March 22, 2007


Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars. By Douglas Florian. Harcourt. $16.

Bing Bang Boing. By Douglas Florian. Harcourt. $8.

      There’s Florian here, there’s Florian there, there’s Florian (so it seems) ev-er-y-where. He rhymes of astronomy, rhymes of gastronomy, rhymes things you like and of things you don’t wannabe.

      And that’s the way Douglas Florian is. He’s fun in small doses, but many of his books, including these two, offer him in somewhat larger portions than may go down easily. Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars is, of course, about space, and even has a helpful “galactic glossary” at the end explaining the scientific background of the poems. Parents may read that glossary, but it’s a safe bet that kids are going to want the verse – which ranges from better to, well, verse. When he wants to, Florian can versify pointedly: “Mars is red,/ And Mars is rusty,/ Sandy, rocky/ Very dusty./ Mars has ice caps./ Once had streams./ Mars has Martians…/ In your dreams!” That’s clever, descriptive and neatly tied up at the end. But then there’s something like this: “A telescope or binoculars are/ Great aids to observe a star./ To find your way it’s good to sight/ Upon a star that’s very bright,/ Like Sirius or Canopus,/ Alpha Centauri or Arcturus…” The limping rhythm and partial rhymes are as likely to befuddle young readers as educate them. Florian does do his best to stay up to date on astronomical matters: “Pluto was a planet./ But now it doesn’t pass./ Pluto was a planet./ They say it’s lacking mass./ Pluto was a planet./ Pluto was admired./ Pluto was a planet./ Till one day it got fired.” That’s repetitious but accurate, yet young readers are likely to wonder who did what, exactly, to Pluto – which they can find out only if they choose to read the glossary. One thing that is consistently charming here is the art: Florian illustrates his own books, and this time he offers paintings that are whimsical and informative at once, and consistently enjoyable to look at – the one comparing a comet to a snowball, while also showing the celestial object’s structure, is particularly fine.

      There is no central theme to Bing Bang Boing, a Florian collection that was originally published in 1994 and is now available in paperback. This is a nonsense-verse collection, and here too the meter does not always trip lightly along: “If you should see/ The Spotted Spee,/ You’d better run and hide./ For though the Spee/ Is two feet tall/ It’s fifteen miles wide.” That final line would have scanned perfectly, and included an additional rhyme, if the number had been “fifty-three.” It’s hard to see why Florian picked “fifteen.” Florian also tortures the language a bit too often when he’s looking for a rhyme, as in a poem called “Little-Naughty-Nasty Ned,” where a couplet reads, “In Ned’s tiny bedroom closet/ Did his uncle he deposit.” Cute, yes, up to a point, but Florian tends to push the point a bit too far. He does manage a neat two-line poem on an astronomical theme here: “Jeff says the largest planet is Jupiter./ Simon says Saturn, but Simon is stupider.” And there are some silly limericks, some atrocious puns (“Auntlers”), and some poems with names made up just because they fit funny rhymes (“Hiram Zabriskie was fretful and frisky”). Bing Bang Boing is a hodgepodge through and through – a feast for Florian fans, but perhaps a bit much to take for anyone discovering Florian’s way with poetry for the first time. However, once again, the poet’s illustrations – black-and-white drawings, in this case – are uniformly amusing, frequently funnier than the poems whose subjects they portray.

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