BfK Books About Children&#x2019;s Books Poetry and Childhood HHHHH
Edited by Morag Styles, Louise Joy and David Whitley, Trentham Books, 272pp, 978 1 85856 472 2, &#xA3;22.99 pbk
This excellent book collects 26 essays from the conference on Poetry and Childhood held at the British Library in 2009. It is much less of a ragbag than that might suggest, for the three editors have imposed a strong structure on the collection that gathers the disparate voices into five coherent sections: What Is Children&#x2019;s Poetr y?, Poets and Childhood, Traditions and Forms of Poetry for Children, Childhood and Nature: Changing Perspectives, and Children, Teachers, Poets, Readers. There is very little jargon, and many of the authors allow themselves to breach the rules of academic distance to share their own experience with the reader. Right at the start, Michael Rosen speaks movingly on the way the intellectual world of his parents, the educationalists Harold and Connie Rosen, provided the personal and theoretical forces that shaped him as a writer and as a reader. He also writes interestingly about the centrality of performance to his poetic practice. There are some outstanding essays on individual poets: Bunyan, Stevenson, Milne, Graves, Causley, Hughes, though nothing on Kipling, whose dazzling interweaving of poetry and prose in his children&#x2019;s books has never been adequately assessed. The importance of the spoken word alongside the written is foregrounded in many essays, as different authors approach the question of orality and literacy from different perspectives. And at the end there is a quite delightful essay by Virginia Lowe, author of Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (Routledge, 2006), which discusses her own two children&#x2019;s experiences of poetry, and the way it informed their imaginations and enriched their enjoyment of language. I would have liked to find more on children&#x2019;s poetr y outside Britain; many of the important American children&#x2019;s poets, such as David McCord are still far too little-known over here. But the editors were restricted to the papers they were offered, and no such work can cover every angle. If there is one area where the book falls down, it is the lack of material on children as poets. Nothing on the extraordinary child poets of the 1920s, Hilda Conkling and Nathalia Crane; nothing on the methods of the great teachers who summoned first-rate poetr y from whole classes of children, such as Hughes Mearns, Charles Causley, and Jill Pirrie. But there is a penetrating analysis of that most inspiring of all poetry primers, Ted Hughes&#x2019;s Poetry in the Making. In that book, Hughes sought to immerse children and teachers in the elements of their own
imaginations, vocabularies, and fields of vision, so that they could embrace poetry as a natural gift. Lissa Paul quotes his dictum that, &#x2018;Every child is nature&#x2019;s chance to correct culture&#x2019;s error.&#x2019; The way poetry can enlarge the world and charge the smallest things with significance may be demonstrated in one of Hilda Conkling&#x2019;s childhood poems, written when she was about seven, &#x2018;Gift&#x2019;:
This is mint and here are three pinks I have brought you, Mother. They are wet with rain And shining with it. The pinks smell like more of them In a blue vase: The mint smells like summer In many gardens.
Here is the essence of poetry as it is brought to children by the great poets for the young: a bunch of fresh-picked flowers, &#x2018;wet with rain and shining with it&#x2019;.
NP So Much to Tell HHHHH
Valerie Grove, Viking, 320pp, 978 1 846 14200 0, &#xA3;18.99 hbk
Valerie Grove&#x2019;s biography of Kaye Webb, one of the most influential post- war British publishers, is both informative and entertaining. Drawing upon reminiscences from Kaye&#x2019;s family, ex-colleagues and friends, as well as Kaye&#x2019;s diaries, letters and other papers (now stored at the Seven Stories archive in Newcastle), Grove has drawn a portrait of a beguiling and passionate woman. In a life that appears to have been driven by a constant whirlwind of parties, events, affairs, campaigns, hard work, deadlines and more parties, Kaye was an arch-networker. She had a way of scooping up influential and interesting people, who would often find, to their bewilderment, that they were embroiled in one of her elaborate schemes, undoubtedly involving (as Shirley Hughes recalls) &#x2018;&#x2026;a fantastic amount of work&#x2026;&#x2019; It is fascinating to discover that this colossus of children&#x2019;s publishing, who wanted to be an actress when young, and who became the dynamo behind the influential Picture Post, Lilliput and Young Elizabethan magazines, knew little of children&#x2019;s literature before she joined Penguin Books. It was only when Allen Lane asked Kaye to take over from Eleanor Graham in 1961 on a part-time basis (with no office and no staff) that she started the career for which she is best known. She discovered the workload daunting. &#x2018;&#x2026;you&#x2019;ve got to read every one of them first&#x2026; and with quite a different eye.&#x2019; But she still went on to create what is generally regarded as a second golden age of children&#x2019;s books, through which (and through the Puffin Club) she touched and influenced so many children&#x2019;s lives. And yet, for all the success Kaye enjoyed in her professional life, the regrets she
20 Books for Keeps No.186 January 2011
carried about her private life, particularly the failure of her third marriage to the artist, Ronald Searle, were never far below the surface. Rich in detail and suffused with warmth, Grove&#x2019;s narration of this remarkable life will be enjoyed by students of publishing history and others alike. PD
Spoilt Rotten: the Toxic Cult of Sentimentality
Theodore Dalrymple, Gibson Square Books, 256pp, 978 1 906142 61 2, &#xA3;14.99 hbk
Dr Dalrymple is a recently retired prison psychiatrist, and on the evidence of this book in sore need of a change of scenery. Drawing on his experience with the damaged and often dangerous, he comes up with one depressive generalisation after another about the appalling way that pretty well everyone in Britain seems to him to live now. He admits that &#x2018;It is true that my patients were a selected sample, and perhaps not represen- tative of the population as a whole.&#x2019; No &#x2018;perhaps&#x2019; about it; reading through these jaundiced chapters is to wonder when Dalr ymple last mixed with ordinary, cheerful people, young or old. He particularly hates any type of education that tries to foster creativity as well as learning, roping in John Locke and Wordsworth as particular villains in this direction.
Another danger attendant on all psychiatrists is a tendency towards believing after years of giving out advice to the sick and dysfunctional that they do indeed know all the answers. So why, in Dalr ymple&#x2019;s case, go to the bother of properly researching all your reactionary prejudices if you are convinced you know the truth anyhow? And many readers love the result; this book boasts on its back cover that it is the &#x2018;No 1 Telegraph bookshop best - seller&#x2019;. Any bar-room or golf club bore looking for killer quotes about the general decadence of modern living have at last found their per fect source. The various straw men that Dalr ymple sets up are effor tlessly and too often facetiously pushed over one by one. But it is an easy victory when the author selects the facts that suit his argument while ignoring those that don&#x2019;t.
There are occasions when he scores a palpable hit. He is excellent on condemning the grossly impertinent journalists who took the McCann parents&#x2019; unwillingness or inability to show grief in public about their missing daughter Madeleine as evidence of something more sinister. I also share his distaste for the &#x2018;Tragic Life Stor y&#x2019; genre, now thankfully somewhat on the wane. But too often he wastes his fire on unworthy or pointless topics, from attacking over- emotional inscriptions on tombstones to complaining about the so-called &#x2018;self-pity&#x2019; found in Sylvia Plath&#x2019;s
poetry. If this book were a stomach, I would recommend an immediate course of antacids plus a return to a plain rather than a prison diet.
The Lore of the Playground: One Hundred Years of Children&#x2019;s Games, Rhymes and Traditions
Steve Roud, Random House Books, 576pp, 978 1 905 21151 7, &#xA3;20.00 hbk
&#x2018;Children are forgetting how to play. This is doubtless an inevitable result of modern developments.&#x2019; Not as you might imagine a lament from the digital age, but one expressed in an article in 1903. Fretting about the state of children&#x2019;s play, it seems, is far from being a recent pastime.
Steve Roud&#x2019;s engrossing new survey comes some five decades since Iona and Peter Opie&#x2019;s famous studies of children&#x2019;s games and traditions, Children&#x2019;s Games in Street and Playground and The Lore and Language of School Children. Seminal as those works are some updating was clearly required now that the frequenters of today&#x2019;s playgrounds are the children of a new millennium. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of people aged 8 to 80, and an online survey, The Lore of the Playground gives us a comprehensive picture of what children are getting up to right across the nation.
The picture that emerges is fascinating, and goes against much current &#x2018;wisdom&#x2019;. There have been changes of course. Traditions in children&#x2019;s games come and go, with each generation having its favourites. In the 1930s, hoops and tops were all the rage; now they are rarely seen. Clapping rhymes by contrast are more prevalent and varied then they have ever been. Other pastimes like skipping and tag (interestingly Roud prefers to call it &#x2018;tig&#x2019; which is how I, an East Midlands girl, always knew it) are remarkably resilient, passing effortlessly down the years, but frequently spruced up with new variants.
Though Roud acknowledges other profound changes in contemporary childhood, notably the fact that traffic volumes have seen off the kind of street play that was once widespread, there is much here to comfort those who fear that traditional children&#x2019;s games are on the verge of extinction. Roud&#x2019;s book proves beyond all alarmist headlines to the contrary that children&#x2019;s playtimes still constitute an astonishingly rich mixture of tradition and innovation, perhaps even more so in this multicultural and multimedia age. As I have been fervently proselytising this view since publication of my own book on children&#x2019;s games, this is for me, the most welcome aspect of this joyous book.
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