On Writing Poems for Children

Angus ButterflyThe first book (or more correctly, books) I ever published was a collection of 8 individual little books, each with a story poem, called – surprise – Storypoems: a First Collection. It was commissioned by Ginn & Co in the UK as reading support material for their very successful Ginn 360 reading series, appeared in 1987, and was subsequently published in the US in that year by The Wright Group. (If anyone wants to republish them, the rights long ago reverted to me. I am told that they are good poems.) Some have appeared here and there, since. “Grandma’s House” recently found its way into an English schoolbook for use in Malaysia.

I won’t say I’m a great writer of children’s poems, since it is prudent to be humble about one’s abilities (even fake humble will do), though I think if a person is not at least good at something, and prepared to think of herself as having that goodly competence, she ought to stop doing it and find something else at which she can do well! After all, one would not think a tradesman arrogant if he said, “I’m a good plumber…” and that’s what writing is, a trade that good crafts-persons practice. At any rate, that’s what I think.

I will say that I furiously enjoy writing poems for children, which spill out, once the tap is turned on, as if the water supply is endless. They are not all happy poems because life is not entirely happy, and one of the things literature is meant for is to help us traverse the hard things in life, children included. Consider ten year-old “Eliza Keturah MacDonald” for example.

Eliza Keturah MacDonald,
age 10 years MDCCCXI

One hale and hearty lass
who’s good at cooking
gives no sass
who’s slow to bed
and quick to rise
and never puts her
tongue to lies.

Strong as an ox
she’ll plough and hoe;
a willing one, she don’t
say no to any service
you request. Be sure
that she will do her best
and justify the twenty pound
we ask for her at the next round
of auctions.

Given at Kingston Town
By hand of Jonas Helwig Brown
the twenty-seventh of July
1811 anno domini.

© Pamela Mordecai

So though I am always happy when I write, I am especially happy when I write for children.

I’ve had a collection called “Angus Miller’s Alphabet of Animals” since 1965, when Ian Randle (of Ian Randle Publishers) was publisher’s representative for Collins in Jamaica. Ian liked the collection (I still thank him for that) and showed it to a visiting poobah from Collins, who dismissed it out of hand. About half the poems in the original collection have gone on to be published in a variety of textbooks and anthologies. I think four or five first appeared long ago in Cecil Gray’s Ambakaila and Parang, anthologies of poetry for Caribbean primary schools, published by Nelson Thornes in the early 1990s. Since that time, others have appeared in textbooks on both sides of the Atlantic, and anthologies too, most recently the wonderful collections, A Caribbean Dozen and Under the Moon and Over the Sea, edited by Guyanese poets and authors, John Agard and his wife, Grace Nichols, and published by Walker Books.

Since 1965, at least three caterpillars named Miller have arrived in children’s books, but Angus still languishes!

I am dogged about Angus, however, so I polished up the collection, retired some poems and wrote some new ones. A wonderful, very successful Canadian children’s poet was kind enough to look at them, and cheered by his very enthusiastic response, I sent it off to a Canadian publisher of children’s books. I will cut a long and not so happy story short. He told me (after a year, on my getting in touch with him) that a collection has to be 85% new, or else it is not publishable. In vain did I say that the poems had never seen the light of day in Canada, and that they had long ago been published in textbooks used largely in the Caribbean. Nope. They mostly had to be new. And that was that.

So I went online to look for some publishers of poetry books for children who are accepting manuscripts. I need a publisher who can get my book not only out, but pretty far out into the world, so it will have a fair chance of earning a little money, since writing is all that I do for a living. My research was not encouraging. Still, though no one is accepting unsolicited manuscripts, it seems that writing for children has a better chance if it comes with illustrations, so I decided on doing some. (You can see two here, one of Anatole the teenage Tadpole and the other of Angus Miller when he achieves the mature status of butterfly.) I have another four or so, and I am hoping to complete still others.

In the end I concluded sadly that the old adage of “It’s not what you know, but who you know” still obtains, at least in the world of publishing for children. So I am about to embark on the exercise of sifting through old acquaintances to see if there is anyone I know who has influence to bring to bear in this matter. I need to proceed with speed (I can’t help it…) for I also have a manuscript of 100 poems for Caribbean children, which needs to see the light. “Eliza Keturah MacDonald, age 10 years” comes from that collection. In fairness, since many of the poems are funny, here is a poem called “Toes Knows” to hold up the humorous side!

Toes Knows

Is it winter? Ask Toes.
Toes are clever. Toes knows.

In the winter when it’s cold,
Toes are glad to be together.
Toes stay close to one another,
Toes do not like winter weather.

In the winter when it’s cold
Toes are glad for woolly things,
Glad for furry boots and stockings,
Glad for anything that clings.

Is it winter? Ask Toes.
Toes are clever. Toes knows.

Is it summer? Ask Toes.
Toes are clever. Toes knows.

In the summer when it’s hot
Toes are anxious to get out.
Toes like air and toes like sunshine.
Toes like space to run about.

In the summer when it’s hot,
Toes like splashing in the sea.
Toes like squishing in mud puddles.
Toes like climbing up a tree!

What’s the season? Ask Toes.
Toes are clever. Toes knows.

© Pamela Mordecai