Wednesday, November 1

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant

:and other poems by Jack Prelutsky
illustrations by Carin Berger
Greenwillow 2006

Prelutsky, our nation's first Children's Poet Laureate, presents a collection of poems about creatures whose names are composed of clever word blendings. The Panthermometer, for example, and Ball Point Penguins. Their names aren't merely word play but also provide evidence for their usefulness, as these animals clearly evolved to suit their needs. You can tell the temperature by the Panthermometer's tail, and the Ball Point Penguins write in flowing India ink with their beaks.

This picture book begs to be read aloud, with short poems and double-page spreads of paper collages that can best be described as clean. Clean is not necessarily bad, but in this case they border on the sterile. Still, they serve the poems well. It's easy to see why Prelutsky is adored by children -- he loves language the same way they do.

I am fond of clever rhymes, portmanteau words and word play in general (jealously so at times) and it seems a shame to me that most adults consider such levity a frivolity. As children we hunger to develop our vocabularies, to grow our understanding of how the language works so that we can better communicate our world. It's why children will ask to have the same story read over and over, why they will sing Christmas songs in the shower in July, why the poetry section in the children's room at the library is always in disarray (and Prelutsky's books often missing).

Then, at some point, either through design or misadventure, the joy of language is drilled out of us, beaten out of us, killed. Perhaps we simply became lazy. Perhaps it came with sentence diagramming, the notion that being able to string a sentence along a stick tree yields a better understanding of the language. Or worse, perhaps it was poetry itself that turned us against poetry, the classroom exercise meant to provide us a foundation for understanding the structure and beauty of what a poet does, killing the magic just as swiftly as telling a small child there is no tooth fairy, no Santa Claus, and we're having the Easter Bunny for dinner.

Some -- myself included -- have to fight back every step of the way to unlearn everything they knew, or thought they knew in order to regain that sense of seeing the world if not from the eyes of their younger selves at least through more innocent visions. Others remain lucky and never lose of forget this connection. Poetry is as real to them as the land to a farmer, as natural as breathing.

Behold, indeed, the Bold Umbrellaphant.

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