A Fairy-tale Ending? : in conversation with the Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Joseph Coelho

We all like a fairy-tale ending – but what happens when the story goes, in performance poet Joseph Coelho’s words, a bit“icky”? Ahead of his appearance at The Bath Children’s Literature Festival later this month, Daisy Game chats to the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate about subverting expectation.

Joseph Coelho is Pro 2022. Well: he’s Pro Telling It Like It Actually Is In 2022.

“There aren’t many ditties and rhymes that speak to the children of today”, the performance poet, theatre-maker, and newly announced Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022–2024 tells me; and that, in Coelho’s opinion, simply won’t do. The Laureate’s upcoming collection of baby ‘action poems’, Blow a Kiss, Catch a Kiss, (publishing in October) means to actively celebrate what the poet describes as “a world that we recognise in 2022”: gone are the Wheels on Buses and Rings o’ Roses – with Kiss, Coelho is putting car journeys, avocados and screen time on the verse map. This is poetry for the contemporary kid.

That said, Coelho isn’t against using his work to explore a landscape slightly further removed from our 2022 reality. Later this month, the Kent-based writer is set to make an appearance at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, where he will delve into the curious world of his Fairy Tales Gone Bad series: comprising three books, FGB takes familiar fairy tales – and flips them upside down, inside out, on their heads, etc. Cinderella is transformed into the undead Zombierella, Rumpelstiltskin receives a Mary-Shelley-makeover (Frankenstiltskin) and, in the last of the trio, Sleeping Beauty morphs into chilling counterpart, Creeping Beauty; as Coelho puts it, the stories have all turned a little bit “icky”.

“I have always been drawn to fairy tales, and Greek myths, legends – folk tales”, he tells me; “There’s something really archetypal in those stories, something that connects deep down in all of us. That’s why they’ve lasted so long: because they deal with themes and issues that have been themes and issues for millennia.”

As for his desire to turn the literary world a little topsy-turvy – the poet simply likes to keep his readers on their toes (/fingers): “In this day and age, we have so much content – there’s not a huge number of stories that we all know; but most of us know those fairy tales and folk tales. And so there’s a wonderful opportunity there to turn things on their heads and subvert expectation, because the audience knows what to expect. They know the stories. There’s a lot of fun to be had there.”

It’s this sense of fun that Coelho intends to share around while at the festival; his Guildhall-based event will kick off with a set of Creeping Beauty readings and performances.

“Performance and poetry were always at the heart of my work”, the writer says, recalling how he enjoyed playing around with the likes of Oliver Twist and Bugsy Malone as an eleven-year-old. While studying for a degree in Archaeology at UCL, Coelho continued to tread the boards, juggling coffins and crypts with costumes and call times.

Poetry is a birthright – expressing our feelings and emotions is a birthright

Performance remains a significant part of Coehlo’s writing process: “When I’m writing, I do tend to pace the room a lot and do the character voices: I always draw on my background in performance to help bring characters and books to life”.

Peeling poetry off the page (points for alliteration, perhaps?) is a process that Coelho is keen to see his readers enjoying too; post-festival performance, he will run a workshop in which his little audience members will be encouraged to dream up their own fairy tales/nightmares.

It all sounds like pretty good fun to me – but I am curious: do young readers ever show resistance to being plunked down with a poem – “icky” or otherwise? The answer, Coelho admits, is yes. Children can be sceptical; but this attitude isn’t something with which young people alone are afflicted.

“I think for both children and adults, poetry comes with a lot of baggage – often because it’s been taught in a way that [suggests that it] has to be analysed, and that there’s a correct way and a wrong way to analyse a poem – and there’s a correct answer and an incorrect answer.”

This somewhat forensic approach to verse, Coelho suggests, isn’t always the easiest of classroom pills to swallow; “If you’re told to analyse a poem, but never told that you are a poet, then that can be very off-putting – because we are all poets. Poetry is a birthright – expressing our feelings and emotions is a birthright”.

This last point is one that Coelho devotes a decent chunk of his professional energy to pushing. In 2019, he teamed up with the BBC to produce Understanding Poetry (a series of short films geared towards making poetry accessible for KS1 and KS2 children), and in July of this year he was announced as the Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022–24. It’s a role that will see Coelho take on three projects, all of which aim to demistify poetry and the publishing industry as a whole. First up, the poet will complete his ‘Library Marathon’. Pre-Covid, Coelho embarked on a tour of the nation’s 200+ libraries, successfully dropping into 140 of them before The Dreaded put a (full) stop to such bookish ramblings. In the coming months, Coelho will recommence his travels: borrowing books, meeting librarians and signing up for those all-important library cards at each of the remaining stops. He will also put into action ‘The Poetry Prompt’, through which the writer hopes to encourage people nationwide – enthusiasts and sceptics alike – to pen their own verse. Finally, Coelho’s ‘A Book Maker Like You’ project will introduce young people to up-and-coming members of the publishing industry: from writers and illustrators, to poets, editors, agents – and more.

“It’s so important that we get to see a diverse range of voices in publishing and in writing, so that every child gets to see themselves represented and can have that thought: “Ah, that could be me! I could do that job one day!”, the poet enthuses.

“If all the world were paper, we could paperclip families together, draw smiles on all the sad faces, rub out the tears”

“That job” is a pretty important one, after all. “I think instinctively we know that poetry is powerful”, Coelho continues; “That’s why we turn to poems at weddings and funerals and new birth. There’s something about the shorter medium, something about the way poems are able to describe the indescribable. They translate the soul – deep down we all understand that.”

Translating the soul, funerals, “describing the indescribable”: I can’t help but wonder at Coelho’s attitude. It doesn’t sound as ‘child-friendly’ as one might expect the Children’s Laureate’s to be. But this writer isn’t one for using rose-tinted ink – and he’s willing to bet that younger readers aren’t interested in reading anything written in it either.

“I’m definitely aware that kids are hungry for stories and poems that deal with deeper subjects, sometimes-darker subjects – because we often protect them from those things. But actually, a book is a wonderful space – a wonderful safe space – where young people can explore some of the trickier things in life. Where we can explore death, and grief, and mourning and help young people navigate these areas of life that we will all experience and have to go through. The more you can read stories that are like our own stories, or stories that are totally different to our own, the more we can step into the shoes of others; the more we can step into shoes that are very like our own as well – the more we can navigate life.”

It’s not just children for whom Coelho’s poetry provides a sense of direction. Sitting down to read If All The World Were Paper – one of Coelho’s better known pieces – I can’t help but feel (suitably) torn up. “If all the world were paper, we could paperclip families together, draw smiles on all the sad faces, rub out the tears”, the fifth stanza begins. As a child, Coelho’s imagery provides a helpful visual through which he or she might begin to grasp the dimensions of family relationships; but as an adult, the verse does something quite different. It makes us yearn for a time when things seemed so simple – and wonder how it was that they ever ceased to be so. There’s a touch of the Toy Story 3 Phenomenon about Coelho’s work: where cinemas were filled with weeping adults, libraries stocking the Laureate’s work should consider putting aside a seat or two for any sobbing 23-year-olds in session. When I mention this to Coelho, he confesses that Paper did raise some publishing-eyebrows when he presented it as a children’s poem. It was suggested that the language might be a little on the ‘challenging’ side for younger readers.

“Yet now that it’s published”, he ponders aloud; “It’s one of my most popular poems for children, and one that children will make their own and do their own versions of because they respond to the emotional content.”

When it comes to a good poem, it seems that age really is just a number; as Coelho so excellently puts it, “Good stories and good characters transcend all boxes that you put them in in terms of age. I just try to write good characters and good stories that I hope will connect, and that I believe all readers – regardless of age – are hungry for.”

So set the literary table, Bath: this fairy tale is about to go deliciously bad.

Joseph Coelho is at The Guildhall, Bath on Friday 30 September for Bath Children’s Literature Festival | bathfestivals.org