Archive for poem

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All

Shadows on the wall

Noises down the hall

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud

Big ghosts in a cloud

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose

Lions on the loose

They don’t frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame

On my counterpane

That doesn’t frighten me at all.

I go boo

Make them shoo

I make fun

Way they run

I won’t cry

So they fly

I just smile

They go wild

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Tough guys fight

All alone at night

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park

Strangers in the dark

No, they don’t frighten me at all.

That new classroom where

Boys all pull my hair

(Kissy little girls

With their hair in curls)

They don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes

And listen for my scream,

If I’m afraid at all

It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Not at all

Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Maya Angelou


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I watched Mirrormask last night. Wonderful animation by Dave McKean. More than animation, direction and the creation of a whole host of wonderful phantasmagorical creatures, weird landscapes, layered dream sequences. Brilliant music by Iain Bellamy. Stephanie Leonidas is great as a the main character, Helena, a circus girl who, when her mother suddenly falls seriously ill, disappears into a fearsome Alice in Wonderland world to sort matters out.

Critics have said that the story is its weak point.  Other critics have said that it is too much an imitation of Labyrinth. (Remember Bowie as the Goblin King?) But I liked it. In fact it’s part of a whole sub-genre isn’t it: Girl disappears into Other World to solve this world problem. I think of Childe Rowland:


Burd Ellen round about the aisle

 To seek the ball is gone,

But long they waited, and longer still,

 And she came not back again.

Then there’s Miyazaki’s Spirited Away of course, where  Chihiro has to face all the challenges of the spirit bath-house to release her parents from their pig-form.

There must be lots of other examples. There’s also another subgenre involved – the swap story. Helena’s and the Princess of the Dark City swap worlds. Helena needs to find the mirrormask to get back to her own world. Dave McKean points out that this type of tale goes back to The Prince and The Pauper – it goes further back still to stories of Harun al-Rashid and The Desert Island in the Talmud.

Have a look at some of Mirrormask, here the beginning:

I love the circus music.

And some more, with its wonderfully eery Close To You:

Here’s Gaiman and McKean talking about their work on the film together:

McKean’s sketch for the giants

Really Useful Book

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I see the Google doodle for Edward Lear’s 200th birthday.

As Michael Rosen writes, Lear began writing nonsense during his stays at the Knowsley estate of Lord Stanley, who had hired the young Lear to paint his menagerie. He was so bored by the company: “the uniform apathetic tone assumed by lofty society irks me dreadfully … nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery – but dare not.”

So, Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat:


The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea

In a beautiful pea green boat,

They took some honey, and plenty of money,

Wrapped up in a five pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above,

And sang to a small guitar,

‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,

What a beautiful Pussy you are,

You are,

You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!’


Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!

How charmingly sweet you sing!

O let us be married! too long we have tarried:

But what shall we do for a ring?’

They sailed away, for a year and a day,

To the land where the Bong-tree grows

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood

With a ring at the end of his nose,

His nose,

His nose,

With a ring at the end of his nose.


‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.

My favourite illustrated version is by James Marshall:

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Accidents and Sagacity

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendip, in the Far East, a great and powerful king. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”


The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences they report it to the king. He however still doubts their training and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the king and demands punishment.

The king asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. It was the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands.”

At this moment a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. The king spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them and appoints them to be his advisors.


The Three Princes of Serendip. It comes originally from the Hasht-Bihist (Eight Paradises) of Amir Khosraw written in 1301. In this poem, in Persian, king Bahram Gur, restless on his return from the hunt, has seven pavilions (“paradises”) built for him. Each pavilion is a different colour and in each is a princess from a different part of the world. Bahram visits each princess on a different day of the week. It’s the first princess, from India, and in the black pavilion, on Saturday, that tells Bahram the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

It’s really the mother of all stories of improbable detection. And yet, this skill would have been commonplace once upon a time – when we lived by following the tracks of animals, when we crossed sees by the stars and the currents and winds.

The story has a European history too.  It has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by the letter writer Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” – a translation of Khusraw’s – where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

There’s a French connection too. Voltaire”s has Zadig do the same thing as the three princes. This story too became emblematic, this time of detective work. There is the “Method of Zadig” as it was called. The story could has worked its way into the world of detective fiction and into the laboratory.

There is a wonderful scholarly book – and if such a thing is possible, this is it – called The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton. He traces the route of the word serendipity, and the idea, and its influence on science.

But all that is another story. This one, The Three Princes of Serendip, is crying out to be an illustrated children’s book. And as it’s written by an Indian and set in India, wouldn’t it be great if the amazingly creative people at Tara books could be the ones to make it?

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Wabi Sabi

Another Ed Young book – and I am bowled over by it straight away.

It illustrates, and explains, something in Japanese culture that I kind of understood, but didn’t know had a name: wabi sabi. It was there in the Japanese illustrations of La Fontaine’s fables that I mentioned before. It’s there in haikus, in their quiet minimal holding of a moment in time, in nature. It’s there in the zen garden and the rough, chunky and irregular bowls of the tea ceremony.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:37, 24 January 2005

And this book illustrates wabi sabi through a story. A story about a cat called Wabi Sabi who wants to understand his name.

So, what is wabi sabi? Here is the author of the book, Mark Reibstein, and the illustrator, Ed Young, talking about the book:

Ed Young used collage for his illustrations. As he says in an interview here on How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator:

“It’s easier to change around, nothing is permanently pasted down,” Young said. “It’s flexible and alive. With other mediums you often get tight too quickly, then you get attached to it and it’s hard to change. Collage was something I used for sketching in the past. Now I use it to finish my work.”

“It’s really play. You don’t get down to make something firm until the [pieces] start to talk to you.  Then you listen.”

wabi sabi 1

wabi sabi 2

The cat’s tail twitching,

she watches her master, still

waiting in silence.

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Ivor Cutler

I don’t remember much about my teachers or lessons at Paddington Green Primary School. Teaching, if my school was anything to go by, was nowhere near as good in those days – disorganised, unambitious, uninspiring. I don’t remember the names of my teachers, not even the glamourous one in my class picture:

(I’m the little boy with the red jumper and blond hair.)

But I do remember Ivor Cutler. You can see him here top left in this shot of the staff:

This picture (wrongly labelled) is from this film about Ivor Cutler. You can see the whole film here.

He used to take us in the school hall for movement and music. He would get us telling stories. He was surreal, sensitive, gently anarchic, always surprising. Once he said that he would give us packets of flower seeds if we would promise to sprinkle them between paving stones.


He also wrote some books for children. Like Meal One, with pictures by Helen Oxenbury:

One morning, Helbert woke with a plum in his mouth. He pulled it out and held it between his fingers for a good look: it was purple and juicy.

“Who put a plum in my mouth while I was asleep?” he wondered.

“Me!” shouted his mum, stretching her head out from under the bed with a great grin on her lips. “Hello, Mum!” he smiled.

Helbert stuck the plum back, chewed it and spat out the stone.

‘”Let’s plant it, Mum,” he said.

“Where?” she replied.

“Under the bed,” he laughed, sleepily, stretching his right arm.

So they both cruched under the bed and cut a hole in the floorboards…

At first the tree doesn’t grow, but together they address the plum stone:

O Stone! O Mighty Plum! Send forth roots and shoots. Grow with our love into a plum tree, with lots of plums!

When they go downstaires for meal one they gasp at what they see in the kitchen:

In the ceiling was a jaggy hole.

Throught the hole was a tree.

The roots of the tree hung over the table, spread with meal one.

There was a lound sucking gobbling noise.

But meal one is not lost. Helbert’s mother manages to set it to rights, by the simple expedient of turning the clock back an hour. Helbert again wakes up, this time with nothing in his mouth.


You can hear Helen Oxenbury talking about this collaboration here.

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I saw…

I saw a Peacock  with a fiery tail

I saw a blazing comet  drop down hail

I saw a Cloud  with Ivy circled round

I saw a sturdy Oak  creep on the ground

I saw a Pismire  swallow up a whale 

I saw a raging Sea  brim full of Ale 

I saw a Venice Glass  sixteen foot deep

I saw a Well  full of men`s tears that weep

I saw their eyes  all in a flame of fire

I saw a House  as big as the Moon and higher

I saw the sun  even in the midst of night

I saw the Man  that saw this wonderous sight.

The pictures are from the wondrous I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail by Gond tribal artist Ramsingh Urveti and book designer Jonathan Yamakami.
What they don’t show you here is the die cutting that lets you see through from one line to the next in exactly the playful way the poem hides and shows itself. This in itself is an achievement. It takes Eric Carle’s idea of putting holes in a picture book a step further, to creatively reproduce the trick of the poem in visual form. It’s worth reading Yamakami’s blog post describing the process he went through to get to this point.
Are you looking for a beautiful Christmas present to give someone?  Try Tara Books’ amazing handmade volumes. The fantastic (it’s all superlatives today) introduced me to I Like Cats  and The Night Life of Trees.
 You can get both books on amazon, but I imagine they won’t last for ever because they are handmade:

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