Poems without pants

29th September 2006 at 01:00
The Carnival of the Animals: poems inspired by Saint-Sa ns' music. Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. Walker Books pound;10.99

Under the Spell of the Moon: art for children from the world's great illustrators. Edited by Patricia Aldana. Frances Lincoln pound;12.99

The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems. Compiled and illustrated by Jackie Morris. Barefoot Books pound;14.99

The Thing that Mattered Most: Scottish poems for children. Edited by Julie Johnstone. Illustrated by Iain McIntosh. Scottish Poetry Library Black and White Publishing pound;6.99

Everybody Got a Gift: new and selected poems. By Grace Nichols. Illustrated by Rosemary Woods. A C Black pound;6.99

Omba Bolomba. By Gerard Benson. Illustrated by Cathy Benson. SmithDoorstop Books pound;6

The Works 5: every kind of poem, from an alphabet of poets, that you will ever need for the literacy hour. Chosen by Paul Cookson. Macmillan pound;5.99

The Book of Whispers. By Julie O'Callaghan. Faber pound;5.99

Scary Poems to Make You Shiver. Illustrated by Martin Chatterton

Funny Poems to Give You the Giggles. Illustrated by Kelly Waldeck

Revolting Poems to Make You Squirm. Illustrated by Martin Chatterton

Puzzling Poems to Drive You Crazy. Illustrated by Kelly Waldeck

All collected by Susie Gibbs. Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Tasty Poems Noisy Poems Seaside Poems. Collected by Jill Bennett. Illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Let's Celebrate: festival poems. Compiled by John Foster. Oxford University Press pound;5.99

Tired of trite ditties about underwear, Fred Sedgwick applauds poetry for children which dares to show subtlety and intelligence

Handsome poetry books fall into two categories: some offer some-thing new, others reprint poems that should already be in a school library. The Carnival of the Animals is in the first group: 14 poems (one for each movement of Saint-Sa ns' suite) by uniformly excellent writers.

The Swan by the late Charles Causley is a perfect companion for Saint-Sa ns' cello tune and the serene illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura. Also on top form is Wendy Cope, who has a wry take on pianists and a warning against shouting "Encore!" - they might "play some more". An accompanying CD of the music Players and the illustrations by Kitamura make this hardback a bargain.

Under the Spell of the Moon is both handsome and innovative: a book of poems in a dozen languages, translated into English, that offers children an insight into what it is to be a citizen of the world. They were chosen by the book's illustrators, who include Quentin Blake and Anthony Browne.

Barefoot's Classic Poems looks lovely, but I've been leafing through books like this for decades. It's full of old favourites. The Tyger, for example, is a great and complex poem, but seeing it reprinted time after time detracts from its power.

Less extravagant in its production values, The Thing that Mattered Most is ambitious and rewarding nevertheless. It is dedicated to Edwin Morgan, the senior figure among younger company whose subject matter ranges from the Scottish countryside to deep-fried Mars bars - Angela B Brown's poem on the latter is a must-read.

Everybody Got a Gift (now in a paperback edition) and Omba Bolomba are individual collections by poets on top form. Grace Nichols has a subtle technique, a gift for half-rhyme and a way with a pun that shows a respect for poetry and children that isn't present in other books. Some of the offerings I've been sent this year are marked by a vulgar whimsy and have fallen down the back of my shelves. Omba Bolomba poet Gerard Benson's deft treatment of huge themes puts such trivia to shame. In Hidden Child a Jewish girl in Poland in 1940 hears "Herod's soldiers, searching for Jews".

Memorable and moving.

The new Works book from Macmillan is a reliable resource, as many primary school teachers will expect of this series. It is at its best in its inclusion of relatively obscure pieces by dead writers: fine lyrics by Oscar Wilde, the young Alexander Pope and Emily Dickinson. Especially interesting is a version of the Latin poet Horace by Dryden: "Happy the man, and happy he alone, He who can call his day his own; He who, secure within, can say, Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today".

Unfortunately, the old Roman isn't credited. Dead too long, I assume.

Still, I applaud the adventurous spirit in this book, which insists that funny light verse, often, for some reason, about underwear, is not the only kind of poetry that children like.

Julie O'Callaghan's new collection, The Book of Whispers, aimed at young teenagers, but easily within hearing of upper key stage 2, has a downbeat feel. You want to kick some of these poems for a reaction, and the whispering theme threatens monotony at times. But there are some strong poems, about silently watching wildlife in the garden or a father's final weeks, for example.

Do you remember the joke about the girl whose teeth were like the stars? They came out at night. Funny Poems, one of Susie Gibbs's quartet of anthologies, has a few old cracks like that and is overreliant on limericks. But there is some originality from the extraordinary (and, sadly, late) Ivor Cutler and jokes that work from Celia Warren and Shel Silverstein. Indeed, all these anthologies have fine poems in them, but none keeps the promise on the cover. Did I giggle? Squirm? Go crazy? Not really.

Four more paperback reissues to welcome. The Jill Bennett trio doesn't contain one weak poem and Let's Celebrate is as fresh today as it was in 1989, with glimpses into traditions as varied as the Chinese, the Maori and the Kebbawa people of Nigeria. And not a pair of pants, nor a glimpse of whimsy, in sight.

Fred Sedgwick is the author of How to Teach with a Hangover. His latest book is 100 Ideas for Primary Assemblies. Both are published by Continuum

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