Ana Sampson: Songs of Scuttling and Slime – in Praise of Creepie Crawlies

Silly though it is, I am not a fan of insects – despite their tasteful ‘mini-beast’ rebrand. I was once so rattled by a sizeable spider that my husband told me that because spiders were ‘territorial’ there couldn’t possibly be another lurking. (As well as being cowardly, I am gullible, and blithely repeated this to people for years before someone pointed out what utter nonsense it was.)

My daughter meeting a giant millipede.

I have children now and I don’t want to bequeath them my fear. I managed not to shriek while capturing a mammoth spider under a pint glass. I took my youngest to meet various horrifying creatures including a giant millipede and managed to only back away two paces as it wound around her fingers, saying through gritted teeth, “Oh, isn’t he handsome?” (It took a herculean effort, though. So many legs!)

I’m never going to be delighted to cuddle a cockroach or tickle a tarantula, but poems and books have helped me be chill around crickets and easy around earwigs. The greatest gift you can give a spider-phobic child is surely a copy of E B White’s Charlotte’s Web and here is one of my favourite poems about creepy crawlies to share.

A Snail’s Advice to His Son

After Gervase Phinn

Always keep your shell clean, son.

It shows the world you care.

Hold your antennae straight and proud

and pointing in the air.

Trail your slime in crisp, clean lines

in parallel to walls,

stick to grass where dogs are banned

(and games involving balls).

If you must steal mankind’s veg

wait till they’re not around.

Steer well clear of allotments (‘least

until the sun’s gone done).

Although you may not have one, son,

be sure to chance your arm.

Confronted by a gang of slugs,

let your response be calm.

Keep your head in times of stress

(inside your shell, if poss).

When I am gone, just carry on.

Smile, despite your loss.

Keep that sense of patience,

never let your stride be rushed;

and don’t take life too seriously, son,

for few survive uncrushed.

Jamie McGarry (From The Dead Snail Diaries, The Emma Press)

Poetry can help us look at the world in new ways, and here it gives us the point of view of a young snail, lovingly advised by his wise father. Ascribing relatable emotions to a creepy crawly can really help a child (or a grown-up!) to become less afraid of a creature. While reading the poem we are firmly on the snail’s side, seeing through its eyes. And of course, on a more serious note, this is part of the enormous power of poetry: it can build empathy and understanding and help us see different points of view. I can think of few things our world needs more.

Here’s a final reminder to the scaredy cats, myself among them, that the less cute denizens of the animal kingdom need our protection too (even if the phrase ‘beetle fat’ gives me the heebie jeebies…)

Hurt No Living Thing

Hurt no living thing,

Ladybird nor butterfly,

Nor moth with dusty wing,

Nor cricket chirping cheerily,

Nor grasshopper, so light of leap,

Nor dancing gnat,

Nor beetle fat,

Nor harmless worms that creep.

Christina Rossetti

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the editor of eleven poetry anthologies for children and adults. These poems appear in Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, which is out now in hardback and published in paperback on 30th March 2023.

Ana Sampson: Season’s Readings

Each year, at the start of March, a snatch of poetry runs through my head:

March, black ram,

Comes in like a lion,

Goes out like a lamb.

It appeared in a book which gathered stories, rhymes and snippets of seasonal lore about winter that I pored over annually as a child. I can’t find any reference to this version of the proverb now, so I suppose the ram of Aries was added purely to give the sentiment a rhyme and rhythm. It demonstrates the sticking power of poetry, though: the music of those lines caught in my mind forever.

I had a bookish, indoors childhood, despite my parents’ best efforts to exhort me out into the fresh air. A lot of the feelings I amassed about the natural world came from books and poems. It’s no substitute for the real thing, which utterly delights me now as I chivvy my own reluctant children – sorry, kids! – into the cold to exclaim over catkins, but it did build a store of natural knowledge. And for children who don’t have easy access to nature, it can be particularly valuable.

It turns out I (and now, my daughters) can identify a dog violet, thanks to Flower Fairies of the Spring. April cannot dawn without Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ coming to mind. I will always be unsettled by frog spawn, thanks to Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’. And every year, when my children complain about bright summer bedtimes, I find myself quoting Robert Louis Stevenson:

In winter I get up at night 
And dress by yellow candle-light.  
In summer, quite the other way, 
I have to go to bed by day.  

Again: sorry, kids.

Later in the year, Rachel Field’s autumnal ‘sagging orchards’ in ‘Something Told the Wild Geese’ come to mind, chased by Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Winter’: ‘once a snowflake fell / on my brow’ and Robert Frost’s traveller in snowy woods with ‘miles to go before I sleep’. Wordsworth, in ‘The Prelude’, captured the exhilaration of whirling about on ice-skates. It feels convincing even to me as a clumsy person, whose few attempts at skating (on suburban rinks resounding with Radio 1) resulted in falls eliciting audible gasps from onlookers and spectacular bruising.

It rarely snowed where I grew up. I was never ambushed by a rabble of farting frogs. I couldn’t see pedestrians’ feet from my bedroom. But poetry has helped me make imaginative leaps: in the treasure house of my mind, I’ve thrilled to a chaffinch in the April orchard, and sailed across frozen lakes under a wintry sky. These experiences were not ‘real’, but they live in me nonetheless and foster a sense of connection to the natural world. The reading can inspire the doing, too, and encourage children to seek experiences in the great outdoors.

The success of Allie Esiri’s seasonal anthologies – A Poem for Every Spring Day, and so on, and the beautiful anthologies edited by Fiona Walters – I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree and Tiger Tiger Burning Bright – show that I’m not alone in valuing poetry as a way in to nature for young readers. Gathering material for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I hoped the poems could inspire young champions for our planet and its wildlife, just as the museum’s collections aim to do. In a world where we’re ever more disconnected from natural rhythms, I do believe books and poetry can help to plug us back in.

Ana Sampson

Ana has edited poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book. You can sign up for her newsletter at Newsletter Sign-up — Ana Sampson.

Ana Sampson: Poetic Perspectives on our Planet

Poetic perspectives on our planet

One of the great pleasures of poetry is that the poets’ dazzling feats of imagination can whisk the reader under the sea, to another planet or to view the world from another perspective in the space of just a few lines. When I was choosing poems for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I looked for verses that would help me see the natural world in a new way, as many of the museum’s amazing exhibits do. I hoped this shift in viewpoint would encourage children to connect more deeply with the natural world, and encourage a passion for protecting it.

The narrator of a poem can be anyone – or anything: a child, an astronaut, Charles Darwin’s wife, a duck, a dinosaur, a dodo. Children are used to suspending disbelief for the space of a poem, since we have all gorged on a diet of talking animals and magical happenings, often in rhyme since our earliest days being read to. A poem is a portal the poet asks us to walk through, and on the other side, nothing looks quite the same.

One of the poems I’m most looking forward to sharing with young readers is Gita Ralleigh’s ‘Solar System Candy’.

If I ate the solar system,

the moon would taste

strange and dusty

as Turkish Delight.

Planets would be

giant gobstoppers,

except Saturn and Jupiter –

those gas giants

fizz like sherbert,

or melt like candy floss

in your mouth.

The meteor belt

pops and crackles

like space dust.

Comets leave a minty sting

on your tongue.

Black holes taste of cola bottles.

Or memories

you once had

and lost.

Gita’s poem is full of sensory delights that help readers of all ages to see these distant astral bodies with fresh eyes as they recall familiar tastes and sensations. I had never managed to remember which planets were made of gas, but now they taste like candy floss on my tongue, I’ll never forget! The image of Turkish Delight is perfectly chosen, reminding us of the fact that the moon’s surface is dusty enough for us to leave boot prints in it if we could walk around on it.

John Clare’s poem ‘The Ants’ starts with a human-sized perspective. We see the ants’ procession from our usual lofty height. But with the suggestion of a whispered language among the workers, suddenly the reader is urged to swoop down to eavesdrop, and to imagine the customs and commands that govern the intricately-ordered community.

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views

The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,

Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:

Pausing, annoy’d, – we know not what we see,

Such government and thought there seem to be;

Some looking on, and urging some to toil,

Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:

And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil

One ant or two to carry, quickly then

A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.

Surely they speak a language whisperingly,

Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways

Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be

Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

Some of the poems explicitly ask the reader to think themselves into the mind of a seal, or a tree, or a lizard. It’s a wonderful way to ignite children’s imaginations: who hasn’t wondered where the cat goes at night, or what an elephant might dream about? Geoffrey Dearmer’s poem ‘Whale’ – with its lovely lulling ‘rise and sink and rise and sink’ putting the reader right there in the waves – is a great example.

Wouldn’t you like to be a whale

And sail serenely by—

An eighty-foot whale from your tip to your tail

And a tiny, briny eye?

Wouldn’t you like to wallow

Where nobody says ‘Come out!’?

Wouldn’t you love to swallow

And blow all the brine about?

Wouldn’t you like to be always clean

But never have to wash, I mean,

And wouldn’t you love to spout—

O yes, just think—

A feather of spray as you sail away,

And rise and sink and rise and sink,

And blow all the brine about?

Asking children to fire up their imaginations by reading – and writing – their way into fresh ways of seeing the natural world can foster a connection with the wonders of our planet. Hopefully, it will also inspire the next generation develop a lifelong interest in protecting it.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson has edited eleven poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book and She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women. She knows much less about dinosaurs than her children.

Ana Sampson: Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children

Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children

By the time we leave school, some of us have been rather put off poetry. Actually – confession time, now – I was. Picking it apart and poring over the meanings throughout my education had sucked some of the simple joy out of poetry. I became paralysed by the thought that I must understand every element, rather than just enjoying it – I had to learn to love poetry again.

Primary school children, however, don’t have any of those associations. The earliest things we hear and learn are usually songs and nursery rhymes: from the sun putting his hat on to the little piggies of our toes. We often read rhyming books with our children: my five year old is word perfect on everything from There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to Room on the Broom, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker! Children are at home in rhyme and verse before they learn to talk, so they don’t have any of the associations some adults have of poetry being intimidating, or difficult.

So, my advice on sharing poetry with young children is just to get started! I love Lewis Carroll’s inventive and whimsical poems. Even though today’s children won’t be familiar with the Victorian rhymes many of them parody (though they might enjoy Mary Howitt’s ‘The Spider and the Fly’, which is one of them) the nonsense and fun of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ will tickle them. Edward Lear’s poems are wonderful too. Ask them to draw a Jaberwocky, the Jumblies in their sea-faring sieve or the Pobble who has no toes, and watch their imaginations soar. There are lots of great modern collections of poetry aimed at children that continue this imaginative tradition.

Reading poems aloud, in as dramatic and over the top a way as possible, is a brilliant way to bring them to life to children. My daughter loves A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ with its rapid, building rhythm and repetition of ‘James James Morrison Morrison William George Dupree’. If you feel they’ll respond well to a touch of goriness, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children will appeal – try Jim, who was eaten by a lion.

Researching She Is Fierce I came across some wonderful, lesser known poems by women that even young children will – I hope – enjoy as much as I did. Liz Lochhead’s ‘A Glasgow Nonsense Rhyme for Molly’, and Katherine Mansfield’s playful ‘When I Was A Bird’ are bound to delight younger readers. For slightly older children, the chatty, encouraging tone of ‘God Says Yes to Me’ by Kaylin Haught will appeal. Jan Dean’s ‘Three Good Things’ could inspire a discussion about the three best things to choose from their day. Jean Little’s ‘Today’ – like the poems in Allan Ahlberg’s much-loved Please Mrs Butler – speaks directly to the experience of school-children, and they will be delighted to find themselves reflected there – and with the poem’s rebelliousness!

You’re never too young for poetry and I’d love to hear what poems young readers (and listeners) enjoy! You can tweet me and let me know their favourites at @Anabooks.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the author of many bestselling anthologies including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Other Poems You Half-Remember from School, Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much Loved Poems you Half-Remember, Poems to Learn by Heart, Green and Pleasant Land: Best-Loved Poems of the British Countryside and Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse. Ana grew up in Kent and studied English Literature at the University of Sheffield. After achieving both a BA and an MA, she began a career in publishing PR and has appeared multiple times on radio and television discussing books and poetry. Ana lives in Surrey with her husband, two daughters and two demanding cats. She is Fierce was her first poetry collection for Macmillan.