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Ted Hughes: Writing for Children (& Adults)


Ted Hughes was a prolific writer for children. Throughout his career he has published more than twenty books for children. Quite a few of them have become real classics and his most well-known children's book, The Iron Man, has been adapted into an animated movie.

But writing for children was only one of his concerns. He was at least equally concerned about education, children's reading and writing. Some of his most revealing essays stem from this pre-occupation (like »Myth and Education« (I+II) and Poetry in the Making). Hughes was also involved in a project called Farms for City Children, set up by Clare and Michael Morpurgo, and he was very much in favour of creating a Children's Laureateship, an he had also developed with Michael Morpurgo, which was put into practice after Hughes's death in 1998.


Writing for children, Hughes never underestimated his desired audience's ability to grasp complex issues, like the life and death cycles that portrayed in many of his »animal poems« or his »nature poetry«. As a result, some of his poems for children have re-appeared in collections for adults and vice versa. Hughes's concern was that children should be encouraged, even taught to use their imagination — something in which ordinary school education usually failed. Stories and poems, Hughes thought, could provide for that, as long as they would »stay within hearing« of children and incorporate the »inner« and »outer worlds«, which human beings have to live in simultaneously:

From my own observation of myself, as well as of others, I had come to believe that one of the commonest and most disabling spiritual injuries, in English society, is the alienation from each other of the three most important components of a growing child's life. The first of these is the child's sense of itself. The second is the outer world of man-created technology (and culture) within which we all have to live. The third is the inner world, what might be called a subjective awareness of the biological world, with its mysterious, subconscious vitality, which rises out of the chemistry of our organism, which in turn emerges from the chemical elements themselves — the very stuff of creation. [»The Interpretation of Parables«, 149—150]

Imagination he saw as one of our most important pieces of mental equipment. It could, he tought, be equally well applied to rational processes and objective thought as to the subjective processes of our »inner lives« that may surface in a symbolic guise. Hughes was convinced that we need and use our imagination constantly — where would, say, a scientist or a politician be without »objective imagination«? So, our Imagination should better be strong and yet it is never properly trained or even worse, neglected by standard education with probably fatal long-term results.


When we read or hear an engaging story, Hughes thought, we make it part of our mental life. If it is well written and well conceived, we will »live« it. We will share in the protagonists' experiences through our Imagination. And a good story stays with us. Such stories »remain, part of the head that lives our life, and they grow as we grow«. [»Myth and Education« (II), 140] Hughes thought that a good story could even provide children with a kind of mental, behavioural and emotional blueprints for difficult situations that might occur later in life:

The theory behind all these stories [his Creation Tales] is that a parable of this kind, absorbed by a young reader, settles into the mind's foundations as a symbolic map, a template for future psychological growth. [»The Interpretation of Parables«, 149]

As a consequence of such thought, Hughes's writing for children grew from a light and entertaining mode into embracing very complex constellations. He does not shy away from tackling issues of life and death, or loss, approaches issues arrising from human damage to our natural sourroundings as well as from the neglection of one's inner life without cutifying his texts. As such, many of his stories and poems have been embraced by children and adults all over the world.


»Myth and Education« (II). In Writers, Critics and Children. Edited by Geoff Fox et al. London: Heinemann, 1976; New York: Agathon Press, 1976, pp. 77—94. Also in Winter Pollen, London: Faber & Faber 1994, pp 136—153. The quotes above are from the Winter Pollen reprint.

»The Interpretation of Parables«. In Signal 69, Sept. 1992, 147—152; also, in a slightly different version, in The Times Educational Supplement, 20 March 1992.  


Writing for Children – Major Publications

[Cover images are included under the assumptions stated in the Copyrights Section]



Moon-Whales: Cover Moon-Whales.
Ill.: Chris Riddell.
London: Faber & Faber, 1988
See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

From the back cover: »›In every moon-mirror lurks a danger...‹ Moon-Whales explores Ted Hughes' exhilaratingly strange and wonderful moon-world. The terrain is fantastic and frightening; its creatures both intriguing and grotesque, but everything is touched by the Poet Laureate's moon magic. Chris Riddell's illustrations do full justice to the ferocity, the oddity and the weird beauty of this imaginary world.«

In Poetry in the Making Hughes writes about the ›first version‹ of this book, The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People:

»[...] the number and oddity of the creatures which inhabit the earth or the planets, are nothing to those which inhabit our minds, or perhaps I ought to say our dreams, or the worlds from which our dreams emerge, worlds presumably somewhere out beyond the bottom of our minds. Now it is a fact, deny it as you may, that one of the worlds from which our dreams come seems to be very like the moon. Nobody has ever been there except maybe one or two select madmen. We are satisfied that the real moon exists rolling about in the sky, but we have quite as much evidence for the existence of the dream moon, and as this one is somewhere inside our minds it affects us much more closely than the other, and so ought to be much more our concern.« [Poetry in the Making. p. 110. London: Faber & Faber, 1969]

If you decide to get this for yourself, I strongly recommend the hardback version, which is the only version to do justice to Chris Riddell's illustrations, which explain, highlight or support the poems (the paperback clips and resizes several of them). There also exists a version of Moon-Whales with drawings by Leonard Baskin. However, this seems long out of print.


Season Songs UK: Cover Season Songs.
Ill.: Leonard Baskin.
New York: Viking, 1975;
London: Faber & Faber, 1976:
Contents »
See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

Season Songs US: Cover Season Songs.
Ill.: Leonard Baskin,
New York, Viking, 1975.

See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

This book began as a series of »Five Autumn Songs for Children's Voices« which Ted Hughes wrote for performance by school children at a festival.

Over the years it was enlarged into a book which evades easy classification as a ›book for children‹ or a ›book for adults‹. Very effectively, it is both.

The collection presents a poetic cycle following the progress of the seasons.


Under the North Star Under the North Star.
Ill.: Leonard Baskin.
New York: Viking, 1981;
London: Faber & Faber, 1981

See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

From the inside jacket:

»The words and pictures in this book combine to evoke the landscape within the Arctic Circle and in particular the animals and birds who live there ›under the North Star.‹ The sequence of poems and paintings in rich and luminous water-colours captures the essence of, among others, ›The Snowy Owl‹, ›The Snow-shoe Hare‹, ›The Grizzly Bear‹, ›Mooses‹ and ›The Mosquito‹. That the collection originated as an entertainment for a lively and precocious little girl is reflected in the immediate appeal and humorous observation of many of the portraits; and they all share the imaginative dimension created by previous collaborations between these outstanding talents.«

Under the North Star collects poems on animals who live north of the 49th parallel. It is a very beautiful book. The illustrations are in water-colour. Aiming at children it will hold much for the adult reader, and indeed several of its poems have subsequently appeared in collections for adults.

Under the North Star was published by Faber & Faber in 1981 with drawings by Leonard Baskin.

This is a wonderful book in which illustrations and poems successfully combine. Leonard Baskin's water colours very much enhance the collection. Baskin also published other children's books in the same vein, including Hosie's Aviary (written mostly by his children, Viking, 1979) and Hosie's Alphabet (no publishing data known).


What is the Truth? What is the Truth? A Farmyard Fable for the Young.
Ill.: R.J. Lloyd.
London: Faber & Faber, 1984;
New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

What is the Truth? collects a good number of very beautiful ›animal‹ poems within a link narrative.

In the narrative, God's Son wants to visit mankind. He is curious about them and thinks he might be able to learn something. God is against it: What could mankind teach his Son?

God: »Mankind thinks it knows everything. [But] it knows everything but the Truth.« In the end, God is persuaded to prove his point to his Son and they visit mankind. From a hilltop they summon the souls of people from a village and ask them questions.

What is the Truth? originated from a project for Farms for City Children. Two versions exist. The first, a large format edition, with illustrations by Reg Lloyd and the second, newer version with illustrations by Lisa Flather (part of the Collected Animal Poems).


  The Iron Wolf
The Iron Wolf
Volume 1 of Collected Animal Poems,
Ill.: Chris Riddell,
London: Faber & Faber 1995

See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

The Iron Wolf collects poems from several earlier books in a beautiful little volume. Most of them come from The Mermaid's Purse (22 out of 28 poems from the original collection) and The Cat and the Cuckoo (26 out of 28 poems from the original publication). The other poems are from Moon-Bells, Under the North Star, River, Flowers and Insects and Crow. Two poems are previously uncollected.

The book is also available as the Faber/Penguin Audio Tape Nessie the Mannerless Monster and The Iron Wolf.

It is part of the Collected Animal Poems, illustrated by Chris Riddell.


The Cat and the Cuckoo (Cover)The Cat and the Cuckoo
Ill.: Flora McDonnell.
London: Faber & Faber, 2002
See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

The Cat and the Cuckoo (Cover)The Cat and the Cuckoo
Ill.: R.J. Lloyd.
Bideford: Sunstone Press, 1987.
See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

In this book Ted Hughes focuses on animals that live in the countryside and on farms. Many of the poems are very light and playful in tone and approach.

The book exists in an edition with illustrations by Reg Lloyd and, in a newer edition with illustrations by Flora McDonnell. Similar to The Mermaid's Purse, the poems in The Cat and the Cuckoo are light and playful.

Many of the poems from The Cat and the Cuckoo were also published in The Iron Wolf, and as such are included on the Faber/Penguin Audio Tape Nessie the Mannerless Monster and The Iron Wolf.


The Mermaid's Purse (Trade Ed.) The Mermaid's Purse
Ill.: Flora McDonnell.
London: Faber & Faber, 1999,
revised edition. (Bibliography )

See also Collected Poems for Children (Bibliography)

The Mermaid's Purse ... is a book with poems about creatures of the sea. The Mermaid's Purse has a similarily light touch as The Cat and the Cuckoo.

It exists as a limited edition with illustrations by R.J. Lloyd (1993) and in a new edition with illustrations by Flora McDonnell. This later edition drops the poem »Gull« from the Limited Edition (»What yanks upward your line of sight…«) and replaces it with an early Hughes poem »Gulls« (»Gulls are glanced from the cliff...«).

Selections from the book were also published in volume 1 of the Collected Animal Poems: The Iron Wolf, and on the Faber/Penguin Audio Tape Nessie the Mannerless Monster and The Iron Wolf.  




Collected Plays for Children The Coming of the Kings and Other Plays.
The Tiger's Bones.
Collected Plays For Children

Collected Plays ... : Ill.: Quentin Blake. London: Faber & Faber 2001. (Bibliography)
The Coming of the Kings ...
: London: Faber & Faber, 1970;
The Tiger's Bones: Ill.: Alan E. Cober New York: Viking, 1974.

During the 1960s, Ted Hughes wrote many plays for radio and some for stage production. The Coming of the Kings and The Tiger's Bones (US edition) collected these plays.

The Tiger's Bones was the more complete collection, containing the additional play »Orpheus«.

Some of the plays were adapted from other, older material. All of them are well suited for production at school or for a cast of children to read aloud. 

Collected Plays for Children re-publishes the plays from The Coming of the Kings / The Tiger's Bones (including »Orpheus«) plus the uncollected »The Pig Organ«. However, in contrast to what the title may suggest, this is not a ›complete‹ collection of Hughes's plays for children.  


Short Stories, Fables, Parables and Creation Tales:


How the Whale Became - coverHow the Whale Became,
Tales of the Early World,
The Dreamfighter and other Creation Tales,
Collected Creation Tales

How the Whale Became: Ill.: George Adamson. London: Faber & Faber, 1963;
How the Whale Became: Ill.: Rick Schreiter: New York: Atheneon, 1964.
How the Whale Became: Ill.: Jackie Morris: London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

Tales of the Early World - cover Tales of the Early World:
Ill.: Andrew Davidson.
London: Faber & Faber, 1988.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991.

The Dreamfighter - cover The Dreamfighter:
London: Faber & Faber, 1995.

Collected Creation Tales The Dreamfighter and other Creation Tales [Collected Creation Tales]:
October 2003 (Bibliography)

Ted Hughes published three collections of witty, compelling Creation Tales. Of these, How the Whale Became is the earliest. At times it is close to the Aesopean fable and some of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

From very early on, the Creation Tales seem to have developed into an ongoing project, providing the backdrop to collections as Crow, from which the poems emerged. (See the Crow Audio book for details)

Hughes' second and third volumes, Tales of the Early World and The Dreamfighter, take the reader into a unique, Hughesian world of characters and imagery.

Two key characters here are God and His Mother. God lives the live of a bachelor who frequently meddles with Creation. Somehow, he often seems to have problems with the animals he creates — or rather with the things that tend to happen when he creates them.

In many instances God remembers his mother — who does things very differently form him, and whom he seems a little scared of — when he runs into serious problems

Other key characters are Man and Woman, and several stories give clues to their creation and ›early‹ existence.

A volume of collected creation tales was published in the autumn of 2003, also, misleadingly titled The Dreamfighter and other Creation Tales. It collects the stories from the other three books; an unpublished story and »Where is the Key to the Universe« (published separately in 1995) that were originally scheduled for inclusion are not in the book (though listed on the imprint page).

Wonderful material for adults and children!

Most stories from the three books have been published as Faber/Penguin Audiobooks.  


Full Length Story Books


The Iron Man - book cover The Iron Man (The Iron Giant)
The Iron Man: Ill.: George Adamson. London: Faber & Faber, 1968;
The Iron Man: later editions ill.: Andrew Davidson.
The Iron Giant: Ill.: Robert Nadler. New York: Harper & Row, 1968, as The Iron Giant,
The Iron Giant: later editions ill.: Dirk Zimmer

The Iron Man
From the cover of the 1991 paperback edition:

»Starts superbly with a clanking iron giant toppling from a cliff and lying smashed and scattered on the rocks below. Then his various parts get up and search for each other. Hughes has never written more compellingly.« Robert Nye, The Times

»A weird, compelling fantasy told in a style of such ringing clarity that not one of its fearsome points can possibly be missed.« Naomi Lewis, Listener

»Reckoned one of the greatest of modern fairy tales.« Observer.

The Iron Man tells the story of little Hogarth, who is suddenly faced by an enormous Iron Man. This monster seems to have come out of nowhere. And he eats metal: fences, cars, tractors, anything metal. So, the rural community is under serious threat, and the farmers decide to dig a gigantic trap. But suddenly the threat is gone and the Iron Monster is happily forgotten — maybe just a bad dream or an ugly memory – until, of course, he reappears. Again it is Hogarth who faces the threat ...

The Iron Man is a fascinating tale about threats which appear out of nowhere and how to deal with them.

The Iron Man is also available as an AudioBook, read by Ted Hughes. The US version of the book is called The Iron Giant.


The Iron Giant - Movie The Iron Giant (Animated Movie)
Directed by Brad Bird.
Time Warner, 1999.
(Animated Movie,

A heavily adapted version of the story has been made into an animated movie available on video and DVD. The setting has been moved to the Maine in the fifties. New character are being introduced and the context is that of a nuclear war threat. But the movie succeeds in very fittingly translating the redemptive message of the book into this very different medium, while the animation itself is extremely well done.

Ted Hughes himself was pleased with the film:

»Before his death, Ted Hughes had been sent a copy of The Iron Giant screenplay and sent a letter to Brad Bird saying how pleased he was with the screenplay. ›I want to tell you how much I like what Brad Bird has done,‹ said Hughes in the letter. ›He's made something all of a piece, with terrific sinister gathering momentum and the ending came to me as a glorious piece of amazement. He's made a terrific dramatic situation out of the way he's developed The Iron Giant. I can't stop thinking about it...‹« [quoted from a review @ www.animationartist.com/irongiant/Production/production.html].


The Iron Woman The Iron Woman. A Sequel to The Iron Man.
The Iron Woman: Ill.: Andrew Davidson. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
The Iron Woman: With engravings by Barry Moser. New York: Dial Books, 1995.

The Iron Woman (Barry Moser)

From the cover:

»The Iron Woman has come to take revenge on mankind for its thoughtless polluting of the seas, lakes and rivers. Her first target for destruction is the waste-disposal factory where Lucy's dad and most of the men in the town are employed. Lucy understands the Iron Woman's rage and she too wants to save the water creatures from their painful deaths. But she also wants to save her dad. She needs help of an extraordinary kind, and who is best to ask it of but Hogarth and the Iron Man...?«

Sequels tend to be a very difficult thing, and more often than not feel and read like the author is trying to cash in on previous success. Accordingly, The Iron Woman was very much criticised.

In contrast to The Iron Man, this book has an environmental issue in the foreground (environmental protection was one of Ted Hughes's lifelong concerns).

While Hughes considered The Iron Man very much a book about the ›construction‹ of little boys (apparently, his own son was instrumental in the creation of the story) he had always wanted to write something similar for girls. The Iron Woman is one result of these efforts.

The Iron Woman is also available as an AudioBook.


Ffangs Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth.
Ill.: Chris Riddell. London: Faber & Faber, 1986. (Bibliography)

From the back cover:

»Ffangs lived with the other vampires on Vampire Island, but he was different from the rest — he couldn't stand the sight of blood! When he arrived in London everyone was too frightened to listen while he tried to explain that he only wanted to be human, and he found himself left alone in Buckingham Palace to face Squarg the Vampire Hunter ....«

›Wonderfully inventive ... a cause for celebration for all the family.‹ Books for Your Children

Ffangs is a little vampire who wants to be human. He embarks on a journey during which he learns about the Kiss of Truth which transforms one into what one really is. And is is for this very reason that the Kiss is much feared ...

Hughes has peopled his story with wonderfully inventive characters. Its many exciting twists make it hard to put down. Illustrations are by Chris Riddell.

The story is also available as an AudioBook, read by Ted Hughes himself.

Unfortunately, Hughes left the story unfinished though there is an announcement on the last page that Ffangs's adventures would be continued in »the next book«.

To date, I have not been able to find a continuation of the story in manuscript or typescript. It is likely, that Hughes intened to take up the project at a later time.  


Picture Books

Shaggy & Spotty Shaggy and Spotty.
Ill.: David Lucas.
London: Faber & Faber, 1997. (Bibliography)

Shaggy and Spotty is Hughes's only proper picture book, a collaboration with David Lucas.

The story tells of two dogs who discover that they can fly. Its feel is like it was one of the stories Hughes told his own children, when they were little.




Poetry in the Making Poetry in the Making.
London: Faber & Faber, 1967;
New York: Doubleday, 1970, as Poetry Is. (Bibliography)

From the back cover:

»In a series of chapters built around poems by a number of writers including himself ... [Ted Hughes] explores colourfully and intensively, themes such as ›Capturing Animals‹, ›Wind and Weather‹ and ›Writing about People‹. The purpose throughout is to lead on, via a discussion of the poems (which he does with riveting skill), to some direct encouragement to the children to think and write for themselves. He makes the whole adventure seem enjoyable, and somehow urgent.« The Times Literary Supplement

Poetry in the Making collects some of Hughes's work for BBC education programmes. Here, he talks about poetry and encourages his young listeners/readers to try and write their own poems, stories, even novels. As a book about writing it is equally well suited for creative writing classes for children as for reading at home. In most of the essays, Hughes uses poems of other writers and some of his own to illustrate his point. Two entire chapters are dedicated to collections of his poetry for children: Meet My Folks! (including Nessie) and The Earth-Owl. Other poems discussed include »The Thought-Fox« and »View of a Pig«.

For some reason, three essays are missing from the American edition, Poetry Is: »Writing a Novel: Beginning«, »Writing a Novel: Going On«, and »Words and Experience«.

Poetry in the Making is Ted Hughes's only major collection of essays for children. Several pieces about children's writing and children's literature have been collected in Winter Pollen.


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