Joseph Coelho on hoping to ‘diversify bookshelves’ as 12th Children’s Laureate

Joseph Coelho on hoping to ‘diversify bookshelves’ as 12th Children’s Laureate
Performance poet, playwright and children’s author Joseph Coelho, the new Children’s Laureate (David Bebber/PA)
PA Media - David Bebber

Writer Joseph Coelho, who has been announced as the new Children’s Laureate, believes diversity in children’s publishing is improving but there is “still clearly a long way to go”.

The performance poet, playwright and children’s author was presented with the Laureate medal by outgoing Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Dame Cressida Cowell, at a ceremony in London.

Award-winning Coelho, 42, said that during his tenure, one of his main projects will aim to diversify bookshelves by celebrating new voices, as he wants to give “every young person an opportunity to see themselves as a writer”.

Reflecting on the industry after being given the title, he told the PA news agency: “Diversity within children’s publishing is getting better but there’s still clearly a long way to go.

“And that’s why I’m so excited about starting my tenure because one of my focuses will be a part of the project called Bookmaker Like You, where I’ll be looking for and celebrating up-and-coming new voices and finding out about their work to help diversify bookshelves because I really want to give every young person an opportunity to see themselves as a writer, as a poet, as an illustrator.”

Coelho explained that he had experienced the impact of this first hand when poet Jean “Binta” Breeze came to read at his school when he was in the sixth form.

He said: “It was the first time I was seeing someone like me, in that role of writer, of poet, and that really sparked for me a desire to write and to share my poetry.”

The writer added that representation within literature and publishing was important for several reasons, including how it can “widen horizons” on career possibilities, as it did for him.

Joseph Coelho, The Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022-2024 (PA)

“But it’s also important that we read about each other because that increases empathy. We learn more about one another and we all become richer for it”, he added.

“So I feel it’s hugely important that we read, we get to see ourselves, but we also get to read and see others.”

Another of his initiatives is continuing the Laureate’s tradition of connecting with libraries to encourage young people and families to join their local reading spaces.

Many were closed in the past couple of years due to Covid-19. Coelho feels the pandemic has had a “big impact” on children but he hopes reading can help their recovery.

He told PA: “I think through poetry, through stories, through reading we can help alleviate that because books and fiction create these safe spaces where we can explore feelings and emotions and ideas in this very beautiful, safe space and we can take children by the hand and calm them down.”

Coelho’s acclaimed works include his Luna Loves… picture books, his dark series of Fairy Tales Gone Bad, reimagine the classics, and his young adult novel The Girl Who Became A Tree.

His debut poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, was published in 2014 and won the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award the following year, while his works have included a range of lyrical children’s stories and poetry collections like Overheard In A Tower Block, If All the World Were… and Poems Aloud.

Coelho, whose tenure as the 12th Waterstones Children’s Laureate runs until 2024, also said he wanted to use the platform to “highlight and celebrate the power of poetry”.

The author, who grew up in Roehampton, started writing poetry in secondary school and went on to study archaeology at university, with a biography on his website saying: “Basically, I dug up bones in Peru for a couple of years, which was lots of fun but still I wrote poems and started directing and writing plays.”

Kate Edwards, chairwoman of the Waterstones Children’s Laureate Steering Group and chairwoman of the Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2022–24 judging panel, said: “Nominations for this prestigious role are invited from hundreds of literature, literacy and education organisations across the UK, and we are thrilled to welcome Joseph to the ‘League of Laureates’.

“His dynamic performance, passionate advocacy and engaging writing – which inspires children of all ages – cemented our choice for the next Waterstones Children’s Laureate, to champion the right of every child to enjoy a lifetime rich in books and stories.

“The steering group is looking forward to working with Joseph over the next two years to reach even more children and communities, following on from the wonderful work of the outgoing Laureate Cressida Cowell MBE. On behalf of the judges, I extend Joseph our warmest congratulations.”

Previous holders of the post – awarded every two years – include Sir Quentin Blake, Sir Michael Morpurgo, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Rosen and Julia Donaldson.

Florentyna Martin, head of children’s at Waterstones, said Coelho’s term would be “one for the history books”.

Diana Gerald, CEO at BookTrust, added: “Joseph is an extraordinary advocate for making poetry accessible to all, celebrating creativity and storytelling and inspiring younger generations to find their voice, pick up a pen, join a library and read a book.”

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