Morag Styles looks back over a year’s publishing
I swore I would never review another poetry book again after finishing the BfK Poetry Guide! Two years of being permanently surrounded by books you’ve got to write about would jade the most enthusiastic palate. But here I am again thrilled to be choosing about twenty of the best poetry books published after the Guide went to press – and a large pile they make too. After a fair amount of agonising (how can I whittle so many good books down to twenty?) I decided on the following criteria. Single poet collections would have priority, as they form the cutting edge of what is happening in poetry for children. After that I was looking for lively, well researched anthologies and excellence in illustration, while attempting to offer a balanced coverage of our age range 0-16.
The most enjoyable new collection was Allan Ahlberg’s Heard it in the Playground. I will be surprised if this doesn’t win one of the poetry awards this year. As everyone is likely to rave about a new Ahlberg, I was determined to judge his work sternly. It’s no good. Immediately I am seduced by `The Teacher’s Prayer’ then I applaud the simplicity of dividing the poems into `short ones’, `long ones’ and `songs’; next I renew my acquaintance with some of my favourite characters from Please Mrs Butler; finally, I have to admit that most of the poems resonate with authentic school experiences. Ahlberg’s scored again!
He pokes gentle fun at classroom rituals like taking the register, the infant assembly and the whole school recitation of the Lord’s Prayer:
Up the corridor
Stop that, Simon!
He gives us the Parents’ evening from the point of view of all the protagonists. For us `real books’ freaks:
There was an old teacher
Who finally died
Reading Ginn (Level One) which she couldn’t abide.
He provides marvellous songs with suggestions of tunes to fit. For example:
What shall we do with the grumpy teacher
Early in the morning?
Tickle her toes with a hairy creature.
Leave her in the jungle where the ants can reach her.
Bring her back alive to be a classroom teacher!
Early – in the – morning!
I’ve got the
There’s also the inventiveness of `The Trial of Derek Drew’ who is charged with `doing disgusting things with his dinner’ among other things and whose sentence is `Life’ and `doing his handwriting again’. The book ends with the delightful `Heard it in the Playground’ – a long poem accurately based on the oral tradition of the playground. Ahlberg says in the Author’s Note that he can imagine a whole classroom belting it out and so can I. He also makes it clear that he spent a year, on and off, observing in a local school to research this book. The poems reek of real life, a respect for children and teachers and a catch-in-the-throat tenderness for the human condition. Brilliant, and so are Fritz Wegner’s illustrations.
Barrie Wade is another ex-teacher, now a writer and lecturer in education, and this is his first collection for children. He, too, genuinely knows about classrooms and children, so the poems in Conkers ring true. Even so, it is difficult to be original in a field so well sown already by poets like Ahlberg, Henri, McGough, Nicholls, Owen, Rosen and Wright. Wade is working in the same genre and at times I felt he steered a course too close to those above: one or two of his poems were remarkably like others I had encountered before.
Having said that, there is a lot to admire in Wade’s book. He writes humorously about dotty aspects of school life, sensitively about delicate feelings and is observant of people and things. There’s the girl who makes up wonderful stories in her head while she writes `I went to my nan’s’ week after week for News, and Jimmy Pask who couldn’t read, but was good with birds:
I watch him trace the mystery
of letters, seeking patterns pressed
as definite as flecks of glory
fledged on ruffled wing or stippled breast.
In ‘Whatever’s the matter with Melanie?’ (echoes of Milne?) he manages to convey what Melanie, her teacher and her uncomprehending classmate feel with understanding of the different points of view. In ‘Name-calling’ he turns the tables on the snickering author of ‘Doreen Vickers wets her knickers’ and makes him feel ashamed.
Wade employs various forms – rhyme, free verse, different length stanzas and ranges from languorous description to lively narrative. Occasionally, the educator in Wade comes out as in `Good reader’:
Ask him what he’s reading and immediately
he’ll tell you he’s on Level 4, Book 3 –
same as last month. He must like that book a lot.
I’m glad my brother’s reading really well.
Best of all is the opening poem about words:
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin,
while words are ghosts that haunt me.
Welcome to this age group, Barrie Wade. We hope this is the first of many.
Great to have a new double-act from Adrian Henri and Tony Ross, Rhinestone Rhino. Henri is a talented humorist and he explores the comic possibilities of `Mr McManus who was Very McStrong’, Rhinestone Rhino the Gnashville star:
At the Grand Old Opry
Ah’m a superstar
When ah sings ma songs
And strums ma guitar.
Or the pet oyster called Rover – `the world’s your lobster’.
But there’s more than fun in this book. Henri includes a short sequence of prose poems entitled `Wartime Child’ which captures moments of genuine wartime experience from the small lad’s viewpoint. There are other thoughtful moments in this most appealing second poetry collection for junior age kids. As for the drawings, they are Tony Ross at his brilliant, wicked best. Irresistible.
Henri’s mate, Roger McGough also spawns a new book, An Imaginary Menagerie. Here McGough’s sure touch for inventive word play is evident. A few tasters:
from spectacular heights
It gave me this to take away:
An Imaginary Menagerie.
Do I like it? Hard to say.
A/ water bison/ is what/ yer wash/ yer face in.
These are just three examples from a collection full of puns, cheeky rhymes, playful pronunciations and the like. Although small children will enjoy this alphabetical medley of crazy beasts (and Blundell’s realisations of them), older readers have plenty to bite on. McGough’s reference is wide and the poetry is very, very clever. A must.
I simply had to look at The Curse of the Vampire’s Socks on the strength of the title alone; the knowledge that Terry Jones and Michael Foreman were respectively author and illustrator made it essential reading. As you would expect from Terry Jones, most of the poems are off-beat, anti-establishment, sometimes with a surrealist flavour. A lot are also long which is rare these days and to be welcomed. Foreman’s stunning, witty drawings are the perfect match for Jones. It’s not all light-hearted: several of the poems take a strong conservationist line and bring up important issues for children to consider in a form which makes the ideas approachable.
Mother whales and babies
– They’d no time for regrets –
They slaughtered whole herds at a time
To sell as food for pets.
In All the Small Poems Valerie Worth collects together several books of small poems, as the title suggests. Many are about domestic animals or insects, natural things, household objects and one or two more exotic subjects like telegraph poles:
But wandering/Away, they/Lean into/ The cloud’s/
Drift, the/Swallow’s slant
It is a modest little book by an American writer who favours quiet observations, distinctively and delicately brought to life by Natalie Babbitt. For 7-11.
For younger readers there is Popcorn Pie by Judith Nicholls sold as a single book (very expensive at £12.95 for 24 poems in paperback) or as a set of six books with four poems apiece and a cassette. It costs a lot less to buy the books as a set of six, presumably designed for flexible use in infant classrooms. Part of the expense can be attributed to the lavish, full colour illustrations on every page and the quality paper and print. This makes them attractive and inviting for small hands. It’s nice to see Judith Nicholls working for a younger age group than before; I’m sure the mixture of gutsy rhymes and amusing poems, based on the everyday experiences of young children will go down well with its intended readership. Arresting and exquisitely detailed illustrations by Tessa Richardson-Jones.
Stanley Cook writes in his introduction to The Dragon on the Wall that a `child’s worldview is communicable to adults since they have corresponding feelings embedded at the back of their minds from their own childhood.’ He sees the `child’s world’ as one where simple things/everyday events are experienced freshly and vigorously and given serious attention. In his poems Cook tries to convey a sense of wonder `at the snow in the playground, the lorry in the night and the dragon on the wall’. So his poems are a gentle evocation of objects and activities familiar to small people, with scope for a bit of imagination, of course.
In a similar vein, but concentrating on feelings (some of them more appropriate to an older age group) How Does It Feel? is a first collection for young readers by David Scott.
Apart from a reprint of a couple of anthologies, mentioned later (and it’s nice to see Barbara Ireson’s Rhyme Time 1 and 2 reissued) and the collections above, there is very little new poetry for the younger age group. More significantly, and with a few notable exceptions, I find the quality of poetry collections for children from 0-7 rather weak. This is strange, as there are so many excellent picture book writers/artists for this age group and superb poets for 8-12 year olds. There’s a gap in the market for talented poets for the young!
The Giant Claydelbaydel by Richard Edwards is an absolutely gorgeous picture book about a gentle giant, each poem centred on a different bird and a different weather/time of year. Part of the appeal is the enchanting colour pictures by Jo Burroughes who has a facility for painting birds, landscapes, contemporary people and giants in Victorian country garb! The subject may be too esoteric, the language too complex for its audience (6-8?), for it to be a huge seller. But the poetry is good and it’s a lucky child who receives this book.
Richard Edwards has another new poetry book out – Phoots!, illustrated by Stephen Lambert and also published by Orchard Books (185213 120 9, £5.95).
Although John Bush’s verse is charming, it is also old fashioned, so it’s Peter Weever’s illustrations which made me select The Christmas Fox. His masterful paintings are dazzlingly original and at the same time very reminiscent of the world of Beatrix Potter, Alison Uttley and Kenneth Grahame. The animals are dressed in elaborate clothing and inhabit an exquisite landscape. A strong sense of looking backwards for inspiration. See also The March Hare (Hutchinson, 0 09 173603 X, £5.95) by the same duo.
Other new Christmas poetry to note:
A Golden Christmas Treasury, edited by Marc Daniels, Pavilion, 185145 463 2, £7.99
A Christmas Stocking, edited by Wes Magee, Cassell, 0 304 31494 3, £7.95
Finally for this section, one of the most interesting contributions of the year and, arguably, the most exciting poetry is Philip Gross’s Manifold Manor. This is a sequence of poems about an old haunted ruin frequented by a jackdaw. It reminds me of Ted Hughes’ Crow (for adults) though it is quite different. There is, however, the same brooding sense of darkness and spellbinding story and the powerful presence of a bird.
There is much to challenge more experienced readers of 11+ here. It is full of puzzling clues, unanswered questions and strong, memorable images. At the climax the towel is thrown down for the reader:
The more you shout about it,
the less you see and hear.
Sometimes you need darkness
to make your vision clear.
If you don’t see through my riddle
all you have to do is look.
If you think the answer’s simple well…
you write a different book!
Poetry books chosen for excellence in illustration:
Ten Golden Years is a must, as all the royalties go to Great Ormond Street Hospital for children. Chris Powling and Sally Grindley, both members of the Mother Goose Award panel, invited the ten winning artists so far to illustrate new poems by some of the best contemporary poets writing for the young. With a cast list of Patrick Benson, Michelle Cartlidge, Reg Cartwright, Emma Chichester Clark, Charles Fuge, Satoshi Kitamura, Patrick Lynch, Jan Ormerod, Susan Varley, Juan Wijngaard and the poets Agard, Brownjohn, Causley, Cope, Dahl, Dixon, Edwards, Fatchen, Henri, Shirley and Ted Hughes, King-Smith, McGough, McNaughton, Magee, Mayer, Nicholls, Nichols, Rice, Rosen and West, you can see that you are in for a feast! Especially with the Walker Books design team in charge – this must be one of the most exciting books of the year, visually. The illustrations are as much a treat for the eye as the poetry is for the ear.
My next offering is traditional rhymes accompanied by some of the foremost illustrators working today, again for a good cause. All publishing profits from Tail Feathers from Mother Goose will be donated to the Bodleian Opie Appeal to keep Iona Opie’s unique collection of rare children’s books from being broken up. This sumptuous book is illustrated by sixty different artists: when I tell you that the front cover is by Maurice Sendak, the endpapers by Janet Ahlberg, the foreword by Sara Midda and the first poem by Shirley Hughes, you’ll see what I mean! The text is comprised of rhymes, mostly previously unpublished, selected by Iona Opie.
Another set of brilliant artists is featured in Sing a Song of Popcorn, nine Caldecott Medal winners. With a glorious selection of poetry from the past and present chosen by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and others, this would make a lovely Christmas gift at £8.95 (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 49078 0).
The last book in this section is not poetry, strictly speaking, but comes close enough for inclusion. Nancy White Carlstrom employs a lyrical style in Wild Wild Sunflower Child Anna aided by the lush creations of Jerry Pinkney. This is a glorious picture book about a little girl (black as it happens) revelling in the outdoors in a very physical way. Both author and illustrator seem to delight in this evocation of nature and childhood which manages to avoid being sentimental. I can’t convey how lovely this book is to look at, but can offer a taste of the language:
Anna’s arms open wide
for the sun rolling
It doesn’t, Anna does.
Dizzy, tizzy Anna.
For small children and adults.
Louise Brierley has produced a magnificent version of Peacock Pie. I think the artwork is remarkable and love the animals and bits of landscape. But Louise Brierley’s conical, elongated figures fail to evoke de la Mare for me. See if you agree. (Faber, 0 571 13989 2, £7.99)
Finally we come to anthologies where I only have space left to select a few of the best and write about them briefly.
Catch It If You Can deserves a mention because with Brian Thompson as editor you can guarantee quality, because the illustrations by Susie Jenkin-Pearce are a joy and because this is a delectable book for very small children to handle. A mixture of rhymes, old favourites and modem poems.
Two other well chosen anthologies for this age group are For Me, Me, Me (0 340 49434 4) and I Will Build You a House (0 340 49514 6) by Dorothy Butler with line drawings by Megan Gressor, Knight paperbacks, £2.50 each.
Strawberry Drums is Adrian Mitchell’s first anthology for children, though most readers will know his own collection Nothingmas Day. I thoroughly enjoyed Adrian Mitchell’s eclectic choice from William Blake to Navaho native Americans, Bessie Smith to Kirandeep Chahal. Lots of fun including a do-it-yourself section.
Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark always produce thoughtful, intelligent anthologies. They have several new books out of this year:
Peace and War,.019 276069 6, R£8.95; 0 19 2760718, £4.95 pbk
The New Dragon Book of Verse, Q 19 831240 7, £5.95; 019 8312415, £3.95 pbk
The Young Dragon Book of Verse, 019 831266 0, £5.95; 019 831259 8, £3.25 pbk
all from Oxford University Press.
However, it is Michael Harrison I want to feature with Splinters – a book of very short poems was an original idea. The book is attractively produced, a bit smaller than A3 size, and delicately and effectively illustrated in line drawings by Sue Heap. Most importantly the poetry is good; lots of tiny moments captured in words. For 9-13 roughly.
Madtail, Miniwhale and Other Shape Poems, edited by Wes Magee, will be ‘a very handy resource in junior classrooms. The entire book is dedicated to poems where the impact comes not just from the words used, but also from the shapes they make. See also Magee’s two new collections from Cambridge University Press: The Witch’s Brew (0 52136119 2, £5.95; 0 521 36941 X, £2.75 pbk) for lower juniors; and Morning Break (0 521 36118 4, £5.95; 0 521 36940 1, £2.75 pbk) for upper juniors.
I very much commend Judith Nicholls for What on Earth … ? (poems with a conservation theme) as the intentions are worthy and highly topical. Nicholls employs a wide canvas: there are poems which glory in the wonders of nature, as well as those which despair at what human beings have done to our fragile planet. She includes many beautiful native American poems, as well as traditional and modern from Britain and elsewhere. The cover is lovely and Alan Baker provides fine drawings to accompany the text. For 9 and above.
The romantic O.T.T. cover of In Love, edited by Jennifer Curry, would put any self-respecting teenager off the book! This is a pity as Jennifer Curry is a very good anthologist who selects poems from as early as Sappho to as recent as Roger McGough, gives due space to the Elizabethan love poets and the Romantics; who dips into other cultures too and includes many by women. A substantial and fascinating anthology.
My personal favourite of all the new anthologies is Wendy Cope’s Is That the New Moon? This is a stunning collection of modern poetry by women for teenagers. Wendy Cope writes interestingly in her introduction about the book:
`There’s something to be said for excluding men, now and again, in order to give women a chance to come into their own … Accessibility was one important criterion – anything I couldn’t understand on a careful first reading was put aside . . . ‘ and directly to the teenage reader: `Read slowly and, if you like the poem, read it again – you’ll probably get more out of it the second time … If there is anything at all here that you want to go back to and read over and over again, then you have the capacity to respond to poetry … The time won’t be wasted.’ Good advice.
A note to the publisher: I found my enjoyment of these poems marred by the layout and the excessive need to illustrate nearly everything, leaving little room for the imagination. Although Christine Roche is a talented artist, many of whose drawings do neatly reflect the right mood for this readership, there is too much of her, a few of her illustrations badly miss the point of the poems and the overall effect is busy.
Three interesting books on teaching poetry for teachers:
Did I Hear You Write?, Michael Rosen, Deutsch 1989, 0 233 983813, £9.95; 0 233 98436 4, £5.95 pbk
Young Readers Responding to Poems, Michael Benton with J Teasey, R Bell and K Hurst, Routledge 1988, 0 415 012910, £9.95
Talking with Charles Causley, Brian Merrick, NATE 1989, 0 901291 16 1, £2.25 (£1.50 members)
and one-for teachers and pupils:
Colin Walter has compiled an anthology of poems for the junior age group called An Early Start to Poetry (Macdonald Educational, 356 16046 7, £7.99), with an eight-page introduction offering advice on reading, writing and listening to poetry in classrooms and beyond. The content is sound, but the editor is ill-served by his publishers in terms of design and illustration. The latter features eleven different illustrators, some really dreadful, and I’m afraid this book wins my award for the worst poetry cover of the year. It’s such a pity to see a good idea spoiled in this way.
I must admit I’ve had a lovely time getting back into poetry and thoroughly enjoyed writing about the best of the crop since the Guide. I’m only sorry to have to leave so many good books out. Happy reading.
Details of books mentioned
Heard it In the Playground,.Allan Ahlberg, ill. Fritz Wegner, Viking Kestrel 1989, 0 670 82372 4, £6.99
Conkers,.Barrie Wade, ill. Annable Large, Oxford 1989, 019 276073 4, £5.95
Rhinestone Rhino,.Adrian Henri, ill. Tony Ross, Methuen 1989, 0 416 06332 2, £5.95
An Imaginary Menagerie,.Roger McGough, ill. Tony Blundell, Viking Kestrel 1988, 0 670 82330 9, £6.95
The Curse of the Vampire’s Socks,.Terry Jones, ill. Michael Foreman, Pavilion 1988, 185145 233 8, £7.95
All the Small Poems,.Valerie Worth, ill. Natalie Babbitt, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, USA, distributed by Faber 1989, 0 571 12106 3, £2.99 pbk
Popcorn Pie,.Judith Nicholls, ill. Tessa Richardson-Jones, Ma Glasgow 1988, 185234 199 8, £12.95 (collected edition); 1185234 200 £7.25 (set of six books); 185234 215 3, £6.95 (cassette)
The Dragon on the Wall,.Stanley Cook, ill. Liz Graham-Yooll, Blackie 1989, 0 216 92722 6, £6.95
How Does It Feel?,.David Scott, ill. Alan Marks, Blackie 1989, 0 216 92656 4, £6.95
The Giant Claydelbaydel,.Richard Edwards, ill. Jo Burroughes, Orchard 1989, 185213 136 5, £6.95
The Christmas Fox,.John Bush, ill. Peter Weevers, Hutchinson 1988, 0 09173648 X, £5.95
Manifold Manor,.Philip Gross, ill. Chris Riddell, Faber 1989, 0 571 15405 0, £3.99 pbk
Ten Golden Years,.Walker 1989, 0 7445 1214 X, £9.95
Tail Feathers from Mother Goose,.The Opie Rhyme Book, Walker 1988, 0 7445 1039 2, £12.95
Wild Wild Sunflower Child Anna,.Nancy White Carlstrom, ill. Jerry Pinkney, Collier Macmillan 1988, 0 02 717360 7, £5.95
Catch It If You Can,.edited by Brian Thompson, ill. Susie Jenkin-Pearce, Viking Kestrel 1989, 0 670 82279 5, £6.95
Strawberry Drums,.edited by Adrian Mitchell, ill. Frances Lloyd, 0 36108354 8, £5.99; 0 36108355 6, £2.99 pbk
Splinters,.edited by Michael Harrison, ill. Sue Heap, Oxford 1989, 019 276072 6, £4.95
Madtail,.Miniwhale and Other Shape Poems,.chosen by Wes Magee, ill. Caroline Crossland, Viking Kestrel 1989, 0 670 82672 3, £6.99
What on Earth . . . ?,.edited by Judith Nicholls, ill. Alan Baker, Faber 1989, 0 571 152619, £8.99; 0 571 15262 7, £4.99 pbk
In Love,.edited by Jennifer Curry, Methuen Teens 1989, 0 416 12782 7, £7.95
Is That the New Moon?,.edited, by Wendy Cope, ill. Christine Roche, Lions Tracks 1989, 0 00 673240 2, £2.25 pbk
Morag Styles is Senior Lecturer in Curriculum Studies at Homerton College, Cambridge. She has specialised in poetry and is a highly respected anthologist. She was co-editor with Pat Triggs of the Bfk Guide, Poetry 0-16 published in October 1988.