An Imaginary Menagerie

Authored by Roger McGough
Illustrated by Roger McGough and cover illustration by Petr Horacek
Published by Otter-Barry Books

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‘Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.’ Plato

This is a new paperback edition or, in Roger McGough’s words, ‘a refurbishment’ of the classic 1988 anthology of poetry, which includes the poet’s own illustrations and an engaging new cover design. Playful, imaginative and thoughtful, I argue that this collection should remain a staple in any classroom or library. There are 72 poems, in alphabetical order, about both real and imagined animals – from Allivator to Catapillow to Wordfish to Zonk.

Readers will enjoy the quick-witted wordplay in each poem, for example, a ‘nightingale’ gets a ‘night in jail’, the word ‘macaw’ morphs into ‘macawful’, whereas a ‘grey starling’ is, of course, like ‘Grace Darling!’ Roger McGough’s juxtapositioning of ideas is excellent and this book simply makes you smile! A further strength is that it is language rich. I can imagine having both broad and deep discussions with a range of readers about new vocabulary, word placement and possible impact on the listener.

I say listener because this is a book that must be read aloud with or to children, in the moment, to appreciate its rhythm, rhyme, humour and creativity. For an educator wanting to find more opportunities to read for pleasure in a packed timetable, it would be easy to share and discuss a poem or two while the children are lining up, washing hands or waiting to go to assembly. There are links to everyday objects and creative play, like the poem ‘Brushbaby’, about a scrubbing brush. Most young children would love to create their own animals from household objects!

This is much more than just a collection of wacky, weird poems: the overall message is the importance of observing, creating and pondering. It is about the ‘what if?’ and the simple joy of play! There is also an opportunity for children to debate controversial issues, like the hunting of animals, when Roger McGough refers to hunters having ‘short sighted lives‘. Educators could make useful links to non-fiction reading too, researching unfamiliar animals with children. Equally, links could be made with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘How the Whale Became and Other Stories’, and I particularly liked Roger McGough’s narrative poem explaining how badgers got their white stripes.

The illustrations are spontaneous, humorous sketches, which match the poems well. I would actually also like to see some colourful children’s artwork in response to the poetry, as a point for future development. This collection may be over 30 years old, yet the poetry remains creative, refreshing and smart in its construction. Roger McGough writes that ‘Bookworms are the cleverest of all the worms I know.’  This book will continue to delight and encourage young ‘bookworms’ in homes, libraries and classrooms.

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