Here in New England, it's a cool, rainy day, a perfect one for enjoying some poems by the fire. I asked poetry enthusiast Becky Sharp, who blogs at Farm School, to tell us about a recent favorite, The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems. Thank you, Becky! By the way, the publisher is sponsoring a classic poems contest for children, so do take a look.
Artist Jackie Morris, who compiled and illustrated the recent Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, says about the project, "The book will hopefully be a doorway through into the world of poetry for children discovering poets for the first time and for those familiar with the poems to revisit them. What makes these poems classic is that they speak through time with a truth, a strength and integrity. They can be read and reread and still some new insight can be grasped, a new pleasure from the turn and roll of a phrase."
And what a magical doorway it is. In The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, Ms. Morris has compiled 74 timeless poems by some of the best writers of the English language, and then added her own luscious, evocative paintings to make one of the top poetry books for children of 2006.
The colors of Ms. Morris's paintings are sometimes jewel-like and vibrant, other times watery and limpid, always luminous, romantic, and adventurous. Many of the poems rate the lavish treatment of a double-page spread (each gets at the very least its own page), which not only makes the reader stop to consider the work, but then draws the reader first into the picture and then, lastingly, into the words.
I never paid much attention to Lilian Moore's little poem "Until I Saw the Sea" while it was crammed at the bottom of the page in the older Random House Book of Poetry for Children next to a sepia-tone drawing of a pudgy girl at the beach. In Ms. Morris's hands, the poem gets a stunning painting across two pages that brings out the true lyric quality of Moore's lines, the pure astonishment and delight of a child upon finally meeting the sea.
Wordsworth's "Daffodils" sweep across another two pages; the effect was enough to make my nine-year-old daughter gasp with pleasure and plunge right into the poem. Ms. Morris's illustrations are brilliant, warm, and equally appealing to younger and older readers, especially those in the latter group who enjoy reading Tolkien, Pullman, and other fantasy; and younger readers keen on knights, castles, wizards, and pirates will be drawn in, too. My seven-and-a-half year old son took one look at the cover, mentioned that it rather reminded him of the beginning of the battle scene in the recent Narnia movie, and sighed, "I wish I could ride a tiger." Then he proceeded to look for the accompanying poem in the book (there isn't one, but he was more than satisfied to find Blake's "Tyger" burning bright). My always-questioning youngest, age six, claims for his own Robert Clairmont's "The Answers," illustrated with what looks very much like a six-year-old lying on the back of pig and surrounded by other barnyard animals:
by Robert Clairmont
"When did the world begin and how?"
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:
"What's it all about and why?"
I asked a hog as he went by:
"Where will the whole thing end, and when?"
I asked a duck, a goose and a hen:
And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.
There are lots of old childhood friends in here, from Eleanor Farjeon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rachel Field, and Vachel Lindsay to Walter de la Mare, A.A. Milne, and Lewis Carroll, but there are also quite a few new ones, new because they aren't usually included in most children's anthologies: Stevie Smith, Kathleen Raine, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Rosenberg, and Thomas Love Peacock (a name certainly designed to appeal to a child). One poet, E.V. Rieu, often included in collections of children's poetry but probably a cipher for most North Americans who aren't classicists, is accorded the honor of setting the tone for the volume with his poem "The Paintbox,"
"Cobalt and umber and ultramarine,
Ivory black and emerald green—
What shall I paint to give pleasure to you?"
"Paint for me somebody utterly new."
Jackie Morris has indeed painted something new, with both her paints and the poets' words. She has put together a gorgeous book of poetry to give pleasure to children and the adults who love them, making many classic poems seem utterly new and, even, modern.
Becky Sharp farms, home schools, and reads all sorts of things, including poetry with her children and husband in western Canada.