Six of the best

9th January 2004 at 00:00

Where the Sidewalk Ends

A Light in the Attic

Poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein (illustration, below)

Marion Boyars, pound;9.99 each

The Wishing Bone and Other Poems

By Stephen Mitchell

Illustrated by Tom Pohrt (illustration, right)

Walker Books, pound;10.99

Family Phantoms

By Gervase Phinn

Puffin, pound;4.99

Whoop an' Shout!

By Valerie Bloom

Macmillan, pound;9.99

Poems Out Loud

Selected by Brian Moses

Hodder Wayland, pound;4.99

(accompanying audio CD, pound;14.99)

Although his work is well known in this country from its regular appearances in anthologies, Shel Silverstein has yet to make an impact en masse. In the US, along with Jack Prelutsky, he dominates the world of children's poetry, and in a recent article for Signal magazine the US critic Richard Flynn notes that when he mentions to casual acquaintances or even academic colleagues that he is working on children's poetry they invariably say "Oh you mean like Shel Silverstein?" With the British publication of two compendious volumes of his engagingly subversive poems accompanied by often intricately bizarre drawings, we can now take the full measure of a phenomenon. Wacky would be an understatement, and it is easy to see why Silverstein, who died in 1999, receiving a wealth of affectionate tributes posted on numerous websites, is so loved.

By turns sardonic, surreal, and mockmoralistic, his is a spontaneous overflow of playfulness which spreads over page after page of off-the-cuff but neatly versified invention. The poems are often little more than witty narrative captions to the drawings as, for example, in "Homework Machine" or "Headache" from A Light in the Attic, but draughtsman and poet work gleefully together. Silverstein can be seen as being very much in the New Yorker tradition of James Thurber's cartoons and Ogden Nash's verses, and its almost as if the two of them had got together in a Greenwich Village bar and invented him. The result, anyway, is a complete original, so welcome to the world of Silverstein.

Another American, Stephen Mitchell, particularly well known as a translator (his version of Rilke is a book I would not be without) has brought Lewis Carroll up to speed in The Wishing Bone. These are, in the best sense, old-fashioned poems, and the centrepiece is a long narrative, "The Last of the Purple Tigers", which uses the verse form of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" to considerable effect. A contemporary idiom slips in from time to time "we'd read the buzz about her", she's "so chic", and an owl judge wears a designer towel for his robes and, also like Carroll, Mitchell has a penchant for word coinages. Beautifully illustrated by the equally traditional Tom Pohrt, this is an elegant, civilised and heartening little collection.

Back on these shores, the popular Gervase Phinn continues to write with an even more old-fashioned air and he is resolutely comfortable about doing so. His genially spooky Family Phantoms will give much pleasure, especially when read aloud, to children who won't be in the least surprised or bothered by phrases like "'tis but a dream" or good old inversions like "From 'neath his wooden bridge he'd creep", though rhyme does sometimes lure him into questionable grammar ("And should someone this yarn regale").

Timeless is the word for it, I suppose, and Phinn does timelessness like a master. He's good at building up to punchlines, incorporates an element of verse instruction in the basic forms he uses and explains them succinctly in an appendix.

Valerie Bloom is an accomplished performance poet, and there are several poems in her new collection which deserve to stand (or shimmy) beside the best of her previous work. Where so many children's poets who favour the rhymed quatrain thump predictably along, Bloom's beat is often a joyous syncopation. Her more reflective moments, though less sustained, are the stuff of real poetry. She is one of the poets for children who can really do something with the ubiquitous haiku: "Sunbeam caressesThe giddy dewdrop sparklesAt the traitor's kiss."

Bloom is also one of the 16 poets who perform on the CD which accompanies Brian Moses's anthology Poems Out Loud and her work adds quality to an entertaining enterprise with several high spots as well as some pretty routine stuff with the poets putting on the kind of voices supposed to engage children and gear them up to laughter. The outstanding item, for me, is John Agard's magnificent reading of Blake's "The Tyger" with discreet but atmospheric background music. I can't imagine a group of children not being collectively enthralled by this. It would make the perfect opening to an assembly.

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