Subtitled “The Best Children’s Poetry From Agard To Zephaniah” and with a foreword and selections by Michael Rosen you know you are in safe hands. Rosen’s “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” is my all-time favourite children’s poetry book and this man has done so much over the years to get children excited and motivated by poetry, both to listen to it and read it aloud and also have a go at writing their own. I consider him to be one of the most significant living children’s writers and I’ve met him a couple of times and he is an extremely affable man as well as possessing the great talent of holding a school hall full of restless youngsters in rapt attention.
With this collection Rosen has achieved very much what he set out to do- find us a selection of the best modern children’s poetry and present it alphabetically. He smoothly gets round any difficulties with the format via his charm and good humour – “Q here for the poet/ Get in line/ No pushing” and for U “U are the poet and here is your poem:” with ruled lines for the reader to write own attempt on, but where the poets are accommodating and do have surnames which fit into Rosen’s alphabetical format they get two bites of the cherry, with two poems each.
Despite many years out of the classroom I still read poetry books like a teacher, looking for those I want to share further, making notes of titles and revisiting them until I’ve got the book summed up in around 10 poems and finding myself choosing the one that has made the most impression on me. I know I shouldn’t be looking for a “winner” in a poetry book but can’t help myself doing it, I’m afraid. As an adult I think I favour most the poems that offer a real snapshot of time which brings memories and associations of my own childhood coming back, rather more than the playing with rhymes and rhythms that children respond to so well and of which there are many poems in evidence in this collection. So for me the best on show is Alan Ahlberg’s magnificent “The Mighty Slide” which features 7 pages devoted to the playground ice slide. I’m sure many of us would remember waking up on snowy school mornings realising there could be a patch of ice in the playground that we would be able to skid over. Now, frowned at as a thing requiring its own risk assessment and a bag of grit it was full of excitement as it transformed the familiar school playground into something special and Ahlberg gets this just right – the first arrivals, the development of technique, the queuing, the moment when all is perfection quickly followed by the deterioration of the ice and the whistle which ends the fun;
“There’s shouting and shoving: “Watch this!” “Watch Me!”
“I’m floating!” “I’m falling!” “Oh, Mother!” “Wheee!”
And all the while from the frosty ground
That indescribable sliding sound
Yes, snow’s a pleasure and no mistake
But the slide is the icing on the cake”
This is marvellous stuff and can also be found as the title poem in Ahlberg’s 1989 collection, one of his many beautifully observed poems that celebrate the life of the primary school. His closing couplet is magnificent;
“Some plough the land, some mow or mine it;
While others- if you let them-shine it.”
Whilst we are talking about beautiful observations of childhood Michael Rosen himself is one of the best and in the collection we get the very satisfying “The Noise” exploring his father’s reactions to the sheer volume of having two boys. In a similar style I also loved Paul Lyalls’ “My Mate Darren” a tale of a friend whose living rooms games of war with toy soldiers are brought back to him ten years later. I do not know his work but after this might very well seek out his collection “Catching The Cascade” (2009). There’s the poignancy of memories in John Mole’s “The Shoes” and Gareth Owen’s discovery of what is making the noises in his “Empty House” would freak me out more than discovering an actual intruder. It’s great to have a bit of peril in children’s poetry. It’s ingrained in us our early rhymes such as “A Dark, Dark House” and “What’s The Time Mr Wolf?”
Of the poems where the sounds of the words rather than the theme are the central focus there are some solid examples on display, including a number with Caribbean heritage which would work well with a class of children. I had a very big soft spot, however, for a Scottish dialect poem “Dino’s Cafe” by Matthew Fitt which tells the tale of Dino working in his cafe;
“In a brichtly-coloured peenie
Dino redds up a Panini,
And he dichts doon aw the tables wi a cloot”
Poetry for children should be read aloud and this really benefits from this (Accent not essential as the words lead you to the correct sounds). The food-based punning of Andrew Fusek Peters’ “Attack Of The Mutant Mangos” comes thick and fast and would have a class of children groaning with joy. To calm things down I would suggest Benjamin Zephaniah’s “People Need People”, a rational, thought-provoking verse on the importance of having others around us.
I’ve just picked out a handful of the poems as a taster for the whole book but I see what I’ve done and I’m going to air it before any criticism. I haven’t mentioned any female poets. There is a gender bias in the book anyway with, after a quick count, 16 of the 61 poets women and there are women poets of great calibre. I really enjoyed the selections by Carol Ann Duffy, Dilys Rose and Coral Rumble, for example, but I’m also aware that on this occasion I found myself going back to re-read the poems by the men mentioned. Is this some gender related thing in that I found when looking back to childhood it was the male poets that spoke most to me or is it just coincidence? I don’t know and it’s probably best not to get stressed out about what is a highly readable, very entertaining selection of poems from the best of modern children’s poets.
Michael Rosen’s A-Z was published by Puffin in 2009