A captivating book of beast and fable
by Jennifer Minicus | August 14, 2018
We all love lions, but we all hate pride. “Adult” readers may well be denied. I suggest you try your best to become a child once more. Doing so will bring you through poetry’s locked door.
A Note to All Adult Readers
Imagine the fantastic imagination of Dr. Seuss combined with the poetic and literary talents of A.A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Matthew Mehan’s book of poems does just that with humor and melancholy, short tales and even a ghost story or two. In one instance the author uses an original song, Las Vaquitas Lullaby, to plead the cause of a (real) endangered sea animal.
Two imaginary creatures -- Blug (The Blug plods a humorous pace, / So slow, in fact, that he came in third place, / Against the tortoise and the hare) and the agile Dally, who (Among the pelting drops of rain [can be glimpsed] dancing dry.) -- travel through the alphabet, meeting fanciful animals in poems of various styles. “The Jargontalky” strikes a familiar chord:
Beware the Jargontalk, my son!
Old laws it spites, old laws rehashed.
Beware the Hubbub words, and run
To luminous Candor’s stash!
It’s a Rare mammal that can escape the obscurantism of the Jargontalky, but even the Rare is hunted down for exploitation:
The hope of many hunters
Is to catch and kill the Rare.
Its meat is very tender;
They can sell its silky hair.
Its teeth are sold for jewelry,
Its tusks make microchips,
And hunters swear it truly,
“Locals eat its pickled lips!”
Creature and style are perfectly and wittily matched in the short poem about “Hai-chus”, cheerful characters with a Japanese look, sneezing in the bright morning sun:
Ah, pause. Ah, crinkled
snouts. Ah, blasting sneeze shakes loose
Hai-chus’ wet and fleece.
They have a lesson for the Dally, somewhat crushed in spirit from listening to a long lament by the cave-dwelling, sightless Evol:
Choose what happens to
you. Greet sun-kissed sneezes with a
Hai-chu’s “yes, I do.”
Mehan incorporates sophisticated vocabulary (Inowallah tails are long, / Like a periegetic song.) with poetic devices that will entertain younger listeners and challenge middle grade readers. An extensive glossary – drawing on an old edition of Webster’s and Dr Johnson’s dictionaries, -- defines advanced lexical items and those of the author’s invention. Many of the definitions themselves are clever and original, and in many cases offer instruction in the liberal arts and virtue. One of the longest entries is for the word “friend”, with quotations from Cicero. The glossary is indeed a treasury.
Each poem is accompanied by a detailed oil painting as well as a letter block containing objects and animals that begin with that letter. Young readers will enjoy examining each picture to find Blug and Dally as well as other mammals from the book (including A Saber-Toothed Tiger reading the Prehistoric Times or the Washington Toast.). No element in the images is superfluous, but adds to the theme of its poem. The book concludes with a guide to the letter blocks and several lists of “I Spy’s” for the primary illustrations. This is a book that children will want to read over and over again.
Jennifer Minicus is a teacher living in New Jersey.