“He was a fat, goofy-looking guy with thick eyeglasses.” That’s the beginning of Daniel Pinkwater’s introduction to 19th-century nonsense poet Edward Lear in His Shoes Were Far Too Tight, a collection of Lear’s poems, illustrated by Calef Brown, “masterminded” by Mr. Pinkwater and released by Chronicle Books. Let it be known—though his fans know it already—that Daniel Pinkwater doesn’t waste time, quickly getting the attention of readers.
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Lear’s work has hardly faded from recognition. His playful, rhythmic poems are still read and enjoyed by children and adults alike. A large part of his appeal—both then and now—is that his poems exude great silly joy. And at the time he was writing his nonsense verse, this was a relief, given that books for children at that time were meant to instruct in the ways of the world, books with “entertain” at the very bottom of their to-do list. (“When Edward Lear was small,” Pinkwater writes, “books for kids usually told how if you were not a ‘good child’—quiet, obedient, and hard-working—you would starve to death or be eaten by wild wolves.”)
But along came Lear, refusing to wag his finger at children. A sickly child with an unhappy childhood of his own, his inventive limericks offered the type of imaginative flights of fancy and escape he likely craved as a child himself. And in our day and age of increasingly rigorous educational standards and overscheduled children, the kind of nonsense poetry Edward Lear brings still remains a welcomed joy. (This is the second time I’ve referred to increasingly rigorous educational standards over here. Clearly, I’m turning into Grumpy Old Lady, but I digress.)
That said, it isn’t as if children walk around with Lear poetry collections in hand like they do their Harry Potter tomes. Cue Pinkwater and Brown. If any duo is going to reintroduce Lear to 21st-century children, making accessible the context of Lear’s life and the value of nonsense poems in 1846 (the year of Lear’s first collection), yes, oh yes, let it be them!
“[Lear] may have noticed that ADULTS ARE A BIT RIDICULOUS,” Pinkwater writes in the book’s intro. “He could see the funny side of things—and not just funny, he saw how nice it is when things don’t make sense in the way we are taught to expect them to make sense. He called this nonsense.” In just one spread, Pinkwater matter-of-factly and never condescendingly—I’ve read enough of his books to know that talking to children with anything other than ginormous respect would be anathema to him—lays out a basic introduction to Lear and his contribution to children’s literature. “So, turn the page,” he concludes, “and meet Mr. Lear.” (Enticing, isn’t it?) Pinkwater includes “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” (which gets its own joyful, rumpus-like wordless spread), Lear’s nonsense alphabet and seven other poems in this captivating collection.
As for Calef Brown reimagining Lear’s work with his eccentric illustrations, I am not sure any other children’s book illustrator would do. Brown, who often writes and illustrates his own poetry, is the Reigning Children’s Poet of Weird. “I think Mr. Lear would have liked them,” Pinkwater writes about Brown’s acrylic paintings. They downright sparkle with improbability. This is what Brown does well.
And his task had to be a daunting one. Diehard Lear fans like to note that his nonsense poetry simply can’t be enjoyed without also taking in Lear’s own illustrations for them. In fact, a self-portrait of Lear is included in the introductory spread. Two to three more of Lear’s own illustrations in this collection, perhaps as small spot illustrations, would have been neat to see.
But I quibble. All in all, this is a festive celebration of the cheerfully absurd and ridiculous world of Lear’s nonsense poetry, brought to us by two people who clearly delight in sharing it.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.