Benjamin Zephaniah: "We were lucky to have him, and we are poorer without him"
Published on: 13 December 2023
The BookTrust team share their inspiring memories of the brilliant Benjamin Zephaniah, the impression he made on them, and their thoughts on his unique contribution to getting children reading.
"Wherever he went, people thronged to listen to him, yet he was always gracious and humble"
Lisa Eldret, BookTrust's Senior Partnership Manager for Central England, says:
"I had the huge privilege of spending a day with Benjamin in North Lincolnshire earlier this year. He visited a library in Barton Upon Humber to read his book Nature Trail and share some of his poems and rhymes in sessions with families.
"It was amazing to see Benjamin interact with the children in the sessions. He was so funny, warm and engaging. Both children and adults were mesmerised by his storytelling.
"There were lots of people at both events, as well as visits from a local community group and a secondary school, so it was a busy day of back-to-back conversations and book signings. Benjamin, however, had time for everyone. He was interested in everyone's stories and was incredibly patient and kind. Between sessions, he also chatted happily to me and the staff from North Lincolnshire Council about a whole range of topics.
"The children from the local secondary school had prepared some questions for him to answer, which he did happily.
"One of the young people asked him what his favourite book was a child and he replied by talking openly about his dyslexia and the challenges he had faced with accessing reading as a child.
"It was a great day, and I feel very lucky to have met him and had the opportunity to see him share his stories."
Rachel Boden, BookTrust's Lead for Children's Book Promotion and Content Editor, says:
"I had the pleasure of speaking to Benjamin Zephaniah to organise two BookTrust events for children in North Lincolnshire. He was due to read his picture books to a library storytime group and then afterwards to a Reception class.
"However, a local secondary school caught wind of his forthcoming appearance and begged to be able to meet him, too. He kindly agreed to spend the time between the two pre-schooler sessions, when he should have been eating lunch, to talk to some Year 7 superfans.
"His work had such a profound impact on his readers that wherever he went, people thronged to listen to him, yet he was always gracious and humble. We were lucky to have him, and we are poorer without him."
"His work will live on forever"
Emily Drabble, BookTrust's Head of Children's Books Promotion and Prizes, remembers Benjamin speaking at the 2023 BookTrust Storytime Prize awards. She says:
"Benjamin Zephaniah had so many strings to his bow, but his work for children and his commitment to all children having the opportunity to become readers was really deep. In all my interactions with Benjamin over the years, first at the Guardian when I was editor of the Guardian Children's Books site then latterly at BookTrust, I always felt this very powerfully. It was very noticeable that such an icon as Benjamin would personally answer emails and even give you a call to organise things.
"We had the extreme honour to have Benjamin present at our online celebration event for BookTrust's Storytime Prize award in April 2023. Benjamin's fabulous book Nature Trail with Nila Aye illustrating had been shortlisted. I asked him how it felt to have the poem made into a book after writing the poem 20 years ago. The answer was suitably funny and profound. To be honest, we all just wanted to listen to Benjamin all night long. I know everyone else present felt the same.
"He said: 'Nila made it into a book, I just wrote the words - I feel like a bit of a fake as I wrote it so long ago. To see it made into a book in its own right, it gives it a new lease of life and a deeper meaning. I don't want to get too deep, but I've focused on it and with lockdown, when people are talking about children's mental health, I realised how profound it really is. I started to write it when I looked in my garden one day, and I was living in East London at the time, and came back in the evening and noticed there was a different community of animals, a day shift and night shift if you like, and all this stuff going on.
"I wanted to truly express this, but I also wanted to make, and I'm always doing this with my poems, a bigger political point at the end. I believe we all deserve a garden of our own. Some children just don't have gardens so we have to find ways of helping them appreciate nature and if I had my own way, every child would have their own garden, every human being would. So that was my inspiration and the message I was trying to get over, and I was really lucky this great illustrator came along to give it a new lease of life.'
"Then he added: 'I've only used the book a couple of times in front of children, I would read a couple of lines and then turn it around so they could see the illustrations and ask: 'Can you see the caterpillar? Can you see the frog?' Then, I said: 'These pictures are by Nila.' One child was looking really miserable, so I said: 'What's the matter?' He said: 'Where is Nila?' I said: 'She's at home.' He replied: 'Next time you come, will you bring her?'
"Benjamin continued: 'One last thing, and quite serious as it alludes to the end of the poem. I started touring again for the first time in a while. I was in Kenya touring abroad and I started reciting the poem Nature Trail and I took questions. As we all know, children can ask some random questions. One child put his hand up and said: 'What is the future going to be like?' I started trying to sound like Brian Cox, talking about the universe and the environment. Then he said, 'Thank you. But can you assure me in the future we will have gardens?' And I said: 'I don't have the power to promise you, but I hope so and I'll fight for that future.'"
"And that is where I just start to cry. What a loss to the world to lose such a man. But his work will live on forever."
You can listen to Benjamin at the event in this video, from 39:00-46:00:
Also, here's Benjamin Zephaniah in conversation with Emily in 2020 about his novel Windrush Child, the importance of children knowing their history, and his words of advice for children with dyslexia (Zephaniah found out he was dyslexic when he learned to read and write in his early twenties).
"He could equally make a child burst out laughing and make an adult pause to think"
Joseph Coelho, Waterstones Children's Laureate, also reflects on Benjamin Zephaniah's extraordinary legacy as a poet, artist and activist.
He says: "It was when working as an assistant producer for Theatre Centre that I first spoke with Benjamin. I was fresh out of University and performing poetry on the London circuit and so was more than a little starstruck when I answered the phone and heard his powerful distinctive voice down the other end of the line.
"I never got to spend any significant amount of time with Benjamin but was always inspired from afar by the fearlessness in his writing and his presence in performance. He could equally make a child burst out laughing and make an adult pause to think.
"He has been a shining light in the poetry sphere and beyond, showing us all the power of words to delight, enthral and challenge.
"We have lost a giant and an inspiration, in poetry, activism and the arts. The effects of his passing will be felt for a very long time."