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I’m a successful children’s poet. Often, at the end of a school visit, I’ll sell books, signing them and adding daft jokey messages. Personalising each book makes it more likely that they’ll actually be read. Occasionally, I’ve sold more than 250 books in a single school, but have always managed to put a different message in each book…. This sort of stuff: ‘Books are rubbish so throw this one away and watch TV like a normal kid.’ or ‘Enjoy my poems or my family will fight your family!’ or ‘If you don’t like these poems an alien will zap you!’ or ‘I hope you like this book. It’s best grilled and served with chips and peas.’ or ‘For… with my best wishes and my second-best wishes and a few rubbish wishes…’ and so on. It works. Often they’re comparing messages and starting to read the poems even before my signing session’s over.

Stan Engel cartoon depicting Nick Toczek back in the early 1980s.
Stan Engel cartoon depicting me back in the early 1980s when I still had some hair

I dedicate each book to its new owner by name. Thailand, where I spent two weeks in schools in spring 2010, has the best names. Where else could I have dedicated books to kids called Moo, Gift, Proud, Chin, Poem, Green, Thor, Mild, Tiger, Title, Punch, Boss, Mint, Bow, Shin, Tan, Mammoth, Soft, Santa, Poon and Thank, plus three brothers called One, Five and Four, and two brothers whose dad owned a sawmill so they were called Mill and Saw. Fathers often choose Thai names, sometimes simply basing them on what they like. Three brothers whose dad was a football fan were called Team, Pitch and Ball… and one girl with a film-fan father was simply called Cartoon.

This even beats American rock-eccentric, Frank Zappa and his second wife, Gail, whose four kids were Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeon.

You sign books in the hope of pleasing kids. That can misfire. During a recent book-signing in a library, I handed a freshly inscribed book to a young girl. She looked at it and burst into tears because I’d ruined her new book by scribbling on it.

Another time, at the very end of a long book-signing in a school, I got to the very last of the pupils. He held out a piece of paper. Thinking he’d not had the money for a book, I said: “Do you want me to sign it?” “No, I got your signature earlier.” He thrust the piece of paper into my hand. There was something scribbled on it. I must have looked puzzled. “It’s for you,” he said. “Fair’s fair. I got your signature. Now you’ve got mine.”

One extraordinary encounter stands out. Again, it involves the last kid in a queue, a girl with a woman I took to be her mum. The teacher who’d organised my visit was helping me. We were in the school hall. The girl held out her book. I asked her for her name. She didn’t answer. The woman with her, who I assumed was her mother, told me what it was. I wrote a rhyming couplet in the book which rhymed with her name, then read it out to her. She replied with a rhyming couplet about me. I answered in rhyme, and so did she. For a couple of minutes we traded couplets, with hers getting ruder and more personal. It was very funny. We were both laughing. She was amazingly quick at thinking up these couplets. Then the woman with her pulled her away. I was worried. Was she offended? As they left, the teacher asked me if I knew what I’d just done. I apologised, thinking she meant the rudeness. Not so. It turned out that the woman with her wasn’t her mum. She was her carer. The girl was a voluntary mute who’d not spoken a word for almost three years. Yet, with me, she’d not just broken that silence, but had done so in a well-constructed stream of rhyming couplets. The excited carer had pulled the girl away so she could phone the girl’s mother to tell her what had happened. How’s that for the power of poetry?

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