For better and verse

Poet John Hegley visited a small Northumberland primary as part of a northern book festival. He tells Elaine Williams why he's glad he made the journey.





Paul Shepherd, it seems, has hidden depths. His teachers were astonished that this nine-year-old boy could scribble such profundity. Even John Hegley, the poet, was impressed. "That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read," he said.

Hegley had been holding a workshop with nine and 10-year-olds at St Wilfrid's RC Middle School in Blyth, Northumber-land, during which they had made a "poetree". The "bark" was a poem about a dog, the "branches" were a long sentence about a bank - using as many B words as possible - and the "leaves" were a four-lined poem beginning with the letters L, E, A, F. Hence Paul Shepherd's masterpiece.

Teachers were nervous at first. After all, a somewhat dishevelled, rake-thin poet wearing braces and those infamous Buddy Holly specs is not the sort of creature you see much of in Blyth, a small, wind-blasted coastal town north of Newcastle. What's more, Hegley's off-beat humour might not prove suitable for their children. They did not quite know what to expect.

But the master of understatement proved the very creature the Year 5s could respond to, especially when he sang his song about the armadillo:

He had ants and beetles for dinner every day

Then creepy crawlies he could put 'em away

And he did his indoor doings in his indoor doings tray

His dead-pan expression with the tiniest trace of a twinkle in the eye was just the thing to get the collective muse going. If they were shy to read out their poems at the beginning of the workshop, there was no stopping them at the end. "Just let the words come out," said Hegley, and they did.

Nine-year-old Jean Vallons eyed his own doggie verse proudly: Taffy waffy went to the cafe

ordered some coffee

and custard jam toast

with spaghetti rolls and

spare tomato ribs

"This is fun," he said , "I thought a poet would be serious."

John Hegley appreciates the time he spends working with children, though he rations his sessions carefully. "I find it gives me energy, shakes the molecules up and it's so empowering for the kids. Often when they take their stuff home, parents don't believe they've written it."

His visit to St Wilfrid's was organised by Northumberland library services as part of the Northern Children's Book Festival, the biggest of its kind in the country. Up to 50 writers and illustrators work in schools all over the north-east for two weeks ending in a gala day.

This year 6,000 children, their teachers and parents, braved the sleet and icy gales blowing off the North Sea to meet at the Seaburn Centre, a leisure complex on the coast in Sunderland where authors and illustrators such as Nick and Annette Butterworth, Michael Foreman, Mairi Hedderwick, Paul Geraghty, Ian Beck and Robert Crowther read stories, drew pictures and generally explained how they put their books together.

This is an occasion to exhaust the most hardened enthusiast - a melee of face-painting, mask-making, excited children charging off in every direction and author sessions taking place in every conceivable corner - but it is also memorable. Where Nick Butterworth dazzled with virtuoso sketches of Percy the Park Keeper executed at breakneck speed, Paul Geraghty explained how drawing had never been easy, how he'd persisted through all his mistakes. One reception teacher was particularly impressed by this. "It's so helpful to show children how they mustn't give up at their first mistake," she said. "So many lose heart when they are drawing."

For sons like mine, who have read Jack's Fantastic Voyage over and over again, an explanation by Michael Foreman of how he always keeps a notebook in his pocket to jot down ideas, was a revelation. They have been carrying around pocket notebooks since.

The festival began 13 years ago when local librarians and children's booksellers collaborated to bring authors to the north-east. There are now 11 authorities involved from Northumberland down to Middlesbrough, with a combined budget of Pounds 13,000 to cover authors' fees. Publishers pay for travelling expenses and hotel bills and each authority is given 10 authors to share among schools.

"This gives our children such a boost," said Eleanor Dowley, a Sunderland librarian and NCBF committee member. "Many of them don't think of an author as a real person. This contact gives them that encouragement to look at books afresh. So much work is generated by these school visits."

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