Once in awhile a book comes along that's difficult for me to review. Ted Hughes' "Collected Poems for Children," illustrated by Raymond Briggs, is one such book. I just want to tell you: "This book is great. You must buy it." But an imperative does not a review make, so I'll elaborate.
Ted Hughes' "Collected Poems for Children" is a book every home, library, and school should own. Containing over 250 poems Hughes wrote over his lifetime, it begins with poems written for the very young and concludes with those written for teens. The poems are presented as Hughes intended, in books--beginning with "The Mermaid's Purse" and concluding with "Season Songs." The natural world--animals, plants, the moon, weather--is Hughes' most frequent subject and his verse is direct and classically composed. Take for example, this selection from one of my favorite poems from "The Cat and the Cuckoo" (the second book in the collection, aimed at children about eight years old):
You need your Cat.
When you slump down
All tired and flat
With too much town
With too many lifts
Too many floors
Too many neon-lit
Then stroke the Cat
That warms your knee
You'll find her purr
Is a battery
For into your hands
Will flow the powers
Of the beasts who ignore
These ways of ours
And you'll be refreshed
Through the Cat on your lap
With a Leopard's yawn
And a Tiger's nap.
These short, simple lines bring an entire world to a child--a world they know well. A world of corridors, and elevators, and town. Any school child will agree that a cat is the perfect respite after such a day.
For older children, Hughes' lines are longer and the verse more complex. Take the following example from "Spring Nature Notes" ("Season Songs," the final book in the collection):
The sun lies mild and still on the yard stones.
The clue is a solitary daffodil--the first.
And the whole air struggling in soft excitements
Like a woman hurrying into her silks.
Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping
Changing their minds, in soft excitements,
Arming their wings and trying their voices.
The trees still spindle bare.
Beyond them, from the warmed blue hills
An exhilaration swirls upward, like a huge fish.
As under a waterfall, in the bustling pool.
Over the whole land
Spring thunders down in brilliant silence.
Here you can already talk of more complex poetic matters with an older child. How is this poem structured? What of all the movement in this poem? What does it mean to "thunder down in brilliant silence"? How do birds zip and unzip?
Raymond Briggs' realistic pencil illustrations perfectly complement Hughes' poems. Scattered liberally throughout the volume (on every page in the first three books aimed at younger children), Briggs brings the poems to life with animals, everyday objects, and even humorous interpretations of some of the poems.
Ted Hughes' "Collected Poems for Children" is a perfect gift for children of any age. Just make sure you hand your present to the child directly. I've had my copy for nearly a year now and haven't passed it on to either of my children yet.