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A Ticket to Kalamazoo: An Interview With Poet James Carter

Award-winning children’s poet and National Poetry Day ambassador James Carter has visited some 1500 Primary schools over the last 20 years. His poetry collection Zim Zam Zoom is now a staple in EYFS and KS1 classrooms, and this month sees the publication of its sister book, A Ticket To Kalamazoo.

Why poetry? Many reasons! I love music. Adore music - and poetry is language at its most musical. But it’s also so very playful as well as philosophical. There’s plenty of room for playfulness in children’s poetry, but also to be curious and gently reimagine the world - ‘hey look at that, but see it like this.’ And that is exactly what I think most if not all of my poems pretty much do. They play with the sounds of words, of cadences, rhythms and repetitions – but also present simple ideas. So every new poem is a double joy – it’s licence to play, getting knee deep in musical wordery but also to have those little inky thinky thoughts.

Is writing poetry for younger children easier than say writing for KS2? NO WAY! In fact the opposite is true: it’s much harder. I scrap a great many poems to get to the few I can keep. Especially younger poems. If you’re not careful, poems for younger ones can be over-simplistic and twee. I very much try to avoid this. I aim for modern, fun and funky!

With older children, you can write in a more adult way, be more subtle, more complex, more ironic even, and use quite sophisticated language at times. And I couldn’t write poems for younger ones until I had children myself. Then they poured out. ‘Look, Daddy – a caterillar on the wall!’ BOOM! Idea after idea. But still I had to work at it, craft it. And still do. You are more limited in terms of subject matters as well as language, but I love the challenge, and it’s great when it works. But for every poem that does, I may have scrapped 20 poems or so!

How did A Ticket To Kalamazoo come about? I had already done two younger collections with Janetta Otter-Barry. Small format black and white books. The responses to these were great, but teachers repeatedly said ‘We need these poems in colour, and as picture books to read to our children at storytime.’ So, after much discussion, Janetta agreed to publish what became Zim Zam Zoom – the very first book with her new publishing house, Otter-Barry Books. As soon as it went into paperback, it began to sell really well – and has even become a ‘book of the term’ with many KS1 / EYFS classes. How wonderful is that? So now we are publishing a sister book - A Ticket To Kalamazoo in the same format.

The concept of both books is to give teachers / librarians / parents poems that just zip off the page. Poems that are instant and immediate as well as memorable. They’re upbeat, happy things that are full of wonder for the world. Subject matters range from the natural world to space to even fairy tales! They are all performance poems, with rhymes and repititions, ideal for reading aloud, acting out, even learning by heart and doing with actions. As I edit each of these poems, I imagine a busy adult reading it out loud – so I want to create a poem that is easy, accessible and scans well. I don’t want them struggling to work out how it should be read. A couple of the poems in Kalamazoo are old, but the majority were written within the last ten years. And I try to make my poems as concerete and visual with as much imagery as possible as I know that teachers/children will put actions to them – as I do in my own performances in schools!

Kalamazoo is illustrated by the fabulous Neal Layton. I feel very lucky to work with him. He has such a lightness of touch, and a mischievous verve and playfulness to his illustrative voice. Neal is about to illustrate another book of ours, and this one is themed, and also for younger children BOING! a bouncy bug of bugs (Otter-Barry Books, 2024) – and it is part poetry collection part non-fiction book – so ideal for Early Years classrooms and libraries and classes that are doing minibeasts as a topic!

What tips do you have for rhymetimes or reading poems out loud? Same advice for any age! DOUBLE the volume and HALF the speed! Children particularly can rush and mumble their way through a poem. But adults do too – and there is no hurry. The slower a reading is, the more dynamic it is and the more the listener will appreciate the poem. Here’s A Handful from the book – a finger rhyme poem that is great fun to do with children as a call and response. So I say a line, and then they repeat that back to me. And with an action. So with the first line I hold up a fist and bring up a finger with each number –

‘One finger, two finger, three finger, four…’

And so on. It’s always best if you can get to know a poem realy well so you are not having to read it word for word, so can deliver it with conviction, and maintain eye contact with the children, and bringing in actions whenever you can. Call and response is something I do throughout my KS1 and EYFS performances as a) the children are with you 100% throughout, and b) absorbing lots of new words and concepts with each poem. Good luck!

A Ticket to Kalamazoo! Zippy Poems To Read out Loud by James Carter, illustrated by Neal Layton published by Otter Barry Books on 19th January 2023.


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