The Power of Poetry, The Rhyme and Reason of Publishing Anthologies : A Blog By  Isabel otter
Created: 30th January, 2024

 In 2020, my co-editor Harriet Evans and I were given the green light by our sales team to create a series of four poetry anthologies, each exploring a different theme: empowerment, feelings, nature and mindfulness. Our pitch was to create four beautifully illustrated, picture-book-sized editions featuring contemporary poets. Most importantly of all, we wanted to make sure that the poems we curated and commissioned would be thought-provoking, whilst remaining accessible and enjoyable. Every book is illustrated in full colour, and we worked with four illustrators across the series to match the diversity and dynamic energy of the poems. When poems are illustrated, they gain a new layer of magic and meaning; they can make the words feel more welcoming and approachable, particularly for reluctant readers.  

In building our aims for the anthologies, Harriet and I are indebted to the research that came out of the CLPE’s Power of Poetry project in 2017. The project shows the important role that poetry can play in improving children’s engagement with and enjoyment of reading and creative writing in schools. We used some of the key takeaways from the project to inform our editing, in particular: the importance of reading poetry aloud, using poetry to explore identity, employing poetry to help children find their own voice and the inspiring role that professional poets can play in developing children’s understanding of poetry.

In each anthology’s blurb is the invitation to “[r]ead the poems aloud or curl up with them in a quiet corner.” Highlighting this on the back cover was important to us because the beauty of poetry is that it can be digested in so many different ways. Sometimes it depends on the poem and sometimes it just depends on how we are feeling. The collections were designed to include poems that are begging to be read aloud, such as Jack Prelutsky’s ‘Homework! Oh, Homework!’ – “Homework! Oh, homework!/ I hate you! You stink!/ I wish I could wash you/ away in the sink”. We also included poems that invite introspection, such as Rachel Plummer’s ‘In Praise Of’, in which she celebrates humble moss: “Imagine moss./ It is a blessing on the forest./ It is green and green and green.”

Exploration of identity has been shown to be a key part of supporting student wellbeing in schools. A 2021 study by researchers at the universities of Bath and Queensland demonstrates clearly that children need “explicit spaces to explore, develop and strengthen their identities (in all of their diversities) and that this can be achieved through recognising the strengths from students’ cultures and communities.” Poetry is so well suited to the exploration of identity, and anthologies allow a multiplicity of voices from different backgrounds and cultures to come together under one cover. In Courage in a Poem, we feature Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem ‘Unfurling People’, in which she movingly describes the immigrant experience: “And so, immigration is like tucking your roots/ carefully into yourself/ and repotting in a different land.” Alongside it, we have ‘My Sari’ by Debjani Chatterjee, which captures the vibrant joy of wearing a sari: “It wraps around me like sunshine,/ it ripples silky down my spine,/ and I stand tall and feel so good.” Poems like these provide space for young people to explore identity and celebrate different cultures, both promoting empathy and allowing children to feel seen.

Each anthology is unified by a different theme but the poems inside vary in tone, structure and form. In Our Earth Is a Poem, we include Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Otter’, written in acrostic form and featuring beautifully inventive wordplay: “Ever dreamed of being otter? That/ utter underwater thunderbolter, that/ shimmering twister?” Alongside it we have ‘Mountain Gorilla’ by Janet Wong, written in the voice of the gorilla and playfully describing its fur as being “made of brushed lava/ from the volcanoes/ of Rwanda.” We wanted to show children that it is possible to approach a subject in countless ways and that there is no right or wrong when writing a poem, just self-expression. We hope that the varying styles and tones help to inspire young people with their own writing – to find their voices and trust that what they have to say is of value and importance.

The Power of Poetry report underlines how professional poets can improve children’s “understanding of the inspiration and process of writing poetry.” This finding cemented our decision to include only contemporary poets in our series. We are so lucky to have such a wealth of hugely talented children’s poets working in the UK and US right now. However, this made the selection process very difficult! I’ve seen first-hand the way in which professional poets can captivate a room of kids and we loved the idea that schools might be visited by our contributors. There is also a huge wealth of online resources including YouTube, the CLPE website and the Children’s Poetry Archive, where teachers and students can find videos and recordings of contemporary poets performing and talking about their work. There is nothing quite like hearing a poet reading their own work aloud for aiding understanding of the cadences, rhythms and patterns that have been woven in. The enthusiasm that poets bring to their performances is undeniably inspiring. At the end of each anthology, we include a short biography and photos of each poet and illustrator, which we hope will encourage further engagement with the contributors and their work.

Most of all, we wanted to refute poetry’s unfair reputation as ‘difficult’ or ‘dull’, to showcase some of the fantastic poets currently writing for children and create collections that were engaging and enjoyable. We hope that this series will delight both parents and children, seasoned poetry lovers and newcomers. Poetry is for everyone!