Children's Rights and Poetry

I just read that a British organisation, Action for Children’s Arts has issued a manifesto urging the U.K. to do more to comply with Article 31 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 reads:

"Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. Member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity." (Emphasis added).

If you (like many) have never heard of the U.N. Children's Rights Charter, it is a remarkable document—one of many U.N. agreements on human rights, including the Geneva Conventions and Convention Against Torture. The Unicef website describes it this way:

"The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. The leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too."

Can you guess which two countries haven’t ratified the Convention yet? The United States and Somalia. In 1995, when she was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine Albright signed the agreement. Though he generally supported the idea, President Clinton did not submit it to the Senate for its advice and consent. I guess he had other affairs on his mind starting in, let’s say 1995.

Given the Bush administration’s antipathy toward international compacts (not to mention human dignity), I wasn’t surprised to read its position against the agreement: "The Convention on the Rights of the Child may be a positive tool for promoting child welfare for those countries that have adopted it. But we believe the text goes too far when it asserts entitlements based on economic, social and cultural rights. ... The human rights-based approach ... poses significant problems as used in this text."

In other words, don’t tread on us, motherf***ers!

Where am I going with this?

(1) While the right wing smirks at the idea of international agreements, I find it heart-warming to know that some powerful folks in the world actually try to find concordance about how we’ll live and thrive together on our tiny planet.

(2) In the many, endless meetings about arts education in which I’ve participated, I can’t remember anybody ever putting the need for arts in the schools in the context of Article 31 of the UN Charter. "You know, we probably shouldn’t cut funding for the drama teacher because that would be contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of Children." If we say that every child has a right to access to the arts, do we really mean it? What does it mean to have a right to something?

(3) One of the supporters of the U.K. manifesto is poet Michael Rosen, identified as Britain’s "Child Laureate." Curious about that honorific, I found the Children’s Laureate website which has the following statement from Mr. Rosen:

"I think poetry for children needs to be saved from the cold dissection table of right and wrong answers and put back into rooms and halls full of wonder, compassion, haunting, laughter, music and rhythm. We need to hear its many voices, many cultures, many sounds. So I'll be trying to find ways of spreading the excitement of poetry as widely as possible whether that be through books, performances, festivals, internet, conferencing or however. This is about wide and diverse participation. Diverse Verse for all!"

That led me to Michael Rosen’s own website and an engaging collection of short videos in which he reads from his book of children’s poetry, "The Hynotiser"—a collection characterized by a delightful merger of language and storytelling … the essence of great theater.

Here’s one I particularly liked:

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