August 12, 2010


Hieroglyphs from A to Z: A Rhyming Book with Ancient Egyptian Stencils for Kids. By Peter Der Manuelian. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

The Jumblies. By Edward Lear. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Dong with a Luminous Nose. By Edward Lear. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Wuggly Ump. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Edward Gorey Coloring Book: The Wuggly Ump and Other Delights. Pomegranate Kids. $7.95.

     There is nothing the slightest bit typical about childhood as seen and experienced through books from Pomegranate – no, not even when those books are in the recently established Pomegranate Kids line. Any respectable child-oriented book catalogue must, for example, include an alphabet book. But an alphabet from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, featuring reproductions of ancient Egyptian carvings and the hieroglyphs used thousands of years ago to represent sounds? That is the Pomegranate way. In fact, Hieroglyphs from A to Z will be as fascinating for parents as for children – maybe even more so. There is no one-to-one correspondence between our alphabet and hieroglyphs, but there is sufficient sound correspondence to make this whole project workable and fascinating. For example, although the Egyptians had no letter C, a symbol resembling a basket with a handle stands for the hard C sound. The C page shows a statuesque cat, explains about cats being sacred in ancient Egypt, shows the symbol for the C sound, and demonstrates how to spell the word “cat” using hieroglyphs. So it goes throughout this wonderful, highly colorful book. The letter M is represented by an owl, and the page shows how to spell Man. The letter P is a footstool, and the page shows how to spell Pyramid. And so on. At the back of the book are a discussion of hieroglyphs; suggestions on using them to write secret messages; a table of English letters and sounds and their hieroglyph equivalents; and an absolutely wonderful stencil that kids can use to trace individual hieroglyphs accurately. Originally published in 1991 and long out of print, Hieroglyphs from A to Z is, in this wonderful new edition, an alphabet book like no other and a delight from start to finish.

     Wonderful in a different way are the two small hardcover books of Edward Lear’s nonsense poems about the Jumblies and their travels – as illustrated by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose fascination with the macabre here takes a back seat to meticulous and deliciously amusing renditions of the characters and their surroundings. Lear (1812-1888) was not primarily a nonsense versifier, although that is how most people know him today – in his own time, he was a painter of some note, his most famous pupil being Queen Victoria herself. But poems such as The Jumblies and its sequel, The Dong with a Luminous Nose, are the works with which he is now identified, and the poetry is even more delightful when accompanied by Gorey’s illustrations. There is a lovely cadence to Lear’s writing: “Far and few, far and few,/ Are the lands where the Jumblies live;/ Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,/ And they went to sea in a Sieve.” This oft-repeated portion of the Jumblies’ story is initially accompanied by a simply perfect Gorey picture of 10 Jumblies, most with their backs to the reader, rendered with extreme care and individuality on a beach above which clouds float. The drawing is as instantly recognizable as the verse. A later illustration for a repeat of the same words has 10 Jumblies facing the reader, stacked upon each other in a pyramid, their expressions neither smiling nor unsmiling, their poses dancelike and elegant. As the poem The Jumblies progresses – “They whistled and warbled a moony sing/ To the echoing sound of a coppery gong” – the voyage goes on, all the way to “the Hills of the Chankly Bore,” and eventually back again, where the Jumblies are honored with “a feast/ Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast.” But they leave some sorrow behind, as readers learn in The Dong with a Luminous Nose, a little love story about a stopover that the Jumblies made on their voyage. Here – on “the great Gromboolian plain” – a character known only as the Dong “fell in love with a Jumbly Girl/ Who came to those shores one day.” After a brief idyll, she left with the rest of the Jumblies, and the Dong made himself “A Nose as strange as a Nose could be!” Gorey’s pictures of the construction – which follow Lear’s description carefully – are wonderful, and the tale’s bittersweet ending, with the Dong using his luminous nose to search every night for the long-gone Jumbly girl, brings out Gorey’s underlying sentimentality while complementing Lear’s. The Gorey-illustrated Lear books are for children, to be sure, but it takes a special kind of child to appreciate them. A special kind of parent, too.

     Nor are these two Gorey books the only ones available for kids from Pomegranate. Oh no. But The Wuggly Ump, whether in original small-hardcover size or as a new coloring book that also includes several other Gorey drawings in black-and-white, is most assuredly not for everyone. This morbid minor masterpiece, originally published in 1963, is Gorey at his finest or most peculiar, depending on your point of view. The singsong poetry details the untroubled lives of three wholesome, milk-and-bread-fed children who receive an unexpected and unwanted visit from the mysterious, gigantic and huge-toothed Wuggly Ump, which “eats umbrellas, gunny sacks,/ Brass doorknobs, mud, and carpet tacks.” Gorey writes that “its other habits are obscure,” but the children who are having “lovely dreams” find out soon enough why the beast has come to visit them. There is nothing gory in Gorey’s story – he always leaves that sort of thing to the reader’s imagination – but there is no doubt about the children’s fate, with Gorey showing them all topsy-turvy at the end within a broadly smiling Wuggly Ump. Kids who find this story amusing (and a surprising number will) can see the colors of all 14 of Gorey’s original illustrations in small pictures on the inside front and back covers of the coloring book – along with original versions of the other eight drawings included inside. Then budding young artists can select their own colors for each and every picture. It is a fair bet that most of their choices will be more, shall we say, forceful than the subtle ones Gorey picked. But that is the fun of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book and, for that matter, a great deal of the fun of The Wuggly Ump itself.

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