Rhymes, raps and rhythms;Children's books

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Michaela Morgan selects her favourite new poetry titles

I'm a bit scared of poetry," one teacher told me recently. But children aren't scared. They do not think poetry has to be put on a pedestal or served on a silver salver - they simply enjoy its direct, natural and powerful appeal.

Its brevity and readability make poetry perfectly suited to the soundbite age and to the demands of the literacy hour. Then there are the joys of foot-tapping, hand-clapping, rhyming and rapping, and the subjects - from the deep and meaningful to the plain silly.

I particularly liked 'The Yaffling Yahoo' in Aliens Stole My Underpants, an "intergalactic" anthology compiled by Brian Moses. This do-it-yourself space rhyme by Wes Magee has made a virtue of simplicity and predictability by leaving each stanza to peter out as a series of dots. Children will need no tempting to supply the missing punch-word, and teachers in need of materials for the literacy hour could do worse than focus on this. Above all, this is the sort of slapstick poetry book children might buy themselves for fun.

Brian Moses, in his collection Don't Look at Me in That Tone of Voice! is very aware of the teacher's plight. Poems such as 'Escape Route' (a lottery-winning teacher makes a break for it) and 'Truants' (in which it is two teachers who are absconding) are perhaps more likely to appeal to teachers than to children. Both books are zappy, wacky, cheap (pound;2.99 each from Macmillan) and cheerful, with line illustrations by Lucy Maddison adding to their Beano-like qualities. They are printed on something not entirely dissimilar to blotting paper, but they will have instant appeal for many seven to 11-year-olds.

Dragons Everywhere by Nick Toczek (Macmillan pound;3.50),illustrated by Sally Townsend, comes in a similar format and for a similar age range but surpasses the previous two titles in its combination of straight-hitting humour and verbal dexterity. It is the well-honed work of a performance poet - crackling with rhythms, raps, rhymes and repetitions that beg to be read aloud and savoured for sound as well as amusing storylines.

For older primary children upwards, Playing a Dazzler by James Berry, now in paperback (Puffin pound;4.99), is in a class of its own. He deals with a variety of experiences in a variety of voices - Jamaican, English and universal. For me there are even echoes of Norse and Anglo-Saxon: see "Badness well schooled him ... lacks reared him" in 'Granny Begs Daughter Janie'. He evokes exuberance, poignancy, humiliations and agonies in language you can chew on. His greeting in 'Goodmorning Brother Rasta' ends with the wish that "all you word them be word of wonderment". James Berry has been granted that wish.

Michael Rosen's Book of Nonsense (Macdonald pound;9.99) departs from his typical narrative style but is still strongly linked to the reality of the childhood mindset, with a feel of the oral tradition about it. His chants, rhymes, wordplay and limericks have an inconsequentiality and casual surrealism that resonate with the authenticity of the playground.

Clare Mackie's pictures in Rosen's title, shortlisted for this year's Kate Greenaway Medal for children's book illustrations, show fish with dancing girls' legs doing handstands. The Aren't-You-Glad-You-Saurus in 'When Dinosaurs Fooled The Earth' has stylish high heels, handbag and lorgnette. The page design, the typography and the colourful endpapers further add to the delight. Young readers, from the tiny to the pimply, will love it.

Michaela Morgan writes children's books and runs poetry and story-writing workshops in primary schools

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