12th May 2000 at 01:00
JUGGLING WITH GERBILS. By Brian Patten. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Puffin pound;4.99.

"I marvel at how many sizes the human heart comes in", Brian Patten writes. He himself is a big-hearted poet. The ability to capture a moment of tenderness or find a sympathetic line through this tough old world has always been evident in his work, particularly in his poetry for adults.

This new collection has all the fun, warmth and quirkiness that makes Patten so popular with younger readers. And, yes, there is the obligatory nose-picking poem, outrageous characters, gerbils who juggle and other riotous animals. But there is another side to Patten, who is more than a light-hearted humorist.

He notices the similarities between a bird-table and an altar: "exulting in a feast of crumbs, its wooden palm open to heaven." He tells the boy who shot at a bird: "One day the wing will sting your mind". There are also poems with a "green" warning message; a mother with "earwings" who takes her child gently into her arms and glides off into the night, Mr Dahl supping soup (with references to several Roald Dahl novels), Mother Nature giving the place a good vacuum, poems about poems, and a reworking of a traditional nursery rhyme and references to mythology and classics in a wie range of forms, many of which use rhyme.

Patten cares about the rabbit who is left to fend for himself when his irresponsible owners go on holiday, he empathises with the geography teacher who gives his life to teaching, lives in a grey house and dies before he is able to travel to "where the green leaves burn, To where the ocean's glass-clear and blue". He is angry about the law "which catches flies, but not the hawks".

He has a heart-to-heart with single parents and their offspring, using irony to turn the tables on cliches about children from broken homes, while suggesting subtly that life might be pretty hard for the parents, too: "You have to allow them to fret over you, otherwise they get terribly worried... You have to try and give single parents that extra bit of attention."

Juggling With Gerbils is Patten's best poetry for children yet, and a heartening read. Whatever the poet's mood, whichever voice he takes up - hilarious and exuberant, thoughtful and questioning, crazy and witty - his writing is mirrored, decorated, celebrated or expanded by Chris Riddell's mesmerising line drawings. Like the poems, they linger in the memory.

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

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