May 13, 2017

Pets and Poetry: A Perfect Partnership in Picture Books!

April, already several weeks in the rearview-mirror as I write this, is POETRY MONTH, and yet poetry picture books are priceless all year long. If you're new to this blog, here's a link to my deeply held belief that "THEME MONTHS" are a double-edged sword, whether in classrooms, libraries, or home. May happens to be National Pet Month, though, and I simply can't ignore it. Cartoonist Patrick McDonnell (MUTTS) uses his characters to advocation for animal rescues/adoptions, and you can see that he walks the walk, here.

Scholastic, 1997
Since I launched a personal campaign to shine my spotlight, limited as it may be, on poetry picture books throughout the year, this is a perfect opportunity to rave about a favorite of mine, WEIRD PET POEMS, compiled by Dilys Evans and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers.

This is a testament to the timelessness of picture books, and, most especially, of poetry. Dilys Evans is a noted artist and poet, and she contributed her editorial skills to draw poetry from as long ago as 1930 through to contemporary publications. She contributed the launching poem and combined her selections in a story-in-poems that reveals energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, humor, and imagination.


Hooray! Hooray!
I'm eight today and now I have my own pet!

It can't be too hairy. It can't be too tall.
It can't be too scary. It can't be too small.

Mom doesn't like snakes. She doesn't like frogs.
Or anything else that lives near a bog.

So it cannot be slimy and must not drool.
What does mom make me for, an absolute fool?

My pet will be perfect in every way.
It will love me to pieces, and want me to play.

I'm not sure what it is yet, Mom says that's just fine.
But as soon as I see it, I'll know that it's mine.

Okay, let's get started. I know where to look.
So turn the next page... we'll look in this book!

Thus begins a search for the perfect pet, transported by poets including Lee Bennet Hopkins, Marilyn Singer, Karla Kuskin, and Shiki, among many other notables. The birthday boy searches, always accompanied by his little sister (sometimes only visible via her topknot). The candidates range from bulldogs to turtles, porcupines to pterodactyls, dozes to yaks, and beyond. The concluding haiku is by none other than ISSA:


Under the willow
With a leaf stuck in his mouth
The puppy sleeps.

A poem by the most noted poet of all time, ANONYMOUS, opens and closes the book:


Alligator, hedgehog, anteater bear,
Rattlesnake, buffalo, anaconda, hare.
Bullfrog, woodchuck, wolverine, goose,
Whippoorwill, chipmunk, jackal, moose.
Mud turtle, whale, glowworm, bat,
Salamander, snail and Maltese cat.
Polecat, dog, wild otter, rat,
Pelican, hog, dodo, and bat.
House rat, toe rat, white deer, doe,
Chickadee, peacock, bobolink, crow.

Now for a word about the illustrations by Jacqueline Rogers. From the alphabetic-animals used to spell out the title to the comically inadequate leash  the boy has tethered to an enormous and  curmudgeonly dog(?) on the back cover, every intricate detail matters. The expressions on human and other animals, the elaborate and moody backgrounds, and the complex relationships depicted in each double-page spread all demand exploration and examination. They hold up well in repeated readings, offering new discoveries each time through the book. 
There is ample justification for the current emphasis on diverse voices and images in all forms of children's literature, spearheaded by WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS. But a book like this, published twenty years ago, is proof that illustrators like Rogers offered outstanding examples of mainstream books that appeal to and reflect ALL readers. In fact, since this title seems to be out of print, now is perfect time to reintroduce it to a whole new generation of young people. It's available in libraries, so don't wait for that to happen before checking it out for yourself. And, if you don't already have a pet, consider adopting one from a rescue center. Who knows, it might even inspire you to write a poem or two for yourself.

If you happen to enjoy poetry, pets, and particularly haiku, take a look at a previous post that  featured exactly those kinds of books, here.

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Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.