22nd June 2001 at 01:00
FRIENDLY MATCHES. By Allan Ahlberg. Viking pound;8.99, TES Direct pound;7.99

IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE. By Gervase Phinn. Puffin pound;3.99

UP ON THE ROOF: New and Collected Poems. By Matthew Sweeney. Faber pound;5.99

Allan Ahlberg's long-awaited Friendly Matches is his first poetry collection since Heard it in the Playground (1989), and very much in line with his earlier best-selling volume, Please Mrs Butler. All these titles are superbly illustrated by Fritz Wegner, who is on form here with his comical and endearing images of footballers young and old; the perfect match for Ahlberg's verse.

The collection kicks off with a narrative poem, then passes on to songs, parodies, a lullaby and a variety of verse form. There are poems set in the past, vignettes of family and sporting life, the oral style that is such a hallmark of Ahlberg's work, humour and those quiet moments that lift his poetry out of the commonplace. The book also has girl appeal, thanks to a couple of poems proclaiming the talents of female footballers and the warm atmosphere that pervades the verse, and because Ahlberg manages to celebrate footie without being macho. The boy done good. It's a goal.

We see a new talent at play in Gervase Phinn, the former inspector for English who has delighted teachers for years with his witty anecdotes about school life. Phinn has been hailed the James Herriot of schools for his collections of memoirs for adults, Over Hill and Dale and The Other Side of the Dale, and the same good-humoured charm is evident in It Takes One to Know One.

Phinn shares much of Ahlberg's territory: both have a background in education and use the classroom or playground as a setting; both favour regular metre and verse forms; both are born storytellers; both are humorists who, while writing from the stance of benevlent adult, produce child-friendly poetry. But whereas Ahlberg is gently amusing and a wry observer of human nature, Phinn goes for comedy. Chris Mould's over-the-top, cartoonesque, scratchy pen-and-ink drawings add an extra dimension. A welcome addition to the primary classroom library.

Matthew Sweeney also plays football, on an L-shaped "pitchbetween the garage and the gate", in the engaging opening poem in Up on the Roof. As he hints, the anonymous boy who "read so muchhe stayed in the book's worldI" is himself. There are threatening shadows which we do not find in Phinn's work; in "Singing Class" there's an anxious boy "dumb for an hour, mouthing air,the song-words flitting through his head,his eyes never leaving the inspector".

Sweeney is a distinguished poet who devotes part of his writing life to a young audience. This volume of new and collected poems contains many of the best from previous collections, as well as 15 new poems. Sweeney's voice is quirky and original. He uses language inventively and his range encompasses fantasy, serious topics, realistic snapshots of children's lives, ordinary and extraordinary people, animals, objects, and the occasional poem that disturbs.

For example, some of the poems in "The Bad Girl Haiku" are in questionable taste, as they are rather too close to home to work as cautionary verse, such as "Big Sister":"She pegged the babyto the clothesline,then laughed at his panicky cries."

Sweeney is a challenging poet whose work can be tender, funny and unsettling. It is never predictable and his terrific sense of the ridiculous is captured well in David Austen's simple but telling line drawings, which mirror the light and dark sides of the poems.

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

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