Children's books - It's rhyme time


Children like poetry for its imagined worlds, emotional resonance and the way that its sounds and shapes reveal the character and texture of words. There are the galloping rhymes and nonsense of Lewis Carroll; the booming drama of Blake's "Tyger" or Shelley's "Ozymandias"; the relish and strangeness of words like "charabanc", "shilly-shally" or "meniscus" (all from Norman MacCaig); the dreaminess of Eleanor Farjeon; the heady music of Masefield's "Sea Fever". The Ring of Words (Faber & Faber, £14.99), Roger McGough's excellent new anthology for children, offers all these and more.

There are poems that use the contemporary device of the fantasy perspective, such as falling off a mountain or waking up inside a cabbage, as well as recent work by Jackie Kay and Matthew Sweeney, two fine poets whose writing for children reminds us how emotionally ambitious the genre should be. There are also poems never usually thought of as being written for children but that fit in beautifully here. The imaginative ease of Wallace Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" baffles many adults but children should have no trouble with it. The different sections are signalled by running heads so the flow isn't broken; the poem titles are eye-catching and thus memorable; and Satoshi Kitamura's mysterious and illuminating drawings are a delight.

This year sees two other anthologies edited by renowned children's poets: Brian Patten's The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry (Puffin, £12.99) and Michael Rosen's Classic Poetry (Walker Books, £14.99). Both are big, glossy hardbacks and while their titles make their different characters obvious, both have an extra dimension. Patten's high-octane, rollicking, modern selection includes Spike Milligan, Jackie Kay, Benjamin Zephaniah and Kit Wright. He has also added interviews with each poet that are both revealing and fun. Rosen's classics are a treasury of Belloc, Kipling, Emily Bronte and Frost, and while your child may be familiar with the poems, they will enjoy finding out more about the poets in Rosen's perfectly pitched biographies, which reveal that Edward Lear was a 20th child, that Hilaire Belloc was an MP and that after the reclusive Emily Dickinson died, "over 2,000 amazing, intense, dazzling poems were found". Rosen's illustrator, Paul Howard, has found a different style for each poem, from cartoons to steeped Victorian gloom.

There is a large clutch of anthologies named after their publishers, something that these days seems less like a guarantee and more like a condition of sponsorship. Oxford University Press has just taken the indefensible decision to axe its adult poetry list and there are signs, too, among its recent children's books of an increasingly business-like approach. The latest edition of The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems (Oxford University Press, £14.99) is a brittle A4 paperback with a mixed bunch of illustrations but a decent selection of longer poems for the older child. Highlights include Stevie Smith's "Galloping Cat" and Tennyson's mesmeric "Lady of Shalott".

The same editors, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart Clark, have put together The Oxford Treasury of Time Poems (£14.99), a catch-all selection that's really just about life but includes the great metaphysical seduction of Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress" and Sylvia Plath's percipient description of new motherhood, "Morning Song". Dragons, Dinosaurs, Monster Poems (OUP, £9.99) is a slapdash amalgamation of three indifferent anthologies by John Foster and Korky Paul. OUP couldn't be bothered to design a new title page and index so we have all three original ones to contend with. The frenetic illustrations try far too hard to please.

Little ones will barely be able to pick up The Macmillan Treasury of Nursery Rhymes and Poems (Macmillan, £17.50) but it provides adults with plenty of fodder. If you can't remember the words to "Polly Put the Kettle On" or "Oranges and Lemons" then this book will help, but surely it's more fun to learn nursery rhymes by osmosis, as we do, on someone's knee or in the playground, complete with their regional variations. And what if you don't know the tune? Equally hefty and traditionally packaged, The Puffin Baby and Toddler Treasury (Puffin, £14.99) brings together poems, stories and songs in an A-list of celebrities that includes the Snowman, Tom Kitten and Spot the Dog. It's a bit of a hotch-potch, but enjoyable to dip into at random.

The new edition of Lucy Cousins' Big Book of Nursery Rhymes (Macmillan, £9.99) is worth it for her eye-catching blocks of colour animated by splotchy details and raggedy edges. Belinda Hollyer's Bloomsbury's Book of Lullabies (£14.99) will send any child happily to sleep, especially with Robin Bell Corfield's pictures in which details elide and overlap as in the best of dreams.

More manageable in terms of size, attention and money are books based on a single rhyme. Amanda Wallwork has deftly illustrated Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Golden Slumbers (Ragged Bears, £4.99 each) with veering perspectives and witty details of shiny silver and gold. Pamela Paparone's pictures provide Five Little Ducks (North-South, £4.99) with a subtext that adults will enjoy, and The Owl and the Pussycat (North-South, £12.95) is fabulously adorned by Michael Hague's photograph-sharp surrealism.

Are Christmas anthologies meant to be put away on Boxing Day? They seem as opportunist as Christmas singles, but The Bloomsbury Book of Christmas Poems (£9.99) is another finely edited and produced selection from that publisher which deserves to be read well into the new year.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!