Pick up a poem for pleasure

13th December 1996 at 00:00
FUNKY CHICKENS By Benjamin Zephaniah Viking Pounds 9.99. YOU WAIT TILL I'M OLDER THAN YOU By Michael Rosen Illustrated by Shoo Rayner Viking Pounds 9.99

WE ANIMALS WOULD LIKE A WORD WITH YOU By John Agard Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura Bodley Head Pounds 9.99

Ask any cross-section of adults if they read poetry for pleasure, and their reactions are likely to vary from horror to barely disguised scorn at such intellectual pretension. With parents often so hostile to the idea that poetry might be fun, how can children be persuaded otherwise?

Funky Chickens, the latest collection from rapping rasta Benjamin Zephaniah, takes a streetwise approach. "These poems," the jacket boasts, "should be stored in a cool place."

Inside, as advertised, are verses likely to stir the interest of right-on kids everywhere: global warming, pollution, racism and animal abuse all receive the trademark Zephaniah treatment - compassion, energy, and above all wit. As the poet notes in "Down to Earth": "Skywards I stareTo see what is thereSome say that I am wasting my time,Well I must declareI can't see no airBut I see a very good rhyme."

Zephaniah, whose verses about poetry itself are among his most satisfying, offers young readers a glimpse of that secret world where "every pencil needs a handand every mind needs to expand". It's a shame that their full impact is sometimes lost amid the book's tacky computer graphics, but if they encourage children not only to enjoy this new world but to participate, so much the better.

For Michael Rosen, poetry is a slightly more dubious activity. In "For Naomi", for example, from his new collection, You Wait Till I'm Older Than You, it is something to embarrass his young daughter, alongside singing on buses or shouting in the street. Rosen's books sell by the bucketload but there is still something rather knowing about his tales of life as both child and parent that could exclude young readers: how many kids, for instance, would get the references to Elvis in "Muss i'den"? Nevertheless, his monologues are always compelling as they unravel the family sagas of runaway cars in France, mountain hikes in Wales or beasties in Australia.

In John Agard's We Animals Would Like a Word With You, the beasts bite back. Lions devour trainers, bedbugs don't let humans "sleep too tight", fish sneer at fisherman ("Guess you've heard of a school of fish? Well, I was the brightestin my class") and a shark declares his ambition to direct a movie.

Whether delving into folklore, as in "Frog Hop" ("Oh keep your princedressed like a fopI'll keep my hop"), or even the recent history of "Space Dog Remembers" ("I have a homeI have a boneA tale to tell"), Agard subverts and invents with a poet's deftness.

Yet alongside the humour, there is also lyricism - too often absent from poetry for children - which both enchants and entertains: "May your sleep betoo lightfor the weightof your dreams" snap the spiders, for example, in "The Spiders Cast Their Spell". Elegant, poignant, humorous, and beautifully complemented by Satoshi Kitamura's illustrations, Agard's collection provides the best poetry can offer. Children everywhere should read it to their adults.

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