As it’s World Book Day (and I’m snowed in with Cate) I thought I’d put together this list I’ve been meaning to do for a while. As you know, I’m currently writing a non-fiction book for adults that tells the stories behind our picture books. One of the stories I planned to tell was about how picture books got more diverse, starting with the stunning The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (planning to try these snow angels once Cate wakes from her nap).


It’s one of the most beautiful picture books I own, with that heartbreaking moment when Jack checks his pocket for the snowball and finds it empty.

Ezra Jack Keats was white though, I recently realised, looking through the book again and coming to the author picture. And I started googling the authors and illustrators of all the other classic picture books with diverse protagonists I had planned to include – Handa’s Surprise, Amazing Grace, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes – and realised they were all white too. Which is not to detract from these books at all – I’d highly recommend all of them, and am glad artists don’t just automatically reach for the pale pink when they’re creating a new character. But diversity in picture books surely has to mean diversity of writers and illustrators too. It’s about creating from a different place, out of a different set of experiences. Who gets to tell society’s stories is important, because they get to shape our children’s way of seeing the world. I don’t want to write a whole book in which the only BAME author I mention is Taro Gomi who wrote Everybody Poos. (Though it is a total classic).

Anyway, lots of people on Facebook very generously sent suggestions and so far I’d urge you to get hold of these five books:

1) FULL OF LOVE, Trish Cooke illustrated by Paul Howard

About a big family Sunday lunch at Grannie’s house this has become an instant all time favourite at our house, featuring tropical fishes and ‘buttery peas, / chicken and yams, / macaroni cheese, /potatoes and ham’. Also lots of hugs. Gruff thinks it’s ‘really cute.’

2) MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL, Malala Yousafzai illustrated by Kerascoet

Malala’s own story, skilfully turned into a picture book via her childhood dream of a magic pencil. This pays children the respect of telling them the truth – there are pictures of children scavenging on rubbish piles, and dangerous men lurking with guns on her way to school. But it’s defiant and hopeful. ‘One book and one pen can change the world.’

3) THE YOUNG INFERNO, John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura.

Or everything by John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura really – they were the most recommended writer and illustrator. I realised I already had a Kitamura book on my shelves, the superb Angry Arthur, but I hadn’t read Agard’s children’s poetry and it is a marvel. This book features a dream team then, AND IT RETELLS DANTE’S INFERNO IN FULL TERZA RIMA! It stars a teenager in a hoodie with no mobile charge, and the circles of hell include one for bling and one, the City of Dis, where everyone disses everyone else. Too sophisticated for toddlers perhaps, but sophisticated enough for pretty much everyone else to relish.


For slightly older kids again, 4+, but a fascinating African tale I hadn’t heard before – a kind of fairytale narrative in which two sisters are morally tested. And the pictures are absolutely sensational, with a luminous hyperreal quality.


Allen Say tells the story of his grandfather’s journey from Japan to the USA in a very simple, profound book. The pictures of America have the quality of fine art – you are stunned, like his grandfather, by the pink sculptures of the desert, the oceanic west fields; the rivers ‘clear as the sky’; the bewildering, churning factories. The last page is one of those that you’ll find hard to read out loud without your voice cracking.

Also recommended to me (which I haven’t bought yet but collate for your reference):

Any books by Tamarind or Firetree

The illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon

Clever Carmel by Henrietta Nwagwu-Rochford

I am Bear by Ben Bailey Smith

Our Incredible Cow by Ruchi Shah

My Mother’s Sari by Sandhya Rao

The Streets are Free by Kurusa

Hush, a Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho

Japanese Children’s Favourite Stories by Florence Sakade


Hope that’s useful. Cate is stirring now so will get back to our snowy day.


Two Books, Twenty Years

Apologies for being so silent this year – I’ve been busy putting my first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation together – more to follow very soon. But I did just want to note that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of my debut The Heavy-Petting Zoo! (Twenty years as a poet, wow, that’s almost like a career or something.) I wrote the book in sixth form; it came out at the start of my second year at university.

I read it again recently, and it has a few awkward poetic fumblings. The cover is also perhaps a bit on the nose – a, erm, literally heavy pet. (But this was before the internet, and the only relevant image I could find on the shelves of Bolton Library in half an hour whilst my mum did a supermarket shop).

Still, I think it stands up as testimony to teenage yearning and I’m generally pretty proud of my young self (I still find myself reciting snatches of ‘Breakfast Poem’ when I have a hangover. ‘I’m strawberry-jam sickly; I’m bacon dead. / It’s always morning when the ghosts appear -‘)

The University of Bolton is currently putting together a literary map of the town and I’ve been asked to read at the launch on April the 19th (details to follow), so that sounds like a fitting occasion on which to celebrate HPZ‘s birthday – Boltonians do put the date in your diaries and we’ll get nostalgic over drinking Diamond White and jumping around to Supergrass in Hawthorns….

By coincidence, 20 years ago I also met Hannah Sullivan, who interviewed me about The Heavy-Petting Zoo for Varsity at university. We enjoyed our conversation so much we carried it on a few weeks later over absinthe at her college, and it has never really ended. So I should also say that one of the absolute highlights of my year so far has been attending the launch party of her debut, Three Poems (Faber).

For the twenty years I’ve known her, Hannah has been working towards and living with these sequences which tell the story of her (our) adulthood. They’re really like nothing else out there. If you’ve not yet listened to this recording of her reading ‘You, Very Young in New York’, do – it’s crazily good. But it also feels radical for such keen intelligence to be applied to motherhood in the brilliantly titled ‘The Sandpit after Rain’: ‘This is the world and the entropy of things, / The plugged dyke and the sea coming in, / The emendation and the unforced error, / The floor before a toddler’s pasta dinner’…



Very pleased to announce I have a deal to write a nonfiction title for adults about picture books for Fig Tree – the stories behind our childhood stories… Featuring nonsense, Flower fairies, the Mr Men, Babars suits, the invention of flapbooks, Miffy’s virgin birth, thumb sucking, roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce, nazism, matchgirls, chinese burns, poo, the naming of pets, tragic affairs, ‘That’s not my Princess’, Dogger, wraggle-taggle gypsies, my father’s psychic abilities, wild rumpuses, universequakes, nudity, the mum in ‘the Tiger who Came to Tea’ and forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree.

Thanks to Jenny Hewson who is now representing me at RCW.

Santa is getting Cate a lot of books this year. And if you see me over the festive season I’ll be talking excitedly about why ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ was banned in Communist China.

Mood: The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast


(illustration by Hilda Boswell)

Submit / Subscribe

Modern Poetry in Translation is now open for submissions through Submittable. It’s going to be permanently open. If you translate a poem, I want MPT to be the first place you send your work, whether you’re a professional translator or it’s your first attempt.

I’m extremely pleased to announce my first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation is going to have a Caribbean focus. I’m planning to follow that with an LBGTQ issue in summer. Do please spread the word!

And if those issues sound as exciting to you as they do to me, please think about a subscription for yourself or someone else this Christmas. An annual subscription is a mere £23, for three completely beautiful 128 page magazines that will enhance your poetry shelves (I mean, the paper), plus full access to the digital catalogue. Every issue will give you insight into different poetries – new forms, radical approaches, fresh voices. If it’s a gift we can also send you a PDF that folds into a lovely card.

On Friday at the MPT away-day we were treated to a look at the archives at the British Library. I loved the handwritten, earliest correspondence from Ted to Daniel Weissbort – particularly the advice that: ‘The lifeblood of poetical translation is this: not to change a good poem into a bad one.’


The magazine has such an amazing history, that we all have a chance to participate in. We need more subscribers to carry on our work – allowing poetry to bear witness; giving voice to the silenced and excluded; creating an international community of translators and readers. This feels more important than ever in the wake of the UK Brexit vote.  So please, do support us! (Also, if you need further present ideas, this Jeremy Deller towel would make a good gift).

Various Rainbows

I’ve had a stressful few days juggling work with a sick, mucusy, furious baby, but in the interest of counting blessings, I did enjoy teaching at the Hurst for Arvon last week with the wonderful Steve Ely (who is insanely knowledgable about everything from Rwandan history to Willow Tits), managed to do some reading, and had one long, bright, blustery walk on which I saw this rainbow:


The last night’s group performance was just one of the best I’ve heard too.

Also, Asha’s collection ‘The Sea-Migrations’ was THE Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year! So proud and pleased for her and the Poetry Translation Centre! Why not buy a copy for a Christmas present?

Some online stuff to draw your attention to as well. Firstly, tomorrow the seasonal tradition that is the Modern Poetry in Translation Advent Calendar begins. A poem a day – it’s been a pleasure looking through the archives and helping choose some of them. Do follow us at @MPTmagazine (and can I just quietly whisper an idea in your ear: gift subscription).

My mood was also really lifted this morning by this lovely review of ‘Incarnation’ by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs for London Grip.

And this podcast I did for the RLF in which I chat about the nonsense poetry has also just gone up (I’m ten minutes in, giving a talk about Jabberwockies and Jumblies). Something to listen to whilst wrapping your Christmas presents perhaps…

Now must blow my baby’s nose whilst she screams ‘ow’.



Pebbles, Poems, Friends

At the weekend I was in Aldeburgh, in the chill, blasting sunshine of a glorious autumn weekend: taking part in a panel for the Society of Authors, buying smoked cockles off a hut on the pebbled beach, catching up on poetry gossip in The Cross Keys, and listening to some wonderful readings: Bernard O’Donoghue, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets about Lee Miller from her Hercules Editions pamphlet A Bargain With The Light (set off rather wonderfully by surrealist canapés of skewered eyeballs and meringue nipples), and the brilliant Ishion Hutchinson reading from his Faber collection House of Lords and Commons – this poem, ‘After the Hurricane’, in particular, felt awfully relevant (flies returning to genuflect / at their knees, on Aunt May’s face.) Many thanks to all the volunteers who make Poetry in Aldeburgh possible and so special.

Then on Monday I headed to Queen’s College Oxford, as they generously hosted a launch for Sasha Dugdale’s final issue of MPT, which has a Russian and Ukranian focus. It’s a double-length issue packed with wonderful things. David Constanine’s Hölderlin translations were exquisite. It was also very special to hear Maria Stepanova, and Sasha’s own translation of her ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, a mindblowing 26 page masterpiece that is the issue’s centrepiece and the best thing I’ve read all year. Honestly, I felt like I’d just heard ‘The Waste-Land’ for the first time. You can read her editorial and an extract here, or why not subscribe to MPT instead?

I also want to say something about Sarah Maguire, who very sadly died last week. She was the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre and a huge influence on me: encouraging me to think I could translate though I’m not a linguist and bringing me round to her conviction that ‘poetry only ever develops through translation’. Without her Asha and I would never have published The Sea-Migrations this month, and I don’t think I would be taking on the editorship of MPT. She was a superb poet in her own right (read ‘The Florist’s at Midnight’ and feel your heart break), a superb anthologist (as a fellow gardener, Flora Poetica is perhaps my favourite anthology of all time), a superb translator of Arabic. But I will remember her most of all sharing gossip over heaped plates of Persian food with dried limes and saffron, or dancing joyfully with the women at Somali Week. I visited her in her last month, and she was still surrounded by flowers and friends. RIP Sarah.

The Sea-Migrations

Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations is now real!! Here’s my beautiful copy:


I’m so pleased I’ve been able to work with Asha over the last ten years, and be involved in putting together this book with Bloodaxe and the Poetry Translation Centre. Buy your copy here.

Right now, it feels more vital than ever that we listen to the voice of a black, Muslim woman who has lived in exile in the UK for 20 years, and whose poems explore patriarchy, colonialism and immigration. But describing her poetry in such a way also feels strangely reductive – first and foremost Asha is just one of our most important writers. These poems are astonishing formal feats, and expand my sense of what poetry can do.

It’s really worth listening to her live too, so please do come along to one of our upcoming launch/tour dates:

– British-Somali Women Poets at the Southbank Centre – October 24th, 7.30pm

(Our London launch! One of Time Out’s picks for the London Literature Festival. Do come, even my mum is coming)

– Sea Migrations Reading in Sheffield, Burngreave Library – October 26th, 7pm

(I’m also leading a translation workshop earlier that day if you’re interested…)