Children’s Books North interview in their Autumn Tour
Tell us about your new book
Thanks for inviting me, Children’s Books North! ‘Belonging Street’ (Otter-Barry Books) is a poetry collection for children and its dedication quotes Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, …I shall lift my arms, / and my roots will set off / to seek another land. The book delves into our sense of belonging, and how the quest for it can bring adventure, friendship and kindness. In one poem, a tree, uprooting himself to escape the chainsaw, walks off to help a town suffering a drought. In another, a displaced mother and child invite us all to visit when they’ve settled in Belonging Street. And as the poem, ‘Helping Hands’ shows, and when any of us fall, / these hands will help us stand, / these mending, baking, making, /lending helping hands – a sense of belonging is not only about place, but community too.
I was happy to have the chance to illustrate the book as well, so alongside the poems are detailed line-drawings full of secrets (you have to lean in close). I aimed for a hopeful book to be read by adults and children together – a book that could ‘age-up’ with its owner.
Reviews and responses so far have been heart-warming! Being published during locked down, I carried the book to the park (in lieu of a launch) and held it up to show the swans. I wondered if this was it… me and the swans. But Otter-Barry Books was brilliant in getting the book out there, and within weeks ‘Belonging Street’ was chosen as one of the Independent’s ‘Top Children’s Books’, and subsequently selected as a Sunday Times ‘Book of the Week’. I also saw how hard projects like Bookwagon, Poetry Roundabout and the Reading Hub work in keeping new releases promoted and reviewed, and providing an invaluable boost for authors/illustrators.
Children’s books provide a huge percentage of overall book sales, yet (bafflingly) it has a far smaller infrastructure and fewer awards than the adult literary world. But despite that, the energy and drive of its community is inspiring. Perhaps it is the shared passion for reading for pleasure, or the uniquely intimate dynamic between young readers, authors and illustrators... Whatever the cause, it has a positivity that is a pleasure to share.
What/who/where inspired this book?
I spent my childhood up trees and my adulthood in inner-cities. So, nature and the town feature equally. When I wasn’t climbing trees, I was pouring over illustrations… and even now, my poems are rooted in either the physical or the visual. Most of my poetry collections are for adults, but this delicious business of writing for children allowed me to explore the rare alchemy of illustrating and writing – a strong force when creating ‘Belonging Street’.
I am also aware of how much every book owes to the kind hand of fate and the encouragement of others. I started seriously writing poetry for children because I won the Ilkley Festival Poetry Prize, and that year, their prize was an Arvon course. I chose writing poetry for children at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, with Carol Ann Duffy as a tutor. During that week I ‘unlocked’ new ways of writing, and this has informed my writing for children and adults ever since. Now, I move between the two genres: relishing the point where it blurs.
Nominate one children's book by a northern or Scottish creative to read this winter.
I am a great fan of the Scottish Poetry Library, who do such a great job supporting Scottish authors. So I shall suggest one of their poetry anthologies for children, ‘The Thing That Mattered Most; Scottish poems for children. This rich collection of writers, styles and forms is delightful.
If I am permitted northern-based non-fiction for adults, it has to be one of my favourite books, ‘The Valley: a hundred years in the life of a family’, by Richard Benson (winner of the Portico Prize for books set in the north). I’ve been a judge for the Portico Prize in the past, so was lucky to hear Richard accepting the prize on behalf of his family, the south Yorkshire miners and all working people whose lives go unrecorded.
If anyone wants to delve deeper into poetry books for children, there’s a really good representation of northern writers on the nominations for the CILIP and Kate Greenaway Medals.
Guest Blogger Louise’s Question: How does the North feed into your poetry and especially into the rhythm of your work?
Good question, thank you Louise! I’ve lived in Liverpool for 30 years, so the rhythms of it are part of my day. The Mersey and the Irish sea, the twists and turns between stops of the 82 bus, St Luke’s guiding a straight ‘ropewalk’ down Bold Street. From my street I hear the foghorn’s call, Merseyrail trains, and even my local church chimes the quarter with a little tune. My parents were from the north, but had to go south for work. They started a family there, then some of us came back, so I am a happy mash-up of accents, punctuated with sayings like: shine a light, go ‘ed, and I’ve borrowed the Yorkshire, ah from my partner. An invaluable reminder of brevity, this one vowel communicates a million things through tone alone.
Celebrating rhythms of speech was at the heart of Liverpool’s live literature scene, a democratic tradition of the spoken word that invited everyone – no degree needed – to participate in literature. My craft was learned from so many iconic poets, during more open floors and guest nights than I care to remember! And then there’s Manchester, the city where I work. Equally rich in literature, arts and music. What can I say…? I am proud to live in the North West: a gutsy place of multicultural rhythms, Lancashire dialect and Irish oral traditions that gave me not only rhythms but a route into writing.
Author of nine books, Mandy Coe’s poems have featured on BBC radio and television and her work on teaching poetry has been published by the Times Educational Supplement and Cambridge University Press. Her poems can be heard on ‘Talking Poetry’, BBC Schools Radio and at the Poetry Archive. She is a Visiting Fellow of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-authored Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools. Shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award twice, she was joint-winner of the inaugural Manchester Prize. www.mandycoe.org