CHILDREN'S BOOKS / Steak with a punk mermaid: Michael Glover discusses the child's eye view with award-winning poet Philip Gross

Since 1969, an annual award has been made for the best collection of children's poems published over the previous 12 months. This year the winner pocketed pounds 100, the certificate came through the letter box, and there wasn't even a press reception. All that seemed to matter was the quality of the work.

The award's sponsor is Signal, a journal published three times a year, which explores various aspects of children's literature. Its first winner was Ted Hughes for Moon Bells, one of the finest collections of children's poetry since the Second World War. This year it has gone to Philip Gross for The All-Nite Cafe (Faber, pounds 3.99).

Ten years ago Gross was better known as a poet for adults. In 1984, Faber published his widely praised collection, The Ice Factory, and Gross was even feted as an honorary Martian for a time. More recently, he has poured his creative energies into his work for children. Manifold Manor, a verse sequence which takes the reader on a private tour of a haunted ruin, and features a jackdaw whose head is stuffed with bamboozling riddles, appeared in 1989. A novel, The Song of Gail and Fludd (now in paperback, Faber, pounds 4.99) followed in 1991. This month, in addition to receiving the Signal Award, he will publish Plex (Scholastic, pounds 5.99), a second children's novel.

Until recently, Gross did most of his writing in the cellar of his Bristol house, a room with a tiny single window at garden level from which he could observe the huge brown slugs that the area's clayey soil produces in such abundance. Close, particular observation is something that he has tried to encourage in his creative- writing sessions at local schools, where he has spent almost a day a week over the past 12 months.

'What is poetry like?' he'll ask a group of eight-year-olds. 'If poetry was a building, what kind of a building would it be? Would it be a church - a tall, gloomy place where you tread very quietly and only speak in whispers? Or is it like a tent because you can pack it up on your back and go anywhere in the world with it? Or a nuclear air raid shelter perhaps - a place you can go to be completely safe from the world?'

He'll press the children for that strange, small detail, the thing that will finally make their building unlike any other building in the history of the world. This is poetic thinking in action: an exercise in wresting the expressive from the predictable; an artful means of training children to appreciate the depth, the richness and the economical vividness of language.

Poetry written for children, and the teaching of poetry to children, have changed beyond all recognition in the past 25 years. Learning by rote has largely disappeared. Poetry read aloud in the classroom is just as likely to have been written by the living as by the dead. And one or other of those live poets may even have paid a visit. In 1971, W H Smith began to sponsor its Poets in Schools scheme, which finances visits by practising poets. The Poetry Society, in association with Northern Telecom, has just published Cross Currents, an anthology of European poetry written by school children in Calais, Kent and County Mayo, following visits by English, Irish and French poets to local schools.

There are more good books of poetry available now than ever before. Signal 74 lists 25 outstanding individual collections and anthologies which were published over the past year. The best of the anthologies, Apple Fire, edited by Jill Pirrie (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95), was written by children. Pirrie, a

middle-school teacher from Halesworth in Suffolk describes how poetry can sharpen a child's perceptions and transform the seemingly mundane. The poems are the work of her own pupils in mixed-ability English classes, and the best of them have a Hughesian energy, a quite remarkable and absorbed attention to detail. As Philip Gross put it, 'nothing is boring'.

These poems were all written by children, but how does an adult writer cope with the fact that he is not writing for his own age group? Are not children's writers, I asked Philip Gross, too often tempted into a kind of ingratiating silliness that they mistake for a child- like point of view?

'That's true - and it often amounts to a serious misunderstanding of what children are . . . they feel things so deeply and overwhelmingly because so much of the world is a lot bigger than they are. What they want to write and think can seem so very conservative because they're growing so fast and are being exposed to so much that what they often aspire to is a kind of safe sameyness with each other. . . As far as adults are concerned, all of us go on being all of the ages we once were. Everything that delighted us at the ages of five, eight and eleven is still there. It's like onion layers - or growth rings on a tree. Each one adds its own knots, kinks, scars. The good writer peels back to the age at which something wasn't quite faced or learnt or executed right . . .'

With Philip Gross, that age seems to lie somewhere between about ten and thirteen if the evidence of The All-Nite Cafe is to be taken at face value. These poems are troubling tales from a fairly dark continent, charged by pain: the strange dance of the punk mermaid; the who-man who hides behind the mud-mask or the biker's visor; the noises of a sleepless night; and all those strange visitors to the all-nite cafe itself where steak a la Dracula is on the menu.

But learning is through fun, lightness and laughter too - which is something that English poets often have difficulty with. This is precisely why one of the most refreshing aspects of the current poetry scene - and it is just as prevalent in collections published for children as for adults - is the strong presence of Afro-Caribbean poetry: John Agard, whose new collection for children, Grandfather's Old Bruk-a-Down Car, (Bodley Head, pounds 7.99) is published this month; Grace Nichols, whose last collection, Come on into my Tropical Garden, recently appeared in paperback (Lions, pounds 2.99); or A Caribbean Dozen, an anthology selected by Agard and Nichols, which will be Walker Books' lead poetry title of the autumn.

'They get us all out of a fix,' says Philip Gross. 'It's a proof, I suppose, that there don't have to be two separate worlds of poetry - one which is serious, sensitive and high-minded, and the other which is entertaining but like fast food. It doesn't have to be either / or, high or low, serious or funny - that's what the Caribbean poets seem to be teaching us. You can be serious while still possessing the energy of song.'

Michael Glover selects the best new poetry books for children:

Plenty of Time, Brian Morse, Bodley Head, pounds 8.99

My Granny is a Sumo Wrestler, Gareth Owen, Young Lions, pounds 3.50

Nuts About Nuts, Michael Rosen, Picture Lions, pounds 3.99

Secrets, Helen Dunmore, Bodley Head, pounds 7.99

Three Has Gone, Jackie Kay, Blackie, pounds 8.99

Lucky, Roger McGough, Puffin, pounds 3.50

A World of Poetry, ed Michael Rosen, Kingfisher, pounds 4.99.

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit