Sunday 3 June 2012

'Animal Magic' by Liz Brownlee reviewed by Elen Caldecott

I am not a regular contributor to the reviews section, but when I read this book I wanted to shove it in the hands of complete strangers; so I could hardly let the chance to shove it in front of ABBA readers slip by!
I have known about Liz's work for a while as she studied alongside me on our MA, and her work has appeared in many anthologies and magazines (and on the walls of Bristol Zoo!). This is her first book of collected poems.

And what a thing of beauty it is.

The cover illustration by Rose Sanderson is of two red-crowned cranes dancing. It is elegant and graceful, as this collection is. To give it its full title Animal Magic: Poems on a disappearing world, it is both a collection of poetry and a work of non-fiction.

The structure of the collection is brilliant: each animal is given a double spread; on the left spread there is the animal's scientific name and an illuminating non-fiction entry which includes lifestyle facts, range and threats to its survival; on the right hand side are Liz's precise, delightful poems. Many animals are also illustrated (again by Rose Sanderson). Incidentally, Liz acknowledges the help of a huge array of species experts in her references - no wikipedia research here!

The best way for me to convey how wonderfully this structure works, is to show you.

The first spread (above) introduces Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii, Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. We're told that many young orangutans suffer bone fractures as they learn to climb. They can grow to between 50-90kg and spend most of their life up in trees. They are critically endangered as 80% of their habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years. Then, we have an illustration and a poem:

'A heavy bulk and tum like mine,
in shades of hairy clementine,
means when I'm up my forest tree,
I live my whole life - gingerly!'

The facts and poem dovetail pleasingly; but more than this there is the painful, factual set-up and then the glorious celebration. Throughout this collection, it is the celebration that matters: these animals are endangered, but they are still here, they still exist and they should be marvelled over. And protected.
Rose Sanderson's accompanying illustrations are charming, without being sickly sweet.

The poems themselves have a clean simplicity and conversational tone, while still being able to surprise. Many of them are funny, but others are very moving. Snow leopard, for example, catches a frozen moment in time that may not be with us much longer.

The design of this book may put off younger readers. As noted, it is very elegant and not the usual bold primary colours used for children's poetry. This design makes it more likely that the collection will find crossover appeal (which it deserves), but you might have to start a younger reader off by reading some of it aloud with them.

Have I shoved it into your hand enough? I do hope so. It's a wonderful collection and it deserves to find a keen audience.

Animal Magic by Liz Brownlee is published by Iron Press. ISBN: 9780956572530, RRP £10

Elen Caldecott's latest book isThe Mystery of Wickworth Manor published by Bloomsbury 5th July 2012



Julia Green said...

I absolutely agree - this is an exquisite collection, beautifully crafted, clever and funny and touching, for readers of all ages. I recommend it highly.

Rosalie Warren said...

I agree too. A wonderful book.

Penny Dolan said...

Like the sound of that "fact with poem" double page spread and feel very pleased to see a poetry book here, especially one as intriguing as this.

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds wonderful. One for my son and grandson, I think. Thanks, Elen.

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