December 22, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingShort Takes/Mixed Tape

Children’s Poetry: Four Short Takes

With just a few days until America’s bookstores close their doors and count their pennies, I thought it best to condense my final recommendations for children’s poetry. Here are four more books for your junior reader, reviewed in brief.

 

The Pig in the Spigot (2000). Written by Richard Wilbur. Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. Harcourt, 56 pp. $16.00; $9.00 (paper).

Richard Wilbur, who will turn 95 this March, has been writing marvelous poems for close to 60 years. He is a formalist, a wit, and a weaver of elegant conceits. His children’s poems are a pleasant little affair, an attempt—one suspects—to find an outlet for an imagination that needs frequent release. In The Pig in the Spigot, Wilbur goes word hunting, sniffing like a truffle pig through a forest of linguistic delights. He’s looking for small words within large ones and the means to explain their nesting. The poems are playful and absurd, if a little old-fashioned:

Because he swings so neatly through the trees,
An ape feels natural in the word trapeze.

This is among the simplest of Wilbur’s offerings, the hidden word requiring very few rhetorical gymnastics. Other hidden gems compel him to twist and flex. Why, for instance, is there an emu in demure? Some TNT in mustn’t? An ox in phlox? There is a moment, even, when Wilbur questions our commitment to his project and rebuffs with a grandpa-like swat: “No doubt the explanation I have made / Strikes you as forced, and of no use whatever. / Make up your own, then, if you’re so darn clever.” There is no other poet I’d rather have put me in my place than Richard Wilbur.

 

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988). Written by Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. Harper, 46 pp. $5.99 (paper).

My brother is a bird-watcher, naturalist, and seasonal employee for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He spent a summer on an uninhabited island in the Aleutians. He tracked wolverines through the Rockies and eagles across Arizona. When he returned to Oregon last fall, he and his new fiancé brought with them this book, reading the following lines to my son:

Your moment              Mayfly month
Your hour                    Mayfly year
Your trifling day           Our life

We’re mayflies        We’re mayflies

The pleasure of Joyful Noise is a simple one: all the poems are meant to be read aloud by two people who collectively personify one or another insect. (Besides “Mayflies,” there are “Book Lice,” “Cicadas,” “Fireflies,” and more.) One voice reads the left side, one the right, and together they read any lines that—as a helpful note explains—are printed “at the same horizontal level.” (This is hard to reproduce with WordPress, and the excerpt above reprints all the lines at the same level, when only the last one should be.) The result is a stereophonic survey of the world’s tiniest creatures. A moth serenades a porch light; a water bug paddles to the cry of his coxswain. This is all a welcome throwback to an era—before tablets, televisions, or even radios—when Americans read poetry to each other in the evening. It was in this way, for instance, that 19th century readers memorized long stretches of Longfellow. These poems have none of his rhythms, but they do share his belief in poetry as a communal art.

 

Battle Bunny (2013). By Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Matthew Myers. Simon & Shuster, 32 pp. $14.99; $9.99 (paper).

We do not traditionally go to the children’s shelves for the avant-garde. This may be because children have that market cornered. My son speaks two languages, and yet he refuses the hegemony of the interrogative when asked about his day. His responses are closer to Khlebnikov’s sound poetry or aleatory musing than traditional syntax. He interrupts, excises, and experiments all day. And thus the pleasure of Battle Bunny, a book that is technically in prose:

Birthday(attle) Bunny made his favorite breakfast: carrot(brain) juice and a bowl of Carrot Crispies(greasy guts). “My birthday is the most special day of the year because I get super birthday presents from(owers over) all my friends(enemies.) I wonder who will be the first to give me a present?(try and stop me?)

This is my attempt to reproduce the very clever work that Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett do in Battle Bunny. The book is an erasure of sorts, performed by its “co-author,” a fictional boy named Alex, who has taken pencil and puerility to a book he no longer loves: Birthday Bunny. The month of May becomes “(The world) May (end soon).” The countdown of editions on the copyright page (“10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1”) ends with “blast off!” Birthday Bunny gets an eye patch and a saw. This is a book, in short, for a slightly older child, or for any adult who wants to take a magic marker to a piece of children’s literature that he or she can’t stand to read one more time.

 

Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (2014). Written by J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian. Illustrated by Jeremy Holmes. Schwartz & Wade Books, 40 pp. $17.99

Poem-mobiles takes that quintessentially American object, the car, and puts it through the imaginative paces. Each poem describes a new and newly impossible vehicle: the “Grass Taxi,” “The Banana Split Car,” “Jurassic Park(ing)” or “The Supersonic Ionic Car.” The pun is the preferred trope; the whimsical is the preferred mood. Here is the “Eel-ectric Car” in full:

By day I curve around the pier,
at night I swerve…
Bring scuba gear!
Hang on until you get the feel
of my eel-ectric steering wheel.
My spark plugs spark—
now watch me peel!
I’m a battery-powered
a u t o m o b EEEEEEEEEEL!

The poems here revel in rhyme and all—save one—drop into that wonderfully lulling iambic rhythm. (The exception, a rewrite of “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” tells us how a new shoe-dwelling lady “wins every footrace, / then honks her shoehorn.”) The effect, taken in whole, is continually surprising, and since each car can read individually, children and parents can skip around as they wish. My son took no interest in “The Love Car” (typical), but couldn’t get enough of the final pun in “Balloon Car,” an eight-liner about a dad who floats in a bucket strung up with balloons. He keeps going “an inch above the street” until his kid calls to him, “Hey, POP!”