Children's Laureate Joseph Coelho: ‘Reading aloud to children will make them more successful adults’

Man on a mission: Joseph Coelho believes everyone can learn to love poetry - Heathcliff O’Malley
Man on a mission: Joseph Coelho believes everyone can learn to love poetry - Heathcliff O’Malley

Do you know your sestinas from your sonnets? Can you tell the difference between a pantoum and a villanelle? Are you, whisper it, a bit scared by poetry full stop? Fear not, Joseph Coelho is here to help. Tomorrow, to celebrate National Poetry Day, the new Children’s Laureate launches Poetry Prompts, his first initiative since taking over from the previous incumbent, Cressida Cowell, last month and which aims to both demystify poetry and get the nation writing it with the help of a weekly bite-sized video.

“I want to introduce people to poetry in simple ways, but I will also teach basic form,” says Coelho, an award-winning poet who has been presenting poetry workshops in schools for 20 years. “I’m very keen to get rid of the baggage of poetry, this idea people have that it’s not for them. My focus is to encourage everyone to see themselves as a writer.”

This might not be an entirely good thing. There’s enough bad poetry online as it is. Yet Coelho, 42, insists writing poetry can bring huge benefits, especially to children. In schools up and down the country, he has made the eyes of boys who struggle to produce a single sentence light up at the thought of writing a poem about football. He’s encouraged children who glaze over at the mention of alliteration or onomatopoeia to realise that they use both in word games in the playground.

“Children are natural poets. But teachers are pushed for time and there’s not much space in the curriculum for creative writing,” he says. “I help children explore reading and writing in a fun way rather than telling them, ‘This is what you must do’. And with me, they don’t have to worry so much about their spelling.”

Moreover, he’s shown young people from every possible background how poetry has a rare ability to help them make sense of the world. “Kids are really hungry for anything that talks about the landscape of emotions. And they really like it when you don’t patronise them or assume they are only going to like poems that involve the word ‘bottom’.”

Poet Joseph Coelho at the Hay Festival in 2015 - JAY WILLIAMS
Poet Joseph Coelho at the Hay Festival in 2015 - JAY WILLIAMS

Is he keen on children learning poetry by heart, a notion that summons Victorian images of terrified pupils doggedly reciting Tennyson? “It can be great for your self-confidence if you can stand up and recite a poem,” he says. “But learning poetry by rote is definitely not for everyone. I think the way poetry has sometimes been taught in the past has put some people off. And that’s a terrible shame.”

Coelho, who lives in Folkestone with his partner, the author Manjeet Mann, may be the laureate for children, but he’s a strong believer in the role adults can play in broadening children’s relationship with literature. He reels off the stats: nearly 20 per cent of children in England don’t have access to books at home; more than half of children aged five to seven aren’t read to daily by their parents.

He knows, too, the serious damage not reading or being read to for pleasure is doing. “It affects everything: your future health, your happiness. Being read to regularly as a child has a greater impact on your life chances than your parents’ socio-economic background. But there is often a generational aspect. If parents have had a difficult time at school themselves, then reading aloud can become very difficult. We need to remove that stigma.”

Coelho wasn’t read to as a child either. He grew up in a tower block in Roehampton, south-west London, with his Anglo-Indian mother and sister (his parents were never together and he only met his Jamaican father, with whom he has a good relationship, when he was in his teens). There were almost no books in the flat, although his mother, who became pregnant with him when she was still a teenager, would often take him to the library “partly because it was free”. Everything changed when the poet Jean “Binta” Breeze gave a workshop at Coelho’s school. “It blew me and my friends away,” he says. “And it was the first time I saw someone who looked like me who was also a poet.” He started writing and reading poetry, initially by Allan Ahlberg and Kate Wakeling, and later by Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath.

“People expect teenagers won’t be interested in poetry. But it’s when you are a teenager that your emotions are at their most raw.” He continued to write poetry at UCL, where he studied archaeology – much to the bemusement of his family, who didn’t understand why anyone would want to go to university “because no one in my family had ever been before”. And he became increasingly interested in performing, getting involved with the trailblazing spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes, whose regular poets, many of them black, like himself, juggled writing, performing and holding poetry workshops in schools – providing him with a career blueprint he hadn’t previously known existed.

Joseph Coelho wasn't read to as a child and there were almost no books in his flat growing up - Heathcliff O'Malley
Joseph Coelho wasn't read to as a child and there were almost no books in his flat growing up - Heathcliff O'Malley

Since then, he’s published poetry collections for children of various ages, picture books and the children’s story Our Tower. In May 2019, he embarked on his Library Marathon, an ongoing celebratory tour of the UK’s libraries in which he aims to visit and perform in each of the country’s 151 Library Authorities and which forms the second of his three initiatives as Laureate. His third initiative is Bookmaker Like You, in which he hopes to open up the process of book production, from design to binding, to as many people as possible.

But his main determination is to make poets of us all. Not necessarily because he thinks we all could be Larkin if only we stopped worrying about things like assonance and rhyme, but because he thinks writing poetry can be an excellent way of clarifying how we think and feel. A couple of weeks ago, he posted a video of himself performing a poem he had written for children commemorating the late Queen and encouraging them to write their own. And their parents, come to that.

“I do think given the events of the last three years that there is now a tremendous need to release,” he says. “The world in which we live is all about consuming other people’s opinions and arguments. But poetry is a place for stillness and contemplation. There is a great deal to be said for taking the time to have your own considered, thoughtful response.”

Five brilliant poems for children

The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

by Edward Morgan

Fourteen lines of scrummy, tongue-torturing monster-speak. Children aged five to seven will love trying to translate!

Please Mrs Butler

by Allan Ahlberg

A distracted teacher is of no use to a pupil being terrorised by a classmate in this comic rhyming verse aimed at five- to eight-year-olds.

If All the World Were Paper

by Joseph Coelho

Everyday life fabulously reimagined as Post-it notes and wrapping paper – a poem for children of all ages.

The Listeners

by Walter de la Mare

A folk tale, a ghost story and a spine-tingling mystery that will grab the imaginations of those 10 years and older.

In the Desert

by Stephen Crane

A dark allegory about loneliness and greed. Read it with your teenager and – possibly against all their expectations – watch them shiver.

Joseph Coelho’s latest poetry book for young children, Blow A Kiss. Catch a Kiss: Poems to Share with Little Ones (Anderson Press, £12.99) is published tomorrow