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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
The Carnival of the Animals. Poems inspired by Saint-Saëns’ music, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. Poems read by Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson
Music played by the Apollo Chamber Players directed by David Chernaik.
Walker Books ISBN 1 84428 021 7 £10.99 Disc [55.04 of which music is 22.41]

Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert, the team behind this book and CD, are the innovative trio responsible for the continuance of Poems on the Underground, which offers something more nourishing for the commuter than advertisements for mobile phones, iPods and Dating Agencies. One hopes.

From this trio we now have The Carnival of the Animals, which consists of a book of commissioned poems inspired by the music, illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura and a CD of the music played by the Apollo Chamber Players directed by David Chernaik. Children will thus be introduced to sight and sound, to the poems, the exuberant drawings that illustrate them and to the vivacious music that inspired the ensemble.

There are thirteen poets. Edwin Morgan for instance rubs shoulders with Charles Causley (the Poems on the Underground team were big fans of Causley I seem to remember) who nestles near Wendy Cope, Adrian Mitchell and Gavin Ewart. As Ewart died in 1995 I wonder how long ago he was commissioned. But all the poets, better or lesser known, contribute fine work; none feels either sentimentalised or "written down" for children. Tough, wry, humorous or whatever they take possession of their allotted beast and Kitamura sets to work, in a style ranging from the elegant green and grey wash of Horses to the lurid disco dance of the Tortoise, from the drained grey Donkeys to the African-reminiscent styling for Wendy Cope’s Pianists.

On the CD each poem, read either by Cicely Herbert or Gerard Benson, is followed by the music that inspired it and so on throughout the disc. This isn’t quite the place for textual analysis but all the poems are attractive and respond in imaginative ways to the challenges. Cope, naturally, is the funniest, whilst X J Kennedy catches perfectly the sibilants that evoke Aquarium. The most important thing, as I noted, is that these are poems rich in "scurry scamper" (to quote Kennedy’s Hopkins-like compound) and are alive to the kind of imagination-stretching texts that will give children great pleasure.

I ought to point out that only one stanza of Causley’s The Swan has been printed. But the pocket housing the CD has been sensibly placed near the book edges and can be flipped over like a pancake to gain admittance. A clever solution to a long-standing problem.

Jonathan Woolf



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