Review of the Day: Casey At the Bat
I'm poet-rific these days, non? Poetry Friday has been greeted with poems TWO WEEKS in a row. Hee hee hee.
Canadians. Is there anything they can’t do? The publishing house of Kids Can Press has given the world all sorts of interesting titles, but perhaps none so interesting as those from KCP Poetry, a small poetry-laden division. Reinterpreting classic poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Highwayman”, someone along the way must have suggested “Casey At the Bat”. But not in an old-timey handlebar moustached way. More of an inner city struggle to leave the streets behind kind of way. It doesn’t sound very good, does it? I personally found it a tepid idea at best. The crazy thing is, it works. Works like gangbusters. I never really realized it, but Thayer’s poem is remarkably elastic, allowing it all kinds of interesting interpretations. Take into account the beautiful binding and you’ve got yourself a classic work of poetry that’s been reinterpreted by artist Joe Morse into an entirely original beast.
Do I really have to summarize it? The story’s exactly as we’ve always known it. Heck, my own father has it memorized. “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day”. Mudville is down and unless Casey can get to bat everything shall truly be lost. Fortunately Flynn and Jimmy Blake manage to get on base and Casey’s up. He’s up and he’s hot. Heck, he even misses the first two balls for the fun of it. Then the moment comes, everyone’s ready, and Casey swings like he’s never swung before. “But there is no joy in Mudville – Mighty Casey has struck out”. The last shot is of a dejected Casey, brought to his knees, the stands around him abandoned.
In my travels around New York, the Bronx, and Brooklyn I’ve never stumbled across an inner city baseball game. But in the conteest of this story, it works and I'm sure that there are some somewhere. Now the illustrations themselves are not my style, but this isn’t to say that they aren’t well done. First of all, you have to respect an artist who paints outside in a gas mask because his materials are so very very toxic. THAT is dedication, ladies and gentlemen. The oil and acrylic used on the paper gives Joe Morse’s black a blueish tinge. Figures are exaggerated for the sake of the narrative. The pages are even occasionally split into comic book panels to sometimes allow the story the feel of a graphic novel. How well the poem adapted to its new setting is sometimes shocking. When we read that, “From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar”, we wonder how else it could be taken. Ditto the surreal moment when we learn that two other ballplayers, the much maligned Flynn and Jimmy Blake are, respectively, a hoodoo and a cake. The words “hoodoo” and “cake” are written in graffiti under their headshots, giving these once archaic terms a kind of contemporary cache.
Rarely have I ever read a children’s book that praised its own illustrator so highly at the story’s end, by the way. Here’s a bit of it: “More’s images paint a compelling portrait of human nature, particularly the psychology of the hero and the crowd. Indeed, this interpretation of ‘Casey’ transforms Thayer’s caricatures into flesh-and-blood people with real hopes and dreams – and real vulnerability”. The book goes on to describe how in this particular version we see Casey “ultimately confined by the batting cage and the concrete boxes of his surroundings, deserted by even his most ardent fans”. Couldn’t have said it better myself (and it looks as if I don’t have to). Suddenly this isn’t a story about a guy so full of himself that he causes his own downfall. It’s about a kid who’s pride gets the better of him and who ends up bitter and alone without any recourse or escape at the end of his day. Cheery.
One of the libraries in which I worked had low shelves for easy child access. At this branch I would continually display Christopher Bing’s illustrated version of the Thayer poem standing on top of the shelves in the hope that someone would give it a glance. I must have put that puppy out for maybe five or six months and not ONCE did it ever get checked out. Holding Joe Morse’s new version, I feel confident that if I put his book out for people to look at, it would disappear instantaneously. It's even beautifully bound. A lot of the smaller presses are favoring simple bindings without covers these days. The Vision In Poetry series, to which this book belongs, also has a lovely format with silver piped words along the spine. Classy city.
So let’s sum up. You want to get your kids interested in some classic poetry but you don’t know how? Hello, answer to your prayers! I may not have mentioned this before, but not a single word in this book has been changed to suit its new station. It’s the classic poem in its original form and done in such a way that it reads like it was made yesterday. Poetry has never been better packaged for the kiddies. This is a poem that has a lot going for it. Even if you’re not a fan of the art or the format, you have to respect its energy. An amazing idea and an even better result.