Author Archives: Debbie Pullinger

Joseph Coelho – Creativity Through Poetry

From the moment Joseph Coelho steps onto the stage, the auditorium is transformed into a relaxed, creative space where the audience is invited to immerse themselves in the poetry and the fun. And as soon becomes clear, inviting audiences in and making them feel part of a collective story is very much part of Joseph’s ethos. For him, everyone is a natural writer and poet, and his Laureateship has been about opening up spaces for children to see themselves as storytellers, and about making poetry compelling and fun rather than intimidating or dry. 

He recalls his sixth-form self meeting the Caribbean dub poet and storyteller, Jean Binta Breeze, and discovering the world of spoken-word poetry. It was this encounter that opened up the possibility of becoming a writer – not something he’d thought of as an option before. And so, he set off. Performing poetry, writing and performing in plays, sometimes living out of his micro-camper, “Elsie-G”, eventually led to a meeting with a publisher at Walker and then to more than 35 books for children of all ages.

As Children’s Laureate, Joseph has been travelling around the UK, visiting and joining 213 libraries, cycling some of the way on a homemade bamboo bike. He proudly shows his collection of library cards before telling us about his Bookmaker Like You project, which is helping to diversify bookshelves and bring children into contact with a wider range of of writers and creators. “Wait for no-one!” he says. “There are no gatekeepers apart from those that you give keys and chains to.” 

Joseph emphasises the importance of play – the “climb, leap and swing” route into poetry for children. It’s certainly not about finding “the right answer”, and as he reads his poem, “An A* from Miss”, in which a teacher seeks to reduce a child’s attempts at poetry writing to clichés and formulaic expressions, there’s a chuckle of recognition in the audience. He then sets about showing us that poetry is innate and belongs to everyone; that it can be limited or boundless, long or short, rhyming or rambling or ridiculous. Images go up on the screen and we yell out suggestions for one-word poems to go with long titles – “The sad tale of a fly”? – “Splatt!” Then the whole audience collaborates on a longer composition, supplying lines about the sun that magically coalesce into an amusing poem. 

At the heart of all this is the message that poetry is not about you and it’s not about me. Poetry, says Joseph, is about giving. It’s a point of connection, most needed when it speaks to something that we can put no other kind of words to. We need poetry, he says, because “it cuts through the sludge to the tendons of the heart”. In times such as these, the world perhaps needs this now more than anything.

Alongside this year’s lecture, the “Creativity through Poetry” exhibition at the Homerton Library offered not only some rare gems from their children’s literature collection, but also a “Poet-tree”, inspired by Joseph’s poem, “Library”: “It is a library, but also, it is alive, it breathes, it is a wood, it is a forest.” Along the branches are snippets of Joseph’s poetry – “you’re going to fill the world with blossoms. / How could you not?” – while paper blossoms offer poetic words of peace and consolation for library visitors to take away. The exhibition is open until 13th July.

Blakeney Clark (MPhil Student, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge)

The 2024 Lecture

THE 2024 PHILIPPA PEARCE LECTURE will given by Joseph Coelho and will be entitled: Creativity Through Poetry.

The multi-talented Joesph Coelho is a poet, performer, and playwright. In 2022 Joseph became the 12th Children’s Laureate.Stepping into the role, he said that he wanted to celebrate the power of poetry, showcase new authors and illustrators to diversify bookshelves, and inspire.

How to Train Your Reader and Life Changing Libraries

The moment Cressida Cowell stepped up to the lectern, it was clear that the very same energy and fun that characterises all her books were right here in front of us. We settled back with the happy anticipation of a child who’s about to be read to.

Though her work has been transported to the big screen, for Cressida it is still the printed page where the real magic happens. “Books are our tool to make sense of the inexplicable,” she said, “to articulate to ourselves what we feel but cannot always say. They’re our comfort, our distraction, a way to travel when life seems dark and is closing in on us, a way to laugh when not much seems funny.

“I remember every book that was read aloud to me as a child,” she went on. And it is those early memories that have sustained a wonderfully generous impulse to welcome successive generations into the life-giving world of books. It is clear that she remembers not only every story she heard, but also every detail of the experience. Like many of the most successful children’s writers and illustrators, she has an acute awareness of what it is like to be a child reader, and an almost supernatural ability to home in precisely on what will capture their imagination.

With a clear sense of vocation to be a children’s author, Cressida made a decision at the outset that she would write books that “get kids reading; that will be funny, clever, visually packed adventure stories that get kids thinking; books that will be written for everyone, mass market”. As she welcomed us into the world of her own creations, she went on to demonstrate how every choice is made with the invitation to the child in mind. Rule-breaking text packed with wit and wisdom; pacy plots and captivating characters; words that feel good on the tongue when read aloud; “slightly scrawly” drawings such as a child might produce. (Though her books are aimed at 8–12 year olds, illustrations abound and are an integral part of the text.) Even the drawing materials are considered: the softest of pencils for images conveying heightened emotion, for example. It might seem calculating – and in a way, it is. But all the reckoning is done with so much loving care and attention – like planning a surprise party for someone you love and know well and so want to make everything just right for them.

If Cressida is training her reader, what you see in these books is itself the result of a thoroughgoing training. An Oxford English degree was followed by an illustration course at St Martin’s – a course that taught her more than how to be an artist. “It taught me to stick to my guns because when everybody else stood up and said ‘this is my project on Death’, or ‘this is my project on the rise of Nazi Germany’, I would then have to present my own work on ‘Mr Orange the Talking Carrot’. And, as in the best of quest stories, everything turns out to have its purpose. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she insisted, “not even the Anglo Saxon literature … And the talking carrot can also represent something equally worthwhile.” But what makes the difference is figuring out your own quest. That’s what helps you make decisions. And hers, she knows, is all to do with creating readers.

As Cressida moved on to talk about her work as Children’s Laureate, it became apparent that this was indeed part of the exact same quest. As Children’s Laureate, she embarked on an ambitious project to champion libraries, and in particular school libraries – which, as research shows, are instrumental in getting children to become people who read for pleasure. She thinks of a library just as she thinks of one of her own books – a creative, creating, child-enticing space. What she calls a “Life-changing library” delights the eye and calls to the ear; it provides safe, cosy corners in which to retreat; it’s a portal to other worlds; it’s an invitation to encounter others, and to meet yourself.

And yet, when schools are forced to make cuts, the library is very often the first thing to be shelved. One in seven primary schools now has no library at all, and statistics for some areas – especially those with a high proportion of disadvantaged families – are worse still.

The ‘Life-changing Libraries’ project succeeded in getting £100 million pounds a year ring-fenced for school libraries, and in getting them onto the political agenda. Then, because the library is something of a threatened habitat and few people seemed to know what a good one would look like, Cressida worked with BookTrust to set up six “gold-standard” Life-changing Libraries. Each received a transformative package that included a thousand books, an interactive audio-book facility, an ebooks subscription, furnishings and bespoke wall art, and staff training and support for embedding a whole-school reading culture. As Cressida’s video and the BookTrust report show, the results have been extremely encouraging – most especially, perhaps, in the way each school embraced and made the library its own.

It was, and is, an extraordinary achievement. And the source of this drive? What else but books? “Booky People,” said Cressida, “have tenacity and resourcefulness because we are passionate about what we do.”

This, of course, was a lecture addressed to an entire auditorium of Booky People, so not the ones who need persuading. But as Cressida said, “It is when times are hardest that we need the transformative magic of books and reading the most.” So in what are unquestionably hard times, it was good to be reminded of that, and of the need to ensure that what we have been privileged to enjoy is passed on to future generations. Cressida’s final rallying call left us in no doubt: “As Waterstones Children’s Laureate, I pledged to fight for children’s reading with passion, conviction and action. My quest will continue. I hope you will join me.”

Be Careful What You Wish For! Magic Words from the 2019 Philippa Pearce Lecture

It was the kind of bright, spring afternoon when anything seems possible, as excited children’s-literature enthusiasts filled the Homerton auditorium. Those lucky enough to attend the twelfth annual Philippa Pearce Lecture were treated to an engaging and illuminating talk by former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For!”. Like her award-winning books, Jaqueline’s words were sharply perceptive, sweetly endearing and indicative of a writer who has not lost her ability to see the world through a child’s eyes.

She began by recalling an author’s conference she’d attended very early in her career. Slightly nervous and not knowing anyone else, she was grateful to be befriended at lunch by a woman who mentioned, in a very modest way, that she’d written “a book about a garden”. Only afterwards did Jacqueline realise that her new acquaintance was none other than Philippa Pearce. She was bowled over by the warmth, humility and genuine interest this celebrated author had shown to “a young beginner”.

Jacqueline went on to reflect on some of her own childhood reading experiences. She recalled staying with her grandparents and finding nothing to read except an old Maria Edgeworth book which included The Purple Jar. In this short story, Rosamond’s desire to own one of the enchanting purple vessels she sees in a chemist’s shop leads her mother to teach her a rather painful lesson about making prudent choices. Jacqueline explained that, whilst she didn’t mind “traditional ‘be careful what you wish for’ tales as such”, she has always “hated this lofty adult viewpoint in which adults always know best.” For her, writing for children is driven by the desire to capture a child’s point of view: their worries, woes and wishes

Jacqueline then considered various literary attempts to capture that world in general and the wished-for in particular. These included E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It – the inspiration for her own, updated version, The Four Children and It. Eventually she lighted on Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small as a shining example of a ‘Be Careful What You Wish For!’ narrative. This story of a boy who wishes for, imagines and ultimately receives a dog of his own artfully compels readers to consider “the joys—and the dangers—of living totally in the imagination” without ever becoming patronising or dismissive of the intense emotions children feel and the lessons they learn. (Lessons that many adults are still learning, whether or not they choose to admit it.) Philippa Pearce, Jacqueline suggested, was as wise as the granny in the book who says, “People get their heart’s desire, and then they must learn how to live with it”.

Wishing has evidently been a powerful force in Jacqueline’s own life. She told us how, as a little girl daydreaming about her heart’s desire of being a writer, she imagined not only writing – but also giving talks to packed auditoriums

Sitting at the head of an excited queue and signing books must be a very regular feature of this successful writer’s life. This evening’s queue was almost certainly unusual, being an exclusively adult one. But clutching well-loved favourites as well as shiny new purchases from the Heffers bookstall, and enthusiastically discussing favourite characters and scenes, this line of eager fans was perhaps not so very different.

“The worlds of my imagination and my reality have sort of interlocked together, and I think that’s the happiest part” says Jacqueline. ‘Jacky’ is one little girl who got what she wished for, and everyone who attended the Philippa Pearce lecture, as well as countless children and adults across the world, remain incredibly thankful for that.

Lilly Posnett ( MPhil Student, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge)

“As scary as it needs to be”

The Tenth Anniversary Lecture
Frances Hardinge: Peopling the Dark

Image: Stephen Bond

“Is your book too scary?”

The only time she’s been asked this by a child, says Frances, was in an email from an eleven-year-old. Having been warned off one of her novels by a well-meaning relative, the young correspondent had decided to appeal to the author for adjudication. Adults, on the other hand, frequently express concern.

To those concerned adults, what Frances would like to say is, “it is as scary as it needs to be.”

A click and a flick through the blurbs on Frances’ website will leave readers in no doubt about what they’re in for. “Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances” … “ New openings appear in the shadows, a black carriage rumbles through the streets” … “Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts” … You get the gist.

Bright and funny, the behatted figure at the lectern seems an unlikely conscript for the dark side. Yet stories from the shadows have always struck a deep chord with this children’s author. She describes vividly her childhood interest in terrifying tales, even as they “scared the stuffing out of me”. (An early work by the six-year-old Frances included an attempted poisoning, a faked death and a villain being thrown off a cliff.) And it becomes clear that over the years she’s built a voluminous inner library that has enriched her own writing – and this most compelling lecture.

Reflecting on the darkness found in various works of children’s literature, she observed that the menace often comes through suggestion and allusion. It may be half-heard, like the whistles in Philippa Pearce’s own short story, The Shadow Cage; or half-seen, like the stone watchers in Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams (Frances’ own childhood favourite); or shrouded in tricksy language, like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Why is it, Frances wondered, that grimness and monstrosity are delivered to children through glimpse and glance? Certainly, it allows these things to slither under the radar of adult gatekeepers. (Though, ironically, their shadowiness may render them even more worrisome.) But more to the point, she went on to argue, shadow is in their very nature.

“As adults,” she said, “we forget what the darkness once was to us. We forget what the child knows: that light is only a respite, and the return of the dark brings the return of the monster.”

As adults we tend to reach for the switch and bathe everything in the cold, hard light of rationality. And yet, asked Frances, why should the faculty of the imagination be any less enlightening? Carroll’s Humpty offers a rational interpretation of “Jabberwocky” – and we know he is wrong. “He is right about individual words but he is wrong about the poem; Alice is closer to capturing its essence.”

Another dreaming child, Marianne understands that the dreamworld and the ordinary world are both real. “An adult reading Marianne Dreams might understand the menacing stones  as a facet of a child’s illness, a metaphor for a mundane threat. But this does not help the child.”

Children’s authors are, of course, adults, but they are, Frances believes, adults who remember and acknowledge the darkness that besets the minds of children, and who try to tell them that somebody understands. Sometimes, she says, we can just reach for the light switch –  “Look! No monster under the bed.” But sometimes children need to be told, “You are not silly or weak, you are not alone in the darkness with the shadows – I can see them too.” Philippa Pearce herself understood this well, as Frances pointed out. In The Shadow Cage, the child is rescued at the last by an adult who is able to step outside of the adult mindset, and to hear and recognise the reality of the menace.

But most importantly, said Frances, children need to learn that “to fight the shadow, you need the right sort of light.” And so, she took us all with her into the shadows, shining her own brand of light into the dark.

The 2018 lecture with Frances Hardinge

We are excited to announce the title of Frances Hardinge’s forthcoming lecture:

Peopling the Dark

Frances’ highly acclaimed children’s novels include Fly By Night, Twilight Robbery, the Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song and Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree. For her Philippa Pearce lecture, she will explore unseen and half-seen figures of menace and malice in Philippa Pearce’s The Shadow Cage, and other children’s literature.

photo © David Levenson

This lecture sees the Philippa Pearce Lecture celebrating its tenth anniversary. It takes place on Thursday, 19 April at 5.00 pm, in the Mary Allen Building, Homerton College, Cambridge. A wine reception follows. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. Sign up to our mailing list to secure your place in the queue!

A Beautiful Conversation

There was mounting anticipation as the queue moved through the foyer of the auditorium. We had come to hear one of our most celebrated illustrators and a recent children’s laureate, Chris Riddell – and the wait was very nearly over.

Oh, hang on. It was over. Even as we scrabbled for seats in the packed auditorium, the big screen at the front was filling with images. Political cartoons, book characters … an image of the speaker himself, then captioned, “I have a strange feeling of being watched.”

And so it continued for over an hour, as drawing after drawing flowed effortlessly from a soft pencil or stick of charcoal, giving substance to the stories. It was mesmeric. Like seeing live thinking on the page. Even in the Q&A, Chris thought through his fingers, his words glossing each emerging image. Perhaps this is what prompted one question about whether children should be taught this language of drawing, just as they are taught the language of writing. Chris’s wry reply: an ironic speculation about what would happen if drawing were subjected to the same methods of teaching and assessment as are now employed for conventional literacy.

Expounding his theme, “The age of the beautiful book”, Chris talked of the wonders of modern book production and of his negotiations with “The Department for Making Books Beautiful” (aka the production department). Matt coating, spot varnishing, foil embossing, sprayed edges and other technological tricks of the trade open up mouth-watering possibilities for an artefact that engages and delights all the senses. For reading, for children and adults alike, is so much more than making sense of the words and images on the page.

Books may be beautiful, but that doesn’t mean they have to be handled with kid gloves,­ at least as far as Chris is concerned. For him, a book is part of an ongoing conversation, and any space on the page an obvious invitation to get your pencil out. To the slight discomfort of those of us reprimanded for crayoning in books as children, he proceeded to draw all over a centre spread in a copy of Paul Stewart’s Returner’s Wealth – and then flipped over its pages to reveal his “illustrative annotations” proliferating through every chapter. But for Chris, this is just a natural response. “I’m drawing in books because I want to celebrate the book. Why would you not want to have a conversation with it?” he asks. And so word and image become part of a rich, intertextual dialogue. Chris’s own fiction, too, is part of that ongoing conversation, bringing in authors of his own childhood and earlier reading, including C S Lewis and Herman Melville.

As the conversation in the room unfolded, we were reminded of the sensory, visceral qualities of book-making – a process of creating where things have particularity and personality. It was truly a celebration of the delights of material book and the very primal activity of drawing with the hand. Surely one in the eye for all that digital nonsense!

Except, these drawings are constantly shared on social media. Sketches, drawings of odd quotations and the illustrative marginalia have, Chris has found, brought him closer to readers, allowed him to share enthusiasms, and even opened up opportunities for new projects. A recent convert (via an unfortunate incident involving a pair of jeans, his mobile phone and a washing machine) he quickly came to appreciate the power of the image on social media – as well as “the warm fuzzy glow produced by multiplying blue thumbs”. It seems like a marriage of some kind. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

 New media inevitably cast old media in a new light. Certain aspects are thrown into relief. Benefits newly appreciated. So it would seem that if we are, as Chris believes “in the age of the beautiful book”, then technology has ushered it in – in all sorts of ways. And, as Chris demonstrated, there are so many possibilities for conversation between the old and the new, between the digital and the analogue.

But for all the exciting possibilities of machine and screen, paper and graphite always offer more. As Chris observed, if you watch people in a public space – one poring over a phone and one writing or drawing in a little notebook – you instinctively feel that there’s something much more interesting going on in the book.

After the talk, another queue: a line of hopefuls at the book-signing table. It was slow moving, but no one seemed to mind. Wine and conversation flowed all around, and one by one, happy readers left the table, each clutching their own beautiful book complete with its own personalised drawing.


A magical, mischievous tour


It is hard to think of any other living author whose work has made such a contribution to the cultural life of young children. He is the one who finds the stories behind the nursery rhymes and puts the rhymes into fairy stories. The cataloger of babyhood and the bard of the classroom, Allan Ahlberg has been a gentle presence in young lives for over five decades.

But as the mind behind Burglar Bill, Allan is also the master of mischief. And so his Pearce lecture proved him to be. He had clearly signalled his intentions through an uncoventional title, but still, somehow, we were taken by surprise by this extraordinary tour of the Ahlberg imagination. By turns, funny, poignant and thought-provoking, Allan never let the audience settle into simply being lectured. From his seat by the sunflowers, he led us through a series of vignettes, snapshots, meditations.

He read letters from children – “Dear Mr Ahlberg, My favourite author is Dick King Smith …” He played us snatches of music – Sibelius, “Some Enchanted Evening”. He let us observe his delight in wandering serendipitously around a page of the Oxford English Dictionary. He read to us from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. He marvelled at why there is something, and not nothing. He sang to us. He had brought his beloved bear.

Here, then, the familiar themes and elements of an Ahlberg work were arrayed in all their extraordinary variety: a sense of audience (with an accompanying sense of humility), an ear for harmony and the aural qualities of literature; a fascination with words and meanings; a feeling for style and propriety; a sense of wonder; an affinity with the objects of childhood; love.

As the old maxim goes, he showed, but didn’t tell. Like his books, this was a talk that allowed its audience their part, to complete the story. All all worked together like a multimodal text that is more than the sum of its parts. And all was held together by a gracious presence, as summed up by a teacher in the audience:

“I looked around the hall at one point and saw lots of faces I knew: teachers and lecturers and parents of children I had taught. There was such respect, admiration and love in the room. We were in the presence of someone who had given us so much.”

Debbie Pullinger

Do not be afraid to be afraid


On a warm September afternoon, under blue Cambridge skies, Meg Rosoff took to the podium in front of an expectant audience gathered from across the country for the 8th Annual Pearce Lecture.

“We knew when we invited you that you wouldn’t shy away from the difficult questions.” As Louise Joy went on to affirm in her concluding remarks, Meg Rosoff did indeed delight her audience with a lecture displaying a “combination of courage and lyricism”.

In a talk that ranged effortlessly from Goldilocks and the Tooth Fairy to Harry Potter and Albert Einstein, Meg left us in awe – but also inspired and empowered. Starting from her own particular connection with Philippa Pearce, she described how, having first met the octogenarian author as a “fawning middle-aged fan”, she went on to champion Pearce’s The Little Gentleman as a member of the Guardian Children’s Book Prize panel. Since the rest of the panel were not convinced that death was a suitable subject for children’s literature, it did not win. But there in the lecture, Meg felt, justice was done. And so, with humour and humility she examined the vital role of fantasy, fairytale and fear – and their attendant risks – in the lives of children.

Taking her title from a line in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg used her powers of storytelling, and drew on research, literature and personal experience, to demonstrate that fear itself is not the problem. And that, paradoxically, if we shy away from it, we will find ourselves in the grip of another fear – that of failure. Indeed, she observed, some commentators warn that we now have a society raising a compliant generation so fearful of failure they are unable to take risks, to be intellectually curious.

Conversely, as Meg argued, children all need to experience risk, to have the freedom to explore the “What ifs …” Which is precisely what stories of all kinds, from fairytales to young adult novels afford. Richard Dawkins may prescribe “fostering scepticism instead of filling their heads with fantasy”, but imagination – the quality that sets the human species apart – is needed for science as much as for storytelling. As Meg pointed out, for some of the most fantastic stories ever invented, you only have to turn to the spinning tales of multiverses and black holes.

But the message was not only for children and their parents, or for would-be scientists. Talking candidly of the very real challenges in being a writer, and of that “awkward period between novels when the existence of the next book is not a foregone conclusion”, Meg deftly turned her attention to the risk-taking required of the children’s or YA author, who “gives young people the power to shape their own stories”. Again, fiction and fantasy hold the key, and for her it is Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (“reads like a postmodern anarchist’s handbook”) which supplies the essential image. “I have become my hero; I am the 58-year-old that sneaks into the house and causes havoc,” she revealed. Thus, she ended by issuing her provocation, not to her audience, or to child readers, but to herself: “think big thoughts, and do not be afraid to be afraid”.