Building a library for children, part 1

Having no new house updates to share, and a garden still mainly off-limits in the wild meteorological conditions we’ve been having, I’ve been rather stumped as to what to blog about, but then inspiration struck.

I haven’t blogged about books for a while, and I’ve never really tackled the subject of children’s books – and considering I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and reading ABOUT them (many, many good children’s book bloggers out there who have inspired me), I realised I was missing a trick.

As an adult BC (before children), I still clung fondly to my favourite childhood books, and actively tried to replace copies which had gone astray or got damaged; when I was pregnant, like any hopeful bookish parent, I dreamed of sharing most-loved books with my child, rediscovering old friends and generally getting swept away by the nostalgia of it all.

The reality, of course, when you’re reading Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola for the umpteenth time, is quite different – but I still have some of my classic and most treasured picture books stashed away for the future, and I have tried to make sure the toddler gets exposed to real poetry as well as nursery rhymes.

For anyone becoming a parent soon, or buying a present for a young child, I do have some book-based guidance which may be of use – there are many, many lovely poetry and rhyme anthologies which you may think would look beautiful on a nursery shelf.

Which they will – but if you are from a bookish family like ours, you might find that you’ve ended up with *many* anthologies and treasuries, and next to picture books, they rarely get a look-in during the toddler years, which is a shame.

If you are considering buying an anthology as a gift, maybe check first with the parents that they don’t already have several. I would also check a poetry book for age-appropriate content, too – I had a poetry collection as a child which contained the highly depressing and unsuitable poem ‘Flannan Isle’, about a mysterious real-life tragedy at a lighthouse, exactly the sort of thing calculated to give me nightmares, I can’t imagine why it was included in a children’s collection.

Having said that, there are some poetry books no child should be without, and these I can wholeheartedly endorse. The poetry book I loved most as a child is the classic collection edited by Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, ‘I Like This Poem’. It was published in 1979 in support of The International Year of the Child, and to my complete joy is still in print.

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The poems were all selected by children for children of their own age, so everything is arranged in chapters for 7 year olds, 8 year olds, etc, up to 14/15, and each poem is followed by a brief comment from the child who selected it explaining why they like it (and how odd to think that these ‘children’ from 1979 are now adults older than me!)

It was from this book that I discovered some of the poems that have stayed with me for years – Night Mail, Ozymandias, and Tarantella.

I discovered romance and death in The Highwayman, laughed myself silly at When Daddy Fell Into the Pond (unbelievably, these two by the same author, Alfred Noyes) and was entranced – still am – by the opening line of John Masefield’s Cargoes: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a quinquireme was, it was the magic spell cast by the rhythm and the fascinating, unknown words that stayed with me.

If you have a child, and they don’t own this book, buy it for them now. Just do it!

The second poetry book I love most will be familiar to anyone who encountered the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I had the cassette tape of Cats, and the mug, and the t-shirt and the souvenir programme, but I had the poetry book first – and having known and loved Old Possum for so long, it didn’t feel quite so daunting when I had to tackle TS Eliot for adults later on. (The Waste Land was the very first thing I studied at university – a long way from Jellicle Cats, but it now has as fond a place in my heart as Old Possum does).

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The legacy of ‘Cats’ the show being so closely associated with the poems is rather a bittersweet one – in some cases, I can’t read the poem without hearing the song in my head, but in others, the cat jumps right off the page and is alive in my mind without any need for Bonnie Langford prancing around in tights. Bustopher Jones, for instance, ‘The St James’s Street Cat’ – who hasn’t known a black cat with white spats swaggering through your garden like they own it, just as he makes his stately progress down Pall Mall in the poem?

Reading the poems aloud as an adult, you find yourself having to stifle a giggle at odd places, especially in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – ‘after dinner, one of the girls/Suddenly misses her Woolworths pearls’ – and Growltiger’s Last Stand, which slightly terrified me as a child, is actually hilarious, I now realise.

My favourite poem in the collection is still, as it’s always been, Macavity the Mystery Cat. As a child, I was fascinated by this rangy, mangy, wicked ginger cat, but it was only as an adult that I realised who was the true inspiration for Macavity: it was, of course, James Moriarty.

I was reading Sherlock Holmes about 4 years ago, and the description of Moriarty – domed forehead, sunken eyes, head moving from side to side like a snake – and it jumped out at me, Macavity IS Moriarty! And how cheeky of TS Eliot to have lifted the character so blatantly from Conan Doyle, though obviously it’s an homage rather than sheer plagiarism – though wouldn’t it be great if Eliot had written a sequel where Macavity gets his comeuppance at the hands of a consulting detective cat?

This is our second copy of Old Possum, by the way – the one I actually read to the toddler.

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The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great fun, though I do find the faces a little too human – I like my cats to be cattish, not humanoid – but as a picture book for a toddler it’s perfect.

The other area of poetry no child should be without is the nonsense rhyme – the best exemplar being the mighty Edward Lear. Shamefully, we don’t have a Lear collection in the house yet, though the toddler does already know and love The Owl and the Pussycat. We do have a copy of another nonsense classic, Spike Milligan

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– which has gems including The Ning Nang Nong and the unfortunate tale of the soldier called Edser, (‘Edser in bedsir/Was deadsir’) but some that go into rather (unsurprisingly for Milligan) bleak territory.

I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of my favourite poems here, but it’s a start, and I haven’t even got on to fairy tales or picture books yet. More to follow on this topic – much more – and if you have favourite children’s books or recommendations, please share them!

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One thought on “Building a library for children, part 1

  1. So glad to see this post – what an inspiration as we prepare to become parents! I feel like I’ve stocked up on the essentials for baby and this is a great way to get me thinking about the fun things for our little one. Keep the book suggestions coming!

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