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The B on your Thumb - An Interview with Colette Hiller

Posted By Jacob Hope, 22 September 2020

We are delighted to welcome Colette Hiller to the blog to talk about The B on Your Thumb a collection of poetry published by Quarto which uses rhythm, humour and wordplay to help to develop a love of the English language.  The book has been chosen as a recommended read for National Poetry Day.


Please can you tell us a little about yourself?

I began life as a dancer at  NY’s  High School of Performing Arts (as in  the film Fame.) Interestingly, fame was not something any of us thought about.  But yes, we really did dance on the desks !    I  came to London with the original  Broadway production of Annie and liked it so much I stayed.   After years on the London stage – with the RSC (spear carrier on the right) and the National Theatre (spear carrier on the left) , I joined The BBC  as a researcher and then producer.   I  loved it there and worked 

across many departments, Education to Current Affairs. This led to my role as a cultural producer at   Sing London, filling  city streets with public pianos, ping pong tables and Talking Statues.  I’ve  also written a best selling children’s CD –  Applehead  – The B is my first book. 




The oral nature of language and storytelling is such an important part of our literary culture and of our early introductions to reading.  How much did this influence you?


Strawberry short cake cream on top. Tell me the name of  your sweet heart is it A? B? C  I was hugely influenced by the skipping rope and handclapping songs of my youth.    The rhythm, internal meter and simplicity of these rhymes  stuck in my head.   Further influence came from A A Milne , Mother Goose and  from Alligator Pie the Canadian classic by  Dennis Lee.  ( I was chuffed to bits when  Dennis Lee  wrote an endorsement for the book. And in  rhyme!)



Are there any rhymes that are particular favourites and, if so, why?

These rhymes  are  like  my children so I don’t like to show favouritism! That said...I especially like  TION – which tells  a  funny story.   The A in my Head – is wonderfully  daft!   And... I like A lot  a lot.   I’m actually a  rotten speller  myself, and so this  rhyme reminds me how to spell the word!. 

A  Lot

A  lot is not  just one word ,

 it’s always made of two

A lot of people don’t  know that

From now on, you do!

How important do you think sharing and reading aloud is?

Reading aloud  is  particularly important  with poetry .  When a poem is words on the page,  it’s only half formed.   It comes alive when said aloud.     My challenge when writing these was to create rhymes which felt  easy to recite,  and  gratifying.

Some of the complexities and irregularities of the English language can make learning to read quite tricky?  Do you have any experiences from working with BBC Education or through your work with early education about some of the challenges associated with this?

English is tricky and  lots of things seem to make no sense.  But  that doesn’t mean  these irregularities are s tricky to teach.   You just have to explain that they are weird.  For that matter,  take my rhyme to explain the spelling of  WEIRD



I before E

Except after C

And W too

On the odd occasion

(Which is wEIrd!)

What do you think of Tor's illustrations and did you have any interaction with him during the process of the book?

Tor ’s illustrations are  lively, entertaining and imaginative.  While a silent B may be painfully  shy, a Bossy E is  downright  bolshie!  But more than that, the illustrations  reinforce   the learning message  of each rhyme.    They are also  filled with  hidden things for children to find. 

There is a real sense of play, fun and interaction in the book, how important do you feel these are to learning?


I think the process of  learning to read should itself be enjoyable and entertaining.  It  shouldn’t be  arduous or medicinal.  And above all it shouldn’t be predictable!

All of these rhymes were  created around  a  playful sense of fun. 



Thank you to Colette for the interview and to Quarto for the opportunity.


 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  Poetry  Reading  Reading for Pleasure  Spelling 

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Butterfly Brain - An Interview with Laura Dockrill and Gwen Millward

Posted By Jacob Hope, 07 September 2020

We are delighted to welcome performance poet and author Laura Dockrill to the YLG blog alongside Gwen Millward to talk about their new book Butterfly Brain.  Part cautionary tale and part lithe and lyrical exploration of the ways in which memory and dreams contribute to our make-up, it is a beautifully written, illustrated and produced book that leaves a lasting impression upon the minds of readers.   

Congratulations on the publication of Butterfly Brain it feels a really special book with some profound comments on the impact of keeping feelings secret, on dreams and on memories.

LAURA: Ah thanks so much. I’m so excited about it. 

 Please can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

LAURA: I’m an author from south London. My love for writing and storytelling began at a very young age where I would love making up stories and scribbling plays for my younger sister and brother. As a child I would always keep a sketch book, scrap book and note pad by my bed and would constantly be keeping notes, writing poetry and stories, drawing, cutting and scribbling. I was a nosy, curious child. Obsessed with people watching and conversation. I even transcribed one of my mum’s phone conversations to my grandma without her knowing! I guess this was all a love that never really went away. I looked to writers of all disciplines - from Jacqueline Wilson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Roald Dahl and Carol Ann Duffy to cookbooks, film script, theatre, poetry and music. I love lyrics and would enjoy listening to the inspiration behind a song- punk, Bowie and soul. My dad would always encourage me to research the artists that I liked. To pick up a dictionary and learn a new word. My mum makes documentaries, so I think that’s where my love for character came from. The two smushed together made for a very eager, brightly coloured, overly excited, untactful spy. I’m very grateful to do my job. 

GWEN: I grew up in Wales and went to a Welsh speaking school in a tiny village called Llanfair Caereinion - go on! try and say it. My parents are both quite arty - writer Mum and artist Dad, so I found myself doing both and loved it (I wasn't very academic - I was really bad at maths, still am). I used to draw lots of leafy things and wildlife and wrote short stories about cats. 

I studied illustration in Edinburgh which was an amazing experience for an 18-year-old straight out of a tiny village. This stretched my brain and arty-muscles and helped me figure out how to hone my drawing and writing. When I was 25, I got my first picture book contract with Puffin books. It was incredibly exciting, but my agent reminded me not to give up my day job (which at the time was temping in an insurance company in Bristol, not my area of expertise!) and it took another few years before I was able to concentrate solely on writing and illustrating. To date I've written and illustrated three of my own books and illustrated 14 picture books and 13 pre-teen fiction books. I have lots of other books in the pipeline including another two of my own - which I cannot WAIT to get started on! One involves monsters. I'm excited.

Can you introduce us to the book and to Gus the main character?

LAURA: Sure. As a writer of children books I spend a lot of time (usually) doing school visits. It’s a really important and precious part of the job as it reminds you what children are actually like. They are changing and growing all the time. You learn a lot from them. How robust and resilient they are especially. How genuine! Physically being inside a school is also very evocative for our own memories- the smell of the crayons, the sugar paper, the paints - the dining hall- the savoury smell of rice and potatoes and custard. Of biscuit and pencil sharpenings. The noise of squeaky rubber on school halls. Of laughter and shouting and the triumphant clang of an out of tune piano in a school hall with a school assembly singing. And I forgot how much kids sit back on their chairs! It’s a little thing but they are always at it. Always being told off for it! When my little brother hector was little he would do this and once he pushed too far and split his head! I remember seeing his hair. Angelic white curls drenched in blood! And the stitches. I think that’s always stuck with me- and something I ALWAYS love to bring out to the kids in school! 

Gus has some pretty big things happening in his life.  How important do you feel it is to approach difficult situations in books for children and young people and are there any considerations in your approach?

LAURA: It’s extremely important. Books were my first friend. For many children they are solace, wisdom and companionship. They teach us how to love- to be thoughtful and ask questions. It is important that we tell stories that children can relate to with characters they identity with that share the same interests, aspirations and fears as them. It would be a lie if we pretended that life was totally blissful all the time. It has its tough bits and pain but we can show a child that they are not alone. That they are not weird or broken. And that in itself helps. Books teach us how to put our feelings and emotions into words- and that is such a vital life skill. Books are vitamins for the brain. 

Gwen: How did you respond to the story and character of Gus and were there any challenges in this?

GWEN: When I first read the text for Butterfly Brain I was really stuck by how fresh and raw Laura's words were. It's a heart breaking story but she tells it without soppyness or saccharine tone. It's gritty and painful and is straight to the point. Gus is a young boy in so much turmoil but can't unlock all that pain. It seemed right to reflect that in the drawings, which are quite edgy and dark I think. I have to admit I was in floods of tears towards the end of the book, trying to draw Gus as a baby with his Mum was hard to do through leaky eyes. I was a mess. I think also being a Mum to a 7 year old boy myself made it feel quite close to home - it really tugged hard at the old heart strings. 

Gwen: Can you tell us a little about your artistic technique?

 GWEN: The final images were drawn digitally, but initially sketched out in pen and ink. I used quite a strong dark line to outline the characters. This softens ever-so-slightly in the latter half of the book to reflect Gus's emotions softening and becoming less gloomy.


Laura: There’s a real sense of playfulness in the language of the book, which makes it very fun to read, did you enjoy writing it, were there any parts that you particularly enjoyed writing?

LAURA: Ah thanks! Yes I always spend a lot of time reading the work out loud. I write a lot in my head without paper and pen - in the bath or when walking or cooking. So the work always have a sense of rhythm and musicality to it. As I am inspired by storytelling and words in general- not just books- it is important to me that the work is illustrative and theatrical. That is not still and stiff on the page but dances and jiggles about. That people can feel the words in their mouth as though they are at a restaurant tasting a meal. When writing, a story does not just translate through the words alone but the order the words appear in and how they fit together too. 

It feels like there are some visual and written influences – the opening has similarities to Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales  (poor old Rebecca who slammed doors for fun and perished), and visually there are some similarities to the unsettling work of Edward Gorey.  Were any works or artists a particular inspiration?

LAURA: I’m so glad you picked up on that. Yes I am a very big fan of the macabre and Avant Garde, fairy tales, Greek mythology, folk lore and fables. Cautionary tales! I love Shockheaded Peter which actually has similar stories but I wanted to make sure that I delivered the real caution- which is to remind us to take care of our mental health as well as our ‘physical’ self- which is a harder thing to write about especially for little ones. And that the brain and body are connected as one. It’s about trauma and grief. Using the guise of smashing a head open as a realisation of grief.

GWEN:  I am a huge fan of Edward Gorey and I’m sure somehow in my subconscious his illustrations might have influenced me! I think Laura’s text inspired me mostly, though. Her language is very visual and I think I’m pretty dark, to be honest. It was a bit of a dream come true to be asked to illustrate this, I feel hugely lucky.

There’s some very profound comments around the role memory plays in defining who we are. Our members are librarians, do you have a favourite childhood memory of libraries and reading?

LAURA: You know I have met so many incredible librarians over the last ten years. Librarians that pick you up at 5am in the pouring rain for a day or touring schools, that carry the heaviest of boxes of books from their car. And back again. That sign your name in with a grin. That squeeze you in the back of their mini squished up next to their baby’s car seat and picnic blankets. Umbrellas and dog hair! Always smiling. Always talking about their favourite books. I have met librarians that have shown me to best shops in their villages- led me towards leopard print shoes and vintage dresses. Bought me the best carrot cake, hot chocolate and even gin in tins! I have met librarians that have INFLUENCE. Power. That can save a little child’s life by listening and sharing and offering that safe warm glow of the library arms to keep them safe like literary lighthouses! Librarians that know it all but say nothing and then speak up when it truly matters. That remember a young person’s name. That order that special book for them. That make them reading lists. That lend them pens and photocopy for them. That help with maths homework. That share satsumas behind the front desk. 

I’ve met librarians that make the best cups of tea in the world. The greatest cheese sandwiches. Encouraged and supported. Been loyal. And engaged. Get the best coffee shortbread biscuits in. That are soft and gentle and cosy. That speak in hushed tones when you’re reading only to bellow down the hall and electrify a gaggle of noisy kids in the hallway and put them ALL in their place. Librarians in the most incredible of fancy dress costumes. That have been at a school or in a community long enough to be mistaken for the building itself. Then those are new that simply LOVE books and want to make a difference. That have moved with the times. The change. Seen people come and go. Remain constant. Capable of putting one book in the right hands that could change a life forever.

GWEN: My memories of libraries and librarians are very fond ones. I would go with my mum or gran to the local, which was tiny but perfect. We also had a library bus that would visit when I was really small (Wales used to have lost of these). There wasn’t a massive selection, but it was fun having a chat with the librarian that ran it and a novelty to hop on a tiny bus and look at books.


 Thank you so much to Laura and Gwen for the fantastic interview and thanks to Piccadilly Press for the opportunity.



Tags:  Illustration  Poetry  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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The Science of Poetry with Dom Conlon

Posted By Jacob Hope, 09 April 2020

We are delighted to be joined by poet Dom Conlon who energetically discusses the science of poetry and its ability to help communicate complex information and questions about the world which surrounds us.  Dom's incredible collection of poetry This Rock, That Rock is published by Troika and features brilliant illustrations by Viviane Schwarz. Chris Riddell describes the collection as 'quite simply out of this world!'



Anyone who likes Star Trek will know that what I’m about to say is true: when it comes to science, art matters.  Whether it’s ‘enjoying’ the Data’s poetry about his cat, Spot, or watching episode after episode where the crew indulge their creative sides on the holodeck—it’s clear to see that art plays a major part in Federation life.  As it ought to.


But it isn’t just that we should all hope for a future in which we are free to enjoy art. It’s that art, and in my case poetry, can help bring about that future.


When I visit a school one of the things I can’t help but talk about is space. I love space. I’m a keen (albeit amateur) astronomer and I have even written a book which is entirely inspired by the Moon.  This Rock, That Rock.


I tell the children that though I’m supposed to talk about poetry, I’m the sort of person they can distract with a few well-placed questions. Accretion disks? The mathematics of extraterrestrial life? Is Earth flat? Did we really go to the Moon (yes)? Bring. It. On.

 My answers, however, almost always return me to poetry because it’s in the sometimes structured, always searching poetic form that I can make myself understood. And more importantly, it’s through poetry that everyone finds a way to express themselves.


Poetry has, as many of you will attest to, the reputation of being difficult. I hear this a lot... but mostly from adults. It’s hard to understand, they say. I don’t know what the poet means, they say (who cares, I reply). I don’t like poetry, they say. All these concerns and yet poetry is the tool we reach for in order to teach young children about life. It’s the form scientists sometimes use when they want to explain the beauty of their ideas. It’s certainly how I approached my part in the book Viviane Schwarz and I made together.


So what’s the science behind this?


To answer that we need to turn to... poetry.


Specifically, a poem called ‘Nothing In That Drawer’ by Ron Padgett.

I won’t print the poem here. Mostly because I don’t have to. By giving you the title I’ve also managed to tell you the entire poem. The title is repeated fourteen times to form the poem. I love using this in schools. It starts the whole ‘what is a poem?’ debate nicely but also (after lots of ‘oh no it isn’t’, ‘oh yes it is’ shouting) allows me to point out that the poem exists in the imagination of the reader. There is no complex language, no imagery you’d need a PhD in classical Greek to access. There Is Nothing In That Poem which excludes anyone from forming an opinion.

That’s because poetry is about the poet expressing themself in their own way. Using their own language. And just as we all find the type of music we like, so too can we find the type of poetry we like. The type which speaks ‘to us’.


And that’s where poetry comes into its own. It enables us to express our truth. Whether about how we feel or what we see, poetry is a tool we can all use. It’s also essential for communicating the future we want.


So here’s how it works: Stop imagining the future. Start imagining the present. Imagine it’s a present in which you speak the truth of your work using the simplest language and the minimum number of words. Imagine it’s a present in which you don’t worry whether you wrap that truth in sentences. Imagine it’s a present where the power of your words is measured in the response of your audience, an audience free to respond in their own words. Their response will be a truth you need to listen to because it will do one of two things: it will shape your poetry or it will shape your truth. Either of these will change the future.


This is what happens in the schools I visit. Sometimes that truth is personal, about how we want to live or how we feel. Sometimes it’s about understanding how the universe works. The children, once in the free and non-judgmental world of poetry, respond in beautiful and powerful ways. They can use poetry to touch the heart of a scientific principle, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s guided by two famous quotes by Einstein:


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”


“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”


The six-year-olds I’ve met understand poetry more instinctively than many adults. I am constantly learning from them.



Tags:  poetry  reading  reading for pleasure  science 

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World Book Day 2020

Posted By Jacob Hope, 28 February 2020
5 March 2020 is World Book Day and this year as our annual Twitter campaign we will be promoting poetry. We would love as many people as possible to take part. (1) Tweeting about your favourite children's poet/poem/poetry collection (2) Quoting lines of poetry from any of the above (3) Getting creative and Tweeting Book Haiku where you describe a favourite book in Haiku Don't forget to use the #WorldBookDay hashtag and to The best tweet will get special prize so put your thinking caps on! Attached to this post is a graphic which has been designed using this year's livery, please use this in your tweets so that these get more traction and also so that you can tag in various other accounts. You can save this by right clicking on the image and clicking 'save image as'. If you tag in @youthlibraries we will try to retweet these throughout the day! Do let us know your own plans for World Book Day too!

Tags:  Poetry  Reading  Reading for Pleasure  World Book Day 

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Jay Hulme: On Writing Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Posted By Jacob Hope, 03 October 2019
Updated: 03 October 2019

On National Poetry Day, it is exciting to welcome Jay Hulme to talk about 'Clouds Cannot Cover Us' an astonishingly direct and powerful collection.  Here Jay discusses his collection and helping to fill the gap that exists for Young Adult poetry.


I often say that if I didn’t already love poetry by the time we studied it in secondary school, I’d have hated poetry. The work we studied didn’t reflect our lives or experiences, and the idea that form stood above all else was frustrating to say the least. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be a gap in the poetry world; there’s lots of poetry for children, there’s lots of poetry for adults, but there seems to be so little YA poetry to bridge that gap and lead readers further on their literary journey. I was so excited when Troika suggested that I could help fill it.


The first thing to think about, when you’re writing a poetry collection, is what you want it to say. In many ways, a collection of poetry is one big poem, and poems (like poets) always have something to say. In writing this collection I thought about what I cared about as a teenager, and what I care about now. I thought about what it is I wanted to say. I was even persuaded (somehow) to dig up some of my old poems, ones I wrote as a teenager in high school and, after giving them a bit of an edit, include one or two of them in the collection.


It turns out that what I wanted to say was what I wanted to hear as a teenager - the truth. No “protecting” young people from the issues, no minimising their problems or experiences. No lies. What I wanted to say, what I hope this collection says, is: “The world is terrible. I get it. I see it. I know. But I promise you, there’s still good out there.”


This book doesn’t shy away from “issues” it tackles, among other things, domestic violence, general violence, homelessness, class divides, family strife, transphobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, death, refugees, white supremacy, disability, poverty, and more. It is the world as it is, and will hopefully enable young people to see their lives reflected back at them in a way that is both helpful and affirming.


Knowing the industry, I worried that this would be too much for a publisher, but Troika had asked me, specifically, for a poetry book for teenagers. They’d seen me perform. They’d read my work. They had actually met me (big mistake). They knew what they were getting into, or at least, I hoped they did. I sent off the manuscript - it felt like a game of chicken, where I was waiting for one of us to blink. I made lists in my head - which poems I’d be happy to get rid of, which topics might be ‘too much’, and which topics were too personal, or too important, to compromise on.


They didn’t blink.


We had a meeting, to discuss the order of the poems, the format of the book, how to make it familiar and appealing to as wide a range of readers as possible. They acknowledged the personal nature of many of the poems, and asked if I could make it into a narrative, if it could follow my life in some way. Then they did the unexpected, and instead of asking me to cut poems out, they asked for even more. I went away. I dug through my notebooks. I pinned poem titles on a giant corkboard and tried to see if they could fit in a semi-autobiographical narrative. The day I found an old poem about my own birth felt like a sign - I had an opening. But where next?


Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me.  And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth - the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter - kinder.


My hope is that as well as bridging the gap in poetry, into which so many young people fall, this book will also help people. Poetry has a power far greater than any other form of literature, it allows people to see, and feel seen. The intrinsic unknowability of a poem, the way it allows people to take from it what they most need in that moment, is something so often overlooked in the search for the “real” or “correct” interpretation, but it is unbelievably important; especially for a YA audience, who are so often searching for… something.


Hopefully this collection will act as a lifeline, and a mirror, and a friendly voice. Hopefully it will offer young people the affirmation and hope they so often need. Hopefully it brings a bit of good into the world. Hopefully it helps people.



Tags:  National Poetry Day  Poetry  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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Reading the Future: It All Begins with Enid Blyton

Posted By Jacob Hope, 02 May 2018
Updated: 02 May 2018

The Youth Libraries Group annual conference is always a high point in the calendar, a chance to recharge creative energies and to connect with all manner of ideas and with individuals working in the field. Our theme this year is Reading the Future and aims to explore what it means to be a reader in the 21st Century, some of the opportunities and challenges that exist around this and the ways in which information, stories and imagination traverse different platforms and technologies.

Reading is a vital skill, an opportunity to find release from daily lives, to encounter and engage with news ways of thinking, to step into the past or to look forward into the future. Running beneath the conference’s main theme is a series of strands exploring key areas of interest. The capacity poetry holds for conveying feelings, emotion and acting as an access point for reading makes it a very worthwhile focal point. We are delighted to welcome CLiPPA winners Rachel Rooney and Joseph Coehlo as speakers as well as having the National Literacy Trust presenting research on the role reading poetry has on child literacy. 

With the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, we’re looking at representation and rights for women in literature for young people. Our distinguished guests include Sally Nicholls, author of Things a Bright Girl Can Do, David Roberts, author and illustrator of Suffragette and many more. This melds with another key for the conference, Enid Blyton. 2018 marks 50 years since the writer, voted by the public as the UK’s best loved author, passed away. It feels an apt time to reconsider her literary legacy and uncanny ability to captivate contemporary readers. We will also have our first ever Midnight Feast in celebration of her work!

In another first, we will also be hosting the inaugural Robert Westall Memorial Lecture. This will be led by Dr Kim Reynolds from Newcastle University and Paula Wride from Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book and will look at the indelible impact that twice winner of the Carnegie Medal Robert Westall’s work has made on the field. It feels massively exciting to be working with so many different agencies – BookTrust, Seven Stories, National Literacy Trust, Empathy Lab and more – to bring the latest research and findings and to enable networking opportunities that add value and increase reach.

it also feels apposite that this year’s conference is taking place in Manchester, one of the UK’s new UNESCO Cities of Literature and we’ll be holding a special dinner to celebrate the role of key children’s authors and illustrators from the city. The conference is uplifting, lively, vibrant and most of all inclusive. We look forward to welcoming public and school librarians alike, staff from school library services, people from the education sector and all with an interest in children’s books.

Do join us for what promises to be thought-provoking and enlivening conference and a chance to build change and critical mass around reading. To book your place please visit

We would love to know your best conference memory or the session you are most interested in attending!

Tags:  carnegie  conference  cpd  illustration  kate greenaway  poetry  reading  universaloffers  visual literacy  ylg 

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