John Mole finds no tricks, but wordplay, mysteries and riddles for a poetic Christmas.
Three cheers for Macmillan's support of Charles Causley in an otherwise lean year for single-poet collections. Last year it brought out a magnificent edition of his Collected Poems for Children, and this has now been followed by his own selection (Selected Poems for Children, pound;5.99) offered as a handsome paperback and also illustrated by John Lawrence. For magic, sly humour, resonant storytelling, craftsmanship and sheer memorability, Causley should be in the top drawer of every teacher's desk.
So, too, should Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (Faber pound;7.99). Though not marketed for children, it transcends all categories. Its 24 passages from Metamorphoses are breathtaking and ideal for reading aloud. In a cinematic age of ever more sophisticated special effects, Hughes shows time and again the power of the written word to beat technological trickery hands down.
For vigorous wordplay, surreal invention and affectionate nonsense, Adrian Mitchell's Balloon Lagoon (Orchard pound;9.99, see book offer, page 16) can be strongly recommended. Tony Ross's illustrations enter into its festival spirit, and as an attractive, durable hardback it would make the ideal Christmas present. Try reading out "Nothingmas Day" at the end-of-term party. Then, as the laughter subsides, quieten things down with a few riddles from George Szirtes's The Red-All-Over Riddle Book (Faber pound;8.99). Like all the best riddlers, Szirtes is slipping real poetry into the game.
Allan Ahlberg, too, is at his most playful in The Mysteries of Zigomar (Walker pound;10.99). The same mercurial imagination and delight in subverting familiar scenarios inform both the stories and poems in his latest miscellaneous collection. The colour pictures are, again, by John Lawrence. He's a fortunate illustrator - he gets the best.
Russell Hoban is one of a select band of true originals, and a handful of the poems in his long-awaited successor to The Pedalling Man are as good as the best in that earlier collection. No one combines wit, melancholy and tenderness quite as he does. In The Last of the Wallendas (Hodder pound;10.99) there's plenty of good fun, but the real poems have a haunting quality - a wry, unsentimental plangency - which is utterly distinctive.
Of the many anthologies produced this year, I would not be without The School Bag (Faber pound;20), Ted Hughes's and Seamus Heaney's successor to The Rattle Bag. Despite its institutional title, it's far from being a mere gathering of chestnuts. It has, as one might expect from its editors, the stamp of personal enthusiasm. My much-used paperback copy of its predecessor has fallen to pieces, so I'd recommend the hardback edition.
A better-bound paperback is the reissued Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark (OUP pound;9.99) in which Hughes, Heaney and many other contemporary poets keep company with tried-and-trusted Tennyson et al. John Foster's Excuses, Excuses (OUP pound;4.99 ) is the best of the school-life anthologies I have come across this year, with plenty of food for thought, and Thoughts Like an Ocean (Pont, pound;5.95 ) is a most attractively produced selection - mostly from contemporary poets with a Welsh connection - chosen by Neil Nuttall and Andy Hawkins. Credit must be given to the Welsh Arts Council for supporting it.