CHILDREN of the Edwardian age were the last generation to grow up reading and enjoying much of the same poetry read and enjoyed by their parents. Even in my childhood, in the '40s, I could chuckle over the light verse in my father's Saturday Evening Post, while to represent the entirety of the art there was a single anthology of ageless (in both senses) standbys in the bookcase, The Best-Loved Poems of the American People. Nowadays, however, newspapers and magazines publish very little poetry, and none of it of interest to even the most curious child. So, for their initiation to any contemporary realms of gold, children are at the mercy, almost entirely, of the publishers and writers of verse crafted just for them.
The danger in this situation, for the children, is that they will be offered something so improving and sanitized that poetry will forever be redolent to them of Lysol. Lewis Carroll appreciated this fully, and his send- ups of the official childhood set-pieces of the Victorian age still have the subversive force of good jokes, even when the original chestnuts he was roasting have been forgotten. Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes seeks to appeal to the same hunger children have for parodies of their official culture, and many children will surely relish Dahl's basic ploy of recasting classic fairy tales in current slang (albeit British slang--American kids may need a glossary for "half a tick," "do a bunk," and "going round the twist"). It's not a new idea but not necessarily a bad one. However, Dahl's execution is spotty. Grading the six separate verse-tales with a factor for "works up to ability," Dahl scores from C-minus to, at best, a B. His doggerel couplets have a numbing one- and-two-and-now-we're-through monotony that has the bumpy effect, over long stretches, of riding an octagonal-wheeled bicycle.
The book's larger problem is that Dahl hasn't managed to come up with many new wrinkles to the six tales he's burlesquing. Cinderella, after seeing the Prince decapitate her two ugly sisters (Grimm disposes of them much more grimly), decides not to marry above her station and settles for a "simple jam-maker by trade, who sold good homemade marmalade." I know that Britain is going through a period of scaled-down expectations, but Dahl seems to have a prejudice against princes, for Snow White likewise ends up in a rather grubby m,enage Ma huit with the Seven Dwarfs.
Most children, however, who are young enough to crack up over the idea of, forgive the expression, underwear will readily overlook the book's thumping doggerel and lack of narrative fizz for the sake of its giggles--as when the trespassing Goldilocks is caught in the act of climbing into bed with her shoes on: Her filthy shoes were thick with grime, And mud and mush and slush and slime. Worse still, upon the heel of one Was something that a dog had done.
Roy Gerrard's The Favershams is in another class altogether, the classic class of Sendak's In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. Like these books, The Favershams amplifies a short, exquisitely well-considered text with watercolor illustrations of hypnotic fascination, rich in telling detail and uncanny in their expressive distortions. There are 15 full-page pictures and, facing them above the text, another 15 smaller ones, all in color and all worthy of framing. As a narrative sequence, recounting the exemplary, yet somehow otherworldly, lives of a Victorian officer and gentleman, Charles Augustas Faversham, V.C., and his wife Amelia Gwen, The Favershams conveys an almost novelistic sense of the beauty, strangeness, and grandeur of everyday life in the years from 1851 through 1914.
Like so many other English children's classics, The Favershams takes for granted and celebrates a comfortable suburban or country milieu of well-furnished rooms and luxuriant gardens, with occasional jaunts abroad. But seen through the mists of time and rendered by an artist as inspired as Roy Gerrard, such haut bourgeois appurtenances become the stuff of legend. There are fewer giggles in this book than in Dahl's, but I have no doubt at all that any child growing up with both would be haunted by Gerrard's images throughout his lifetime, while Quentin Blake's slapdash cartoons and the Revolting Rhymes they accompany are as forgettable as popcorn.
The Favershams has already won the Fiera di Bologna Graphic Prize for Children, and I'd lay odds it has other prizes in store.
Arnold Lobel's The Book of Pigericks is intended for younger audiences than Dahl's and Gerrard's books. These gently whimsical limericks about mostly amiable pigs, each with its own illustration, are suitable fare for children just graduating from nursery rhymes. They accomplish the essential purpose of poems meant for the very young--imprinting impressionable minds with clear metrical patterns (Lobel's scansion is correct without becoming mechanical) and, more important, with those more complex patterns of snytax enforced by the concision of the limerick form.
It's my theory that poetry's greatest service for the kindergarten set is to provide instruction in grammar beyond the rudimentary level of "Baby wants a cookie." For instance, all my life I've been haunted by the structure of the sentences in "A Visit from St. Nicholas," especially: As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle mount toothe sky, So up to the housetop the coursers they flew; With the sleigh full of toys--and St. Nicholas too.
While Lobel's grammar is never that knotty, it's several rungs up the ladder from "See Spot run," and parents concerned with laying a foundation of basic literacy will find Lobel's "pigericks" a serviceable sugar-coating for the ingestion of the pill "Language Skills."
My only exception (and it is a grown-up one) is that 26 of the 38 limericks follow Edward Lear's anticlimactic model, wherein the last rhyme of the limerick, instead of springing a joke, is identical to the first rhyme: There was a sick pig with a cold; Whose discomforts could not be controlled, For he sneezed into pieces His two favorite nieces, Which grieved that sick pig with a cold.
On its own, that is rather bland, but supported by the author's colored drawing, it forms an agreeable bedtime package of reading aloud and pictorial explication ("Yes, there are the sick pig's nieces, and there, in the next, what's become of them?"), blessedly short and not liable to produce nightmares.