. Macmillan has sold over a million copies of your books. Does this make it easier or harder to write?
I think sometimes these days that I’ve said all there is to say now with poetry and there are weeks when I don’t write poetry at all. Then something will happen, a change of circumstances, an overheard conversation, a visit to a new place, and I’ll be off again. I used to worry about not writing but now I’m confident that the whole process will start up again when the time is right. Fortunately I also write prose now and have had my childhood autobiography Keeping Clear of Paradise Street and my first children’s novel Python published recently. I’m now in the middle of a second novel and I like being able to switch between the two genres.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Brian Wilson’s autobiography. The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds is perhaps my favourite album and I was interested in reading about the background to its creation. I also read a book about the Easter Rising following a trip to Dublin last September and I try to read children’s books when I can. The latest was Emma Carroll’s Letters from a Lighthouse, which I thought was excellent.
What are you looking for in The Caterpillar Poetry Prize?
As an anthologist I’ve always looked for poems that look at something in a different way. There are few new subjects to write about but a new angle, a fresh look at an old subject, can work well. With poetry for children too, we shouldn’t underestimate our readers, and certainly shouldn’t write down to them.
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 31st. Previous winners include Louise Greig, Laura Mucha and Coral Rumble. See thecaterpillarmagazine.com for details.
I’m a Cat
By Brian Moses
I’m a cat on the wall
a catastrophe cat,
I’m a category cat
classified first class,
I’m a catnap cat
asleep on the grass.
I’m a caterpillar cat
stalking a mouse,
a cataclysmic cat
chaotic in the house.
I’m a catapult cat
moving in for a kill,
I’m a cat’s eye cat
looking for a thrill.
I’m a catty cat
spiteful and mean,
a catwalk cat
in my own limousine.
I’m a catcall cat
with a swift reply,
a cat’s whisker cat
to dogs passing by.
But one thing I’m not
is a cattery cat
so don’t you ever
Published in the spring issue of The Caterpillar