In the Land of…

April 26, 2022

The shortlist for the 2022 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award) will be announced very soon on Wednesday 4 May at Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. Ahead of that announcement, chair of the judges, Philip Gross shares his reflections on what the shortlist says about contemporary poetry for children here (without giving the shortlist away!).

There were these fabulous islands, I seem to remember – just offshore, picked out by sunlight, then (I'm thinking of the Isles of Scilly, which I love) not there at all. The Land in the West of Celtic legend, Tir nà Nog... That was the children's poetry I came awake to sixty-something years ago. It was Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter de la Mare.

I'm not being ironic. Part of me found freedom there – for imagination, for the touch of the strange while still being at home – though puzzled by a slight pervasive scent of sadness in the air, that of the adults who wrote, who read these things to me. They dreamed of return to childhood as much as I was doing my best to move on out of it.

What did I find? For a start, a larger territory, taking seriously the whole spread from the youngest reading ages to wherever the boundary with 'adult' might be... More richly inhabited too, drawing on many cultural backgrounds, not as exceptions or exotic, but part of a shared birthright.

I'm a sometimes-resident of the land of children's poetry, sometimes for years, as a writer finding ways to share the energy and craft of poetry in schools. Other times I've been away where writing leads me, so each landfall back here feels a fresh one. I get to see how things have changed... because like childhood itself, they continually do. Chairing this year's CLiPPA judging panel was one of those landfalls. What did I find?

For a start, a larger territory, taking seriously the whole spread from the youngest reading ages to wherever the boundary with 'adult' might be... More richly inhabited too, drawing on many cultural backgrounds, not as exceptions or exotic, but part of a shared birthright.

It isn't a walled garden. World news, of the gravest kind, can come in sight. Ecological perspectives come as standard, with informed attention to non-human lives (birds, insects, plants) and the concern that comes from that. Poetry and science go hand in hand.

There's space for inwardness, with anthologies and individual books offering tools to help name, understand and care for inner feelings. Sometimes this shades into public testimony, with stories told from previously disregarded lives.

I recognise books bred from long good practice of working in schools – holding a class's attention, eliciting the laugh, the ah-h-h, the pause for thought, the urge to write. So, too, the skill of modelling craft, not as a task but as a Hey, you could do this opportunity. Others feel like spoken word performance, with chat between the poems, life-story anecdotes, as engaging as the verse itself. Others again have their heartland in social media, only incidentally appearing in papery print. There are bright young writers coming through in all these fields.

Some boundaries are sharper – finer demarcations between age-bands and stages of development; others, thought-provokingly, more blurred: is there a border line at all between poetry and novel, or biography?

This year's haul was a rich one – 28 books got a close reading with so many different audiences, and different kinds of excellence, how could we compare? For the five in the shortlist, there were five more it physically hurt us to leave out. In the end we had to trust our responses on the almost wordless level where poetry works. Look away, try to forget about it... and which books just wouldn't let go of our minds? Which felt like doors opening into a space where young readers would think Yes! I want to be that kind of writer, too?

And as for a winner... Well, you must read all five of the books on the shortlist and judge for yourself.

This year’s CLiPPA judges are poets Nikita Gill and John Lyons, Becky Swain, Director of the new Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Charlotte Hacking, Learning and Programme Director at CLPE.

Every CLiPPA shortlist features a range of superb new poetry for children but this year the judges were taken aback by the quality of books submitted and excited that from such a wide variety of age ranges, types and forms, there will be a book on the shortlist to engage every child. They were struck by the quality of the production and the care publishers had taken in matching illustrator and poet.

Philip Gross

Philip Gross has published twenty poetry collections, including four for children, and won many of the major awards in British poetry, from the National Poetry Competition to the TS Eliot Prize. He won the CLiPPA 2011 for his collection of poems Off Road to Everywhere. His most recent collection of poems for young people is Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry Books) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA 2019.