Wel­l­versed

New Chil­dren’s Lau­re­ate Sarah Crossan sets out her stall

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY ANNA CAREY

If it weren’t for a cheeky school­boy, Ire­land’s newly crowned Chil­dren’s Lau­re­ate Sarah Crossan might never have be­come a pro­fes­sional writer, let alone the na­tion’s new advocate for chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Crossan was work­ing as an English teacher and, in one les­son, she told her pupils to fol­low their dreams and be­lieve in them­selves. “A kid put up his hand and said, ‘Have you al­ways wanted to be a teacher?’ ” she says. “And it was like some­one punched me in the face.”

Crossan found her­self telling the class that she’d thought about be­ing a writer but had never found the time. The boy wasn’t im­pressed. “He sat back in his chair and said, ‘I think you have a cheek telling us to live our dreams when you’ve never even tried to live yours.’ Nor­mally I would have dis­ci­plined him, but he had a point. And on the back of that com­ment I ap­plied to do a mas­ter’s de­gree and went back to univer­sity to do cre­ative writ­ing.”

Crossan con­tin­ued to work as a teacher dur­ing and af­ter her post­grad­u­ate stud­ies, and be­gan writ­ing fic­tion in verse while teach­ing in a school in the US, where, she says, the verse novel is more firmly es­tab­lished. Her first novel, The Weight of Wa­ter, was pub­lished in 2011 and was short­listed for mul­ti­ple awards; her 2016 novel, One, won the CILIP Carnegie Medal and CBI Book of the Year Award. As lau­re­ate, she has fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of ground­break­ing Ir­ish writ­ers and artists such as Siob­hán Parkin­son, Eoin Colfer, Ni­amh Sharkey and out­go­ing lau­re­ate PJ Lynch and, like all the pre­vi­ous lau­re­ates, she’s go­ing to put her own stamp on the role. “We Are the Po­ets is the theme,” she says. “And what that means for me is bring­ing po­etry into the lives of chil­dren in a way that’s not con­fronta­tional, that’s a fun ex­pe­ri­ence.”

She’s seen for her­self that young read­ers will em­brace po­etry – if they’re given the chance. “Po­etry is the one area where young peo­ple still feel that they have to un­der­stand it be­fore they’re al­lowed to have an emo­tional re­ac­tion to it,” she says, point­ing out that this at­ti­tude of­ten comes from adults. “One thing I do any­way as part of my job is speak­ing to teach­ers a lot. And many of them talk about the trauma of po­etry at school. How many peo­ple hated po­etry at school and how many of them are now English teach­ers bring­ing this into the class­room? I want to work with teach­ers and give them the con­fi­dence to teach po­etry in a way that’s fun and brings plea­sure not just to the stu­dents but also the teach­ers.”

Schools pro­gramme

And she has plenty of ideas of how to do all this dur­ing her two-year stint as lau­re­ate. “I want to cre­ate re­source packs for schools,” she says. “I want to work with Ir­ish po­ets and per­for­mance po­ets across the world, get­ting them into com­mu­ni­ties where chil­dren are more vul­ner­a­ble.”

The schools pro­gramme won’t kick off un­til the new aca­demic year in Septem­ber, but Crossan hopes to reach young po­ten­tial read­ers be­fore then. “We want to have a so­cial me­dia cam­paign where we get well-known fig­ures in Ir­ish cul­ture to re­cite their favourite poems and talk about po­etry, whether it’s about be­ing in­spired or be­ing dam­aged by a ter­ri­ble teacher.”

‘‘ A kid put up his hand and said, ‘Have you al­ways wanted to be a teacher?’ And it was like some­one punched me in the face

She hopes to cu­rate “a po­etry fes­ti­val for young peo­ple where we have ac­tiv­ity sta­tions where they can do fun things with po­etry, per­for­mance po­ets, po­etry in­stal­la­tions. We haven’t got all of the finer de­tails yet – but we’ve got two years.”

Crossan spent her child­hood in Dublin be­fore her fam­ily moved to the UK, where she went to sec­ondary school and univer­sity. She still lives in the UK and is adamant that the phys­i­cal dis­tance will be ir­rel­e­vant to her lau­re­ate­ship. “I’m over roughly once a month any­way,” she says. “Be­cause I don’t live here and be­cause it’s re­ally im­por­tant for me to feel a part of the Ir­ish com­mu­nity, I’ve re­ally tried to come over as much as pos­si­ble.”

As some­one whose Twit­ter bio reads “Ir­ish writer, English ac­cent”, this sense of Ir­ish­ness means a lot to her. “One of the rea­sons I was so emo­tional when I was told about this lau­re­ate­ship was be­cause I’ve spent my whole life try­ing to prove I’m Ir­ish, try­ing to hold on to that de­spite peo­ple try­ing to pull it away from me all the time.”

Hav­ing grown up in a work­ing-class im­mi­grant com­mu­nity, she’s keen to work with chil­dren on the mar­gins. “When you have a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion and you come from a fam­ily that val­ues ed­u­ca­tion, you don’t ap­pre­ci­ate the psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers some chil­dren have to ed­u­ca­tion and the arts. They com­pletely think this stuff isn’t about them.” Crossan has vis­ited pri­vate schools where, she says, the chil­dren

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

Sarah Crossan: “‘Poet’ is the one word that peo­ple are afraid to use be­cause it sounds pre­ten­tious.”

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