CHILDREN'S BOOKS : Just take my word for it

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(Above and right) The shape of poems to come? From Crack Another Yolk, compiled by John Foster (OUP pounds 3.99). Just Williams might baulk at this one, but serious cerebral types could spend hours deciphering the linguistic knots and loopholes in these word-play poems. Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Kit Wright, Candia McWilliam and Michael Rosen, among others, provide us with puns, acrostics, riddles, calligrams and shape-poems. Stalking across the pages are "mine-osaur ... spine-osaur ... decline-osaur", a dentist with a girlfriend called dental Floss, a ptarmigan up a ptelephone pole, "St Oking ... the saint for socks", a gnu new to the zoo and a passer- by passing by a bypass. Great fun and bound to give an inspirational boost to sluggish readers.

MATHEMATICS

NOT a very Christmassy subject, perhaps, but we all have to put up with learning maths - and some people even like it.

The Oxford Children's A to Z of Mathematics by David Glover (OUP pounds 9.99) just could be the perfect book for children who fall into either both category. It is brightly illustrated without being hectic, and works on a simple alphabetical reference structure: A is for Algebra, of course, but also for anticlockwise, Archimedes and area; V is for Venn diagram and vertex and volume. Most entries are brief and pretty much like a dictionary definition, but others - "Number", "Measure" or "Probability and statistics", for instance - merit a double page of explanatory facts, charts and examples. Warmly recommended for up to 12s, and as general reference to have around the house.

A more complicated treatment is to be found in Carol Vorderman's How Mathematics Works, in Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Science Guides series (pounds 14.99). This fatter and more lavishly illustrated guide is based on projects and experiments (do try this one at home, children) that explain basic principles. It's impressive, although there seems to be some confusion about levels of understanding and interest: in "Fractions and Decimals", for example, there is a description of carbon dating (which is reasonably sophisticated as an idea) and a picture of a cupcake cut in halves, and quarters (which seems insultingly easy by comparison perhaps?). Nonetheless, kids right up to GCSE (and their parents) would certainly thank you for this.

POETRY FOR ALL AGES

2 Funky Chickens by Benjamin Zephaniah, Viking pounds 9.99. Zephaniah is the reigning king of children's poetry, and with this new collection he shows no sign of abdicating. It is an irreverent, high-speed tour of anything from vegetables to the Queen, from sewage to the sun. He has an unselfconscious relish for language and word-play that never strays into the patronising dee-dum-dee-dum-dee-dum territory of so much of children's poetry: his are poems that bounce up from the page and demand to be read, rapped, sung and hip-hopped aloud. Zephaniah also manages to avoid the temptation to which so many children's poets succumb: that irritating compulsion to be permanently cheerful. Funky Chickens contains affecting poems on racism, pollution and the murder of his cat to which any intelligent and interested child could relate.

2 Teaching the Parrot by Richard Edwards, Faber pounds 8.99. Edwards gives the surreal anxieties of a child's world the same weight as those of stressed adults: a girl is reduced to anguished tears by a resolutely mute parrot, an exhausted boy leaves his "half-asleep" half in bed, a child with an unfortunate penchant for camouflage gear gets eaten by a cow. The poems are concerned with what is often perceived by adults as the ancillary lives of children but what Edwards evidently believes is their central concern - that is, dreams, day-dreams and fantasies. He is never fey but often sharp and incisive, and his poems are as unflinching as an Aesop's fable - pettily fighting caribou get stalked by wolves, the ghost of a duck haunts a hunter and a flawlessly-behaved child "cries her eyes out every night."

2 Nothing Tastes Quite Like a Gerbil compiled by David Orme, Macmillan pounds 2.99. If you have a Just William of the Nineties (of either sex), this is for her or him. The cover carries a warning that "this book contains huge quantities of disgusting and slimy material" and the selection does not disappoint: there is a very graphic depiction of a teacher who cleans his ear with a pencil end, a boy who falls in elephant shit, copious amounts of mucus in various forms and a woman with removable eyeballs. Not for the faint-hearted.

2 The Poetry Book chosen by Fiona Waters, Orion pounds 12.99. There is an alarmingly definitive feel about this title - does its editor hope to invalidate all future anthologies for everybody everywhere? It is however a pretty comprehensive collection of poems for children and young adults, especially as most were not specifically written with them in mind. You will find your Yeats, Burns, Masefield, Tennyson and Keats here (mercifully only one Walter de la Mare makes an appearance), and also some Heaney, Hughes, U A Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead and Dr Seuss. It has no section-headings, which could be problematic, if not a little overwhelming, for less experienced readers. But the more serious omission is any sense of dates or context, apart from in the small print of the acknowledgements at the back. Otherwise how is the reader to know that Roger McGough wasn't a contemporary of William Blake?

2 Noisy Noise Annoys compiled by Jennifer Curry, Bodley Head pounds 9.99. Well, I got a headache reading this book. It's an energetic journey through a day of different noises, beginning with someone waking up, hearing "the morning earth roll over in its sleep", through the cacophony of a school day complete with music lessons and spells on various forms of transport, followed by astonishingly ear-splitting mealtimes and ending with night- time noises. The poets are distinguished by their diversity, with an extract from The Tempest and contributions from schoolchildren.

2 You Wait Till I'm Older Than You! by Michael Rosen, Viking pounds 9.99. Rosen's idiosyncratic humour is alive and well. I don't know any other writer who has such an incredible recall of their own childhood: he appears to have had only two stages to his life - being a child and having children. What results are brilliantly exact poems that are hugely enjoyable for both adults and children. They centre around the disparity between the things adults say and their literal sense for children: you'd have to be very out of touch with your inner child not to laugh at his baffled incomprehension at a teacher who draws an imaginary line across the playground between the boys and the girls. You'd also have to be pretty insensitive not to squirm with recognition at his pinpointing of adults' ridiculous rules: "if one of them /is telling one of us off/ then the other parent/ won't join in."

2 Swings and Shadows: Poems of Childhood and Growing Up, compiled by Anne Harvey, Julia MacRae pounds 14.99. This is a traditional and useful anthology for older children. Anne Harvey has divided the poems that "echo something I remember of childhood" into sections with helpful if faintly twee headings - "To Make A Beginning", "Childhood's Flickering Shadow". Each section is accompanied by a short prose extract as an introduction. The poems are sensitively chosen, but show a strong tendency towards British poets - and dead ones at that.

Freddy the Frog by Judith Jango-Cohen, Reader's Digest pounds 5.99. One glance at Freddy would tell you that he is a rubber frog, but closer inspection reveals that he is in fact two books. Under his head lurks a "fun fact book"; under his body an adventure story. Every young child will have most fun with Freddy's squeaking body. 1-3 years

Celia Centipede, Orchard pounds 3.50. Like any self-respecting creepy-crawly, Celia Centipede arrives in a matchbox. One end opens out to a pop-up Celia resplendent in pearls and nail varnish and the other to the story of Celia getting ready for a dance. She has a wardrobe straight out of AbFab and more shoes than Imelda Marcos; nimble-fingered kiddies can array her in a variety of outrageous outfits. Brilliant, and on the back she promises great things from her friends Boris Beetle, Ivor Spider and Castella Caterpillar.

Giraffe Jokes, Tony Books pounds 3.99. Everything and anything you always wanted to know about giraffes and more. This is flap-up, pop-up, stand-up (on the last page the whole book turns into a free-standing smug-looking giraffe) heaven for giraffe-lovers and contains jokes like "What do you give a seasick giraffe? - Lots of room."

Pirate Plunder by Iain Smyth, Orchard pounds 12.99. Each page of this "Pop- Up Whodunnit" is like a treasure-hunt in itself, with clues hidden behind various pop-up disguises. One page opens out into a stunning pirate ship. It is a mystery with style and many dastardly deeds are done by characters such as "Lady Ruth Lesse" and "Willie Nickit". The culprit changes, depending on which way you turn the various clue-dials, so the mystery won't tarnish. For any age.

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