You need to do the homework.

When I started writing, it took me eleven years till I was really sure that what I was writing was in my own voice. I spent the time looking for that voice and perfecting my craft. It was a long learning process as I first modelled my poems on poetry by established writers. I read and read and read the children’s poems that were published and asked myself why they worked as they did. There is no escape from this, no short cuts. If you want to write poetry for children, you need to do the homework.

Over the last thirty years I have edited over sixty anthologies of poetry for children and as an anthologist I’ve always looked for poems that look at something in a different way. There are fewer & fewer new subjects to write about but a new angle, a fresh look at an old subject can work well.

There has to be something in a poem that stays in the mind, something that wriggles into the reader’s head and sets up home there for a while. I’m always looking for this when I’m choosing poems for an anthology. I’m also looking for that ‘I wish I’d written that’ feeling when I sift and select.

I’ve read too many poems about teachers being vampires, or dads being aliens, and anyone who proposes to write for children needs to ask them-selves if they’ve heard anything like what they’re writing before. If it’s a tired idea it will generally result in tired writing. Don’t be preachy either. A poem is not a sermon. Lead children towards a way of thinking but don’t sermon-ise. Show, but don’t tell.

It’s easy, too easy to take a subject such as winter, and then to trot out a series of ideas that everyone has heard before. There are so many poems that give us a Christmas card view of winter whereas real winter is often very different from this. It may be cold winds and endless rainy afternoons, damp mornings, dark afternoons and steamy windows. Look for that less obvious route to a poem. Instead of writing about fireworks, write about the charred and blackened treasures in the bonfire’s debris next day.

An idea, of course, is like a knock on the door. Ignore the knocking and whoever it is gives up and goes away. So with poetry, when an idea calls, you need to be ready to act on it. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, you need to capture that idea, to scribble it down on a scrap of paper, file it away in a notebook, talk it into a voice recorder.

Often it is the things people say that get me thinking. My older daughter’s hus-band is a stuntman and on a family holiday he told us that he still hadn’t fallen from the saddle of a horse. I was onto that straightaway – Still haven’t found a rainbow’s pot of gold/still haven’t discovered a cure for growing old. Still ha-ven’t painted a new Mona Lisa/still haven’t straightened the Leaning Tower of Pisa.’

I was in a school staffroom once where I discovered that six teachers were all tell-ing each other what they wore in bed. It was an absolute gift and I made notes as they spoke which later developed into my poem ‘What Teachers Wear in Bed. Another time I heard a young boy ask his Mum, ‘Did pirates wear make up?’ I ended up with a poem all about a topsy-turvy world of pirates.

Train yourself to be an observer. Look, listen, note it down. Be receptive to any-thing and interested in everything. Spot possibilities. Writers, of course, are ideas detectives and I find that signs I see in the street or glimpse by the roadside as I’m driving are often a source of inspiration. In Nottingham once, a department store were holding a ‘Monster Sale’ . Well, obviously that meant there was to be a huge clear out of unwanted stock but looking at it another way, it might just have easily have been ‘Buy one monster, get one free’. On another occasion I saw a sign for ‘Carpet Warehouse’. Not a terribly interesting subject for children, but split ‘Carpet’ in two and it becomes something quite different – ‘car pet’. What would we find in a ‘Car Pet Warehouse?’ Maybe earwigs to keep in ash-trays or a hamster for the glove compartment. Perhaps a snake on the back seat to deter would be car thieves. The possibilities are huge.

And what about rhyme? A poem doesn’t have to rhyme but an effective rhym-ing poem can chime and ring as the words work together in surprising ways. Rhyme can give a musical quality to a poem, which makes it easy to read and remember. Advertisers know how effective rhyme can be when they compose their slogans, and so do songwriters when they are looking for a chorus that will stay in people’s minds when the song is over.

If you are rhyming, however, challenge yourself to look beyond the ordinary rhymes, the most overworked rhymes. Read the experts at rhyme. My go to ex-pert is Allan Ahlberg. Read his ‘Dog in the Playground’ for its lyrical lilt, or ‘The Mighty Slide’ where ice has covered a school playground and there is a queue of children waiting to try out a slide, although Dennis is hesitant: ‘His wobbly style is unmistakable/The sign of a boy who knows he’s breakable’.
And remember, a weak rhyme, a forced rhyme can really spoil a poem. Make the rhyming dictionary your best friend!

Another factor to consider is, will the poem that you’re writing appeal to today’s child. it takes a lot to impress today’s children. By all means write about your childhood memories but there must be something there to perhaps link with childhood today, or something that is quirky enough to capture children’s inter-est. Remember that children are the hardest audience to please. If they don’t like something they will vote with their feet & find something more interesting to do. But get it right, and there is a huge sense of satisfaction.

Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988.. To date he has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and Selfies With Komodos, anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems, and pic-ture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer. His new book On Poetry Street will be published in May.

Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have been sold.

Brian has visited well over 3000 schools and libraries throughout the UK and abroad since he became a professional writer in 1988.

He is also founder & co-director of A.I.M High a national scheme for enthusi-astic young writers administered by his booking agency Authors Abroad.

Website: brianmoses.co.uk

Blog: brian-moses.blogspot.com

YouTube channel @bmredsea

Brian’s new hardback is out in May by Scallywag Books price £10.99 and contains 52 poems, each one of which can be used as a model poem to inspire children’s own writing.


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