July 24, 2014


Bats in the Band. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree. By Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $9.95.

     One of the best-drawn of the always engaging Bats books by Brian Lies, Bats in the Band more than makes up in illustrative endearment for poetry that does not scan quite as well as it does in Lies’ other books. The wonderfully pictured bats, which are highly realistic and at the same time thoroughly anthropomorphic in their postures and behavior, get together this time to make music – all kinds of music. “And every last one of us knows where to go:/ a summertime theater, after a show.” (That second line is a syllable short unless “theater” has three; this is one of many rhythmic shortcomings here – a trifle odd in a book about something as rhythm-driven as music!) The bats assemble in the darkened theater and soon start putting together the concert to end all concerts – using a riotous mixture of real instruments plus “things [made] up out of straws, out of spoons.” Backstage chatter, with some bats hanging upside-down while practicing as others stand and compare, umm, notes, makes it clear that this will be a concert like no other: guitar, sitar, bagpipes, pocket comb and serpent (an old wind instrument) are all shown in loving detail. The bats perform both standing and hanging upside-down, too, with a chorus that fills the entire page (top and bottom as well as side to side) and includes a wide variety of bat species, from big-eared to flying fox. A classical string quartet is shown playing upside-down, its instruments and music stands held aloft by stage wires, its members’ feet clinging to matchsticks arrayed like trapeze bars. A hilariously depicted “one-bat band” includes instruments from the violin to the bass drum to the unnamable – no wonder just watching tires the audience! There is country-and-western music, music for bat kiddies “who can’t sit through a concert yet,” a bat wailing the blues on a page that is entirely blue-tinted, and of course a rock band that has everybody (or everybatty) dancing: “We bounce, we hop, we twirl, we groove –/ the music makes our bodies move.” The sounding of a gong, whose vibrations are shown gradually diminishing to silence, eventually ends a concert filled with a multiplicity of melodies, leaving the bats to return to their roost at dawn with a new realization: “Heading for home, we hum or we sing,/ and discover there’s music in everything.” (Again, that last word needs to be in four syllables for the line to scan – a note for metrical purists.) The delights of Lies’ books about humanlike bats in unlikely locations – beach, library, ballpark – are many, and the celebratory mood of this latest entry fits beautifully into the series.

     The celebration is a seasonal one, but the amusement is for anytime in Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree, which takes the familiar carol about the gifts of the 12 days of Christmas and adds some gentle commentary to a series of drawings created by Harper (1922-2007) not originally for publication but for his own family to enjoy. Now other families can delight in them , too: pastel sketches of the various, increasingly elaborate gifts are accompanied by the well-known text of the song, with just a line added here and there. The initial partridge in a pear tree gets the parenthetical comment, “(He always gives me something unusual.)” As the birds, which Harper differentiates beautifully and with his usual ability to encapsulate a creature’s essence in just a few lines and shapes, begin to mount in number, the recipient comments, “(My place began to look like an aviary.)” Eventually there are swans swimming in the bathtub, one French hen is re-gifted, the cow for the maids a-milking has to be tied up outside, and by the time the nine pipers piping arrive, gaily bedecked in alternating red and green outfits, “(I began to wish I’d never heard of Christmas.)” A neighbor calls the police because of the noise the drummers make, the leaping lords “knocked over the Christmas tree and frightened the cat,” and eventually the entire house is shown simply crammed with the evidence of the giver’s enormous, if misplaced, generosity. And this leads to an absolutely marvelous conclusion that sets just the right tone of acceptance, love and humor: “On the first day after Christmas, I, carrying on though daunted,/ Called the zoo, a hotel, and my love,/ And said, ‘You dear! Just what I wanted!’” Anyone who does not laugh at that ending needs a heaping helping of Christmas spirit – and had better start developing it in midsummer to be sure there is enough of it before December 25. Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree is, or should be, a book for all seasons.

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