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The Lion and the Unicorn 27.3 (2003) bmxi-bmxii

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Announcement of New Poetry Feature

In April 2005, The Lion and the Unicorn will initiate a new poetry feature, modeled on the annual poetry award essays published in the British children's literature journal, Signal, between 1979 and 2001. Signal ceased publication in August 2003. Our intention, at The Lion and the Unicorn, is to continue the Signal tradition of intelligent discussion about each year's work in poetry for children--though the focus will shift from poetry collections published in the United Kingdom to those published in North America. Although the Signal winner did receive a nominal prize (of £100.00) and a certificate, the critical discussions about poetry were what mattered. The eloquent, long (10,000 word) essays on each year's work had a profound influence on poets, publishers--and on the people charged with choosing and circulating poetry among children.

When John Mole (the 1988 winner) was asked about the value of theSignal poetry award, he replied that the judges always offered "genuine criticism of the work of individual poets writing for children, including awareness of their antecedents and an interest in technique." The main value, he said, was in recognizing that poetry for children had to be argued from "a deep respect for the craft of poetry, and with a resolute refusal to admit any work to the Signal canon which patronized children."

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Signal poetry award essays were helpful in tracing and establishing trends in the publishing of poetry for children. The traditional Romantic innocent pastoral of English poetry for children in the works gave way to the more visceral, accomplished poetry of Ted Hughes and Charles Causley, and then moved gradually towards recognitions of the urban and the everyday (in the works of Michael Rosen, Roger McGough, Allan Ahlberg and Gareth Owen, for example). The essays also welcomed poets writing in "other" Englishes, poets such as James Berry and Grace Nichols.

In the essays, there were always intelligent discussions about the assumptions inherent in poetry published for children: the tendency to "overdecorate," or the folly of producing yet another lavishly illustrated forgettable book of nursery verse, or one more monotonous, tiresome book of falsely cute or jovial verse. The authors of the essays never shunned playful verse--as long as it was written by poets with sensitive ears, cognizant of the varied traditions of English poetry. The award judges remained tuned only to those collections they regarded as serious poetry--though the definitions remained as elusive as ever. [End Page bmxi]

The first Signal poetry award went to Ted Hughes, five years before he was appointed Poet Laureate. Hughes went on to win the award two more times (once with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney). John Mole, James Berry, Philip Gross, and Charles Causley were other winners with distinguished careers as poets for both adults and children. The Signal poetry award essays were also instrumental in identifying the voices of new poets and establishing their credibility. Gareth Owen, Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay and Grace Nichols all belong in this category. The Signal poetry award judges, including Aidan Chambers, Jan Mark, Margaret Meek and Peter Hunt, were influential in defining good poetry for children published in the United Kingdom, though patterns only emerged gradually as the essays accumulated over the years.

Our first Lion and the Unicorn award essay will be about the poetry books published for children in North America in 2004. The definitions of good poetry will change. We won't know quite what we're looking for, but Stephen Roxburgh, the American publisher of Front Street Books, offers a helpful possibility. "Every good poet has written for children," he says, "if 'for children' means that children can engage with and respond to the poems." Roxburgh's sense of the definition of engagement with and responses to good poetry will chime perfectly with the tastes of the new Lion and the Unicorn selectors.

Although the new name for the award and a formal donor have yet to be confirmed, we do...


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