A long-time favourite with LoveReading4Kids, we are thrilled that Joseph Coelho, award-winning performance poet, playwright and children’s author, has been crowned the Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022 – 2024
“It is a dream come true to be appointed as Waterstones Children's Laureate, beyond anything my younger self could have imagined, and that's not good enough. During my tenure I will endeavour to ensure every child can see themselves in books and as writers of books, as storytellers, as poets with voices to be heard. So that we can create the future that we need, one where we all read, write and dream the infinite stories of ourselves and each other.”
Joseph Coelho's books show exceptional talent and he consistently experiments with the boundaries of his many crafts - poetry, writing in verse, playwriting with a remarkable ability to speak to readers (and soon-to-be-readers) of all ages, backgrounds and heritage. His current body of work spans lyrical, child-centred, child-sensitive picture books about missing a loved one, If All the World Were…, to comic, engagingly clever books about family life The Hairdo That Got Away, to poetry collections for older readers that are at once gritty, honest and stirringly empathic.
His books are beloved by children, written for and about children of all ages, and backgrounds and he’s demonstrably committed to diversity and inclusion, and already engaged with initiatives to inspire reading for pleasure in children, such as his Library Marathon. Joseph is a professional performance poet and an inspiring host of events - and we know he will be a brilliant, profile-raising advocate for children’s books.
Hot off the press, we spoke to Joseph about his exciting new post.
Huge congratulations on your appointment as Children’s Laureate. Tell us what you hope to achieve over your two year tenure?
Thank you I’m delighted, it really is a dream come true. I had a little cry when I found out which quickly rolled over into ideas mode! I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I'd like to achieve whilst caretaking this privileged post. Being a poet I really want to get the nation writing poetry through a series of Poetry prompts for young and old alike. We all know the power of poetry, that’s why we turn to it during the hard times, the exuberant times, the times when a worlds feel paper thin. but we often neglect to see ourselves as poets, to claim our birthright as poets. I want to remedy that, I want to nurture a nation of poets.
I also want to help diversify bookshelves, to give every child a chance to see themselves as a writer, poet or illustrator. So, during my tenure I’ll be finding and celebrating the work of up and coming bookmakers (writers, poets, illustrators and more) in the A Book Maker Like You Series. Where we’ll get to find out about the work and working processes of these brilliant artists.
Libraries have always been very dear to my heart, I was lucky enough to always live walking distance from a local library and so always had access to books, and a place to study and a place to meet up with friends. Libraries really can be hearts of communities and so I intend to fully lionize these brilliant spaces by completing my library marathon. I started the library marathon back in 2018 giving myself the challenge of joining a library in each of the 209 library authorities in the UK. I managed to join 140 libraries before covid struck, meeting librarians and borrowing books from fabulous writers and illustrators along the way. Now as Laureate I get to complete the marathon joining the remaining 70 odd libraries (with a few extra specials ones thrown in for good measure) and will be performing at each one sharing stories and of course poetry.
What drew you to write stories and poems for children?
I started out writing performance poems with an adult audience in mind. My poems tended to be funny and so I think because of the funny nature of my poems I was increasingly asked to share poems in schools. There was often a sense that kids only like funny (poo and bum) poems but I quickly discovered that students were hungry for poems that dealt with a range of themes and issues, they wanted complex poems and interesting poems, poems that navigated difficult subjects. I became excited by the prospect of filling this gap and writing poems for children that touched upon the funny but also went beyond.
How important is it for children to have early access to the magic of reading and stories?
It’s incredibly important. Books and stories create safe spaces where children can safely explore and navigate the dark woods and forests of emotions and difficult themes. They are spaces where they can read about characters and situations both familiar and totally novel which will not only broaden their horizons and help them to learn about the world but also aide them within their own lives.
Was there a book or particular author that turned you into a reader?
Discovering Toni Morrison’s beloved during English A-level opened my eyes to the depth and power of literature from then I borrowed every one of her books i could get my hands on from my local library.
From the Luna Loves series and your poetry collections, to your verse novels for older readers, your words are often accompanied by evocative artwork. Tell us about the importance of illustration to your work and how much of a collaborative exercise is it?
Illustrated books are like theatre, they are created by a team, by writer, illustrator editor and book designer. I learned early on to not get too attached to any “Vision” I may have for my books but to instead focus on the text. I found this allows for real collaboration because there is space for the illustrator to put their mark on the work without the pressure of any preconceived ideas from me. I have been very fortunate to be paired with some brilliant illustrators and it is always a thrill when the roughs start coming in and I get to see first hand how they have interpreted the story and characters.
Did you have a school library? How important was this to you?
Yes in Secondary school but not in primary which was a real shame, luckily we did have a public library near by. My secondary school library was a wonder with a brilliant librarian who was always on hand with fabulous suggestions of books. The Library was a great space to meet up with schoolmates, we could often be found in there during break and lunch times using the computers and browsing the shelves.
Did you grow up in a book loving family? How important are role models for reading?
I feel that children mimic more than they do what they are told, so if they see an adult reading they will want to read, alas most adults are buried in their phones as witnessed on any trip on public transport. My family always had a love of word play and silly little ditties that we’d make up or things we’d memorise off the TV. My grandmother is a big reader and always had a stack near her bed. To this day she has a Mabel Lucie Attwell poster featuring a poem above the toilet, whenever I’d visit I would try to memorise and to this day i can still remember the poem.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What were your first steps to becoming a published poet and author?
It was when the late, great, Jean Binta Breeze visited my school. I had never seen a poet perform live. She stood on a tiny school stage and performed a poem and totally wowed my class. That was the first time i realised that I could be an a writer, that I could be a poet.
Do you have any advice to parents and teachers to help encourage a love of reading from an early age?
Start with the interests of the child. We take it for granted that as adults we have complete freedom to choose what and when we read or write - we may pick up a magazine because of an interesting article or put down a book halfway through because it no longer speaks to us. Children on the other hand are often told what to read or “recommended” books. One of the most empowering things you can do is to give a child free range in a book shop or library and let them choose the books that excite them.
Can you share your top book recommendations with our readers?
There are so many great books out there but here you’ll find a mix of drama, sci fi and ghostly apparitions!
Polly Ho Yen’s Boy In The Tower
Patrice Lawrence's Needle
Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down
Thanks so much Joseph - and congratulations again and we look forward to seeing all you achieve throughout your Laureateship.
Awarded every two years, the Children's Laureate is given to an illustrator and/or author of outstanding excellence and is a prestigious role but also one of responsibility to champion children's literature and reading, employing their own individual passion and ideas.
Created by Ted Hughes and Michael Morpurgo in 1999, there is an impressive list of previous Laureates including Malorie Blackman, Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Donaldson, Quentin Blake and the retiring Laureate, Cressida Cowell. Managed by BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, and sponsored by Waterstones, the Children's Laureate is now in its 23rd year.
You can find out more about the Waterstones Children's Laureate at www.booktrust.org.uk/what-we-do/childrens-laureate
And on twitter @BookTrust