Even My Ears are Smiling

Even My Ears Are Smiling is a collection of poetry by Michael Rosen.  It’s a mixture of some of his old classics and some brand new poems, and it runs to a sizeable collection of some eighty-odd works.

Michael Rosen is a hugely influential figure in children’s literature.  He is an active campaigner for education and (often against) the education system.  He is regularly to be heard on the radio and he presents BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth.  His career writing for children spans five decades and few writers can be said to be so well-regarded – if there were a canon of children’s literature, he’d be in it.

Rosen’s strength lies in his ability to create poems that sound as though children themselves have written them.  As a means of interesting children in words and inspiring them to write their own poetry these poems are unparalleled.  Reading a Michael Rosen poem you feel, whilst admiring his skill, that you too might be able to do it.

There are some great poems in this collection, and they are superb for reading aloud. Preschoolers and primary school children will love listening to them, especially the sound-heavy rhythm-heavy ones that sound almost like rap:

“I’m a three-egg beater

The pancake-eater

The pancake-maker

Super-pancaker”

Many also use repetitive rhyme in very appealing ways, such as ‘I’m a dog, I’m a hound, I run round and round, I jump and I bound, I snuffle in the ground”.  Thoroughly enjoyable to read and a great way of teaching young children what rhymes are.

Rosen is at his best when the simple, conversational style blends successfully with prosody and deeper meaning to create something that is not only accessible but also subtle and meaningful.   ‘First Bus Trip’, for example, perfectly conveys the joy of travelling on the bus for the first time through simple repetition:

“I held on to the bar

in front of me

I held on to the bar

in front of me

I held on to the bar

in front of me.

Even my ears

were smiling.”

Many of the poems are descriptions of moments in family life, just like this one, and most are entertaining and well-observed.  ‘Attacked by a Banana’, ‘Don’t Mum’, ‘Where are His Glasses?’ and ‘Strawberry Jam’ are particularly effective.

Although some of the poems are mere word-play some of the best are more complex in their approach.  ‘Cooking Cakes’ for example, is a hugely comic monologue supposing that a budding pastry-cook has used their initiative.

“I mean to say, in about an hour,

You can use quite a lot of flour”…

and, amongst the non-rhyming poems, ‘Today’ is a thought-provoking commentary on the day a lost dog comes home.

“There were no flags no songs

no cakes no drums

I didn’t see any processions

no one gave a speech.

Everyone thought today was ordinary,

busy busy

in out in

hum drummer day

dinner hurry

grind away day.”

Some of the poems are much weaker, however.  There are some obscure ones that don’t really make sense, like ‘The Demon Manchanda’, and a few like ‘Three Rules’ and ‘Pirate Jim and Pirate Joe’ where the raw nature of Rosen’s style (to my mind at least) goes too far and becomes meaningless. “Don’t throw stones / you’ll hurt my mum. / Don’t jump out the window / you’ll hurt your bum”.  Kids love silliness but poems need more than just the word ‘bum’ to commend them.  Equally the quality of the nonsense in ‘Hairy Tales and Nursery Crimes’ is varied; some of the twisted versions with alternative words are very funny but others fall a bit flat.

One of the most enjoyable bits of the book (at least in this house) is the number of ‘Down behind the dustbin’ poems that run through it.  Several different dogs live behind this bin and it is great fun to read these and even come up with your own:

“Down behind the dustbin

I met a dog called Sid.

He wanted to look inside it

But he couldn’t lift the lid”

– our joint effort!

Overall this is a really good place to start if introducing young children to poetry.  Lively, engaging, entertaing, accessible and with some perfectt examples of how poetry for children should be, it also comes with an audio CD of the poems, read by Michael Rosen himself, which is great for car journeys.

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