May 07, 2015
(++++) CLASSIC CHARACTERS
maggie and milly and molly and may. By E.E. Cummings. Illustrated by Marcia Perry. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.
Sheep Go to Sleep. By Nancy Shaw. Drawings by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. By Edward Lear. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
The Berenstain Bears: Hospital Friends. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
A simple but thought-provoking poem written in 1956 by E.E. Cummings becomes a lovely illustrated children’s book in the hands of illustrator Marcia Perry, who downplays anything potentially scary or troubling while leaving the poem’s ambiguous conclusion intact. In this brief story of four girls who go to the beach to play, Cummings’ poem says what each one finds there. Maggie “discovered a shell that sang/so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,” and Perry actually shows notes, not the sound of the ocean, coming from it – after all, Cummings does write “sang.” In the poem, the sudden reference to “troubles” is slightly jarring, but here Maggie is simply smiling gently while holding the shell to her ear. Milly “befriended a stranded star,” and that is just what Perry shows Milly doing – but, again, Cummings darkens the scene more than Perry does, because the sea star is in fact stranded, and that is scarcely good news for a sea creature. Molly has the strangest experience of all: Cummings says she “was chased by a horrible thing,” the exact nature of which he does not explain. Perry takes the fear completely out of this by having the “horrible thing” simply be a not-at-all-horrible crab, and showing that Molly seems to be walking quickly away (but not running) while looking mildly discomfited (but not frightened). May’s experience speaks as clearly to her personality as Maggie’s does to hers: May takes home “a smooth round stone/ as small as a world and as large as alone.” That is quite a concept for young readers – but Cummings did not write this as a poem for children, even though it is a poem about children. “It’s always ourselves we find in the sea,” the poet concludes, and that final, thought-provoking line has meaning that goes well beyond Perry’s final picture of the four friends sitting on the shore, arms around each other, gazing at a passing pod of dolphins. By turning maggie and milly and molly and may into a children’s book, Perry lightens the story considerably, even as she brings young readers to poetry that they have likely never heard or read; and surely some children will pay enough attention to the words here to discover the disparity between them and the comparatively superficial, pleasant art. That can become the start of a voyage of discovery, in which young readers learn that poems can say and mean a great deal more than they appear to on a strictly surface-level basis.
Nancy Shaw’s poems about sheep, on the other hand, are as lighthearted and amusing as can be, and are not intended to do anything but amuse. Sheep Go to Sleep, the eighth book in the series, follows the pattern of the others very well indeed: the five sheep have a slight, amusing adventure, aided in this case by a helpful sheepdog – a “trusty collie,” as Shaw puts it. The sheep are having trouble falling asleep, giving the collie plenty of chances to set things right – as Margot Apple’s illustrations show with their usual charm. One sheep wants a hug, which the collie provides; the next asks for a drink of water, then goes to sleep after the collie brings it; the third snoozes after listening to a lullaby (the collie’s “singing” expression is especially delightful); the fourth wants a teddy bear, so the collie brings his to share; and the fifth wants a quilt, which the collie, by now quite tired himself, provides. So all the sheep sleep – having some delightfully drawn dreams, too – leaving the worn-out collie to find his own place for some well-earned rest. Gentle rhymes, pleasant pictures and a wholly enjoyable bedtime message combine to make Sheep Go to Sleep just as much fun as the other entries in this always-pleasing series.
If the sheep are modern classics, the owl and pussycat are very old ones – dating to Edward Lear’s 1871 book, Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets. These old characters were done up in fine, then-new style by Paul Galdone (1907-1986) in a version originally published posthumously, in 1987. Nearly 30 years later, Galdone’s pictures retain their vivacity and charm, starting when the owl and pussycat get a wonderful “bon voyage” send-off from a whole crowd of owls and pussycats standing on a dock; continuing as the two characters (wearing hats that say “HMS Nonsense”) interact with fish while singing along to a guitar tune and eating honey; and then leading to the characters’ eventual arrival after “a year and a day” in “the land where the Bong-tree grows.” Galdone shows that particular tree sprouting small drums and drumsticks from its branches – and he shows the “Piggy-wig” standing on the shore as being, indeed, a pig wearing a very elaborate wig (and having the requisite ring in his nose, to be purchased for a shilling and used for a wedding). So owl, pussycat, pig (as witness) and turkey (as suitably garbed, book-carrying minister) all gather for a marriage celebration, and Galdone shows their feast of mince and quince quite delightfully – even giving an accurate portrayal of the “runcible spoon” with which the characters consume the food. The final pages of dancing “by the light of the moon” include the pig as drummer, a couple of starfish holding appendages, a just-surfaced whale, and a smiling full moon – all in all, a seaside scene quite different in intent, appearance and significance (or lack thereof) from that of maggie and milly and molly and may, occurring in a night quite different from that of Sheep Go to Sleep, and proving itself as wonderful in its way as the other books are in theirs.
A book with a more-serious purpose, The Berenstain Bears: Hospital Friends features the modern-classic Bear family in a story that, as happens frequently in the Berenstain tales, is just a bit too upbeat and bouncy to be believed. Mike Berenstain has the family visit the hospital where Cousin Fred has just had a tonsillectomy – but the first thing kids will notice is that everyone in the corridors is smiling (including, of course, the title characters). The intent, to be sure, is to show young readers that hospitals are not scary places – but they are serious places, and the story downplays that to too great an extent. The smiling family doctor gives the Bears a tour, starting with the “part of the hospital…where cubs stay,” which is bright and clean and neat and features smiles on the faces of every single cub, including the one in a wheelchair and the one with a cast on a broken leg. The place looks like a particularly pleasant day-care center; no wonder Sister comments that it “looks like fun!” Physical therapy also features everyone smiling and enjoying their use of the rehabilitative equipment, the X-ray area features a patient with a broken bone smiling and waving, and even in the “room where nurses and doctors were getting patients ready for operations,” everyone has expressions more appropriate for a day spa than a hospital. The recovery room has postoperative patients all smiling, too, including the ones who are asleep. Even the emergency room features calm, generally smiling bears reading, writing or watching a big-screen TV. The Berenstain Bears: Hospital Friends is so deeply unrealistic that it is only because of its obvious good intentions that it gets as much as a (+++) rating. Certainly there is no reason to alarm kids ages 4-8 about hospitals or get into details about the very serious illnesses, the severe injuries and the deaths that hospital personnel – and hospital visitors – encounter all the time. But The Berenstain Bears: Hospital Friends is ultimately counterproductive in its attempt to whitewash the reality of what hospitals are and what they do, because any child who has to go to a real hospital for any reason (as a visitor or, although hopefully not, as a patient) is going to be led by this book to expect something so different from reality that he or she will have a heaping helping of cognitive dissonance on top of the discovery of just how far from authenticity this tour of Bear Country Hospital really is.