Agard makes history with BookTrust win

Agard makes history with BookTrust win

Winning the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award came during a “disruptive” time in John Agard’s life. When he found out, he was dealing with the fallout from a fire in his loft that meant he was having to rewire the property. 

 “We were in the middle of a lot of domestic stuff,” he says. “But when the news came I was excited. When you write anything you write in solitude, so when you get an award like this you are appreciating the fact that you might have touched the life of someone you don’t know. It is humbling.”

Agard is the first poet to win the Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding contribution to children’s literature and has published more than 50 books, including poetry, stories and non-fiction, for all ages. He grew up in Guyana and moved to England in 1977, where he developed his poetry by visiting children in schools as a lecturer for the Commonwealth Institute. 

Children don’t want dry facts from a textbook, he says, so when talking about, for example, coconuts, he composed a poem about a coconut to make the object come alive. He would then get the children to repeat this poem, which was featured in his first book, I Din Do Nuttin and Other Poems, published by The Bodley Head in 1983. 
Agard visited thousands of schools over eight years and talks proudly of how his work resonated with children and their teachers, how his poems were enjoyed in regions from Newcastle all the way down to Devon, and how people still approach him to praise his work. 

“Years later people say, ‘I still have that copy’, or, ‘I used to read it to my daughter’,” he says. “That gives you heart. I am touched and humbled and also excited.”

Agard says he was creating his work alongside other Caribbean voices, referencing James Berry, John Lyons and his own wife, Grace Nichols, and says that there were some “forward-thinking” linguists at the time, such as David Crystal, who were writing about the grammar system inherent in the way people from the Caribbean spoke. This was contrary to what some teachers at the time were saying, which was that children from the Caribbean spoke “bad English”.

“I was aware that there weren’t poems for children in that Caribbean voice,” Agard says. The children he met were intrigued that a phrase they heard in the playground and used every day, like “I din do nothing”, could be turned into poetry, albeit by applying craft. Poetry is a “hard taskmaster”, he adds.

Agard has a new book of children’s poetry coming out next year. Hachette Children’s Group will publish Follow That Word, which celebrates his love of words and is illustrated by one of his previous collaborators, Momoko Abe. Some of the poems were inspired by eponyms, such as “melba toast” (named after Dame Nellie Melba), and others were sparked by lines from the Bible or ancient myths. Follow That Word is being announced at a time when the children’s publishing industry is continuing to strive for diversity across its lists, something that is “long, long overdue”, but Agard says the situation is not all “hunky dory”. 

“Some of those decisions are not driven by philosophical conviction, but by the climate,” he says. “Climates change. What is crucial is a conscious, philosophical and literary decision, as opposed to a decision driven by a trend or a mood.”

Authors hail Agard impact
Writers including Malorie Blackman, Benjamin Zephaniah and Cressida Cowell have praised John Agard’s pioneering work in writing poetry for people of all ages. Zephaniah described Agard as someone who “lights up the world” with his words, while Blackman said his work is a beacon of humour, insight and identity. “Truly inspirational, his poems don’t just bridge countries and cultures, they bridge gaps,” she said. 

Julia Donaldson highlighted his wit and playfulness and Joseph Coelho said his words are studied, savoured and remembered. Agard is an inspiration, he added, which was a sentiment echoed by Michael Morpurgo. “Meet John Agard and you’ll have met the warmest of men, and you’ll have met one of our finest poets,” he said. “How many thousands of children and grown-up children must there now be who have come to love poetry, and write their own poetry, through the work of John Agard?”

Cressida Cowell said Agard is a magician with words who writes poetry that is “comic and moving and challenging all at the same time; it is poetry that surprises, that moves energetically, stirs up all the thoughts in your brain, making you think harder about the wonder and the curiosity of the world all around you. It is a stunning body of work.”