Poet, playwright and author Joseph Coelho has been named the new Waterstones children’s laureate, and will look to celebrate the power of poetry during his two-year tenure.
Coelho takes over the role from How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Cowell, who served three years instead of the usual two because of the coronavirus pandemic. He was announced as laureate at an event today at the Unicorn theatre, London, where he was given his bespoke laureate medal by Cowell. At the ceremony, Coelho performed a new poem he had written to mark the occasion, titled The Power of a Poem.
Coelho’s laureateship will focus on three major projects, including Poetry Prompts, a campaign to make the writing and reading of poetry accessible to everyone. Coelho said there was “a lot of baggage with poetry”, with adults and children often feeling poetry was something “done to them”, and that there was “a right and a wrong way, and a correct way of analyzing a poem”.
“I’m all for analyzing poetry, but we tend to miss out on writing poetry, and realizing poetry is for everyone,” said Coelho. “And as soon as you write poetry and realize that your voice is valid, then that opens up the world of poetry and makes you more interested in reading other poets.”
“I think that’s so important, to let young people know ‘You are a writer’, and to find ways to allow them to become passionate about poetry. First and foremost, poetry is about translating the soul; it’s about emotions and feelings; it’s about encapsulating a moment in time.”
Poetry, said Coelho, was something people turned to in times of need, be that weddings, funerals or new births, “because we instinctively know, deep down in our core, that poetry transcends”.
Coelho’s second project is called Bookmaker Like You, and will shine a light on authors, illustrators and those working behind the scenes in publishing, aiming to showcase a diverse range of people, and show children that they too can be a “bookmaker”.
He said the focus of the project would be on “celebrating the brilliant work … of these fantastic new and emerging voices coming out of the UK, so that every child gets to see themselves represented”.
“I’m really eager to get a range of voices across society so we see the whole of society represented,” he added.
Coelho’s third project is the Library Marathon, which follows a pre-pandemic target he set himself to join a library in every library authority in the country. By the time the pandemic hit, he had joined 140, and aims to join the remaining 70 during the next two years.
Libraries, Coelho said, had a huge impact on him growing up, first in Roehampton and then Wandsworth, south London. As well as using them as places in which to do homework and access books, Coelho also worked in his local library when he was a teenager and got a job at the British Library, working with rare books in the photocopying room, when he studying at University College London.
Library use plummeted over the pandemic but Coelho hopes that “by getting more people through the door and getting people that aren’t members to become members … we are generating and increasing that passion for libraries. I hope by generating passion, getting people excited, that’s where you can generate real change in the long term.”
Coelho’s debut poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, was published in 2014 and won the CLPE CLiPPA poetry award. He is also the author of a middle-grade series called Fairytales Gone Bad, illustrated by Freya Hartas; the YA novel The Boy Lost in the Maze; and nonfiction books including How to Write Poems, illustrated by Matt Robertson.
The laureateship is managed by the reading charity BookTrust and sponsored by Waterstones, and was launched in 1999, when Quentin Blake was named the first laureate. Other previous laureates include Jacqueline Wilson, Malorie Blackman and Chris Riddell.
Kate Edwards, chair of the Waterstones laureate steering group and of the selection panel, said that Coelho’s “dynamic performance, passionate advocacy and engaging writing – which inspires children of all ages – cemented our choice”.
Diana Gerald, chief executive of BookTrust, called Coelho an “extraordinary advocate for making poetry accessible to all, celebrating creativity and storytelling and inspiring younger generations to find their voice, pick up a pen, join a library and read a book”.