A Week in Books: What it means to be the new children's laureate

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The Independent Culture

When Wordsworth was appointed poet laureate, he was told he wouldn't have to do anything at all. "You shall have nothing required of you" declared Robert Peel grandly. And when a later laureate panicked about producing a poem for Princess Anne's wedding, the Queen was quick to quell his worries. "It was indeed not a duty" writes Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green, "to write something every time there was a Royal occasion." Betjeman took those soothing words to heart. He did toss out the odd poem on a vaguely royal theme, but preserved his energies for the more important tasks in hand: preserving the nation's buildings, for example, and his own status as national teddy bear.

When Wordsworth was appointed poet laureate, he was told he wouldn't have to do anything at all. "You shall have nothing required of you" declared Robert Peel grandly. And when a later laureate panicked about producing a poem for Princess Anne's wedding, the Queen was quick to quell his worries. "It was indeed not a duty" writes Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green, "to write something every time there was a Royal occasion." Betjeman took those soothing words to heart. He did toss out the odd poem on a vaguely royal theme, but preserved his energies for the more important tasks in hand: preserving the nation's buildings, for example, and his own status as national teddy bear.

I couldn't help thinking of this at the announcement of the new children's laureate last week. "Michael Morpurgo" said Chris Meade of the outgoing laureate, "has been to inadequate school libraries what Jamie Oliver has been to turkey twizzlers". Meade is director of Booktrust, the organisation which will "administer" the laureateship. They are working in partnership with the DCMS and, of course, with the sponsors. So, we had a word from the sponsors (in this case, Ottakar's) and we had a word from the Arts Council (Sir Christopher Frayling, slightly irritated that Meade had nicked the turkey twizzlers) and we had a word from the DCMS, represented by a man with curly white hair. His main joke was that he didn't look like his boss, David Lammy. His main point was that the children's laureate helped the DCMS meet their "PSAs". "Public service agreement" targets, apparently.

Michael Morpurgo has, during his two-year term, visited 12 countries and hundreds of libraries and schools. He couldn't have done it, he said, without his wife, Claire. Now, life would calm down. He and Claire might get a post-laureate whippet, or perhaps a Harley Davidson.

When Morpurgo placed the medal around the neck of the new laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, it felt to me a bit like a public hanging. She seemed happy enough. "You've been tireless" she said to Morpurgo. "Now it's my turn to get busy". Get busy? From the writer who has produced more than 80 books and sold more than 20 million? The writer who is better known to the world's children - or at least the world's eight-year old girls - than even Posh and Becks? The writer whose punishing schedule and epic book signings have got her into the Guinness Book of Records?

"The children's laurate" said Frayling "is an advocate, a campaigner and an evangelist for children's literature". A missionary, in other words. An ambassador, an envoy, a teacher, a diplomat, a lobbyist - and a writer surely heading for a nervous breakdown.

When Andrew Motion became poet laureate, the terms were changed. Instead of a butt of sack, there was a salary and a ten-year limit. Now, it was more like a job. More like a management consultant, in fact. The interpretation of the role, to be fair, remains in the eye of the beholder. It is Motion himself who has chosen to campaign for changes in the school curriculum, to lobby government bodies, visit schools and start "initiatives". It seems extremely unlikely that he, unlike the subject of one of his brilliant biographies, will be writing any Odes to Indolence. But then, in the age of a government obsessed by "hard working families", there's not much room for indolence. Perhaps he could write an ode to PSAs instead.

Boyd Tonkin is away

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