Helen Taylor wants a poetry anthology that does not just have all the old chestnuts in it and appears to be aimed at parents rather than children. She wants a single poet collection of poems to be more than endless lists of rollicking rhymes or poems about school. She wants challenging, thought provoking poems in the same book as riddles and wordplay. She wants the cover of the book to tempt her inside and illustrations, design and layout to show her that somebody cared about design and content complementing each other. BfK asks her to see if any of the new poetry titles on the market fit the bill…
After reading more than fifty recently published poetry books the ‘champagne supernova’ feeling of finding exciting new titles was not as frequent as I had hoped. The old adage ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ echoed in my head as it became evident that the current trend is either towards the expensively produced collection of poems that reflect an ailing culture or towards the fun type book of zany poems published in a street cred, graffiti design style. These are interesting directions especially when we have reached the end of New Labour’s first year of government, a year when the word ‘new’ has been used both to dress up the old and to make things seem more desirable; a year which has espoused a supposedly more caring culture in which we can both spice up our lives and help the aged.
So which are the books which make you want to look inside and when you do, do not disappoint in terms of design, illustration and most importantly, content?
Anthologies and Collections
There has been a heavy crop of new anthologies and collections – with some old favourites appearing in new editions with new covers. Michael Rosen’s The Hypnotiser is issued in hardback at only £4.99 and James Berry’s Playing a Dazzler is now in Puffin – both are definitely worth having. But look at the difference between Fiona Waters’ excellent anthology The Poetry Book, now in paperback and John Foster’s School’s Out anthology issued with a new cover. Good selections, attractive covers, but once inside, Waters’ book is also reader friendly – simple layout, sensitive illustration and clear typeface, a welcoming book for the reader. The typeface and layout in Foster’s book make my heart sink as they effectively destroy the relationship between poem and illustration on the page.
Picture Book Poetry
For the youngest age group, picture books like Rumble in the Jungle and its sequel Commotion in the Ocean get everything right – funny, witty verses by Giles Andreae which capture the character of an animal or fish, complemented by David Wojtowycz’s vivacious and colourful illustrations. Design, layout and text all perfectly in tune. There is lots to look at, think about and to keep the reader turning the pages: ‘I swim with a grin up to greet you / See how my jaws open wide,/ Why don’t you come a bit closer? / Please take a good look inside…’ (‘Shark’ from Commotion in the Ocean).
Reeve Lindbergh’s verse adaptation of St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, The Circle of Days falls into the same category – a perfect marriage of verse, illustration and design. Simple and profound rhyming couplets celebrate the story of creation and the wonders of the world. The words run across each spread page and are surrounded by Cathie Felstead’s illuminating and jewel-like illustrations. ‘For brother sleep, and sister death, Who tend the borders of our breath.’ An exquisite book for children or adults. Felstead also illustrated A Caribbean Dozen, John Agard and Grace Nichols’ excellent collection of Caribbean nursery rhymes which should be in every household and every school.
On the same creation theme, Steve Turner retells the Genesis story in his simple and fast moving book In the Beginning. ‘God said BEAK / and the bright birds soared’ and the words really do soar with the bright exuberant illustrations by Jill Newton. Unfortunately Brian Patten does not have the same luck with his illustrator and designers in Mouse Poems. Patten is a wonderful poet but these simple poems about mice are not enhanced by cluttered, naive pictures which just do not capture the imagination.
The spidery world of David Kirk’s imagination in Miss Spider’s Tea Party is both unsettling and hypnotic. His illustrations are strikingly different, using colour and perspective to give the reader an insect’s view of the world. In the story Miss Spider is trying to find friends who are not frightened of her. ‘We would be fools to take our tea / With anyone so spidery.’ Kirk does not compromise on the disturbing nature of spiders, the combination of words and pictures both emphasises and explains the fears so often attached to spiders. A good book for both adults and children, particularly those with an irrational fear of anything ‘spidery’.
Stella Blackstone’s counting rhyme My Granny went to Market is a great idea which could have been developed and illustrated more imaginatively. Granny flies round the world collecting presents which represent each country. If the pictures had been more vibrant and the map routes had been labelled, this book could have worked on several levels, not just as a counting rhyme.
Anthologies for Under-Fives
Good anthologies for the under-5s are thin on the ground this year. Seaside Poems compiled by Jill Bennett and Elephants and Emus, animal rhymes compiled by Philippa-Alys Browne, both suffer from ‘boxed text’ disease. This is a shame in the former’s case as the bad design really distracts the eye from Nick Sharratt’s detailed, witty illustrations and Jill Bennett’s lively selection of poems. Alice Taylor makes an interesting selection in The Child’s Treasury of Irish Rhymes but the messy illustrations are not helpful to the poems. Finally, in this age group, Twilight Verses Moonlight Rhymes compiled by Mary Joslin works on all levels. It is beautifully produced with a thoughtful selection of poems complemented by Liz Pichon’s appealing illustrations.
Poetry for Five-Year-Olds and Upwards
From five-year-olds and upwards the number of new anthologies and single poet collections begins to increase. Age ranges become more blurred and it is not always clear whether a book is aimed at the reader or at the parent or teacher who may buy it. The Children’s Book of Poems, Prayers and Meditations compiled by Liz Attenborough is described as a selection ‘for children of all ages, from 6-100’ which reflects ‘the very real need in everyone to consider their rightful place in this world and beyond’. The choice of poems is wide-ranging and thought provoking; there are 10 different illustrators and the whole feel of the book is sumptuous and appealing until you come to the meditations. Ostensibly these meditations are a ‘new’ approach to reading poetry. Each section of the book ends with a contrived fantasy designed to help the parent and child to ‘Calmly reflect on the emotions stirred by the words of others’. The meditations are of the ‘imagine you are in a beautiful garden’, ‘take some of the love you have in your heart and send it down to all the people’ type of pop psychology which is so prevalent in certain quarters. I expect there is room for debate here but frankly, I found the approach both irritating and disturbing. Who is this book aimed at? Can we really presume that children will appreciate poetry more if they go into a so called deeper state of consciousness and what does this say about our attitude to poetry and who it is for?
Michael Rosen’s anthology of wordplay, rhymes and poems Walking the Bridge of Your Nose, now in paperback, came as a breath of fresh air after Liz Attenborough’s ‘touchy, feely’ world. This banquet of rhymes, tongue twisters, laughs and nonsense should exercise the minds of children from five upwards.
Street Cred in Paperback
And so we come to the largest section of books, the street cred, wacky, apparently subversive paperback which can fit in your pocket. These anthologies are usually aimed at the 8+ age group, cost between three and four pounds, and are printed on that off-white furry type of paper. The cover is always very bright – lots of purple and yellow with funny things happening all over the place. I must confess that I am bored with this type of presentation and feel (often unfairly) that I have read all these poems before. Macmillan are the most prolific in this field with titles like Aliens Stole My Underpants (intergalactic poems) compiled by Brian Moses and They Think It’s All Over (Even More Football Poems) chosen by David Orme. Both selections seem to have more to do with fitting the title than offering a wide range of top quality poetry. School Trips chosen by Brian Moses is more encouraging, the poems are funnier, the situations less predictable than in Paul Cookson’s Who Rules the School? collection which becomes repetitive after the first few poems. I liked Scholastic’s Hippo series. The Hippo Book of Silly Poems compiled by John Foster and Young Hippo Magic Poems compiled by Jennifer Curry combine old, new, famous and forgotten poems by poets ranging from Silverstein and Shakespeare to Judith Nicholls and Colin McNaughton. Production and design improves as we reach Macmillan’s five poets in a book series, the latest being We Couldn’t Provide Fish Thumbs, poems by James Berry, Judith Nicholls, Grace Nichols, Vernon Scannell and Matthew Sweeney. This collection is a lively mixture of old and new poems and a good introduction to some of the best poets writing for children today. Steve Turner’s first collection The Day I Fell Down the Toilet contains some interesting poems (I particularly liked the last poem ‘Nobody Likes You When You Grow Up’) but lacks variety in rhythm and approach, too many a b a b rhyme schemes and poems with a different idea on every line. Four O’Clock Friday, John Foster’s collection of poems about anything and everything to do with school and after school, is well produced and unusually illustrated with Debbie Cook’s scraperboard type pictures.
Single Poet Collections
Bloomsbury have launched a new series of single poet collections in a bright and friendly format. Coming soon, Adrian Henri’s new collection Robocat which follows the essential The World’s Your Lobster – the very best of Adrian Henri. Once Upon An Animal, a treasure trove of perceptive and amusing animal poems by Faustin Charles would be enjoyed by the 5-8 age group as well as older children. This collection is full of gems like ‘Flame Lover’: ‘Fan the flame moth; / Soft cloth / Eater of flying spark / Flutters light in the dark.’
The last two books I would like to single out in this age range are from a new poet and a well established poet. Tony Mitton’s poems had begun to appear in anthologies but Plum (out soon) is his first collection and it is a stunning debut. There is a cornucopia of subjects and forms from Chapati machines and the Green Man to ballads and rhyming chat. Mitton’s obvious delight in language, wordplay and observation produces original poems that are challenging and thought provoking, or have fun with words and sounds – a bubble becomes ‘a bubble of breath in a shimmering shawl’ and a snail becomes a nightwriter ‘Slow secretary of darkness./ .scribe of the silver shine’.
Russell Hoban has been writing poems and stories for a long time. His powers have only increased with his latest collection The Last of the Wallendas and other poems. An outstanding collection of absolutely original poems in subject matter, approach and thought. The poems come from statues, newspaper clippings, paintings, events real and imaginary. ‘Big Stone Women of Vienna’ gives you an idea of the range ‘Big stone women don’t get tired- / that’s why they’re hired / to hold up buildings in so many different places. / With their beautiful sad faces / full of patient resignation / and acceptance of their station, / shouldering theatres, shops and banks, / and never a word of thanks / though there’s no place in this town / where they’ve let a building down./ Take a good look all around:/ they’ve not let one building down!’ Not surprisingly this book is short listed for the prestigious Signal Poetry prize.
Faber has produced three very attractive single poet collections for children – George Barker’s Dibby Dubby Dhu, George Szirtes The Red-All-Over Riddle Book and Paul Muldoon The Noctuary of Narcissus Bat. They are expensive at £8.99 but beautifully produced and illustrated (they should be in paperback by the Autumn). I especially liked Szirtes’ riddle book which deserves to become a classic. His interweaving of ideas, language and rhythms is dazzling bringing a new lyricism to the traditional style of riddle writing: ‘Firm in the saddle, / Riding the full force Of the world as it strikes you, / They clear a way for you. / Later in bed They lie quietly, / Folding their arms and examining their own delicate wrists.’ (Glasses)
Already reviewed in BfK but worth mentioning again are Adrian Mitchell’s collected poems for children Balloon Lagoon and his anthology The Orchard Book of Poetry, Elizabeth Jennings’ haunting collection A Spell of Words and Charles Causley’s Selected Poems for Children, Neil Nuttall and Andy Hawkins’ anthology of Welsh poets Thoughts Like an Ocean and almost anything by John Agard or Michael Rosen.
Hard to Classify
I have left the ‘hard to classify’ section until the end. These are the books which do not fit into any one age range and will appeal to adults as well as children. Soon to be published, The Forsaken Merman is a collection of story poems selected by Berlie Doherty. The idea works well with contemporary writers like Matthew Sweeney and Gillian Clarke rubbing shoulders with Tennyson and Longfellow but there are gaps. Where are the black writers, the Anancy stories? Why have Robert Burns and R L Stevenson been missed out, not to mention Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Kit Wright… the list goes on.
The Kingfisher Book of Poems About Love chosen by Roger McGough is one of the best selections of love poems you are likely to come across and Peace and War chosen by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark is the most comprehensive collection of poems about war and peace I have read for a long time.
Finally, something to look forward to – I have only seen it in page proofs but it is going to be a cracker: Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection chosen by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Paul Howard. This book promises to satisfy all the requirements of a good poetry book, but with a new approach to a common theme. Design and layout cannot be faulted. Paul Howard’s illustrations are something new with echoes of the past, appropriate to this collection. The selection of poems is thorough, imaginative and surprising as you would expect from Rosen. He defines a classic poem as one that has ‘gone on mattering to people’. There is a picture gallery and useful descriptions of the poets and a simple glossary of terms. This collection is going to be a classic for adults and children alike and I am experiencing that wonderful feeling of excited anticipation when you cannot wait to get out and buy the book. Now that’s Poetry Power!
Helen Taylor, formerly an English teacher and one-time Education Officer of the Poetry Society, now works in Community Arts organising arts events and poetry projects in Cambridgeshire. She coordinates the annual poetry festival, Poets Live!, and is on the board of the Poetry Book Society. Publications include There’s a Poet Behind You, Ink-Slinger and The Cambridge Poetry Box. She has also contributed to the forthcoming Cambridge Guide to Children’s Literature.
The Hypnotiser, Michael Rosen, Scholastic, 0 590 54342 3, £4.99 hbk
Playing a Dazzler, James Berry, Puffin, 0 14 037831 6, £4.99 pbk
The Poetry Book, compiled by Fiona Waters, ill. Caroline Crossland, Dolphin, 1 85881 387 5, £5.99 pbk
School’s Out, compiled by John Foster, ill. Alastair Graham, Oxford, 0 19 276078 5, £4.99 pbk
Rumble in the Jungle, Giles Andreae, ill. David Wojtowycz, Orchard, 1 86039 660 7, £4.99 pbk
Commotion in the Ocean, Giles Andreae, ill. David Wojtowycz, Orchard, 1 86039 678 X, £9.99 hbk
The Circle of Days, adapted by Reeve Lindbergh, ill. Cathie Felstead, Walker, 0 7445 4047 X, £9.99 hbk
A Caribbean Dozen, John Agard and Grace Nichols, ill. Cathie Felstead, Walker, 0 7445 2172 6, £12.99 hbk, 0 7445 5201 X, £8.99 pbk
In the Beginning, retold by Steve Turner, ill. Jill Newton, Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3605 9, £8.99 hbk
Mouse Poems, Brian Patten, ill. Michelle Cartlidge, Scholastic, 0 590 19966 8, £7.99 hbk
Miss Spider’s Tea Party, David Kirk, Scholastic, 0 590 19026 1, £9.99 hbk
My Granny went to Market, Stella Blackstone, ill. Bernard Lodge, Barefoot, 1 901223 43 4, £4.99 pbk
Seaside Poems, collected by Jill Bennett, ill. Nick Sharratt, Oxford, 0 19 276174 9, £3.99 pbk
Elephants and Emus, compiled by Philippa-Alys Browne, Barefoot, 1 901223 18 3, £4.99 pbk
A Child’s Treasury of Irish Rhymes, compiled by Alice Taylor, ill. Nicola Emoe, Barefoot, 1 901223 23 X, £4.99 pbk
Twilight Verses Moonlight Rhymes, compiled by Mary Joslin, ill. Liz Pichon, Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3817 5, £10.99 hbk
The Children’s Book of Poems, Prayers and Meditations, compiled by Liz Attenborough, Element, 1 901881 85 7, £12.99 hbk
Walking the Bridge of Your Nose, selected by Michael Rosen, ill. Chloë Cheese, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0149 5, £7.99 pbk
Aliens Stole My Underpants, compiled by Brian Moses, ill. Lucy Maddison, Macmillan, 0 330 34995 3, £2.99 pbk
They Think It’s All Over!, chosen by David Orme, ill. Marc Vyvyan-Jones, Macmillan, 0 330 35336 5, £2.99 pbk
School Trips, chosen by Brian Moses, ill. Lucy Maddison, Macmillan, 0 330 35279 2, £2.99 pbk
Who Rules the School?, Paul Cookson, ill. David Parkins, Macmillan, 0 330 35199 0, £2.99 pbk
The Hippo Book of Silly Poems, compiled by John Foster, various illustrators, Scholastic, 0 590 19251 5, £3.50 pbk
Young Hippo Magic Poems, compiled by Jennifer Curry, ill. Philip Hopman, Scholastic, 0 590 19170 5, £3.50 pbk
We Couldn’t Provide Fish Thumbs, poems by James Berry, Judith Nicholls, Grace Nichols, Vernon Scannell and Matthew Sweeney, ill. Colin McNaughton, Macmillan, 0 330 35236 9, £3.99 pbk
The Day I Fell Down the Toilet, Steve Turner, ill. David Mostyn, Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3640 7, £3.99 pbk
Four O’Clock Friday, John Foster, ill. Debbie Cook, Oxford, 0 19 276093 9, £3.99 pbk
Robocat, Adrian Henri, ill. Wendy Smith, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3963 8, £3.99 pbk
The World’s Your Lobster, Adrian Henri, ill. Wendy Smith, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3864 6, £3.99 pbk
Once Upon An Animal, Faustin Charles, ill. Jill Newton, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3865 4, £3.99 pbk
Plum, Tony Mitton, ill. Peter Bailey, Scholastic, 0 590 54291 5, £9.99 hbk
The Last of the Wallendas and other poems, Russell Hoban, ill. Patrick Benson, Hodder, 0 340 66766 4, £10.99 hbk, 0 340 67830 5, £3.99 pbk
Dibby Dubby Dhu, George Barker, ill. Sara Fanelli, Faber, 0 571 17999 1, £8.99 hbk
The Red-All-Over Riddle Book, George Szirtes, ill. Andrew Stooke, Faber, 0 571 17807 3, £8.99 hbk
The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt, Paul Muldoon, ill. Markéta Prachatická, Faber, 0 571 19020 0, £8.99 hbk
Balloon Lagoon, Adrian Mitchell, ill. Tony Ross, Orchard, 1 86039 446 9, £9.99 hbk
The Orchard Book of Poems, compiled by Adrian Mitchell, ill. Chloë Cheese, Orchard, 1 85213 316 3, £14.99 hbk, 1 86039 268 7, £9.99 pbk
A Spell of Words, Elizabeth Jennings, Macmillan, 0 333 66072 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 330 35422 1, £4.99 pbk
Selected Poems for Children, Charles Causley, ill. John Lawrence, Macmillan, 0 330 35404 3, £5.99 pbk
Thoughts Like an Ocean, chosen by Neil Nuttall and Andy Hawkins, ill. Jenny Fell, Pont Books, 1 85902 449 1, £5.95 pbk
The Forsaken Merman, selected by Berlie Doherty, Hodder, 0 340 68997 8, £11.99 hbk
The Kingfisher Book of Poems About Love, chosen by Roger McGough, ill. Chloë Cheese, Kingfisher, 1 85697 384 0, £12.99 hbk
Peace and War, chosen by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark, ill. Alan Marks, Oxford, 0 19 276071 8, £6.99 pbk
Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection, chosen by Michael Rosen, ill. Paul Howard, Walker, 0 7445 3280 9, £14.99 hbk