Book of the week: Children's verse

20th April 2001 at 01:00

There are nearly 50 years between Janet Adam Smith's distinguished Faber Book of Children's Verse (1953) and Matthew Sweeney's new version, but a cursory glance at Sweeney's volume might suggest light years between the two.

Sara Fanelli's arresting, postmodernist cover uses photomontage playfully to hint at everything from surrealism and popular culture to naive art and its links to childhood. On the back cover, a girl with an onion-shaped head sits at a table writing in pen and ink on a background of a European-style exercise book.

The titles are in cursive print and crude capitals, awkwardly underlined, further emphasising both the eclectic construction of this text and its links to childhood creativity. Fanelli's illustrations - sophisticated but apparently simple - fit beautifully with Sweeney's approach to collecting poems for the young. But that is not so different from Janet Adam Smith's approach as it might seem.

For this anthology for nine to 15-year-olds (and poetry lovers of any age) belongs to a long tradition. Respected editors, many poets themselves, as Sweeney is, select verse of the past and present for a young audience.

He includes Romantic and Victorian verse (but no Burns), anonymous poetry, Shakespeare, Jonson, and many of the finest poets writing for children today - from Britain, Ireland, the US, Europe and other parts of the world.

A strength of this anthology is that well-loved favourites by William Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson, A A Milne, Edward Lear, Eleanor Farjeon and Dr Seuss keep company with exciting contemporary voices such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen, Charles Causley and Carol Ann Duffy, and gain depth and diversity from the likes of Rabrindranath Tagore, Miroslav Holub, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney.

This is a book to make you think.

The New Faber Book of Children's Verse e dited by Matthew Sweeney, illustrated by Sara Fanelli Faber pound;16.99

Morag Styles is reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge

A full version of this review appears in this week's TES Fridaynbsp;

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