By Author / Illustrator
Joseph Coelho, Kate Milner
Otter-Barry Books Ltd
Paperback / softback
Gazing at the stars from five storeys up,
smelling the bins from five storeys below.
A disappearing father and a Mermaid-Queen mother; statues that sing for flesh and blood; bullies who kick you under the table; perfect red trainers - and the things that lurk in the library.... Award-winning poet Joseph Coelho's astonishing new collection is a powerful and moving poetic narrative about growing up in the city.
This powerful collection of poems was published before the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire and my first reaction to the title and front cover of this book was dismay at the untimely depiction of a black tower block with its illuminated windows. Kate Milner is a talented illustrator but the image (not of Grenfell Tower and created long before the tragedy) invoked painful emotions and more recent images. So I turned first of all to 'Binley House' (p.10), subject of the book's title. Seen through the Grenfell lens, this is a profoundly moving poem and is a tribute to the communities who inhabit tower blocks. After the intense sadness of the opening verse, the progress of the poem to hope and optimism is remarkable: TV aerials like dead branches, / satellite dishes like dead eyes, / rusted, but still they stared. / It was a zombie of a block. ... We fed the block our lives: / the good times, the bad times, / evenings spent with friends who lived / above, below and side by side. Coehlo captures the sounds ('cold whistle of the wind... the block's hiss', 'slam of distant doors'; sights ('bags of clothes from missed fathers'); smells ('smelling the bins') of life in a tower block but also the humanity, the reality: 'Gazing at stars from five storeys up, / smelling the bins from five storeys below. / Overheard arguments. / Overheard laughter. This is a poem about resilience and community and deserves many readings. Mirroring this empathy with the urban environment is 'City Kids' (p.76), an homage to children's alert awareness of their environment: 'Our city children / are its eyes and ears, / its tongue and nostrils, / closer to the ground, / breathing the city, / playing on the front line'. Kate Milner's illustration of children seeming to fly through an urban setting captures the mood of the poem perfectly. Her illustrations are subtle and apt: they reflect and complement Coehlo's words without overwhelming them; they leave imaginative space for the reader's own images. The collection is compelling. We read of family sadness in 'Disappearing Act' (p.54) about an absent father's missing things which the child voice in the poem has listed 'before they were gone for good': 'His shirts no longer trapezed on the line. / His flowers no longer popped up on the window sills. / His photo no longer lit up the wall.' 'A story of a fear' (p.8) is a rich and suggestive poem. Just eight lines long, it conjures up powerful images and ideas: 'A story of a fear / cloaked in a monster's scaly hide. A fable of feelings / bottled up inside. A parable of a princess / and the spell that she could weave A saga of a kingdom, / of a king who had to leave.' As well as standing in its own right, this could be an impetus for the children's own writing as they might devise an illustrated story for each of the scenarios offered. Coehlo uses artful and sparkling word play. Read 'The Duelling Duo' (p.34) which is ostensibly a vivid description of knights duelling but makes such clever use of double meanings and homophones: 'One would hit - one would miss / in the mind-dark night / with its coal-fist mist. / One blade rang on a helmet, / hand tight on a hilt-rung sword, / both proving their mettle / in this mourning morning.' I would never use a poem primarily for spelling purposes but, once read and enjoyed with a class, there is so much here to engage children's interest in words, sounds and word play. Every poem in this anthology gives the reader pause for thought: whether it's an idea to contemplate; an image that lingers or word play that delights, Coelho's touch is totally assured. His voice concludes this review, taken from the wonderful poem 'Books have helped me' (p.55): 'When I thumb through a book Their pages whisper to me That I'll be all right.' 112 pages / Ages 9+ / Reviewed by Alison Kelly, teaching consultant.
Suggested Reading Age 9+