I’m really enjoying being Writer in Residence at St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath. As well as writing with students during lesson time, I also run a Creative Writing Club at Break and Lunchtime, one day a week. When we’re writing poetry, I usually take in lots of photocopies of poems but today I took in a set of Christmas Stocking: Five Festive Poems for Children from Candlestick Press.
The poet Ben Bransfield, who is also a teacher (and has been named by The Poetry Society as a Teacher Trailblazer), put me on to sharing pamphlets with groups of students. It’s a brilliant idea. Candlestick Press pamphlets are beautiful objects to hold; the design and illustrations are very appealing and the paper quality is luxurious. The poems themselves are always well-chosen and varied. The five poems in Christmas Stocking have been selected by George Szirtes and include a new poem by him.
There’s a real sense of achievement in reading a whole ‘book’ in one sitting and themed pamphlets are so helpful for working on a specific topic. These five poems provoked a lot of discussion about Christmas traditions and about what Christmas means to different people. We also read two poems by UA Fanthorpe, What the Donkey Saw and I am Joseph.
I would say that these Candlestick poems will appeal to young people aged nine and above, possibly younger if they’re shared with an older reader. These really are poems that demand to be read aloud so would be perfect for bedtime.
I read the poems with Year 7 students aged 11 and 12. To warm us up and set our minds thinking, we started the session by talking about and writing a list of all the words we could think of to do with Christmas. A long mish-mash list of words to do with the Nativity, rampant consumerism, hearty food consumption and excessively cold weather emerged.
Next, students read the Candlestick Press pamphlets silently before choosing one of the poems to read aloud to the group. After reading and discussing, students began to write their own poems, using the published poems as a frame for their own work if they wanted to.
I asked students to be honest and to say if they didn’t like any of the poems but they were enthusiastic about them all.
Santa Claus by Gabriel Fitzmaurice, in the voice of a young child meeting ‘Santa’ for perhaps the first time, reminded one boy of when he was much younger and was apprehensive about meeting a strange man in a costume. The group discussed how they had often been fearful of adults dressed up in costumes: clowns, mascots at sports matches, as well as Christmas figures. They talked about the oddity of parents warning children of ‘stranger danger’ and then embracing the idea of someone coming into the house while everyone was asleep! This reminded me that my own children (now young adults) used to leave their stockings on the landing, rather than at the foot of their beds, so that ‘Father Christmas’ didn’t actually come into their room while they were sleeping.
“The child is trying to be brave but is secretly scared,” one of the students said. “I get that. It’s still funny, though!”
Hello, Santa! This is me!
(Oh Dad, he’s awful hairy!
Oh Dad, don’t let him near me!
Oh, Dad, he’s awful scary!).
Not all of the students had been to a pantomime or knew what it was, but those that had liked the description of this particular Christmas tradition in At the pantomime by John Mole. They loved finding a stage curtain and pantomime Villain in the clever illustration accompanying the poem (illustrations by David&Rews, 2017).
And the sharp-eyed students also spotted a pair of puckered lips and an upturned face within the candle smoke of the illustration accompanying the poem Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare (illustration by David&Rews, 2017). “I like the elegant language in this poem,” said one 11 year old student.
The group of students I was working with are sophisticated readers and writers. They know that poems don’t need to rhyme but they really appreciated the rhymes of these poems. One student, whose first language isn’t English, particularly liked Stocking by Rachel Rooney, which is about a child finding a jumble of exciting gifts – and one edible surprise in the toe! of a Christmas morning stocking.
Don’t know – check it later.
Maybe it’s a calculator.
“I love that bit!” the student said.
Several young people chose George Szirtes’ Night Excursion as their favourite.
“I love the idea of winter being a person,” one said.
“It makes you think of that time of year when it’s really cold and when shop windows are full of fun things to look at,” said another.
Not all of the students in my group have English as their first language and not all of them are from families that share all of the traditions featured in these poems. While talking about this, and comparing notes about what different families do each Christmas, we learned about some of the Christmas traditions from different countries. One girl talked about the Romanian tradition of children leaving lace-up boots on the stairs on 6th December, the Feast of St Nicholas, for example. Perhaps this is something that Candlestick Press could consider for another year!
The young people I worked with really enjoyed reading Christmas Stocking and I think it would make a wonderful gift. With the sale of each pamphlet, Candlestick Press makes a donation to UNICEF. More details on the Candlestick Press website.