Feast of language

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Morag Styles chucks granny out with the armadillo and gets down to some seriously enjoyable collections

Who Flushed Granny Down the Toilet? By Andrew Collett

The Armadillo Under my Pillow By Chris White

The King's England Press pound;4.50 each

No Breathing in Class By Michael Rosen, illustrated by Korky Paul Colour Young Puffin pound;3.99

The Wonder Dish By John Mole OUP pound;4.99

Cars, Stars and Electric Guitars By James Carter, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi Walker Books pound;3.99

The Cat and the Cuckoo By Ted Hughes, illustrated by Flora McDonnell Faber pound;10

It's Raining Pigs and Noodles A Pizza the Size of the Sun By Jack Prelutsky Collins Children's Books pound;7.99 each

Fabulous Fables By Dr Seuss Collins Children's Books pound;14.99

Everest and Chips By Robert Hull Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Ghostly Riders By Phil Carradice OUP pound;4.95

Jack the Treacle Eater By Charles Causley Macmillan Children's Books pound;4.99

I felt jaded just looking at the covers of the first two collections. The title of Andrew Collett's sequel to Always Eat Your Bogies had me reaching for the sick bag, even before I encountered the second-rate verse. How many more toilets, bogies and stereotypical grannies do we have to endure? Chris White's The Armadillo Under my Pillow was equally forgettable. Collett and White may be as good performers in schools as their publicity material suggests but, on this showing, poets they are not.

Both books for the seven-plus age range are presented in unattractive typefaces and both subscribe to the lowest-common-denominator school of poetry. The unwritten assumption seems to be that anything will do if it amuses children and sells.

Teachers can make a difference by introducing poetry that is enjoyable, well written and worthwhile. No Breathing in Class is a terrific new double-act by Michael Rosen and Korky Paul, with great visual appeal. The 11 amusing and engaging poems about school life (not all new) are accompanied by gloriously exuberant, over-the-top, full-colour illustrations. This is one of several Colour Young Puffin collaborations by Rosen and Paul pitched at "developing readers".

Cars, Stars and Electric Guitars is also visually arresting: a long, thin, well-designed book of 40 short poems, dramatic to look at and nice to hold, with imaginative and lively presentation of the black-and-white type (including concrete and shape poems) and images. Carter is a name to watch and writes with warmth, gentle humour and some charm.

John Mole's The Wonder Dish is a strong collection offering a rich banquet of delights for readers aged nine-plus: "the savoury, the sweet, the raw, the cooked, the wonder-dish served up by language." There are conjurors and (sad) clowns, spies and superheroes, ghosts and geese in a range of well-crafted, witty and thoughtful poems. Mole's pleasure in using words precisely yet playfully may make this his tastiest collection yet for the young.

One poem, about a bull with "moon-slice horns", is dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes, whose The Cat and the Cuckoo (first published in 1987) is now in a new pocket hardback edition, exquisitely illustrated by Flora McDonnell. It is dedicated to the children who visit the charity, Farms for City Children, and McDonnell's engaging artwork is set on a farm close to where Hughes lived in Devon. This is nature poetry at its best, with 28 short accessible poems (some of which fans of Hughes will already have encountered in The Iron Wolf and What is the Truth?) which celebrate the ordinary and extraordinary bird, beast, fish and fowl in a countryside setting. As Hughes puts it: "You need your Cat, When you slump down All tired and flat With too much town." So true.

There are also attractive new hardback editions of the popular Jack Prelutsky's light verse in It's Raining Pigs and Noodles and A Pizza the Size of the Sun, ably and hilariously illustrated by James Stephens and likely to appeal to Years 3 and 4.

Dr Seuss, another American humorist, is perfect for the just-independent reader, and Fabulous Fables is a hardback omnibus edition including "The Lorax", "I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew" and "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?"

Robert Hull is well known to teachers for his critical writing about poetry, and Everest and Chips is an interesting collection for Year 3 and above. Some of the poems are very funny, often achieving their effects through wordplay, but a thread of anxiety for the future of the planet runs throughout. Some poems work better than others: while "Do Not Write Poems about your Father's Death" is forced and unconvincing, Hull soars with Emily Dickinson in the poem inspired by "'Hope' is a thing with feathers".

Phil Carradice's Ghostly Riders is uneven, with some predictable, ghoulish verse. Carradice moves into a higher gear, both poetically and in subject matter, when he writes from the heart about inequality and injustice.

Best of this bunch is a new paperback edition of one of Charles Causley's masterpieces, Jack the Treacle Eater, given new life with glorious illustrations by Tony Ross. Each poem is memorable, covering everything from mysteries to poverty, grand stories of people and places, Cornish folklore and reflections on the past by the very best of balladeers.

It contains some of Causley's finest poems, such as "Tavistock Goose Fair" and "Summer Was Always Sun". A masterclass in good poetry for children and adults alike. Now that's something worth chewing on.

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

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