One of the Brazilian writers I especially like is Carlos Drummond de Andrade. He was born in 1902. He died in 1987. And though he was a shy man who wrote poetry (rarely a bestseller) he is known, until today, right across Brazil.

The Brazilians call him ‘Drummond’.  He is the author some of country’s best loved books. In fact, there is a statue of him now…sitting by the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, near to which he lived for many years.

drummond statue

Not much of Drummond’s writing has been translated into English. And some while ago (all the way back in 2004, in fact) I translated 18 of my favourite Carlos Drummond de Andrade poems from Portuguese into English.

These translations got put to one side because I’ve been focussed on writing books for young people. But I thought about one of them this afternoon. It is called called O Elefante. And I’ve found my English version of it, to post here.

It’s from a brilliant, heart-warming, funny collection of poems called A Rosa do Povo, published by Carlos Drummond de Andrade in 1945.



                                                                                                                                                  I make an elephant

from the little that I have.

Bits of wood

salvaged from old furniture

should just hold him up.

Then I fill him with cotton,

cheap stuffing, sweetness.

Glue holds his

drooping ears in place.

His trunk rolls up.

It is the happiest part

of his architecture.

But that still leaves the tusks,

made from this pure material

I cannot figure out.

A precious stuff so white

that it is rolled in the circus dust

and still comes up clean, intact.

Then the last touch, the eyes,

where the most fluid

and permanent part

of the elephant is kept,

oblivious to the scam.

                                                                                                                                              So here he is, my modest elephant

ready to go out

looking for friends

in a bored world

which no longer believes in animals,

which lives in suspicion of things.

There he goes, all majestic, fragile

weight, fanning himself

and slowly shifting

his sewn hide

on which there are cloth flowers

and clouds hinting at

a more poetic world

where love brings back together

the forms of nature.

                                                                                                                                              My elephant walks off

down the busy street

but no one bothers to look.

They do not even laugh

at the tail threatening to

abandon the rest of the body.

He is all grace, in spite of

legs which get in the way

and a bulging belly

which might collapse

at the slightest push.

There is elegance in the way

he shows the scant life he has,

and not a soul

in this city allows itself

to take in the fugitive image

of his tender body,


but hungry and touching.

                                                                                                                                        Hungry for heart-rending lives

and incidents,

for meetings by moonlight

in the deepest ocean,

under tree roots,

or in the hearts of shells,

for lights which won’t blind

but which shine through

the thickest tree trunks,

his walk, which takes him onward

without crushing the plants

on the battlefield,

in search of places,

secrets, happenings

untold in any book,

leaves a trail which

only the wind,

the leaves, the ants


Men ignore it.

They only dare show themselves

in the peace behind curtains

eyelids closed.

                                                                                                                                            And late at night

my elephant returns.

But he returns worn out.

His hesitant feet

fall to pieces in the dust.

He didn’t find

what he needed,

what we needed,

my elephant and I

in whom I love to disguise myself.

Weary of inquiry,

the whole contraption falls apart

as if it were nothing but paper.

The glue dissolves.

Everything inside him,

the forgiveness, the caresses,

the feathers, the cotton,

spill out over the carpet

like a dismantled myth.

Tomorrow I start again.

                                                                                                                                               by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

 translation Sean Taylor




Song of the Sea still

Last week I went to the beautiful animated film SONG OF THE SEA. I raise my hat to director and writer Tomm Moore for heading off in opposite directions to most of the feature films being made for young people today. There is poetry in his hand-drawn images. There is a fresh sort of music to the storytelling. And (in an interview which originally appeared on Cartoonbrew) it is good to hear him say this about working for young audiences:

People have been asking me if I want to make movies for adults. I don’t see why not, but I also don’t see making movies for adults as more important. In fact, I actually think making movies for kids is more important because they shape you. I watch so many movies as an adult and forget about most them instantly, but those I saw as a kid left a deep impression. So we have a huge responsibility when we make movies aimed at kids to say something they need to know, instead of just distracting them…

Three quotations on frogs (to celebrate the launch of my new picture book IT’S A GROOVY WORLD, ALFREDO!)

Philosopher of ancient China, Lao-Tse: “A frog in a well cannot imagine the ocean.”

American actress, Mark Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

American actress, Cameron Diaz: “I’d kiss a frog even if there was no promise of a Prince Charming popping out of it. I love frogs.”

Three quotations about SILENCE AND SPACE

Writing poetry since I was a teenager and, more recently, picture book stories, has taught me something about the importance of leaving words out.

You could say that in both poems and picture books you try to get across as much as you can with as few words as possible.

Writers work at filling pages with words. But getting a bit better, over the years, at leaving words out, might be the most important thing I’ve learned about writing, so far!

Here are three quotations which express something about what I’m trying to say:

French storyteller, Abbi Patrix: “The thing I like most about storytelling is its silence.”

Argentine poet, Roberto Juarroz: “Silence is a temple that needs no god.”

From the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching (ascribed to Lao-Tse): “Shape clay into a vessel, but it’s the space within that makes it useful.”


Language itself…

Language might be the most powerful of all the tools that we (supposedly clever) human-beings have come up with. So it’s not much surprise that there’s a constant tug-o-war about how reading, writing and language-skills are passed on from one generation to the next.

What approach should we take when we teach children to read and write? How best do you help young people to become confident language users? Which rules of grammar should be preserved? As language changes in the hands of young people, is that damaging or refreshing?

We authors of books for children and teenagers are known for throwing ourselves into the tussles over these questions…often defending teaching that uses ‘real books’ (rather than meaningless, story-less, technical texts), often standing up for the importance of giving young people a taste for the pleasures of reading and writing…not just training in their functional and productive sides.

The British author Philip Pullman, speaks with clarity and passion on these issues. But he went a step beyond the usual debates in the comments he made in an interview in The Guardian last year, when talking around his book Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.

He got onto the subject of teachers, parents and stories for children. And he started to speak about the powerful stuff at the very heart of the debates…language itself:

“Our politicians talk about ‘the basics’ all the time, but what they mean are things that you can correct at the last minute on your word processor: spelling, punctuation, that kind of thing. But the most basic thing of all is your attitude to language.

If your attitude to language has been generated by a parent who enjoys it with you, who sits you on their lap and reads with you and tells stories to you and sings songs with you and talks about the story with you and asks you questions and answers your questions, then you will grow up with a basic sense that language is fun. Language is for talking and sharing things and enjoying rhymes and songs and riddles and things like that.

That’s so important. I can’t begin to express how important that is… A sense that language belongs to us, and we belong in it, and that it’s fun to be there and we can take risks with it and say silly things in it and it doesn’t matter and it’s funny. All of that. If your sense of language is that it’s something you’ve got to get correct and you mustn’t get it wrong and you’re going to get marked on it, judged on it, well … That’s a pretty poor show.”


Off the back of a lorry…


lorry 3


Truck drivers in Brazil often paint sayings on the backs of their lorries. Here are a few I’ve seen:

Só não erra quem não faz nada (You only make no mistakes if you do nothing)

Devagar mas to na frente (Slow but I’m ahead)

Não tenho tudo que amo, mas amo tudo que tenho (I don’t have everything that I love, but I love everything that I have)

Se você está com pressa, porque não veio antes? (If you’re in a hurry, why didn’t you set off earlier?)


lorry 1



I like this short piece of writing advice. It comes from an interview I read with a British author called Matthew Kneale. It was around the time he published his very good, travelling, historical novel: ‘English Passengers':

“Pick your subject with care, and how you intend to treat it. Be sure it’s something that matters to you personally. Know why you want to do it. Then write. Don’t let yourself become self-conscious about what you’re doing. Don’t worry yourself about whether your attempt will be great literature. Just write. And make sure enough happens in your story, that there’s a sense of change.”


Nasruddin and the umbrella…

A friend saw Naruddin walking in the rain.  He was carrying an umbrella, but he wasn’t using it.

“Nasruddin!” called out the friend. ” Why don’t you use that umbrella?”

Nasruddin told him, “It’s broken!”

“Then why did you bring it with you, if it’s broken?” asked the friend.

Nasruddin replied, “I didn’t think it was going to rain!”



It’s almost carnival time in Brazil. Across the country, drums are thundering as the ‘schools of samba’ step up their rehearsals. And the carnival parade designers (the carnavalescos) are in the thick of their ingenious, crazy, colourful preparations.

It’s also tropical rain time. Wild storms fill the skies most afternoons.

And sometimes that’s not a good combination.


This photo (from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a few years ago) tells a story about carnival.

Models being made for a parade by one of São Paulo’s schools of samba were carried away by flood water. They ended up in one of the city’s rivers, stuck below a bridge. That’s a bus going past above.



I was re-reading a talk given by the Canadian/American storyteller, Dan Yashinsky (The Joan Bodger Memorial Lecture, 2006.) It can be found on the internet, and raises some great questions about listening in our current day and age.

This section about the nature of listening to a story, particularly sticks in my mind:

When the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism and a renowned storyteller, arrives in a village marketplace and begins telling stories, Martin Buber tells us what happens. A man begins to listen; then: “a second man came up, soon after a third, then ever more and more, mostly servants and poor people who begin the day early. They all remained standing, listened eagerly and called over still others from the houses. As the hour advanced, the maids came with their water-jugs on the way to the fountain and stopped, the children came running out of the rooms, and the family heads themselves left their businesses and their pursuits to hear the strange man.” (The Legend of the Baal-Shem.) The marvelous thing is that, wherever you entered the tale, you found its “red thread” (a wonderful German phrase for the inner life of a story): “His narration…was so delightfully intertwined that whenever someone came up it seemed to that person to be at the beginning, and those who earlier had not been curious were now entirely concentrated on what would happen next and awaited it as if it were the fulfillment of their most precious hopes. Thus they all had one great story, and within it each had his own small and all-important story.”

And what do these spellbound villagers hear in the storyteller’s intricately woven narrative? Buber answers somewhat mystically: “It was no report of distant times and places that the story told; under the touch of its words, the secret melody of each person was awakened …”

This way of describing an already-mysterious phenomenon only deepens the questions; yet there is something wonderfully accurate in Buber’s phrase. With oral stories, it seems to me, we are always listening for a kind of “secret melody” — that is, a distillation and expression of our own experience — our lives reflected back to us with new understanding.



I’ve just re-read one of my favourite books  –  ‘The Conference of the Birds’ by John Heilpern. It’s a colourful and fascinating story, describing a journey through northern and western Africa made by British theatre director Peter Brook, with a troupe of actors, back in 1972/3.

The Conference of the Birds115

John Heilpern has a great eye for detail and an infectious sort of curiosity about what goes on. The strange and talented mix of international actors are brilliantly brought to life, as are their many performances.

There’s some healthy scepticism. (By the third chapter, Heilpern has managed to tell us, “I like actors but sometimes they don’t know their arse from their elbow.”) And the writing is very funny. Nearly every chapter makes me laugh out loud, at something.

As well as enjoying the writing, I like the story. The book describes a journey in search of a theatrical experience which Peter Brook himself cannot easily define.

Along the way there are moments of magical inspiration, others of complete failure.

There’s a lot of plain, hard slog.

Everyone seems bewildered, at least some of the time. (At one point Heilpern says, “Nobody knew what they were there for or where they were going.”)

There are trials and errors, risks taken, flashes of good and bad luck, and completely unexpected moments of freedom and delight.

So, although it is all writ large (30 people travelling 8,500 miles through deserts, mountains and tropical forest) it feels as if  Brook and his actors are journeying through the things that anyone following an artistic dream (with its madness, desperation and beauty) will end up experiencing.

I think that’s why the book grabbed me when I first read it, as a young man, curious about what it might mean to set off on an artistic journey. And it’s probably why it still grabs me some years later…when there’s no turning back!



You need something to go wrong, otherwise there would be no story.

The craft of writing stories involves many things and (usually) one is making things go wrong.

When things go wrong, questions hang in the air. Characters have to react. Suspense is created. Emotions are stirred. Things change.

In other words, the simple act of creating a problem, sets in progress many of the things that us humans (for whatever reasons) find most irresistible in stories.

I was at a children’s storytelling event a few months ago. Everything started off neatly and tidily. People were drinking juice and herb tea. A big rug was spread out. Someone was running a craft workshop. Most of the children were small. They were sitting on the rug, making small clay things. The activity was led by a woman who said encouraging, soothing things to the small children. And it wasn’t just her. Everyone was being rather smiley and nice.

There were a few children aged nearer 10 or 11. Among them was a boy who seemed pretty restless, and disappointed with what was going on.

Then someone dropped their tea cup.


It smashed loudly across the floor.

The boy grinned. His eyes lit up. He said, “AT LAST! A DISASTER!”


Nasruddin and the white donkey…

Nasruddin bought himself a new donkey. It was a very rare white donkey. Everyone admired it. Nasruddin loved it. Wherever he went, he went on his donkey.

Soon everyone knew about Nasruddin’s white donkey. They all agreed what a handsome donkey it was.

But it happened that a neighbour of Nasruddin’s was going to marry a girl in the next village. He wanted to arrive at his wedding in style. And he thought people would be very impressed if he showed up riding on a white donkey.

So he visited Nasruddin, to see if he could borrow the donkey.

Nasruddin didn’t much like the idea. The road to the next village wasn’t in good condition. He was worried that his beloved donkey would injure itself.

“What do you think, Nasruddin?” asked the neighbour. “Can I  borrow the donkey?”

Nasruddin shook his head. “I’m sorry but it’s not here,” he said, “My son rode to the bazaar on it this morning. And he’s not back yet.”

Just at that moment, the donkey brayed loudly from the back of the house.

“It is here,” said the neighbour.  “I just heard it.”

Nasruddin stared at the man. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“That sound just now. That was your donkey braying.”

“No it wasn’t,” said Nasruddin.

“It was,” his neighbour told him.

Nasruddin stared at the man for a moment. Then he asked, “Look. Who are you going to believe? Me or a donkey?”



A friend of mine in Brazil, Regina Machado, called and asked if I would tell some stories to a friend of hers  – Ana  – who was ill.

Ana has a small daughter. She used to give English classes based around art history. She was writing an MA thesis. Then, on the day she was due to present it, one of the assessors didn’t show up. The presentation had to be put back to a later date. That night, Ana suffered a massive stroke. The part of her brain which sends ‘motor’ messages to the rest of her body was wiped right out. All she can do now is blink her eyes.

I said yes. Regina took me there.

Ana was at her mother and father’s flat. It was full of beautiful paintings, clocks and artwork on the wall, though there was something a bit stuck about the place, as if everything had been in exactly the same position for decades.

Ana’s small daughter bustled about with scissors and toys. She showed me her room, overflowing with dolls, and told me their names.

I went down the corridor to the room where her mother lay, imprisoned in a paralysed body.

When you think what has been taken from Ana (the ability to speak, walk, feed herself, write, turn in her sleep, reach out a hand to comfort her daughter…) it makes most of problems we find ourselves struggling with seem very petty.

I told Ana some stories in English. Rain burst out of the sky behind us, down onto a world she cannot turn her head to see. I could tell she understood the stories well. A few times she made a slight, gurgling chuckle.

Regina said that after I left she cried and cried.


Writing secrets – A PEN AND A NOTEBOOK

People like asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas from?”

I usually say that there are ideas for stories or poems all around us. The only difference between writers and other people is that we make sure we’ve got a pen and a notebook to hand, so that when an idea comes we don’t let it go. We write it down.

There isn’t a notebook in my pocket one hundred percent of the time. (Anyway, the secret isn’t just having the notebook. There’s a way of looking and listening with a sort of curiosity, or alertness, or care that comes into it as well.) But, actually, there won’t be many occasions when I don’t have a pen and notebook somewhere to hand.

To the surprise (quite often annoyance) of people around me, I do start scribbling things at odd moments: when walking along a busy pavement…or watching a film at the cinema…or in the middle of the night…

And If you ask around, notebooks of story ideas, observations, memories, fragments of overheard language, and other descriptions and scribbles are the foundations on which very many writers build their work.

The German author and philosopher, Walter Benjamin included the following in his thirteen pieces of advice on the writer’s technique: “…keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”

I like spiral-bound notebooks. As I go along, I destroy them! I tear out the pages. I cut them up. I throw things out. Then (sometimes by typing them on to my computer, sometimes by putting them in actual files on shelves) I sift what I’ve written into a whole lot of different categories.

So instead of having piles of old notebooks, I’ve got strange files of bits of paper.

One file has names for characters in it. Another is full of bits and pieces of dialogue. Another holds ideas for story titles.

And those are the predictable ones. If I look through, I’ve also got a file containing names of dog breeds. Another contains names of breakfast cereals. And one’s labeled COWBOY LANGUAGE,

If a hurricane ever hits my writing studio, a lot of strange confetti is going to fly!