November 20, 2015

Fantasy Picture Books that are Poetry

        There’s a genre of fantasy poetry that’s often overlooked, which is picture books written in verse.  Admittedly, much of the poetry isn’t very good poetry from a scholarly perspective.  It’s usually doggerel, and almost always a simple AA BB rhyme pattern.  It’s all too common to find filler words or other dilutions of power in order to force the words into the rhythm or rhyme scheme, and sometimes the rhythm is a bit sketchy anyway.  These picture book poems seldom pierce the heart with their clarity or insight, their way of distilling the essence of a moment in life.  Still, let’s think about what, at its most basic, a poem is called upon to do: to catch in our minds, to paint pictures and draw emotions, to make us happy or satisfy us with its Rightness.  I suspect that, despite their limitations of poetic style,  for their intended audiences many of the best verse-form picture books do just that.  Finally, for children there’s the added benefit that poetry builds verbal skills in a special way and encourages the focus on language elements and the playing with language that are essential for true literacy.  So this month I’ve collected a handful of fantasy picture books written in rhyme.

The Duchess Bakes a Cake written and illustrated by Virginia Kahl - This is one from my childhood.  With its line illustrations that are printed with only three colors (black, red, and green) this one might not seem very prepossessing to today’s children.  The fact is, though, that I’ve remembered it fondly all this time, so it must have something!  The Duchess tries to make “a lovely light luscious delectable cake,” adds far too much leavening, and rises, atop the dough, up up and away into the sky, out of reach of her family.  It’s a silly story with silly details (some of them appropriately medieval), and a pleasingly rollicking rhythm.  

The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg written and illustrated by Bill Peet - One of my favorites from my childhood, a dove hatches a large egg which turns out to contain a baby griffin.  With that time-honored theme of so many children’s stories, the other birds are suspicious of the strange beast, until he saves the day and changes everyone’s minds.  The animals in Peet’s illustrations always have lots of wonderful expressions that are immediately recognizable and understandable to children, and his verse, with relatively long lines and varied vocabulary, manages not to sound babyish.  Peet has written some other books in verse, too.

Horton Hears a Who! written and illustrated by Dr Seuss - Another one from my childhood, of course, but unlike some older books, Dr Seuss never goes out of style.  With its classic moral “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton the elephant protects the dust-speck sized world of the Whos from gratuitously nasty jungle creatures, and it’s only when every single last Who, no matter how small, does his part that they are able to save their world.  No, it isn’t ecologically accurate that elephants and kangaroos live in the same jungle, nor does it really make sense that Horton goes through all the trouble to find the Who dust speck when it presumably would have been perfectly safe left in the huge field of clover, but we don’t care.  Everyone loves Horton and the Whos anyway, with Seuss’s classic style that uses words appropriate to early readers, but manages to stretch them, with the addition of a few pleasing nonsense-words of his own, miraculously far.

Dr Seuss of course has many many fantastical books in verse, which I’d place into two categories: those which tell stories with a full plot, including Horton, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Lorax, The Sneeches, and many others, and those which simply embroider imaginatively on a theme, including And To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, and Scrambled Eggs Super.  One of my favorites in this latter category is

If I Ran the Circus written and illustrated by Dr Seuss - Like Seuss’s other books in this style, this one simply describes a wide variety of imaginary places, actions, and creatures.  What makes me especially fond of this one is the character of mild-mannered Sneelock, who becomes the unwitting hero in so many of the circus’s most outrageous acts, all without blinking an eye or losing his un-PC but contemplative ever-smoking pipe.

A Gold Star for Zog written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler - A new take on the classic dragon, princess, knight relationship, Zog is learning how to be a proper dragon, with a little help from a girl who turns out to be a princess.  There are repeated refrains in the poetry, which children generally find very satisfying.  The Donaldson/Scheffler team has created many rhyming books with fantasyish themes, including Superworm, Charlie Cook’s Favorite Book, and their most famous The Gruffalo.

Mrs. Biddlebox written by Linda Smith and illustrated by Marla Frazee - A grumpy witch decides to bake the day.  In some ways this book is the most sophisticated poetry with its series of really interesting similes and images: she twirls up the fog like spaghetti, unravels the sun by pulling on a ray, and rolls up the sky like a carpet.  Unlike many of the other books featured today, there’s no moral or message.  She makes the day into a cake, eats it, and goes to bed.  That’s it.  It could spark some fun creative discussions - especially to head off grumpiness on tiresome days! - for children and parents to brainstorm together how they might deal with a bad day, or celebrate a good one.

        Finally, here are a few other books I came across in my search, that I don’t have room to go on about in greater detail.
The Magic Hat by Mem Fox
Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy
If I Built a Car by Chris van Dusen
I’m sure there are many, many more, and I’m sure I’m missing some real treasures, but as I don’t know of a way to search the library catalogue for fantasy and verse in picture books, these were just a sampling of those that I’ve come across.

[Pictures: Then by holding his long lion tail in her beak,
Myrtle supported the last half of Zeke
And the griffin went gliding along on the breeze
While the dove gently steered him around through the trees.
                illustration by Bill Peet from The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg, 1963;
And now Here! In this cage
Is a beast most ferocious
Who’s known far and wide
As the spotted atrocious…
But the great Colonel Sneelock is just the right kind
Of a man who can tame him.  I’m sure he won’t mind.
                illustration by Dr Seuss from If I Ran the Circus, 1956;
When the fog gave her the whiffles,
She held her broomstick steady,
Stabbed the dreary lot of it,
And twirled it like spaghetti!
                illustration by Marla Frazee from Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, 2002.]

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