How to write a winning poem for children

Can you make a young person laugh or cry or think? Photograph: StockSnap / Pixabay
19 Jun 2019 @ 4.02 pm
| Entertainment

You’ve still got a few days left to enter our Poems For Children Competition. Here judge Carole Bromley offers a few tips

What is different about writing for a young audience, I think, is that you have to either write the poem with a particular child in mind (often mine come out of conversations with my grandchildren) or imagine a small child sitting opposite you at the writing desk.

Would s/he relate to it, find it interesting? Would it make them laugh or cry or think?

I find you can’t write anything without reading. I immerse myself in some of the wonderful poetry being written for children.

Look out for children’s anthologies from Emma Press, Troika Books, Otter-Barry, MacMillan and Bloomsbury. Take a look at websites like Poetry Zone and Poetry Roundabout. Treat yourself to a copy of The Caterpillar magazine.

Have fun with sounds

Never patronise children. You might be surprised at how much they understand. You don’t have to be rude to make them laugh.

They love humour but also, like all of us, they have to deal with painful things – bullying, being different, being left out, the death of pets and grandparents, anxiety over tests or moving house or losing a friend. They are just people only smaller. Poems help them through things.

Think about the things they care about – animals, sport, secret fears, friends, music, food, school, home, space, nature.

Think back to how it felt to be five, or seven, or ten. Write a poem from a child’s viewpoint. Lie down in the grass and look at a ladybird. For hours.

Have fun with sounds. Play. Rhyme sometimes. Enjoy rhythm. Read your poem aloud. Make it as good as you can then test drive it on a real live child. They don’t pull any punches. They will tell you the truth. Listen to them.

Above all, have fun. Enjoy yourself. Revel in being daft. Wasn’t it fun being seven?

Writing exercise

Photograph: Ultra_Nancy / Pixabay
Rewriting fairy tales is a very good starting point. You already know the story (and, if you don’t, you can google it to remind yourself of the details). All you have to do is have some fun putting a new spin on it.

I find it helps to engage with what is really going on under the surface of the story. Often it is a deep-seated fear (of losing your parents, of hunger, of not finding the right partner, of your talents not being recognized, of monsters, of death itself, of childlessness, of being lost, of being unjustly punished).

You might enjoy reading Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ but don’t get side-tracked from the actual writing!

Choose a familiar fairytale – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk. Jot down some of the details. Think about what is going on underneath, what themes the child will intuitively pick up on from the safety of their parents’ lap.

Fairytales are traditionally told in the third person. One approach is to retell the story from the viewpoint of one of the characters.

You can use this to explore the motives of the wicked stepmother or the big, bad wolf or you can adopt the voice of the child in the story, Jack, Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood or Gretel. I love giving a tale a feminist spin but you don’t have to do that.

You can take a minor character – Buttons, an ugly sister, the giant’s wife, the baby bear and let your poem invite the listener to think about how it feels to be left out, passed over, outwitted.

Allow yourself to be funny. This is meant to be fun, after all! Let yourself write in rhyming couplets for a change, listen to the rhythm of your lines. Read it aloud as you go along. Just have fun with it, then, when you have got to the end of whatever part of the story you are concerning yourself with (you don’t have to retell the plot, that’s the great advantage of working with a story the kids already know) read it back and ask yourself what a child would make of it.

Probably you will find you have been writing for a slightly older audience than the one that would enjoy the fairytale for its story, for the reassurance of the way the problem is resolved by a happy ending.

I find children of about seven up will love being in on the joke, being one step ahead.

Now, find yourself a seven year old, or a ten year old or even a teenager and have them read it aloud to you. Better still, if you can, read it to a class of primary school children. Here’s a little girl from Halifax performing my version of Goldilocks

A version of this article was published earlier this year by the fabulous Arvon Foundation for their friends’ newsletter

About the judge

Card image cap

Carole Bromley has three poetry collections with Smith/Doorstop: A Guided Tour of the Ice House, The Stonegate Devil and Blast Off (a children’s collection).

Carole lives in York where she runs poetry surgeries for The Poetry Society and mentors for The Poetry School.

Her children’s poems have won prizes, been performed at the CLiPPA Awards and published on The Guardian Children’s Books website, in The Caterpillar and also in anthologies from Manchester Met, MacMillan, the Emma Press and Paper Dart.

She is currently working on a second collection for children, Harry’s Dad’s a Lion-tamer.