Books for Children / He said, she said, they said: Poetry

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The Independent Culture
POETRY is in, rhyming is hip. Whether you put it down to the enduring tug of the classics, or the clout of playground rap, or the timeless satisfaction of rubbing sounds together and stretching words into new shapes, it's OK for street-creditworthy kids to like verse. Publishers have been quick to catch on, with colourful illustrated anthologies and new work for all ages.

Much the biggest category is humorous verse. For one thing, it's so much easier to put pictures to. Among the best for newly fluent readers is The Orchard Book of Funny Poems ( pounds 9.99), compiled by Wendy Cope and decorated with Amanda Vesey's unfussy pictures. Ogden Nash, Michael Rosen and Colin McNaughton set the general tone, spiked with unfamiliar contributions from Anon:

An accident happened to my brother Jim

When somebody threw a tomato at him.

Tomatoes are juicy and don't hurt the skin,

But this one was specially packed in a tin.

Less lavish, but just as good value for juniors, is Funny Bunch (Viking pounds 8.99), in which Kit Wright has spread his net wider and caught some unexpected goodies: Michael Flanders's lyrics of 'The Gnu' and 'The Hippopotamus Song'; a gloriously rhythmic classroom chant that goes:

Can you tell me, if you please

Who it is likes mushy peas?

Louise likes peas. How about Sam?

Sam likes spam. How about Vince?

Vince likes mince. How about Kelly? . . .

Readers may be prompted to continue ad infinitum, especially in the back of the car.

My First Has Gone Bonkers (Blackie pounds 7.99) is a good one for those who are sufficiently familiar with the 'rules' to appreciate riddles, zany alphabets, puzzle poems, and how typography can subvert the sense of the words. The opening piece by Benjamin Zephaniah ('I have poetic licence, i WriTe thE way i waNt. / i drop my full stops where i like. . . . . / MY CAPITAL LetteRs go where i liKE') may be old hat to parents raised on e e cummings but will probably come as a bombshell for examinees of the National Curriculum.

For reading aloud to little ones, Orchard's First Poems ( pounds 8.99) is just right, gently illustrated by Selina Young. I took exception to OUP's Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar ( pounds 4.99), apparently aimed at nursery age. Surely parodies are lost on those not yet fully familiar with the original. Both pictures and poems are a ragbag; not many are funny. In short, this book smells of a rushed job for the Christmas market. Likewise OUP's Dragon Poems ( pounds 2.99 pbk) and Dinosaur Poems ( pounds 6.99 - arntcha just sick of dinosaurs - see below?]). On the other hand, Colin McNaughton's Making Friends with Frankenstein (Walker pounds 10.99) is well produced and carefully thought out, but you either love or loathe McNaughton's wacky style, and to my ear these verses are nothing special.

For zany fantasy, few have approached the Victorian and Edwardian eccentrics. Edward Lear's The Jumblies gets a paperback all to itself from Orchard ( pounds 3.50), accompanied by Emily Bolam's jolly paintings in primary colours. But these entirely miss the serious weirdness of Lear's work. Better to spend a bit more on OUP's Owls and Pussycats ( pounds 9.99), a generous compilation of the nonsense verse of Lear and Lewis Carroll, including the familiar Dong, Pobble and Alice verses. Here Nicki Palin's painterly pictures are so scrupulously observed that they become the poem. Palin conveys just the right sense of period fustiness (you almost smell the lavender water of the Pobble's Aunt Jobiska) and the undeniable hint of adult kinkiness. The mermaids in 'The Pobble Who Had No Toes' are chubby Edwardian china dolls - creepy - and this Alice has an unnervingly knowing look. Every last detail of the poems can be spotted in the corresponding picture, an important point for hawk-eyed children, and interpretations of the unknowable (the mome raths in 'Jabberwocky', for instance) are just as you might have visualised them if you'd ever tried.

With present-giving in mind, a volume of new verse is more risky, but you might strike gold. Roger McGough's latest, Lucky (Viking pounds 8.99) is often abrasive, sometimes flip, but invariably brings to language a fresh angle. Try these shopping-list items from a poem called 'The Dada Christmas Catalogue': 'Abrasive partridges / Reversible fridge / Nervous door handles / Pair of non-secateurs'. It would be a shame to miss Michael Harrison's debut collection, Junk Mail (OUP pounds 3.99), just because of the garish jacket and off-putting title. The poems, broadly dealing in adolescent concerns - new haircuts, hating teachers, the end of the world - are sensitive and stylish, the sort that prompt readers to pick up a pen and have a go. Adrian Henri's collection, Dinner with the Spratts (Methuen pounds 7.99), is good too, with a delicious rewrite on the Jack Spratt traditional rhyme.

In a more rarefied spirit, Naomi Lewis has written a sophisticated collection of feline poems, The Mardi Gras Cat (Heinemann pounds 9.99), accompanied by exquisite oil paintings by Paul Stagg of each exotic moggy. Strictly for the pet-besotted. By contrast, in Beastly Tales from Here and There (Orion pounds 5.99), Vikram Seth has plumped ambitiously for a set of extended animal morality tales along the lines of Aesop. Verse forms and tone are enticingly varied through the 10 poems. Clever, intriguing, and nicely bound in pocketable size. It could become a classic.

Lastly, two recommendations of fine anthologies that would suit older readers or adults. In He Said, She Said, They Said (Blackie pounds 9.99) editor Anne Harvey has put together poems written, all or in part, in conversation. Thus Harold Monro's evocative 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh' rubs shoulders with part of Under Milk Wood and 'Heaven' by George Herbert. An odd idea, but well worth the candle. No doubts about The Orchard Book of Poems ( pounds 14.99 for a good fat tome), imaginatively and comprehensively chosen by Adrian Mitchell. A bible for any serious young lover or lover-in- waiting of English poetry.

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