26th January 2001 at 00:00

THE POET CAT. By Grace Nichols. Bloomsbury Children's Books. pound;6.99

IN AND OUT THE SHADOWS. By Sandy Brownjohn. Oxford University Press. pound;3.99.

FIREWORDS: a book of wordplay poems. By John Foster. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99.

THE EMPEROR'S WATCHMAKER. By Lemn Sissay. Bloomsbury. pound;3.99

TEACHER ALLIGATOR. By Faustin Charles. Bloomsbury. pound;3.99.

A MEAN FISH SMILE. By Sue Cowling, Roger Stevens and Jan Dean. Macmillan Sandwich Poets. pound;3.99.

"Circling my ankles cyclonically Brushing me like a velvet wind Making me the centre of her storm", one particular pussy cat stars in Grace Nichols's new collection.

Although the poet "never forgets she's a small tiger", Thesaura is also an "alien in the dark", a "warden in the garden", a rapper, dreamer, gift-giver, Queen of Sheba. It's as if the poet is inspired to summon up metaphor after metaphor to capture the extraordinary feline nature of this purring beast. This is Grace Nichols at her best, her language mirroring the cat - lithe, agile, honed to perfection. For eight-plus.

I like Sandy Brownjohn's second collection for children even better than her first. The overall tone is amusing ("Catnap in the Catnip" with its "Up tails all" is especially witty and "The Pigeon's A-Z of London" is a real treat), but the shadows of the title also lend a melancholy note. Childhood echoes mingle with impending darkness in "Kyrielle", as the poet begs, "O, God of silence, let me be". The dramatic, black and white typography, and arresting illustrations by Oliver Gaiger, make it an attractive volume for nine-plus.

Apart from the cover, John Foster's latest anthology for Oxford also favours the distinctive black and white presentation and has been inventively designed and illustrated by Rian Huhes. Foster, as ever, offers a balanced mix of traditional and modern limericks, epitaphs, chants, tongue-twisters, concrete poems, parodies, puns, riddles, jokes and new versions of old rhymes to please many a young reader and their teachers trying to fulfil the requirements of the national literacy strategy for shape poems and the like.

"Can you hear the rhythm?" asks Lemn Sissay in his first collection for children. The answer is a resounding "yes", and this popular performance poet should get the wider audience he deserves with The Emperor's Watchmaker, which features fairy-tale-style characters from the Prince of Toffee to the Palace Parrot, as well as entertaining accounts of untidy bedrooms, body language and love songs to chips. Sissay's is an exuberant new voice that many young readers will enjoy. With engaging illustrations by Gail Newey, it's a snip at pound;3.99.

Faustin Charles's lively new collection, Teacher Alligator, is in the same Bloomsbury series, but the playful poems (illustrated by David Wojtowycz) in which animals replace pupils and teachers, should appeal to slightly younger readers of seven-plus.

A Mean Fish Smile is part of Macmillan's Sandwich Poets series. The unremittingly jokey tone, illustrations and biographical blurb (and amusing does not necessarily mean insignificant - think of Lewis Carroll and Roger McGough), presented on cheap paper in ugly print, make it harder for the more thoughtful, well-crafted poems to breathe. Sue Cowling's more delicate touch sometimes sits uneasily with lighter material by Roger Stevens and Jan Dean.

Morag Styles is reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge.The new issue of Primary magazine, pound;2 from newsagents, includes a pull-out poster on children's poetry through history

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