Grace Nichols's children's poetry is filled with wonder, ordinariness and a kind, auntly wisdom
What poems are loved by children? Or, rather, what poems are loved by adults for children? The Opies' Oxford Book of Children's Verse begins with an admonitory poem by Chaucer advising children to control their tongues, and ends with another by Ogden Nash in the form of a prayer. Adults are in control here. But in between we have fun and yarns and wonder. There is also memorableness, the mnemonic glory of rhyme and regularity, which can be both soothing and uproariously funny. The shaping of your mouth, lips, teeth and tongue in the enterprise of getting the sounds out. This is the child's own experiential concern. But all this is glorious. All this is fun.
Grace Nichols is a major figure among children's poets. She first came to notice with her adult book, I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, which won the Commonwealth poetry prize in 1977, and she has written plenty of books for adults since then. Her latest children's book title, Cosmic Disco, points at stars and dancing, but we also have the seasons, ideas, nature, dads and school. It is the sky that dominates, the mysteries of those vast terrifying spaces remaining mysterious yet somehow intimate.
"Only you Sun / came with your shimmering dance" she writes in "Sun, You're a Star". In another poem, "A Matter of Holes", she wonders:
As for those crab-tracks
Across the cosmic shore
Who know where they'll take us -
What those black holes have in store?
The child's half-understandings and enthusiasms are engaged through the half-familiarities of mice, moles, foxes and miners. Knowledge for a child is not all first-hand, not even second-hand. It is all the hands, real and imaginary, one comes across.
Sometimes it is not even knowledge – it is simply rhythm, as in "Round".
Round the ripples
never square or oblong
Round the orange
Round the plum
Round the moon of my Mum's
The rhythm isn't simple: it is a matter of pace and breath, the syncopation and slowing of the third line as it is said. You have to say it aloud to get it and enjoy it.
If wonder lies at the heart of the book, there are also relationships, ordinariness and a kind auntly wisdom: sadness at the death of a boy with peritonitis, bemusement at the folly of Sally Size-Zero, a generous amusement at Dad dancing and Dad‑the-hero catching a spider in his daughter's room, melancholy at the offence of captive performing beasts, and a huffing pleasure at the comfort of cats when ill.
If adults like the book it will be because it is a gently tutelary adult playing with children. Once I thought some books were too much with the kids, too much "I am one of you". But that too is vital. Children like being in the swing of things. They like rushing around in a high wind. They like biffing things and being biffed. They are assured in their terrors by being together. The solitary child is not, as I once thought, the measure of the world.
Cosmic Disco, at its most characteristic, is one voice speaking to one pair of ears at a time, that circle of ears opening and widening.