Sparrow cradles and lunar mushrooms

Michael Glover relishes the diversity of new poetry for children
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The Independent Culture
It has become something of a habit at this time of year to settle into the comfortable armchair that is a new book by Shirley Hughes, and feel oneself transported back in time, to that glorious epoch when the Bodley Head was still an independent publishing house and not, as it is now, a couple of desks and a once-proud logo mislaid somewhere in Random House.

And so it is again in the collection of verses and pictures for very young children, about the fun of splashing through mud, building sandcastles and observing cows on "lazy'' summer days that go to make up Rhymes for Annie Rose (Bodley Head, pounds 9.99), the whole thing rhythmically regular in a lulling, deeply conventional sort of way.

By sharp contrast, Skip Across the Ocean (Frances Lincoln, pounds 9.99), a pictorially luscious collection of lullabies, action rhymes and nursery rhymes from across the world, wears its multi-cultural heart on its sleeve. Here are: action rhymes from the Yoruba; a sad song of an absent father from the Inuit; and a cradle song of the sparrows from Peru. It all goes to show how similar the lullabies of different cultures and nations are to each other. Unfortunately, many of the translations into English are so dull and rhymically broken-backed that they read like William Carlos Williams on a bad day.

The most useful anthology of poetry for younger children this winter is Michael Bird's The Grasshopper Laughs (Faber, pounds 8.99). The illustrations by Andrew Stooke don't try to make a splash in their own right, thereby distracting us from the poems, and the selection itself moves easily from past to present, from Hughes to Anon - it doesn't feel at all inappropriate, for example, to have that old favourite 'Michael Finnegan' beside an Elizabethan lyric by George Peele.

Kaye Umansky is still best known for that excellent tongue-teasing picture book, Pass the Jim, Jam. This autumn she shows herself a very sprightly and accomplished versifier in two book-length story poems, The Night I Was Chased By A Vampire (Orion, pounds 7.99) and The Empty Suit of Armour (Orion, pounds 7.99) The funnier and more winning of the two is the latter, about a suit of armour that clanks dourly out of the castle and off into the night in pursuit of - what? Verse-making of this regular kind is usually marred by verbal redundancies or silly archaisms. Umansky sustains our interest, and a consistently excellent level of writing, right to the poem's fine (and surprising) conclusion.

Matthew Sweeney, that surreal anecdotalist, brings his skewed perspectives on everyday reality well within reach of an eight-year-old in Fatso in the Red Suit (Faber, pounds 8.99), his second collection of poetry for children. A poem called 'Mushrooms on the Malverns' is typical of Sweeney at his best. Why do mushrooms appear overnight? And why do they have brown flecks on their heads? They've been dropped from the moon, that's why. The flecks are particles of meteorites...Sweeney specialises in these sudden shifts of focus, from the ordinary to the macabre.

Lindsay MacRae's You Canny Shove Yer Granny Off a Bus! (Viking, pounds 9.99) is a raucous, zestful, social-realistic slam through subject areas which seldom turn up in children's poetry - the child feeding her disabled mother, for example, or the refugee who expresses himself through his violent paintings. These are excellent. Unfortunately, there are too many times when the rather lumpish versifying makes for bad poems, and when the jokes seem aimed to please adults - the poem about that existential dog called John-Paul Sartre, for example.

The best poetry book of the autumn is Raymond Wilson's Puffin Book Of Classic Verse (Viking, pounds 14.99), in almost every respect (except that the poems ascribed to "Anna Bradsheet'' are the work of Anne Bradstreet, a founding mother of American poetry) an exemplary piece of publishing, especially in its apposite juxtapositions: Bunyan's humble homage to sobriety, 'Upon the Snail,' cowers beside Tennyson's terrible vision of 'The Kraken'.