One of our recent read-alouds was Once on a Time by A.A. Milne, and I was especially pleased that P and T enjoyed it. Partly I was pleased because of course I always want our read-alouds to be enjoyable. But I was especially pleased because I had tried this book with them a number of years ago and found then that they were clearly not ready for it yet, not getting the humor - but this time they were laughing with me all the way. What wonderful evidence of progress and development!
Once on a Time has several short poems in it, and while, strictly speaking, the poems themselves include no overt fantasy, they are deeply entwined in the plot of this fairy tale, and two of the poems are themselves magical. I'll include them along with Milne's context.
"I adore poetry," said the King, who had himself written a rhymed couplet which could be said either forward or backward, and in the latter position was useful for removing enchantments. According to the eminent historian Roger Scurvilegs, it had some vogue in Euralia and went like this:
"Bo, boll, bill, bole.
Wo, woll, will, wole."
A pleasing idea, temperately expressed.
The second poetical excerpt I want to share is also supposed to be excellent for magical emergencies. It is in just such an emergency that Prince Udo recites it. Sort of.
"Now then, how did that bit of Sacharino's go?" [Udo] beat time with a paw. "'Blood for something, something, something. He who something, something, some…' Something like that. 'Blood for - er- blood for - er…' No, it's gone again. I know there was a bit of blood in it. [… ] I shall get it all right. Some of the words have escaped me for the moment, that's all. 'Blood - er - blood.' You must have heard of it, Princess: it's about blood for he who something; you must know the one I mean."
I mention Milne's book because of the excellent fantasy poetry, but also because of some of his comments regarding his book. He makes one of the clearest explanations I've seen of the way I feel about much of my own writing.
For whom, then, is the book intended? That is the trouble. Unless I can say, "For those, young or old, who like the things which I like," I find it difficult to answer. Is it a children's book? Well, what do we mean by that? … [There] are masterpieces which we read with pleasure as children, but with how much more pleasure when we are grown-up. … And is a book "suitable for a boy of twelve" any more likely to please a boy of twelve than a modern novel is likely to please a man of thirty-seven; even if the novel be described truly as "suitable for a man of thirty-seven"? I confess that I cannot grapple with these difficult problems. But I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first.
… But as you can see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; it can only fall into one of the two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won't.
It is that sort of book.
[Pictures: Countess Belvane writing, pen and ink by Susan Perl, 1962, from Once on a Time by A.A. Milne, 1971 edition.]
Quotations from A.A. Milne, Once on a Time, 1917, and from a preface for an edition published some time in the 1920s.