CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Poems for nooligans: Sally Bacon on a new age for children's verse; plus prehistoric pals, ghosts, gulls and the Man

AFTER Alan Ayckbourn began writing drama for children, he revealed that it had opened up whole new worlds for him. Suddenly he could ignore the constraints of naturalism; a table could fly, ghosts could appear; and he could play with time. He found the discovery liberating.

In 1986, having produced a dozen poetry collections for adults, the Liverpool poet Brian Patten had his first collection for children published by Puffin. A quarter of a million copies later, Gargling With Jelly is one of the all-time bestsellers in children's poetry. His experience in poetry echoes Ayckbourn's in drama. He describes writing for children as being a glorious holiday from his own, 'more depressing', adult writing. 'I write for the child in me,' he says, 'and write the books that I didn't have when I was a child.'

Patten, whose audience falls largely into the eight to 12 age- bracket, sees writing for adults and for children as separate. His poems occasionally touch on issues such as divorce or death, but comedy is the keynote, with titles such as The Silly Siposark and Cousin Lesley's See-Through Stomach. It also makes a virtue of anarchic humour:

I've never heard the Queen sneeze

Or seen her blow her nose

I've never seen her pick a spot

Or tread on someone's toes

I've never seen her slide upon

A slippery piece of ice

I've never seen her frown and say

'This jelly is not nice]'

'You're talking about the difference between playing with language and touching on emotions or delving much more deeply. Writing for children requires a totally different form, and is technically much more exacting.' But Patten makes clear that it is in no way a secondary art form. 'The best children's poetry is as good as the best adult poetry - it has a freshness that enables it to survive and outlast the majority of poems written for adults.'

Patten's fellow Liverpool poet Roger McGough has produced several books for a younger audience in recent years, but the age of his audience is less clear. McGough's first book for the very young, Mr Noselighter, appeared in the 1970s, and he is currently working on a collection for teenagers. Unlike Patten, McGough sees no hard and fast boundaries. 'Even when the collections express adult concerns,' he says, 'the audiences at readings will contain many young faces - young people will definitely relate to the poetry too.' For McGough it was not a significant departure, but a natural extension of his own writing.

But the work of Patten and McGough is part of a relatively recent movement in children's publishing. The 1950s and 1960s were an era dominated by relatively dreamy and serious children's poets such as Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon. Then poets discovered playground humour. Philippa Milnes-Smith, Editorial Director at Puffin, sees the change as having come in 1979 with the publication of You Tell Me, a collection by Roger McGough and Michael Rosen. The poems are about squeezing tubes of toothpaste, chewing bus tickets, and 'nooligans' in the classroom: 'If I was a poem / I'd play football and / get picked for England.'

The book marked a new and gritty awareness of the contemporary world of children, with its own distinctive voice. McGough's collection, Sky in the Pie, won the 1986 Signal Poetry Award and has sold over 75,000 copies to date. By the mid-Eighties, children were proving to be a very rewarding audience, and writers and publishers were starting to cotton on - with the Liverpool Poets at the forefront of the new guard.

This new awareness created a boost to children's poetry which has resulted in a glut of anthologies. There are striking and ground-breaking titles to be found, such as Gerard Benson's This Poem Doesn't Rhyme (Viking) and Angela Huth's Island of the Children (Orchard), but many fail to find a market. Milnes-Smith is now very selective about anthologies, recognising a need to sustain the original quality of single collections. Publishing new writers can be risky, but editors realise that fresh talent must be sought and supported.

Christopher Reid, the Poetry Editor at Faber, publishes predominantly single collections. 'It is a conscious policy on our part - we do make a point of making the chiidren's list match the adult list.' Faber's poets include new names - Matthew Sweeney and Judith Nicholls, Philip Gross, Sue Cowling - alongside established poets such as Ted Hughes. The titles lack the strident sense of fun that sets Patten's children's collections apart from his adult work, and move towards a subtler form of observation, inventiveness and fantasy.

Sweeney, Gross and Hughes all write for adults and for children. And many of the most successful poets straddle both worlds. Kit Wright, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Gavin Ewart, Charles Causley, Wendy Cope, Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Gillian Clarke - all write for, and give readings to, both audiences.

Philip Gross, whose second full collection for young people will be published by Faber in January, had written four collections for adults when he was asked five years ago to fill in for a writer who had dropped out of a school visit. He had two relevant poems to hand. A month later he had written Manifold Manor (Faber). It is a book for older children, featuring poems about deserted manor houses, ghostly crying in the night and mysterious doors. Working with the pupils unleashed something. Like Patten, Gross found 'the adult poet hat increasingly wearing'.

Gross feels that his work exists in 'a grey area in terms of categories. I'm certainly very fuzzy about where the boundaries between adult and child begin and end - both in my work and in my own life. That grey area is what interests me; exploring it is a risk, with no guidelines or map.' Certainly Gross's poems defy ready categorisation.

There is, however, no denying the lucrative market that lies in the primary-age world. Allan Ahlberg and Michael Rosen, two of the best-selling children's writers, write purely for a world of playgrounds, classrooms, parents and best friends. Patten's world is more removed from reality, but his audience is equally well-defined. As editor to all three, plus McGough, Milnes-Smith is overseeing the lion's share of the market. It would be a pity if this obscured the high quality of the less easily defined poetry that is coming from elsewhere.

You couldn't smell your dinner

If you didn't have a nose

You couldn't tell a dirty nappy

From a summer rose

You couldn't smell the ocean

Or the traffic, I suppose

Oh wouldn't it be funny

If you didn't have a nose?

You couldn't smell your mummy

If you didn't have a nose

You couldn't tell an orange

from a row of smelly toes

You couldn't smell the burning

(Think how quick a fire grows)

Wouldn't it be funny

If you didn't have a nose

You couldn't smell a rat

If you didn't have a nose

You couldn't tell a duchess

From a herd of Buffaloes

And . . . mmmm that Gorgonzola

As it starts to decompose

Oh wouldn't it be funny

If you didn't have a nose?

From: Pillow Talk (Viking) by Roger McGough

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