See you later, lunar crater

Once upon a time, every boy and girl could recite poetry. Verse went out with T.S. Eliot, but now it's back and running rampant through children's literature. Polly Shulman reviews four new books.


Polly Shulman
January 12, 1998 6:44PM (UTC)

On the battlefield of children's literature clash pair upon pair of starkly
opposed forces: good and evil, chaos and order, vegetables and dessert,
poetry and prose. For some of these wars, the conclusion is forgone. Good
will always triumph over evil, at least in the books adults let kids read,
and (with a few unsavory exceptions) dessert generally wins the day. But
for some struggles, the victor is less obvious. Take poetry and prose. In
our great grandparents' day, every boy could recite "Paul Revere's Ride"
and every girl "The Highwayman." Then verse went into decline as T.S. Eliot
beat out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, until Dr. Seuss brought it back with a
bang. When publishers tired of Seuss wannabes, prose rose. Lately, however,
the tide has turned. Now rhyme and meter are once more running rampant
through the juvenile lit shelves.

More power to them, say I, and so will your 4-year-old. Rhyme and meter
are godsends for anyone learning to speak, read, sing or joke. They
transform the random sounds we rely on for communication into inevitable
music. They help us remember the lengths of months, the order of the
letters and the worst names to call our siblings. They probably make us
smarter, like listening to Mozart. And they're particularly effective at
leashing emotions and plots that threaten to break out of control. The only
catch is, they have to be handled with skill.

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"Stomp, Stomp! A Dino Romp," by Bob Kolar, shows the new wave of verse at its
best. Intended for very small people, the text is brief, with at most four
words per spread. Many of those words are onomatopoeias. "STOMP, STOMP!
Hee, hee. THUMP. WHUMP! Look at me!" begins the tale, as the young dinosaur
hero leaves home, kicking over lamps, slamming the door and giggling at
its handiwork. As the dino rampages across the savanna, scattering
animals, it's the biggest thing in sight. It dwarfs the hippo; even the
lion runs. Then -- "Stompity?" -- a shadow falls. Big Dino has arrived to claim
its straying offspring. Kolar perfectly captures one of toddlerhood's joys:
youthful passion comfortingly contained by adult authority, all in 36
rhyming words that don't miss a beat.

Nothing could be less fussy than this simple, exuberant book, yet a close
look shows Kolar's exacting attention to detail. With so few words to work
with, he makes every punctuation mark count. His sweet, visually effective
watercolor technique could have been chosen for its symbolism. He draws his
characters and scenery with fine outlines and colors precisely inside the
lines. But by wetting the paper he lets the paint bleed out, creating
energetic haloes around the characters that shade them and give them depth.
It's a perfect technique for illustrating a story about the boundaries
between the emotional self and the outside world.

Like "Stomp, Stomp!," Linnea Riley's "Mouse Mess" uses formalism -- collage
illustrations, a verse text -- to control its central anarchy. The murine
protagonist waits until the family whose house he shares has gone to bed,
then raids their kitchen, with results that will be familiar to anyone who
has lived with small creatures. The 4- to 7-year-olds who make up the
book's target audience may not notice how carefully composed this chaos is,
but the crumb-sweepers and spill-wipers reading it to them will. Riley cuts
her olives, apple cores, forks, corn flakes, mice, milk jugs, water and so
on out of paper that she has painted with sponges. The technique keeps
edges sharply defined and shadow free. The dripping, toppling still lifes
that result are oddly static.

Linnea's text is similarly simple and graphic: "Sniff-sniff, milk and
cheese. Mouse would like a taste of these," goes a typical spread. For the
most part, she sticks to trochaic tetrameter -- lines made up of four
two-syllable feet, with the stress on the first syllable of each foot. It's
the quintessential childhood meter, the rhythm of jump-rope songs and
witches' incantations (e.g., "Engine, engine, number nine," or "Double,
double, toil and trouble"). When Linnea varies the beat, she does so in
ways that don't confuse people trying to read out loud: It makes no trouble
for the reader that "Sniff-sniff" is a spondee, or double-stressed foot,
and omits the two unstressed syllables called for in the meter. Linnea may leave out the
occasional unstressed syllable, but she never makes a rhyme depend on one,
and she never forces you to rush over words that cry out for stress. It's a
relief to find such lovely order in a messy kitchen.

Dan Yaccarino's "Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! I'm off to the Moon!" varies its rhythms
quite a bit more than "Mouse Mess." But then, the story -- a little boy's
straightforward fantasy trip to the moon and back -- has much less emotional
chaos to contain. Yaccarino's paintings evoke the thrusting rockets,
unearthly angles and sudden changes in acceleration that make being thrown
in the air such a hoot to the book's 2-to-6-year-old intended audience.
The hero looks like a stylized Tintin, his blond, cowlick-topped head as
round as the fishbowl helmet of his space suit. Each page yields a punchy
epigram, like "There's outer space all over the place," or "Moon rocks in a
box." Occasional imperfect rhymes, such as the one in the title, may
irritate purists. Still, you've got to love a book with the line "See you
later, lunar crater."

Of course, most 6-year-olds and their readaloudtoers don't know from
tetrameter, spondees and so on, so you might think they wouldn't be irked
by the misuse of such things. Poetry, however, resembles a certain hirsute
young person in that when it's good, it's well worth the admission price,
but when it's bad it's awful. Even if your child doesn't find the bad stuff irksome, you sure will on the 20th reading. And
there's a whole diaperload of the bad stuff out there.

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Take Bill Maynard's "Incredible Ned." (Please!) The protagonist, poor thing,
has the soul of an artist, which manifests itself by making every noun he
pronounces appear over his head, to the amazement of his friends and the
annoyance of his teachers. (At least, that's what the text tells us; for
some reason Frank Remkiewicz's pictures show the objects beside Ned, behind
him, around him -- everywhere but over his head.) Maynard unfolds Ned's story
in anapestic tetrameter -- that's the ba-da-DUM, ba-da-DUM, ba-da-DUM,
ba-da-DUM rhythm for which Dr. Seuss is so justly renowned. To make
Maynard's book work, though, you kind of have to cram some things in and
stretch some things out. For example, try reading aloud the sentence "No
wonder the children didn't get their books read." You said, "No WONder the
CHILdren DIDn't get their BOOKS read," right? To fit Maynard's scheme, you
should have mumbled, "No WONder the CHILdren dint GET their books READ,"
swallowing an entire syllable in "didn't" and shoving a powerful, important
noun -- "books" -- furtively under your breath. The whole book is like that.

Of course, cramming some things in and stretching some things out plays an
honorable part in the history of American anapestic tetrameter. "Listen,
my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere"
even begins with a dactyl (DUM-da-da) and sticks in a run of iambs (ba-DUM) for the galloping reader to clatter over
in haste. But Longfellow knew what he was doing, and it works. Furthermore,
Maynard stoops to the most obvious rhymes: "giraffe" and "laugh," "school" and "fool." For every
Kolar or Riley, there are dozens of limping Maynards, so read aloud before
you buy.

(The little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead,
by the way, is not the denizen of some anonymous nursery rhyme, as pretty
much everyone thinks. She's a braindaughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
See -- even you know one of his poems by heart. Wouldn't Great Grandpa be
proud?)


Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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