F O L K L O R E
C H I L D R E N S' B O O K S
P O E T R Y
It's the 100th birthday of Children's Book Week, sponsored by the Children’s Book Council. Children's Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the U.S. The Library of Congress celebrates the occasion with an online exhibit of one hundred old and rare children's books. Perri Klass gives a nice overview in her New York Times article. I'm so jealous of the Library of Congress rare books librarians who actually get to hold these books.
I consumed this collection (well, part of it) as if it was a box of chocolates. It's fun to imagine children's first encounters with these books in the days before television, etc.
The titles themselves are fascinating, including outlandishly long ones in early books, like this classic from publisher John Newbery.
A little pretty pocket-book : intended for the instruction and amusement of little Master Tommy, and pretty Miss Polly : with two letters from Jack the giant-killer, as also a ball and pincushion, the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl : to which is added, A little song-book, being a new attempt to teach children the use of the English alphabet, by way of diversion.
The illustrated primer, or, The first book for children : designed for home or parental instruction : embellished with numerous engravings, and pretty stories, which will please the children amazingly!
A reprint of Newbery's A Pretty Little Pocket Book is part of the Library of Congress collection. I've always wanted to read those two letters from Jack the giant-killer, and now I wish I hadn't. Jack the giant-killer became a prudish scold after his adventures were done. And that pincushion? It was designed to keep score of Polly's good and bad behavior.
Publishers appealed to adult book buyers and child readers by hiring the very best illustrators, or by creating novelty formats like Peter Newell's The Rocket Book (1912), which has an actual hole through each page marking the rocket's path upward through an apartment building. (Dr. Seuss was inspired by another of Peter Newell's cut-out capers, The Hole Book, which, like The Rocket Book, was written in rhyme.)
For easier reading, you can download a full replica of any of the books.
Five Translators on the Joys and Challenges of Translating Children’s Books
Words without Borders (April 3, 2019)
Emma Ramadan interviewed five translators of children’s books into English—from Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Italian, and Dutch. According to the translators, their job is the best job in the world. I always thought being a children's librarian was the best job in the world. I guess it depends on whether you prefer solitude or hubbub.
Emma Ramadan: I had translated rhyming poetry before and was up for the challenge of a rhyming picture book. But with rhyming poetry, you can generally permit yourself to adjust a particular image or word choice to maintain the rhyme scheme, while in picture books, the original images correspond to the original text in ways that you might disrupt with even a minor change in translation.”
May there always be a melodious multitude of human languages, if only because translating children’s books sounds like such a wonderful occupation. Could it require such nuanced skills that it won’t be taken over by AI? Puns? Wordplay? Nicknames? Invented languages? Most adults are terrible at these, never mind robots. And wherever book publishing puts profit first, a sameness of content and style evolves. A children’s book from a different country, language, culture can provide readers with new ways of seeing and understanding.
Still, I wonder if a translation of a rhyming picture book can ever be more than a best effort. My rhyming picture book Antarctic Antics was translated from U.S. to British English, seven words changed in all. I agreed to the changes but I’m not happy about the results. My voice, along with subtleties of rhythm, plunge off tiny cliffs. Therefore it’s probably best that I can’t completely appreciate—or even read—the translations of my picture books into other languages. When I receive author copies in Spanish or Danish or Japanese or Korean, I set one copy on a shelf and donate the others to the library.
in The Conversation
March 18, 2019 6.47am EDT
Cora Lynn Deibler
The University of Connecticut Archives houses the Maurice Sendak Collection of original sketches, book dummies, artwork and final drafts —nearly 10,000 items in all. In this article, UConn professors Capshaw and Deibler trace the evolution of Where the Wild Things Are, beginning with a 1955 dummy (title: Where the Wild Horses Are) to early trial versions of the book’s jacket. In the 1955 dummy, a child pulls the tail of a horse, and the horse kicks him right out of his clothes, foreshadowing a later book, In the Night Kitchen).
The online article features reproductions of Sendak’s early artwork for the book.
I read Where the Wild Things Are aloud hundreds of times to all sorts of groups, and I wound up loving Sendak’s writing as much as his art. The text is so dramatic. And it’s a composition in verse, with a mesmerizing slow beat, repetition, alliteration. Like any good poem, the text of the book inscribes itself in memory. When you read a picture book aloud, it’s so nice to be able to “read” your audience rather than always focusing your eyes on the page.
For terrific rhyming Sendak, of course, you can’t beat Pierre, which is also easy to learn by heart.
Could a poet or songwriter search for rhymes without lifting a finger? There's always the old-fashioned method of racking one's brain, of course, but here's a newer, faster way. Shout at Alexa, using a new skill from the rhymezone.com blog.
"If you own an Amazon Echo or another Alexa device such as a Fire TV, try out the new Alexa Skill for Rhymezone!
This skill lets you find words from the comfort of your couch by shouting out a command. You can say things like "Find words related to dog" or "Give me a 6-letter word for penguin" or "Find rhymes for cheese" or "Find adjectives for strawberry" and get back a rapid-fire list of matches.”
The Great Dictionary Caper. Oops!
A mini-jumble of just two adjacent letters went unnoticed by me, by the editors, assistant editors, and proofreaders at Simon and Schuster, and by the folks who gave the book starred reviews at Kirkus, Publishers’ Weekly, and Booklist.
It wasn’t until librarians began reading the book that the error was found (it’s since been corrected in later printings). Did those of us who missed it simply get enough information from the other letters to ignore the misspelling, Ryhming? Perhaps. But the font was large, which should have made the mistake easier to spot, and on top of that, it came right after a double-page spread of anagrams, so we should have been on the lookout for switched letters. I'm guessing that these particular letters in this particular word created a trompe l'oeil, a trick of perception.
Next time, I will pay etxra attention to proofreading the words in a book's art.
This is the story Dr. Seuss told of how he began to write in rhyme:
In the summer of 1936, he and his wife Helen traveled from Europe to New York aboard an ocean liner, the Kungsholm. Ted was 32 years old, and already well-known as a magazine cartoonist and advertising artist. As they sailed homeward, he began writing down ideas for his first children’s book.
The ship’s engine provided a noisy background beat,
da-da-DA-da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA
To the tempo of the engine, Ted recited a poem that he knew by heart,
“’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the house . . . .”
Then he began to compose his new children’s story to that same rhythm. The story became the picture book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. He would use this same basic rhythm and rhyme scheme, officially known as anapestic tetrameter, for nearly all his large format picture books for children. Many of the beginning readers use simpler rhythms. Can you match Green Eggs and Ham to its poetic meter?
Some rhymes for 'dictionary' suggested by an online rhyming dictionary. Hmmm.
Almost anyone who writes in rhyme uses a rhyming dictionary—at least some of the time. However, the best rhymes usually come from the deep reaches of a poet’s memory and unconscious. Personally, I suspect that using a rhyming dictionary could keep me from discovering a great rhyme, like Dr. Seuss’s pairing of “Apartment 12-J” with “hidden away” in Horton Hears a Who. If I’d been using a rhyming dictionary when I began writing Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems, I might have given up when I discovered that there is no rhyme for penguin.
Words that rhyme in English can have vastly different spellings, and words that have similar spellings can have different pronunciations. This makes using a rhyming dictionary difficult. My husband owned a copy of The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary when I met him, and I turned to it when I began writing poetry for children. The book uses phonetic spelling to distinguish between vowel sounds. Nothing breaks the spell of writing poetry more quickly than having to learn phonetic spelling.
My favorite rhyming dictionary (a print dictionary, though sadly out-of-print) is Sue Young’s Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary. It contains only words I would really use, and they are given in vertical lists with lots of white space around them (and some cartoon illustrations besides). There is an index, but no phonetic spelling is required.
Online rhyming dictionaries eliminate the need to consult an index or learn a phonetic spelling system. There are some great online rhyming dictionaries, and some not-so-great ones (some appear to have been written by robots). I’ve watched a couple change and get worse.
Online rhyming dictionaries are used mostly by songwriters, who count on singers to shape the sounds of their words in performance. Songs can contain “near rhymes” or “slant rhymes.” A poem on the page is held to a higher standard. Does 'bill' rhyme with 'real'? Does 'room' rhyme with 'tune'? In a children’s picture book, probably not.
My current favorite online rhyming dictionary is Rhymezone. On Rhymezone, the most commonly-used words are highlighted in dark blue. This helps me skip past unlikely and unlovely candidates. As a bonus. Rhymezone offers many examples of how a particular word has been rhymed in classic poems, and in popular songs, from Broadway musicals, to jazz, to country and western, to rap. I love this feature because it puts the rhymes in a creative context.
But even Rhymezone suggests far too many words that just don’t rhyme—see Rhymezone's partial list of rhymes above for the word 'dictionary'.
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.