Saturday, October 14

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls

poems selected by William Cole
illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
World Publishing 1964

Here's a little time bomb of a memory, lodged deep in my brain, springing forth like a cheerful bird on a breezy cool day when I'm lollygagging:

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?

Put some mustard in your shoe...

For years I was certain that Shel Silverstein penned the line (and the rest of the poem to go with it) but was unable to locate it in all the usual places (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, &c.) Then while researching various poetry collections I stumbled onto this title and the title alone seemed to send up some kind of a warning. Once found (and read) whole dusty corners of my brain came alive. And some interesting questions as well.

Cole, who in his day worked for publishers Viking and Simon and Schuster and the Saturday Review magazine, collected themed books of poetry for children that spanned at least three decades. Collecting humorous verse from throughout the 20th century Cole's books covered everything from the cautionary to the absurd, the sublime to the ribald. Earlier collections in particular contain poems and images that might do more than nudge the edges of political correctness and raise a few eyebrows. The continuation of the poem mentioned above -- credited to a certain Shelly Silverstien -- continues:

Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,

Leave your toys upon the stairs,

Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall
Roll some marbles down the hall
Put some ink in daddy's cap--
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

Having satisfied one itch in the brain I was suddenly met with several more, these in the names of the illustrations. Tomi Ungerer's line drawings have the playful spirit of the book's title... and then some. There is nothing in the poem that accompanies the following illustration to explain the look of the girls face:

And yet, there it is.

Father with a cat-o-nine tails and his little Electra smirking at his attempt to be stearn with her. It puzzled me then, it amuses me now, and it's no wonder this edition is no longer in print.

For Silverstein fans this collection contains the original, slightly different version of "Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout" and a poem with some simple instructions to children on how to make a prank phone call.
Not to suggest the book is all perversion and subversion, there are poems in here by A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash and even Longfellow to round things out.

I look back on reading this as a child and don't feel I was in any way corrupted or had my delicate sensibilities compromised by the outrageousness contained in this collection. In fact, I think we do children a greater disservice today by sanitizing their world to the point where they stop believing we have their best interests at heart. They live in this world with us, and if we have to carve out time to discuss terrorism and famine and war and the dangers of strangers then I think we can trust them to take humorous verse in the spirit which it was once offered -- as a gift, from adults to children, to let them know that it's okay to laugh.

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