Surreal sheep;Children's poetry;Books

1st October 1999 at 01:00
SHEEP DON'T GO TO SCHOOL. Edited by Andrew Fusek Peters. Illustrated by Marketa Prachatick. Bloodaxe. pound;5.95

This engaging anthology has arisen from its editor's discovery that, despite a wealth of material, rather few translations of Eastern European poetry have appeared in anthologies for children.

Andrew Fusek Peters has collaborated with various translators - some of whom, such as the Hungarian-born George Szirtes, are well-known as poets in their own right - and the ideal illustrator, Marketa Prachatick , whose quirky marginal line drawings display a surreal imagination which matches the playful surfaces but often slightly sinister undertones of the verse.

In his introduction, Fusek Peters makes a comparison with the work of Spike Milligan and Edward Lear though, as he points out, there is a distinct "culturally recognisable style" in his selection. Indeed there is. While children will delight in the familiar topsyturvydom and crazy conjunctions of nonsense verse, they will also be introduced to a darker contemporary world as in this poem by the Polish poet Ewa Lipska: I walk across the playground. And all of a sudden a six-year-old boy rushes to me with wild strawberry cheeks. In his hands he clutches a pop gun.

"Bang! Bang!" - he shoots at me.

Then he sticks the weapon in his pocket.

"Gotcha!" - he says and runs off.

I notify the family. Friends.

I phone the police and report my death.

They spread their helpless hands.

"Such times" - they say.

This is the playground for real, and it is one of the strengths of Peters' anthology that he slips work with this kind of resonance in between more whimsical pieces, though even the whimsy often has that "culturally recognisable" sardonic edge of practicality, of a folk poetry from circumstances where, for example, a pair of boots must last for considerably longer than the school year.

A few of the poems, those by Holub and Yevtushenko, will be familiar. There's only one from the wonderful Marin Sorescu (Romanian), and I'm surprised to find nothing at all from the Yugoslavian Vasko Popa. But this is carping. Sheep Don't Go to School is a hugely enjoyable, original collection which will be immediately accessible to children. Another instalment would be very welcome.

John Mole is the City of London's first official poet. He was formerly head of English at St Albans School, Herts

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