Joseph Coelho on His Tenure as Waterstones Children's Laureate

Posted on 22nd May 2024 by Mark Skinner

In July 2022, celebrated poet and author Joseph Coelho was selected as the 12th Waterstones Children's Laureate and immediately made his impact felt through a number of ambitious projects. As his tenure comes to a close - and his masterful story The Boy Lost in the Maze scoops the Yoto Carnegie Medal for Writing 2024 - Coelho reflects on his achievements and challenges in his two years in the role in this exclusive piece.   

These last two years have gone by in a flash but I have loved them. I recall the long wait of keeping my position secret and feeling like the wait was never-ending, but once it kicked off in July 2022 and I stepped off the stage at the Unicorn theatre holding my medal and wearing my pink jacket, I started running, and it feels like I haven't stopped. I really saw this as a position of being of service, so I intended to spend my tenure, serving. I was immediately inundated with a slew of requests both big and small - everything from interviewing Her Majesty The Queen about poetry and books to giving countless speeches and talks to teachers and librarians, creatives and kids. I gave myself three main Laureateship projects: The Library Marathon, The Poetry Prompts and Bookmaker Like You. Three projects designed to do three very different things...

The Library Marathon actually began in 2018 when I joined 140 libraries unaided, borrowing books, meeting librarians and encouraging all to join their local library along the way. The challenge was to join a library in every library authority in the UK, using the feat as inspiration for local people to join their local library, because the more that people use their libraries the easier it becomes to protect them. There are 209 authorities. I joined the first 140 as I travelled up and down the country doing book events and visiting schools. Sometimes I dedicated weekends or whole fortnights to getting hard to reach places crossed off. In one epic run I drove up the west coast of England, up and around Scotland and then returned via the east coast joining libraries all the way and doing it all unaided and without outside support or funding. Covid scuppered my plans to finish but the silver lining was coming out the other side of lockdown with laurels upon my head. I now had the support of Booktrust to get me around the remaining 70 odd libraries and this time I was able to run an hour-long event at each library with pupils and the public allowing opportunities for librarians to sign-up brand-new patrons and (via the media interest) shout about their wonderful services. I joined some of the libraries by bike, cycling 170 miles along the south coast on a bike I had made out of bamboo, injecting further interest in the marathon and generating more media interest for libraries and the brilliant work they do. I completed the marathon with 213 library cards having travelled to every authority in the UK including all of the islands. A celebratory event was held at the British Library where I symbolically crossed the finish line on my bamboo bike and families were invited into the library to take part in a host of free literary events. As a result of the library marathon I was asked to comment on Baroness Sanderson's Independent Review of Public Libraries where my suggestion of a Libraries Laureate - an independent voice to highlight, promote and speak out for libraries - became one of the headline recommendations to government. 

The Poetry Prompts was designed to answer the long-asked question I have received from teachers over the years... how do we do poetry? Poetry has long been given short-shrift despite us knowing innately and actually the wonderful power poetry has in not only encouraging reluctant readers and writers but also in giving us a medium within which to explore our own hearts. Alas poetry is often not explored on teacher training courses, often not published and often hard to find on bookshelves. I wanted to do something with BookTrust to buck this trend. The poetry prompts are a series of weekly videos (each around five minutes long) that show young people a quick, easy and non-threatening way to pen a poem. Each video is free to watch on BookTrust’s website, and supported with free downloadable resources from CLPE that tie the activities into the curriculum. The prompts have been a simple way for teachers to get more poetry into their classroom, they can turn on a video during registration and get their students writing. I have been blown away by the growth of the prompts and by the teachers that have shared their pupils' work online or told me at live events how the prompts have become a regular part of their teaching. 

Bookmaker Like You was a series of live and virtual events featuring a diverse range of authors and illustrators with the aim of helping to diversify bookshelves, giving these bookmakers an opportunity to talk about their work and their processes. Jasbinder Bilan and Benjamin Dean spoke at Cheltenham, Vanessa J Taylor spoke at the Discover Children’s Story Centre, Jasmine Richards and Sabine Adeyinka shared their routes into the industry via the BookTrust Represents platform, Selom Sunu gave us an insight into how he creates characters at Bath Literature festival, Burhana Islam got us thinking about comedy writing at Seven Stories, J.T. Williams told us how she created the Lizzie and Belle Mysteries at the Reading Is Magic Festival. I would have love to have done more events, but time and money and capacity caught up with us. 

The idea for Bookmaker Like You Grew out a memory I have of seing Jean Binta Breeze perform a poem at my school. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone a bit like me working as a professional writer, it was the first time I was able to imagine myself in that role. Through these events I wanted to give that gift that Jean gave me to many more children. I'm hopeful that BMLY will have a second life once I've had time to down tools and take stock of these last two years. Which brings me on to the future, "What's next?" seems to be the question now dogging me - I have a tonne of writing to catch up on so that will be the first order of business but there are many projects i intend to get off the ground once the smoke has cleared - things I have long dreamed of doing and things I didn't have time to do during my tenure. I'm very excited about the future and how the lessons I have learned about the world and myself will impact the things I go on to do. For now the next thing you can expect to see from me will be a new magical middle-grade series coming out this Autumn with Walker Books - I can't tell you the title... it's secret but there will be high tech gadgets, there will be sea voyages and ancient treasures, monsters and a whole heap of magic!


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