July 8, 2011 @ 4:45 pm | Filed under: Poetry
The bat-poet remembers his earliest days:
…And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting—
Her baby hangs on underneath.
All night, in happiness, she hunts and flies.
Her high sharp cries
Like shining needlepoints of sound
Go out into the night and, echoing back,
Tell her what they have touched.
She hears how far it is, how big it is,
Which way it’s going:
She lives by hearing.
More Poetry Friday posts: Wild Rose Reader
More Bat-Poet moments
Rose petal, rock, leaf, bat
Her bat mood
A book of letters I ought to have included in my ode to epistles and epistolaries the other day: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Miss Nordstrom, the pioneering editor behind Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was something of a genius herself. The list of children’s classics she was responsible for publishing is staggeringly long and awesome: Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Danny and the Dinosaur, Where the Sidewalk ends, Harold and the Purple Crayon, oh and a little thing called Charlotte’s Web—to name a very few.
Dear Genius is a collection of letters she wrote to authors, illustrators, reviewers, even parents and children who had written with responses to her books. She is unfailingly poised, charming, and insightful, even when responding to criticism. And her voice, oh her wonderful voice! Her letters are simply crammed with personality—she is wry, teasing, incisive, direct, and altogether brilliant.
Her editorial letters provide a fascinating look at the history of children’s publishing in America, both on the grand scale of publishing trends and literary vision, and on the micro scale of word choices for a single line of a specific book. For instance, in a 1957 letter to Syd Hoff about Danny and the Dinosaur, an early “I Can Read” book for beginning readers:
I think you should just say “One day Danny went to the museum.” (He didn’t actually want to “see how the world looked a long, long time ago,” as you put it, do you think? Very unchildlike. He might have wanted to go to see the dead mummies, or other specific things in a museum, but I wouldn’t mention that here because you mention it on following pages. So just have a simple statement on this first page. “One day Danny went to the museum.”) It is pretty short and if you can think of one more short sentence for this page by all means add it. I can’t come up with any suggestion myself. Page 8: You’ll have to simplify what he saw on this page. NOT THAT I WANT YOU TO GET SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT “I CAN READ.” I told you I wanted you to let me worry about that aspect and that’s all I’m doing now. You could just say “He saw Indians. He saw bears. He saw…” I haven’t been in a museum in 150 years and can’t think of anything else, but you can.
Or, in September 1963:
Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we’re so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for “another beautiful” job—or some such dopiness. Now you’re rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just want you wanted it to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.
Or, from a reply to a reader of Little House on the Prairie in 1952:
Your letter to Mrs. Wilder…came several weeks ago. We took the liberty of opening it as we do many of the letters that are addressed to Mrs. Wilder…[she] is now in her late eighties and we try to handle much of her correspondence here.
We were indeed disturbed by your letter. We knew that Mrs. Wilder had not meant to imply that Indians were not people and we did not want to distress her if we could possibly avoid it. I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did. Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written to us about them in the twenty years since the book was published. We were particularly disturbed because all of us here feel just as strongly as you apparently feel about such subjects, and we are proud that many of the books on the Harper list prove that. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that though such a statement could have passed unquestioned twenty years ago it would never have appeared in anything published in recent years.
Instead of forwarding your letter to Mrs. Wilder I wrote her about the passage and said that in reprinting we hoped that she would allow us to change it. I have just received her answer. She says: “You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.” We are changing the next printing to read “There were no settlers.”
Fascinating. I could quote from this book all day but you’re much better off scrounging up a copy yourself.
If I really had it together, I’d have pulled some of these books out last week in anticipation of the Supermoon. Truth is, I didn’t even think of these in connection with Saturday’s moon until, well, just now. I did think, sometime Sunday afternoon, Ooh, we should read Owl Moon to Rilla and Wonderboy, but I forgot about thinking that until just now.
What did happen is I was hunting for a package of address labels I thought I’d stashed on a shelf in Wonderboy’s room (which doubles as Scott’s office), and although I didn’t find the labels, I found half a dozen picture books I really love and don’t remember reading in the past year. I gave up my label hunt, addressed the darn package by hand, and snagged Rilla for a readaloud.
That accounts for the first two books in this post. The third one is a quiet marvel of a book and we met it for the first time the weekend before last, when my perfectly scrumptious wee goddaughter came for a visit.
This, along with its companion, Alphonse, Where Are You?, has enchanted each one of my children in turn. I actually kind of squealed when I found it yesterday because I hadn’t seen it in a while and I knew Rilla wouldn’t remember it and it’s such a delight to share it for another first time. Alphonse the goose is the friend and protector of Little Bird. They gaze at the great round moon together, and Alphonse remarks that it’s made of swiss cheese, and Little Bird would like to eat it but alas, it’s glued to the sky. Except—they round a bend and there’s the big swiss-cheese moon floating in the pond. All the geese crowd around, commencing a frenzy of splashing and diving, and though their efforts don’t capture the moon, they do dredge up a swiss cheese sandwich—and if it weren’t for Alphonse, Little Bird would be left without so much as a nibble. I love the gentle interplay between the big goose and the little one, and I wish I had a record of Rilla’s deep chuckle the first time she heard the words “moon sandwich.”
When Moon Fell Down by Linda Smith, illustrated by Kathryn Brown.
It’s funny how you connect books with the people who introduced them to you. Just as I always think of my friend Joan when I read one of the Alphonse and Little Bird books—I think she was the editor of them, and I know they were, like Brave Georgie Goat, gifts from her—my original Little House editor, the great Alix Reid, comes to mind every time I pick up When Moon Fell Down. “You’re going to love this one, Lissa,” she told me. “It’s one of my favorite books I ever worked on.”
fell upon a farmer’s lawn,
rolled about in sheer delight
on fields he’d only shined upon.”
Before long he encounters—who else?—a cow, and the two of them take off for a stroll through town. Moon has never seen the world from this vantage point before; until now, he “didn’t know a horse had knees.” There’s a lush, hushed, magical quality to this book—and thinking over past Rillabooks entries, I think that’s something I’m often drawn to in a picture book, partly because the magic holds my little ones rapt. This art is, well, luminous, and the combination of whimsy and wonder seems to appeal to the children just as much as it does to me.
I’m a big Kevin Henkes fan but somehow I’d missed this book until my pal Kristen pulled it out of her bag last weekend! It’s a great favorite of my little goddaughter, who is just eighteen months old, and Huck and Rilla swooped in upon it immediately. The black-and-white art is magnificent. Like Little Bird above, Kitten spies the big white moon and wants a taste. It looks, after all, just like a gigantic saucer of milk. Kitten climbs a tree, splashes in a pond, tries everything to get to that bowl, to no avail…We were almost as sad to say goodbye to Kitten as we were to Vivi and her parents. This is a book I might just have to add to our collection.
(Which is funny because as godmother, I consider it one of my responsibilities to help curate Vivi’s collection. But on this visit, it was Vivi who introduced us to two keepers. The other was Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, which I keep wanting to rave about here. I fell madly in love with that book. I mean like A Visitor for Bear level, The Maggie B. level, Christina Katerina level—that last is a particularly apt comparison, as you’ll see if you check it out. It’s the kind of deceptively simple artistry that really takes massive talent to pull off, and it speaks so exactly to a child’s sensibility. “What are you doing in that box?” asks the narrator. “It’s NOT a box!” replies the bunny, blasting off in its spaceship.)
(Here, I was going to save it for another post, but now that I’ve gushed about it this much I might as well show you the cover. Only you’ve all seen it already, I bet. I don’t know how I missed it. I mean, look, it’s got the Geisel honor medal! Where’ve I been?)
Now I’ve gone and blown my whole moon theme. This is what happens, though; one book leads to another. I suppose the common thread for all the books in this post is that they came to us by way of dear friends. We can pretend that’s what I was going for the whole time.
Oh but I was going to mention two other moon books we love but haven’t read in a while…I mentioned Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon at the top of this post, and When Moon Fell Down reminded me of The Moon Jumpers, a strange and lyrical little book by Janice May Udry, gorgeously illustrated by Maurice Sendak. I remember Rilla going through a Moon Jumpers attachment about six months ago, but I haven’t seen it in a while. This might be the week to pull it back off the shelf.
I don’t know who gave us those two books. I think I bought Owl Moon when I worked at a children’s bookstore, or if not I bought it because it was part of Before Five in a Row or something. The Moon Jumpers, I must have just picked up myself because I loved the art. I really am crazy about all that early Sendak work.
books I adore, books my five-year-old loves, books my three-year-old loves, Kevin Henkes, Kitten's First Full Moon, Linda Berkowitz, Linda Smith, Maurice Sendak, moon, Moon Jumpers, Not a Box, Owl Moon, Rillabooks, When Moon Fell Down