Aliens and space for little monsters;Children's books

25th June 1999 at 01:00
SPACE, TIME, RHYTHM AND RHYME. Poems selected by Russell Stannard. Faber pound;4.99

BUSY BABY. By Annalena McAfee. Illustrated by Anthony Lewis. Julia MacRae pound;9.99.

INCY WINCY MOO-COW. By John Cunliffe. Illustrated by Jan Barker. Macdonald Young Books. pound;9.99.

MORE FIRST VERSES. Edited by John Foster. Illustrated by Carol Thompson. Oxford University Press. pound;12.99.

WISH YOU WERE HERE (And I Wasn't) - a book of poems and pictures for globe trotters. By Colin McNaughton. Walker pound;10.99.

Morag Styles reviews poetry books that will take young readers to the stars and beyond.

Russell Stannard well deserved his OBE for popularisation of science. Space, Time, Rhythm and Rhyme is a glorious little book that successfully combines accessible discussion of astrophysics with well-chosen poetry.

My initial misgivings were overcome by the range and quality of the poetry, which includes Michael Rosen, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes and Benjamin Zephaniah from the contemporary shelf alongside Christina Rossetti, Eleanor Farjeon, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake and poems from a range of cultures.

When Stannard talks about the solar system, he respects young readers, and neither talks down to them nor blinds them with technicalities, while retaining his own excitement and curiosity about the immensity of the universe.

Back to Earth with a bump with first poetry books. The squashy, hard-wearing cover for Busy Baby is a good idea - small hands and teeth will relish it - and Anthony Lewis's illustrations are colourful and amusing, but the bland text - "With my bucket and spade, I'll sit in the shade, Make castles and daydream, Till it's time for my ice-cream" - sent me rushing back to A A Milne, who could write memorable verse for very young children. There are better books around for the very young, and they deserve a livelier introduction to rhyme.

Another difficulty with Busy Baby is that the print is supposed to be hand-written, so it is too small and has an inappropriate font for most young readers. The likeable Incy Wincy Moo-Cow (funny parodies of nursery rhymes, accompanied by attractive illustrations) suffers from the same problem. These books are marketed for early years, but the print makes them inaccessible to children beginning to read independently.

Much more successful is John Foster's More First Verses. Foster must have edited dozens of anthologies, but this is as fresh and varied as earlier volumes. It's good to see relative newcomers such as Tony Mitton come into their own alongside familiar names such as Judith Nicholls and John Agard. The illustrations by Carol Thompson are a delight - lavishly coloured and full of comical detail.

Colin McNaughton gets more inventive with every book. Wish You Were Here (And I Wasn't) is another winner for introducing children to poetry, to be published early July. Four apprehensive kids look out anxiously from a comic postcard as harum-scarum folks zoom recklessly about in crazy forms of transport; meanwhile the authorfisherman stares at his readers from a perilously upended ISBN raft. So many jokes, and that's just the cover.

Inside there's excellent design, witty verse and exuberant illustrations with endpapers to die for. A plump space monster and little green men in spaceships whizz around the galaxy, reaching, this time literally, for the stars.

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