One of my great pleasures as a grandparent is reading aloud to the visiting children. Not only because this is of the best ways to guide my grand-children to a love of books and learning, but because it leads adults like me to the joy of rediscovering one's own childhood. Where else but in a book of finely crafted children's poems from Robert Louis Stevenson or Lewis Carrol can we relive that first wild encounter with words? Children are sated by shape shifting images in cartoons, but are enriched by those magical, malleable letters that combine in mysterious ways to show that the world is a place of shifting identities; a world rich in pleasure, pain, and possibility. Fine children's books teach the lesson that life is much more than oatmeal and putting one's toys away neatly, but a place full of the bad, the good, and the wonderful, the wonderful often prevailing.
One of my closest friends (I hide nothing from you, reader) is a notable children's book writer, Thomas Rockwell. Tom, a Shakespeare scholar, is perhaps best known for his classic bestseller and movie "How to Eat Friend Worms," but known to me as a splendid fellow who has miraculously summoned up the elusive feelings of various children in his latest book of poems, the recently published Emily Stew - With Some Side Dishes, illustrated by David McPhail, Roaring Brook Press. New York. Since one of my grand-daughters is named Emily I take a certain pleasure in the title of this book, although it is also the name of Tom's own grand-daughter. Tom, in life, is so amiable it is hard to spot at first glance the dangerously funny, anarchic, deliciously outrageous writer of Emily Stew but fortunately it is there in his poems, and children and adults like me will delight in this latest work. Most of the poems begin with a girl named Emily but there are myriad Emilies in this book: nosy ones, angry ones, silly ones, busy ones and lazy ones. Here's a fine specimen.
Emily Jane, Emily Jane
Why are you naughty and moody?
In private I'm nice
And eat all my rice
But in public I'm asifatooty
How often have we adults - like children - felt and acted asifatooty? Too often, I'm afraid. But with luck we live it down and kind friends forget.
One of my favorites among the Emily poems is "Reckless Impatience," which I quote in part:
Emily Phlox hated clocks. I won't be told when to do what by a stupid machine.
I'm a human being. Does a clock ever know what a moment means? Tick tock, tick tock. I have calendars too. Everybody throws them up in your face. You're 10: George Clooney is 48; it's totally unsuitable. Time is cruel, whether years, months, days, hours or minutes. I hate seconds too. They're like handcuffs.
Then there's this bit from "The New School."
Emily Grief could get no relief, she didn't look good in lipstick. At least her mother made her take it off the first day of third grade. So she had to get on the bus feeling naked. She didn't know anyone; everyone looked at her. Emily wished she was a potato. And suddenly she was...
After that it's a wild ride of Kafka for kiddies via Tom Rockwell. The rest of the twenty odd poems take us on wonderful journeys which answer such imponderable questions as to what a nose pressed against a window really means. If you don't have a child or a grand-child, buy it for yourself. If you do, buy three: one for the child, one for yourself, and one for your nose.