Life

The Children’s Laureate on why reading and writing poetry is great for kids

Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho tells Lisa Salmon how playing with words through poetry can get children ‘hooked on reading’.

Joseph Coelho is launching the Poetry in Motion competition for children aged between five and 13
Joseph Coelho is launching the Poetry in Motion competition for children aged between five and 13 (Peter Alvey)

Many parents read to their young children at bedtime – but it tends to be a story they share with them, rather than poetry.

However, the Children’s Laureate, Joseph Coelho is urging mums and dads to not only read poetry to their kids, but get them writing it too.

“I would absolutely encourage parents to try and read poetry to children at bedtime,” says Coelho, a poet, playwright and children’s book author who was elected Waterstones Children’s Laureate in 2022.

“Especially rhythmic poems, they can help lull you into sleep, and give you lovely images to drift off to, to dream about. So I would highly recommend it.”

(Peter Alvey)

The benefits for children can be huge, he says, and often centre around increased understanding of people’s feelings. “Through reading poetry, children are able to discover the thoughts and feelings of others, helping to increase empathy,” he explains. “Through writing poetry children can have the experience of their words, their thoughts and feelings, having power, being valid and listened to.”

And another big plus for parents reading poetry to their kids is that poems are often quite short, says Coelho. “You can dip in and out, you can read one poem, you can read 10 poems – there’s something really attractive about that, the ability to go as far as you want without feeling like you need to finish a whole chapter or complete the book. I think poems are really satisfying in that regard.”

And it’s not just reading poetry that Coelho is championing – he thinks children should try writing it too, and he’s even teamed up with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to launch the Poetry in Motion competition. The initiative is asking children aged between five and 13 years to write a short poem about somewhere they love to visit by train or think others should visit by train. Coelho is one of the competition judges.

The writer, who grew up in a single-parent family on a southwest London council estate, started creating poetry himself in sixth form after the Jamaican ‘dub poet’ Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze came to his school and “silenced my entire class” when she read one of her poems to them. “I thought ‘I wanna do that’,” he recalls.

And he did it in style, going on to write more than 35 children’s books, including his first poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, and the Overheard in a Tower Block poems. He eventually received the ultimate children’s writing accolade of being named Children’s Laureate, a post which celebrates outstanding achievement in children’s writing and illustration.

But is Coelho’s talent and enthusiasm for the world of rhyme really likely to be shared by the average kid?

“People often think kids won’t be into poetry, but in my experience, the key is to have the opportunity to find a poem and a poet they connect with,” he points out. Verse novels are a fantastic way in to poetry for kids, he explains. “Verse novels, by their nature, don’t take as long to read, and they can be great for a child who’s a reluctant reader,” he says. “They’re great at grabbing the reader and hurtling them through a story.

“So I think poetry is a very easy sell to kids when it’s presented in the right way, and they get a chance to discover something that speaks to them.”

He says some parents may be reading a form of poetry to their kids without even realising it, and explains: “You could argue that many picture books really are poems, especially the rhyming ones – picture books and poetry are very close cousins. And we’ve had far more poetry anthologies coming out, beautiful illustrated collections of gorgeous poems by lots of different poets.

“Books like that are really opening up the way to give parents the resources to read poems to young people at bedtime, or whenever they have a spare moment.”

But what about the kids themselves – how do they usually respond to reading or writing poetry?

“I find they get really excited about having a go,” says Coelho, who explains his work has always revolved around introducing children to poetry and giving them the chance to see themselves as poets and to write. “I feel that’s really important, because if you allow children the opportunity to write, they can see themselves as writers, and then words and language is not purely something we’re expecting them to consume, it’s something we’re inviting them into, and that makes them far more engaged, especially reluctant readers.

“I think that’s a far better place to get children hooked on reading, a place where they can see that words are theirs as well. It’s a party they’re invited to as opposed to something they have to take on.”

And he adds, in characteristically poetic style: “Poetry does a wonderful job – it translates the soul, it takes those things that we find it difficult to speak about, it sums up our feelings and our emotions, or takes a moment in time and condenses it into a beautiful, easily understandable nugget.

”Often young people don’t get the opportunity to just see themselves as a poet, and to discover the joy of playing with words. That’s what I love about poetry, I love the joy of playing with words.”

Waterstones Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho has teamed up with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to launch the Poetry in Motion competition for children aged between five and 13 years to write a short poem about somewhere they love to visit by train. Winners will have their poems displayed on trains and at stations across the GTR network and receive complementary return rail travel for themselves and four family members. The competition closes on May 10.