Interview: Jacqueline Shirtliff
A photograph of Little Thoughts Press Issue Five: New Beginnings with a sneak peek of the poem "January Blues" by Jacqueline Shirtliff. A white page with black text.
Jacqueline Shirtliff is a primary school teacher and a children's poet from the Isle of Man. She has had her poems published in The Caterpillar, TygerTyger, The Dirigible Balloon and Northern Gravy. She lives in a rose-covered cottage near the sea, and when she's not at school or writing poetry she enjoys gardening, crochet and playing the tuba and harp, but not all at the same time!
Little Thoughts Press: I love how your poem "January Blues" captures the sadness so many of us feel at the beginning of a new year, but also offers an element of hope and uplift. When writing for young kids, it can be tempting to present a fully sunny picture of the world. What guidance would you offer to other writers on how to approach writing about difficult emotions and experiences? How do you suggest acknowledging the sadness and gloominess that is often present in our lives, while still balancing it with a sense of hope and progress for young readers?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: As a primary school teacher, I'm very well aware that life is not always sunny and happy for children. A number of my poems reflect this, because I see when children are sad, and it's part of my job to come alongside and talk over why they're sad and try to find a way out of that sadness. Sometimes it's that a classmate's made fun of them, or that they've fallen out with a friend. At other times it's something that's happening at home, which I can't do anything about, but I can listen and try to understand. I would encourage other writers to tackle difficult emotions and experiences in their writing, though I've found it can be hard to find homes for sad and reflective poems. I think it's really helpful for children to read poems and stories about other children going through sad or tough times because then they know they're not alone. It's good to remind children (and ourselves as well) that there is almost always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if sometimes it's just a tiny glimmer. As a writer, it's far easier to write about these issues if you have opportunities to talk with children, to understand their concerns, and to listen to their ideas and solutions. Watch how they resolve difficulties or sadness themselves or with their friends. I learn so much every week from just being with children and I get almost all my ideas for poems from the children in my school, though they don't know it!
Little Thoughts Press: Issue 5: New Beginnings is all about fresh starts and new experiences. Can you tell us how you started writing kid-lit and what drew you to creating stories for young readers?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: I've always enjoyed writing. I was writing and making poetry books to sell to my mum and dad when I was five. I found one when I was having a sort-out in the holidays. The rhymes are truly awful! I stopped writing creatively, even in my spare time, when I went up to high school, though I did keep a diary. Then when I took some time out of teaching to look after young children I seized the chance to write whilst they were having their afternoon naps. I started with stories, but poems are quicker to get finished and shorter to edit, so I sort of fell into writing poetry for children instead. Initially, I found it hard to know what to do with my poems, but with the internet, it's now so much easier to find publishers and I was amazed and delighted when Rebecca O'Connor wanted to publish one of the poems I'd sent her in The Caterpillar and that gave me a lot of encouragement and a reason to take my writing more seriously.
Little Thoughts Press: What do you find most challenging and rewarding about writing for a young audience?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: I find it hard getting started! Even if I have an idea, I can sit staring at a blank page for ages before putting pen to paper. The most rewarding thing is seeing my poems in print, or reading them in school. The amazement on the children's faces with new classes who don't yet know I write is priceless!
Little Thoughts Press: Which kid-lit authors and books were your favorites growing up?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: I loved Swallows and Amazons! I wanted a boat of my own, to sail to islands, to camp. Needless to say, I read the Arthur Ransome books to my own children, who enjoyed them as well. I really liked fantasy too, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit. and Ursula le Guin's Earthsea trilogy.
Little Thoughts Press: And what about today? Any kid-lit writers you love and want to shout out?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: That's a hard question as I am always discovering new books to read alongside the classics! I read Narnia to every class I get the chance to, but I love Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q.Rauf. Both of these books tackle difficult issues but children soak up every word. More recently I've really loved The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold, but it's a bit dark for my current class of 7 and 8-year-olds! As a poet, I obviously read a lot of poetry with my class, but I wouldn't know where to begin with shout-outs. The children's poetry group on Twitter is so supportive and kind and I wouldn't want to leave anyone out! There are so many fantastic contemporary children's poets in the UK and further afield. If anyone's new to children's poetry, a good starting point would be to check out the CLPE poetry awards for the most recent collections of poems for children.
Little Thoughts Press: What advice would you give to young writers?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: What I tell all my classes: don't worry about your spelling! Just write. And read as much as you can.
Little Thoughts Press: Is there anything else you wish I had asked? Any upcoming projects, publications, or other news you'd like to share?
Jacqueline Shirtliff: Yes! Firstly, I was recently longlisted for a collection with the Emma Press. Secondly, I currently teach full time, but I'm hoping to work a little less next year, so that I can go into schools to lead poetry assemblies and writing workshops. I'm very excited!