|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Illustrated by Raymond Briggs
Faber and Faber (October 2005) 259 pages
ISBN: 0 571 21501 7
Ted Hughes was for several years one of the judges of the poetry submitted by children to the Daily Mirror's Children's Literary Competition. He read thousands of entries and, in the process, became very aware of the differences between a child's approach to poetry and that of an adult. He learned, he said, that "Children's sensibility and children's writing, have much to teach adults." He learned that their world "is not just a miniature world of naive novelties and limited reality," but a world where there is still much to be explored. And he learned that children explore the world with curiosity, perception, a readiness to change, and "a no-holds-barred approach to problems" which adults, mostly, have lost.
So, in the poetry which Hughes wrote for children, he never condescended to them or treated them as miniature adults. He never undervalued their ability to understand anything which was presented to them in their own terms. He tried, as he said, to write poetry which would appeal to the child's heart and mind, open up the imagination, and keep the creative abilities fluid and alive. And he tried to write in language which was not childish, yet was "within the hearing of children."
The sheer variety and number of poems in Ted Hughes: The Collected Poems for Children shows just how important Hughes considered writing poetry for children to be. And the range of ages to which these poems are intended to appeal is equally broad. He once wrote that "It may well be, as the Chinese Sages declare, that a man in whom the child's heart and mind has died is no better than a dead man." So, these poems should appeal to the child in all of us, which is always good news for those of us who read to children.
Collected in this new book are almost all the poems that have been previously published in Hughes's volumes of poetry for children.
There are the simple, amusing poems from The Cat and the Cuckoo and The Mermaid's Purse, the more serious, beautifully evocative pictures of animals from Under the North Star, and the diverse views of animals expressed by the teacher, the farmer, the poacher, the vicar and the children from What Is The Truth. Sadly, the framing story of What Is The Truth is not included. Nor are the poems about that wonderful character Ffangs, the Vampire Bat. But Nessie is there, and so, too, are those weird relatives from My Family and Other Animals, including the grandma who knits woolly suits for goldfish and the sister who is a crow.
Other poems which are included are those from Season Songs, and the whole range of Moon poems, some of which originally appeared in the limited edition Earth Moon, published by Olwyn Hughes's Rainbow Press and illustrated by Hughes himself.**
The book is arranged roughly according to the age group to which particular sequences of poems are likely to appeal, ranging from four-year-olds upwards. And Raymond Briggs's illustrations are more abundant in the earlier part of the book where the youngest children are likely to be most entertained. Yet because of Hughes's own attitude toward children's poetry, this arrangement is rather arbitrary. Seven-year-olds for instance, are as likely to enjoy the poem about the Aunt-eating thistle at the front of the book, as they are to be intrigued by the rhythms and the seasonal changes of "There Come Days," which is near the back. Just as older children will understand and feel sorry for the hunted creature in "The Stag," and will also be amused by that curious beast which is "not an elephant or any such grasshopper," but Nessie, "the Monster of the Loch."
Many of these poems are very English in their seasons and in their reference to specific locations, which makes them less accessible to children from, say, Australia. But there are Black Bears, Elk, and Loons, too, which don't normally inhabit the English countryside. And other creatures, like the fearsome Wolverine and the Moon-Hyena, which can only be found in myth and imagination.
There are some dated references, too. Not many children, or even their parents, will know anything about "Lord Fauntleroy," who is mentioned in "A March Calf." Yet the vivid picture of the new-born calf which Hughes creates in the poem is none the worse for that.
Raymond Briggs's black and white drawings are appealing and informative for children but sometimes rather too literal for adults and, very occasionally (as in the illustration for "The Loon," which is a species of diving bird), completely misleading. But the drawings are interesting and often amusing, and are there in abundance, which makes this thick book something that a child might browse through even before they can read.
For parents and teachers and anyone who enjoys reading poetry to children and seeing them respond to the imaginative power of poems, this book is an invaluable resource which, like other classics of children's literature, will remain a favourite for years. For children (or just for the child in us), it is a book to treasure.
** A number of poems are listed in the Index as "Uncollected." None of these is previously uncollected. The poem "Gulls Aloft," which is listed amongst the Mermaids Purse poems is, however, an uncollected poem.