EDWARD LEAR King of Nonsense By Gloria Kamen Illustrated with drawings By Edward Lear and Gloria Kamen Atheneum. 74 pps. $12.95; ages 7-12
WHEN I was a child, I liked biographies (still do) and would have enjoyed this one about the man who wrote "The Owl and the Pussycat," a favorite poem of countless children for more than a hundred years. It's a bittersweet history, as so many seem to be that deal with famous children's writers, though there is no reason on earth to suppose that famous children's writers should have had lives that were all sweet with no bitter, they being mere mortals like the rest of us.
But Edward Lear, unlike some of his equally famous contemporaries, seems to have been quite content to be known as someone who could entertain children. "I like to think," he once wrote, "that if a man ain't able to do any great service to his fellow critters, it is better (than nothing) to make half a million children laugh innocently." Better than nothing? Better than a great many things, surely. But Beatrix Potter is quoted as having said she wrote to please herself, and Lewis Carroll's chagrin at being famous for his Alice books instead of his mathematical treatises is well documented. Lear, like Carroll, had another identity: He was a serious painter of landscapes and animals; but he seems mostly to have been cheerfully grateful for the great success of his nonsense verse.
This little book tells a story of struggle, but doesn't lean too hard on the down side of struggling. Lear was quite successful as a painter, and things generally went his way in spite of a troubled beginning. His affluent father ended up in debtor's prison and Lear himself, one of 21 children (many did not survive to adulthood), was raised by his much older sister Ann. At 15 he went out into the world to earn his own keep as an artist and fortune favored him from the beginning. He found all the right jobs at the right times and at 19 published a series of prints of parrots which were "considered as good as any by the best-known bird artists of his day, including . . . John James Audubon." By 25, there was a second collection including a few mammals that advanced his reputation still more.
It was at this time that he began writing his limericks and drawing his cartoons for the amusement of the children of a noble patron. Many of both are included in this volume, and I must say there is little suggestion in the cartoons of the skill he must have had at his command. These drawings are mostly loose and scratchy, though they do have great exuberance. But Kamen tells us that he dashed them off quickly, presumably while the children leaned in to watch. It would have been good to have one or two reproductions of his bird prints for comparison but of course color pictures would have pushed up the price of the book, no small consideration these days.
The limericks included here, and the favorite poems, are as silly and wonderful as ever. Lear didn't invent the limerick verse form, but it is his nonetheless. No one else has ever used it to such delightful effect.
The details of Lear's life are recounted by Kamen briskly and without pathos: his long years in Europe, his asthma and epilepsy, his voluminous letter-writing, his many friends and admirers, his favorite cat, Foss, his faithful servant, Giorgio, his wandering bachelor life -- right up to his death at the age of 76. It's a nice, manageable biography, suggested for ages 7-12, which seems just right. I woude have liked it then, just as I do now. Natalie Babbitt is both a writer and illustrator. Her books include "Tuck Everlasting" and "The Devil's Storybook," among many others.