Review of the Day: Carnival of the Animals
I missed Poetry Friday last week because I forgot that it was Friday. True story. Today, however, I've managed to remember and the result is this l'il ole review. Read it in good health.
None of us get enough poetry in our lives. Our day-to-day interactions rarely cause us to stop and consider a work of Dickinson or even ponder a dollop of Frost. New Yorkers, however, have it easy. They get to see poetry every day. Thanks to the Poems on the Underground program that started in London and spread across the Atlantic, I get to read poems on the subway to and from work almost every day. So who should I thank for this chance to broaden my mind while crammed into someone’s armpit? Thank Judith Chernaik, the founder of the same project. Now, however, Chernaik has expanded into the skittish world of children’s literature. With Saint-Saens’ light-hearted musical creation, “Carnival of the Animals” as her inspiration, she has culled poems from the brains of thirteen poets (including herself). In turn, Candlewick Press brought in well-established illustrator Satoshi Kitamura to whip up some pretty pictures for the equally pretty poems. The result is a wild concoction of image and sound. Poems leap off the page almost as beautifully as their visual counterparts. I have absolutely no idea who this book is supposed to be for in the end, but it’s certainly nice enough to look at.
There are fourteen poems in all (no Table of Contents, sorry), with thirteen dedicated to the animals featured in Saint-Saens’ music. Without so much as an Introduction, we immediately hit upon James Berry’s faintly melancholy thoughts on the lion. From there we are whisked into a wild array of poems and animals. Gavin Ewart gives your average kangaroo a fairly metropolitan feel. Valerie Bloom tackles Saint-Saens’, “The Aviary” and wins the book’s Most Evocative Award. By the end we see the animals we’ve met now all on a stage with instruments in hand. The performance is done, and you are left remembering as wild an amalgamation of poetry, music, and visual art as you’ll ever find again.
Kitamura’s style of illustration has never done anything for me in the past. It’s always struck me as cute but lacking. Now, as if to show me how wrong I’ve always been, Kitamura’s pictures in this book burst from the pages with a kind of frenzied glee. He’s gone haywire with “Carnival”. Watercolors may be sepia toned one minute and then show an equallly dignified image of horses running across a green grass plain. The poem “Pianists” manages to be well-ordered around the text, and then explode into a sumptuous feast of colors and images comparable only to what happens when you close your eyes and press hard on your eyelids. His tortoises dance, his swan looks as if it should be accompanied by a haiku, and about the time you reach the dinosaur bones playing the clarinet you’ll never want to leave the book again.
But who was this written for? Admittedly it’s fairly easy to tell from the start that these were not children’s poets Chernaik tapped. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised when Gerard Benson likens donkeys to theater critics or Gillian Clarke gives us elegant lines about the cuckoo like, “grows fat on murder, and in a stolen house / sings her two notes in an angel’s voice”. The poets are all excellent, of course. You won’t find me maligning Edwin Morgan or Charles Causley. There’s a lot of free verse, some variegated rhyme schemes, but that's about it. Don’t expect anyone to get too creative. This is not the book to use if you want to show kids what a haiku or a senryu or even a sonnet is. The poetic forms found here are just what struck each poet as apropos at any given time. No more. No less. You want different kinds of poems? Go locate Paul Janeczko’s, “A Kick In the Head”, instead. Will kids be interested in animal poems that never get silly like Douglas Florian or include factual information like Joyce Sidman’s, “Song of the Water Boatman”? If I were to harbor a guess, I’d have to say no. They won’t instantly take to this book. And though I shudder to say it, I suspect that John Lithgow's version of “Carnival of the Animals” (which came out a mere 3 years before this book) is going to entertain kids far far more.
I searched in vain for the reason why Chernaik chose now to cull a picture book out of music that has already lent itself to picture books so often before. Why even limit it to children? It seems a little odd to be putting out yet another Carnival of the Animals picture book so soon after the Lithgow book that was tied into a 2003 New York City Ballet production. Certainly this book wins in the looks department. And the poems are very nice, yes yes. Maybe you could make a gift of this to a particularly musically gifted child. But Lithgow’s book had one particular advantage over Chernaik’s. In both cases, a CD accompanies the book. Which is to say, both books come with one. But while Lithgow’s listed the track names on both the inside of the book AND on the CD itself, Chernaik's leaves all track information completely mysterious. Track names are necessary. They allow us to allow the music to follow along with the book. In Lithgow's case, he even went so far as to read each poem before the music it applied to. In contrast, the Chernaik book seems to have included the CD as an afterthought. The tracks match up with each poem, yes, but it would have been nice to hear someone read those poems after each selection of music. Or even, for that matter, know what each selection was even called? If you’re trying to pull one section or poem out for consideration, it’s mighty hard to do so without a title on the CD. It’s also a little odd that the Chernaik CD begins without Saint-Saens’ Introduction. An editing decision or the result of not planning a poem for that particular piece?
I can see this book used to teach poetry to teens (sneaking in a little classical music know-how to boot). Maybe some kids as well. But while Chernaik is the queen of the subway poetry selections, she has a ways to go before she conquers the world of children’s literature quite as effectively. A nice book, but I honestly don’t know who you’d want to give it to.