Cheated by a lenient touch

15th March 1996 at 00:00
DIRTY GERTIE MACKINTOSH FIFTEEN POEMS by Dick King-Smith Doubleday Pounds 9.99. WALKING THE BRIDGE OF YOUR NOSE WORDPLAY, POEMS AND RHYMES Selected by Michael Rosen Kingfisher Pounds 8.99

Lynne Truss wishes Dick King-Smith had a touch of Belloc's brutality

The moral lessons in Dick King-Smith's funny poems are never that hard to find. "Don't do that," they mildly admonish. There's a child who shouts; a boy who won't go to sleep at night; a girl who will only eat tomato sauce. Each is dealt a humorous comeuppance but, alas for fans of the stern stuff in Roald Dahl, nobody dies, not even ironically. I feel cheated, I don't know why.

It's all the fault of Hilaire Belloc. The Cautionary Tales, with their couplet style to which King-Smith pays obvious homage, show disobedient children reaping ultimate sanctions all over the place - eaten by a lion, burned to a crisp, or blacking boots at the Savoy.

He really "followed through", did old Hilaire. As a direct result of his warnings, generations of children vowed never to run away from Nurse, even when they didn't have one.

But if King-Smith is lenient, he is still very funny, and turns out to be a natural poet for children.

My favourite is "Willie White", about a little boy who won't sleep at night and nods off at school.

While the other children acquire an education, Willie White persistently slumbers.

And so he never learned a jot And ended up a perfect clot Who couldn't read or write or do A simple sum like two plus two.

Not all of King-Smith's children are disobedient; some are infant heroes who swim the Channel or win gold medals at the Olympic Games. Best of these is Adolphus Brown, who volunteers to land an aeroplane full of panicking holiday-makers.

He settles into the pilot's seat and steers a confident course for Manchester, for the excellent reason that it's near to where he lives.

Onward they flew as steady as could be Until Adolphus glimpsed the Irish Sea.

"Now then," he said, "we've got to find the Mersey."

And so, dressed in his little shorts and jersey He turned the aircraft round until he saw The outlines of the Liverpudlian shore.

Each poem is illustrated on its title page with crude line drawings by Ros Asquith, which don't always add much, and which generally pre-empt the poem thatfollows.

The picture for Adolphus Brown, for example, shows him surrounded by adoring grown-ups after his successful landing, thus dissipating any dramatic tension. After all, the plane might have crashed, with the moral being - well, that children shouldn't fly aircraft, obviously.

Michael Rosen's Walking the Bridge of Your Nose is a stimulating selection of word-plays, including riddles, mind-benders and tongue-twisters and a highly satisfying contribution, by a poet identified only as "TSW", on the bizarre rules of English pronunciation: Beware of heard, a dreadful word That looks like beard and sounds like bird, And dead: it's said like bed, not bead - For goodness sake don't call it "deed"!

Watch out for meat and great and threat (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.) This is a book designed for a child to enjoy for years,always finding more in it. My Mum, in her sixties, still relishes "YYUR, YYUB, ICURYY4ME" (Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me). There is surely hope for us all.

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