Sunday, 18 August 2013

2013 Poetry Competition for Children

We've agonised and argued over the theme for this year's poetry competition and as a result are rather later launching it than intended. But it's here at last and the theme is...

Big drum roll...

Family members

We chose families as the subject for the poems because everyone has a member of their family that they adore, or who annoys them so much they secretly hope he (it's usually a brother) will be adopted.

So it's time to sharpen your pencils and your wits, take a long hard look at your relatives and get writing. You can write a funny poem or factual poem, a sad or a silly poem, a poem expressing your love or your hatred of the person you've chosen.

Even better, you can pick any relative who you think would look good in one of your poems... mum or dad, a brother or sister, uncles and aunts, grandparents or great grandparents.

There are a few really simple instructions that you need to follow to enter, which you can find on page devoted to the 2013 Children's Poetry Competition. Now that's a coincidence!

We're really looking forward to reading all your wonderful, weird and wacky poems, so get scribbling.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Scary Halloween Poems for Kids - Trick or Treat

Most poets who write for children receive direct feedback from their audience during public readings, school visits or (much more rarely) at book signings. They discover which poems are popular, which are understood and which are 'too diffucult' or ignored for other reasons. As an online publisher children's poetry, I receive feedback via email which I assume represents the extremes of opinion - from gushingly over-enthusiastic to I don't think your poems are funny at all. It may seem paradoxical, but I find the critical emails more encouraging and a great deal more useful than the ones offering praise.

Judging how to pitch poems at the right level for children, or deciding which poems are suitable for which age group, is a tricky business. It's certainly easy to write poems which are too clever or complex for the children you assumed they would suit, as I discovered at early stage when an 11 year old Australian schoolgirl asked for an unpublished shape poem to use in a school project. A sent her a choice between The Ghost of Christmas Past twisted shape poem and a riddle shape poem (both at that time works in progress). She replied that she'd chosen the Christmas shape poem, as she didn't understand the riddle one at all. I'd held off publishing the riddle shape poem as I'd though it ridiculously easy for children above the age of 5 or 6.

The saving grace in all this is that the overwhelming majority of the children's poems I publish are funny, so there's no real harm if a young reader considers a poem entirely humourless, either because it goes over their head or it doesn't tickle their particular funny bone. I am very sensitive to accusations that poems are too rude for the intended age group of reader and do adjust or withdraw poems if necessary. However,  I'm conscious that most kids are much broader minded than their parents or teachers give them credit for, so complaints from kids are given more weight than those from adults. Indeed, the kids versions of some of my poems are more obviously rude and a great deal more popular that the adult version, as I found when I published a kids version of Tickled Pink, retitled as The Christmas Fairy.

The inclusion of the word bum can make a poem both hilarious and dangerous for primary school children!

Halloween presents problems all of its own. For the first few years of the website's existence, I restricted our Halloween offerings to a handful of Paul Curtis's funny Halloween poems for kids. These poems may have presented Trick or Treat as an abomination and so appealed more to adults than children, but the great thing with funny poems is you can't make them too funny. (The idea that a poem can be pant-wettingly funny is fine in theory, but it's much more likely to afflict women in late middle age with stress incontinence than children.)
You can most definitely write poems which are too scary.

Indeed, when we decided to venture into the world of scary Halloween poems for children, I did so with some trepidation and proceeded with extreme caution.

My first mistake was to state, rather blithely, that no poem could be as scary as something seen on TV, film or in real life. In reality, things that are conjured up in the imagination can be a good deal more frightening than those that are seen on screen or in real life and linger much longer. However, children enjoy being frightened, so long as they retain some control over the experience. Indeed, it is one of the vital learning experiences which prepares children for the dangers and horrors of the real world.

My second mistake was to choose The Tale of Long Tom Mouse, as my litmus test poem for Max's Halloween poems. Rather than tell children that a group of poems are only suitable for children aged 8, or 10, or 12, I prefer to get them to read a test piece and then decide whether they want to proceed. For the rude Christmas poems we have a snowman joke - What is the difference between a snow man and a snow woman? snow balls - to separate the sheep from the goats. The problem with choosing a haunting mouse poem to fulfil the same roles is that many children (and indeed adults) are inherently scared of mice, so it's unclear whether the subject, or the poem, or some combination of the two, might make the poem too scary for children. The poems that follow it are objectively more gruesome, but are populated by imaginary creatures and have a nonsensical unreality which distance them from the young reader.

So without wishing to appear cavalier or uncaring, I'll continue to add increasingly gruesome Halloween poems until the kids that make up the readership, or just possibly their parents or teachers, scream at me to stop.

Have a read for yourself and let me know what you think:
And here's an example of what might be to come, a Halloween poem by Paul Curtis which I've held back for the children's site for the time being:
It Happens On The Night Of Halloween
It happens on the night
Of Halloween
When the spirits of creatures
Can pass between
And some spooky spooks
Might well be seen.
Some ghouls are good
And others are mean
Some ghosts have substance
And visibly preen
While others glow
Luminescently green
But watch out for witches
That arrive on the scene
For in the blink of an eye
They’ll whip out your spleen
My own view is that if you are old enough to know what a spleen is, you're probably mature enough not to be frightened by the poem. But if you don't...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Poems for Kids to Recite for Fun

My last blog post was a rant about forcing children to recite poetry, especially in the light of the recent Gove edict which will see poetry recitation as a compulsory element of the school curriculum in England and Wales.

To redress things, I want to make it abundantly clear that I think children reciting poems is a wonderful, admirable and fun thing for them to do, so long they're doing it of there own free will. There are opportunities galore for children to recite poems outside of the school environment for their own amusement and the enjoyment of others. It pains me to say it, but the Americans do it better than the English, with their tradition for poetry slams, a companion to the ultra-competitive spelling bees.

Indeed, it was the desire of my nephew and niece, then aged 8 and 5, to put on a Christmas Concert for family and pets that encouraged me to dip my first tentative toe into writing poems for children. The resultant poems, A Marriage Made in Heaven, Of Sound Mind and Dogged Determination, have stood the test of time and were at least moderately well received by the audience (anything is better than recorder recitals!). It was the reaction of my niece on hearing A Marriage Made in Heaven, asking very seriously 'Did you do that on purpose?' that convinced me that  you could write intelligently for pre-school and school aged children.

The Constraints of Poetry Recitation in School 

I've suggested previously that many teachers will retreat into making their pupils recite classic poems at school. Even those teachers who have grasped that modern poetry, even funny poetry, can provide a valuable educational experience tend to become overly prescriptive when setting poetry recitation exercises for their classes. A particular bugbear of mine is teachers who specify that children must choose to recite a poem with a specified number of lines. The length or complexity of a poem is not measured  in lines - my poem Library Rules is 24 lines, but is a much shorter and simpler than Max's 10 line poem, The Food Chain. If, as a teacher, your want to prevent your pupils choosing poems that are very short or easy to recite, by all means specify a minimum number of lines - six would be perfect, although many would argue for four and haiku lovers would no doubt hold out for three! Similarly, if you want to specify a subject for the chosen poem, make it reasonably broad, such as animals, the seasons, famous people.  There aren't too many 13 line poems about a dysfunctional family celebrating Christmas in Ulan Bator and although Google will no doubt find them for your pupils, there not bound to be great to recite. 

Apart from the Christmas Concert poems, the only other children's poems that I have written specifically to be recited were in response to a cri de coeur from my niece. At the behest of her teacher, she needed a 16 line poem to recite at school the following week. I wrote Eat, Drink and Be Messy, which has a deliberately fairy tale opening, a rather odd 6-4-6 line verse formation and a gratuitously gory ending. My niece decided the poem was too difficult and asked me to write another one. The second attempt was Aunts, which isn't obviously any simpler linguistically or easier to recite, although it does conform to a more conventional 4-4-4-4 formation. At that point I decided I wasn't going to write any more recitation poems to order, whether for my niece or ultimately her very picky poetry teacher. I also put out a general edict that kids could cut lines of my poems in half, or combine them, if they found a poem they particularly wanted to recite and needed to fiddle the number of lines to comply with their school teacher's demands. 

Funny Poems for Kids to Recite for Fun

Now for the fun bit. I write lots of funny poems for kids, some of which happen to be great to recite, others are moderately successful  and a few are nearly impossible.

Lets deal with the impossible ones first. Shape poems rely on the visual arrangement of the words on the page for their effect, which means they lose the element that makes them a poem when you recite them. A shape poem like The Poeteer is poetic as well as shapely, so you could recite it, but it wouldn't be all there,  like a limbless soldier or a pizza with a missing slice (brief interlude for some strange similes!). Another poem which I initially decided would be impossible to recite is Max's onomatopoeia poem The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, which consists of just 13 words and 16 exclamation marks! I've changed my mind and now think it might be rather brilliant to recite, accompanied by suitably expressive Ows! Yows! and Wows! Indeed, as it's a great example of a particular style of poetry, it would be a good crossover poem from fun to classroom  and back again.

Poems which are only quite good to recite for fun are those that are difficult to understand, or to recite, or both. I've just tried out a new poem, The Sting, on my test audience. At the end, I was asked to read it again, after which (and a bit of thought) they got it. If you're going to recite a funny poem, you need to be sure that at least half of the audience will get it immediately and laugh uproariously. A lull while everyone thinks about the poem and decides if it's funny will kill your performance. Quite a few of Paul's humorous poems, such as The Buddhist At The Dentist and Literary Doctorate fall into the too clever to recite category. It's not that they're not hilariously funny, it's just that the humour is quite sophisticated and you might have to think long and hard to fully appreciate the poems.

So what makes a great funny poem to recite. Firstly, it should be well within your capabilities to recite - everyone gets a bit nervous when they stand up in front of a group of people and you don't want to be stumbling over difficult words and fluffing your lines. Secondly, the humour needs to be pretty obvious and suitable for your audience. Reciting poems is a bit like telling jokes; you want your audience to laugh uproariously, or at the very least smile warmly rather than inanely. Thirdly, chose poems which have good rhythm and rhymes, as this makes the poem easier to recite and simpler for the audience to follow. Finally, practising reciting the poem like mad, so you know it back to front and inside out and can recite standing on your head. When you give your performance you'll be supremely confident and, if you decide to perform it standing on your head, your audience will be doubly amazed. 

Choosing A Funny Poems to Recite
It's over to you now and the world really is your Internet. Read some poems until you find some you find funny. Then read them aloud rather than  in your head, as some poems don't recite well. Reassure yourself that there suitable for your audience, whether it's classmates, friends, family or church congregation. Not too rude? Not too cheesy? Not too obvious? Not to complicated? Well done Goldilocks, you've selected your poem(s) and to complete your mission you've got to master the memorising and give the performance of your life. Have fun and good luck!   

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Making Kids Recite Poems at School

As a writer of children's poetry, one might expect me to be dancing with joy at Michael Gove's announcement that revision of the school curriculum in England would see the introduction of compulsory poetry recital for children. In fact, I was left with the distinctly uneasy feeling that the proposal, although well intentioned, could be horribly damaging.

It may border on heresy, but my view is that teachers are the major obstacle standing between children and a love of poetry. This isn't because teachers aren't capable of delivering engaging lessons which focus on learning and reciting poetry. It's simply that most current teachers' experience of poetry during their own schooldays will have been shackled by studying the classic poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare et al.

If the UK Government is to make the memorising and reciting of poetry  a compulsory activity throughout the school system, it must provide a variety of resources which includes poems by contemporary children's writers and a framework of support so that teachers, including those who don't themselves enjoy poetry, can engage with the subject and enthuse their pupils.

My Own Experience of Reciting Poetry at School

It should be emphasised that my own introduction to reciting poetry at school may be entirely atypical, in that I attended a boys' prep school during the mid-1970s. The subject of poetry never raised its head during 6 years of English  lessons, which were taught by an extremely decrepit master who was already years past retirement age. Pupils were, however, introduced to the 'joys' of English poetry by the classics master.

Aged eight, a Latin lesson was rudely interrupted by the distribution of a selection of classic English poems. I received as copy of Wordsworth's Daffodils which I was instructed to memorise and recite in class two days hence. I was a bright child, but not particularly self-confident. The prospect of memorising the poem held no terrors - indeed it was the sort of school where learning by rote was highly prized and we'd already been required to learn the books of the Bible, the Kings and Queens of England and Pi to 30 decimal places. The thought of having to recite a poem in front of a class of my peers was a less appealing prospect.

It's tempting to relate the episode as something that scarred me for life, but the reality is that I remember nothing of the performance itself. I can say with some certainty that as a boy whose main interests at the time were rugby, James Bond and matchbox cars, I didn't connect on an intellectual level with this strange poem in which some wandering loner delights in finding a clump of daffodils. Indeed I'd go so far as to say it instilled a life long hatred of both daffodils and William Wordsworth. It might also have put me off poetry for life, but my interest was rekindled through the medium of parody five years later by a classics master at a different school, which is story for another time.

The Virtues of Poetry Recitation

I  would agree that there are benefits to children learning and reciting poetry, but I'm not convinced the benefits are universal or that school is necessarily the best places for such activities. However, most of the claimed benefits:
  • Enhancement of the memory
  • Development of linguistic skills
  • Building analytical and critical skills
  • Honing presentational skills
  • Acquiring self-confidence
  • A sense of achievement
would accrue whether children are required to memorise a poem, a piece of prose or the proverbial laundry list.  I therefore advocate introducing children first to contemporary poetry, which is built around themes, language and cultural references to which relate directly to their life experiences. If children are engaged by poetry they will explore the poetic highways and byways in their own time and at their own pace, discovering the delights (or horrors) of classic poetry for themselves. The proposed Gove approach of introducing school children to poetry through reciting classic poems could undermine a love of poetry for a whole generation of children.

To misquote wildly, 'the past is another country and it's poetry is seriously weird'.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Poetry Competitions for Kids

For children to really enjoy poetry they need to be fully immersed in the craft. That doesn't just mean reading poetry, but also learning and reciting poems. Importantly, the key to unlocking a love of poetry in many children is to encourage them to write their own poems. The critical element here is to encourage, rather than coerce. I firmly believe that while reading, memorising and reciting poems are all valuable classroom activities, writing poetry is most suitable as an out of school activity.

If you asked a group of adult poets, whether professional or amateur, to write a poem on a given subject or in a given form, some would take minutes, others weeks and a few (myself included) months or years. Writing poetry is not not a race and the rewards should be for quality, rather than speed of composition.

In a school situation, children are typically asked to write a poem during a single class, or perhaps as a homework assignment. Neither of these allows sufficient time to give the keenest young poets an opportunity to adequately express themselves or hone their craft. Worse still, there is a tendency for well meaning teachers, hoping to make the task easier for all their pupils, to ask for poems written in forms, such as diamante and kenning, that don't exist in the real poetry world. The least able pupils will still struggle, because of the time pressures, and the more able children will be frustrated by the constraints of the exercise.

Outside of a classroom setting, children can be encouraged to write poetry at a pace and in a style which best suits them. After or out of school poetry clubs are an excellent means of fostering a love of poetry, though sadly not as common as they should be. As an adjunct to this, poetry competitions for children offer an opportunity for young poets to share their work with others, receive critical feedback and and to win public acclaim. Furthermore, many poetry competitions also offer significant prize money, although my experience is that the children most likely to win are motivated by a love of the craft, rather than cash.

At Funny Poems for Kids, we have been running poetry competitions for children since 2008. I must confess that I took a rather similar view to teachers with the first competition, Fussy Poets, and set a very tightly constrained contest which allowed only for the rewriting of an existing poems. It was clear that I had underestimated my audience and subsequent years saw a thematic approach, with kids asked to submit poems written on a different form or in about a different subject each year:

A decision taken early on was that the entries should not be restricted just to funny poems. The Sick Poets and Animal Poems both brought forward a number of poems which were sensitive, thoughtful and on occasion heart-rendingly sad.  We have however always accepted funny poems, since that fits the theme of our website and  there are very few kids poetry competitions that accept humorous poems.

So if you are, or own, a child who has an interest in poetry, you should keep an eye out for the major children's poetry competitions which run each year. The Poetry Library website has a useful list of the higher profile competitions, some of which have prizes that many adult poetry competitions would covet.

Online, you'll find any number of other reputable competitions, including Funny Poems own annual Kids Poetry Competition for entrants aged 16 and under, which runs from July to the end of October each year. Entry is free, all poems receive critical feedback and are displayed on the website. The competition winners receive modest cash prizes and for some, winners or not, it has been the first step to poetic fame and glory.