The Arrow Book of Funny Poems

Our house is filled with books. There isn’t a room that doesn’t contain an overflowing bookshelf or several boxes or stacks of books, and in the crawlspaces there are still more boxes that we never unpacked.  Not only are Galahad and I voracious readers, our parents were also devoted to reading, so we inherited many books from our fathers.  Our children added plenty more to the collections, and even after two sons moved out and brought their favorites (and some of mine…) with them, I can still browse through the titles here and remember which book was the favorite of which son.

I own two copies of one thin paperback, stored in a place of honor on the top shelf of our beautiful oak bookcase.  My first copy was purchased in 1966 — second or third grade for me: The Arrow Book of Funny Poems.  It is well-used, well-loved, and well-worn, and has a cover price of $.35.

Eleanor Clymer collected this wonderful assortment of whimsical poetry and song lyrics back in 1961, and the copyright dates on the poems themselves go back much farther: the oldest copyright is 1901 by Miss Louise Anderson, for the poems I Wish That My Room Had a Floor and The Invisible Bridge, both by Gelett Burgess.  The former poem is a limerick I memorized decades ago and still recite when it seems appropriate:

I wish that my room had a floor;
I don’t so much care for a door,
But this walking around
Without touching the ground
Is getting to be quite a bore!

I acquired my newer copy just a few years ago, when I was still working at a public library.  We kept a truck of donated books in each department as an ongoing book sale to support the purchase of new library materials. I was browsing the cart one day when I spied a nearly pristine copy of this beloved book! A 1969 reprint, the cover price had risen to $.50.

There is no describing the joy this discovery brought me.  My original copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems is not long for this world if I continue to flip through it.  The pages are yellowed and chipped, and the cover is torn and broken.  This damage is not from careless mishandling but from the constant usage the book has seen over the course of forty years.

The minute I have this book in mind, I can envision the illustrations — the ones published in the book, and the ones my childhood self drew next to some of my favorite verses.  I can remember my brother R reading aloud Song of the Pop-Bottlers by Morris Bishop.  That poem is filled with opportunities to twist the tongue, and well into our teens, R and I would take turns reading it aloud as fast as we could.  R was always a clown anyway; he would have me in tears of mirth, gasping for air (I’m laughing now, just remembering those readings.)  As an adult, I took time to share many of these same poems with my sons, right along with the folktales and other stories we read together.

There are 128 poems in this collection, of which I have memorized 34.  There are limericks, odes, lyrics, and other forms of rhyme for which I do not know the proper names.  There are authors given, whose names meant nothing to me in 1966, but now mean a great deal: Laura E. Richards (whose mother wrote the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic), Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, Stephen C. Foster, W.S. Gilbert, Carl Sandburg, and Edward Lear.

The poignant discovery of adulthood involved my favorite author, and what “his” identity may mean in the Cosmic Scheme of Things.  As a child, I assumed this was someone like Aesop — another favorite author — and so did not question the unusual nature of the name.  I often asserted that “he” was my favorite poet, and my parents’ funny expressions never really registered back then.  As an adult in my own right now, I realized who my favorite author was, and along with that realization came the bitter truth of history and memory…

“Anon.”

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Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.
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We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)
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After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.

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One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

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We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.

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We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.
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We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.

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After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.

Book Review: The Sea Monster by Chris Wormell

It’s always interesting to see what sort of children’s story awaits beneath a “monster” title.

When my firstborn was just discovering books, he had a penchant for monsters, and I’m pretty certain we looked at every book published for children with a monster theme or image. Favorites included Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, Doug Cushman’s Not Counting Monsters, and even The Berenstain Bears and the Green-Eyed Monster just to see Papa Bear turn green.  When I spotted Chris Wormell’s The Sea Monster, I had to peek inside and see what was new in monsters for children.

Chris Wormell brings his readers on a magical visit to the ocean shore, in the company of a little boy, his faithful dog, an old man, and a mysterious sea creature who is a little bit of all these things. While there is acknowledged danger — the boy is adrift on the ocean, far from shore —  it is never a frightening or threatening situation that would make a young reader uncomfortable with the story. By the time the danger is realized, the rescue is already underway.  Wormell is never saccharine or heavy-handed in telling the story; he trusts his illustrations to explain what he leaves unsaid.

The result is a magical story, told quietly, so that we might hear the lapping of gentle waves, the cries of seagulls, and the distant barking of a little boy’s dog.  Richly colored illustrations provide a sense of immensity: the vastness of the sea, the sheer height of the cliffs, and the mystery of love, in the form of an ancient monster.

The Sea Monster
Chris Wormell
Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 0224070258

Book Review: Marcia Williams’s retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

More than six hundred years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer commenced the writing of his Canterbury Tales.  The work was never finished: of the 30 pilgrims, each was to tell two tales, to help pass the time on the journey to Canterbury and back, but today we have only the unfinished fragments in countless interpretations and translations.

Marcia Williams took on the awesome challenge of retelling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for a new generation of younger readers.  Referring (with credit given on the copyright page) to Dr. Lesley A. Coote’s student-friendly edition as the basis for Williams’ own text, the stories are told in modern English with snippets of the original text provided in the illustrations, in word bubbles from the characters, where their context makes them less alien and more charming.

A particularly endearing feature of Williams’ book is the running commentary of characters in the margin illustrations.  Little birds discuss the actions of characters in the Knight’s tale, while squirrels and owls listen in on the Miller’s tale, and goofy fairies flit alongside the Wife of Bath’s story.  These margin dialogues provide a modern day connection and discussion points for adults who share this book with children, or for older children to discuss the stories together.

The medieval font chosen for the copyright page information particularly charmed me.  It’s always a delight when publishers remember that a few of us have to read that page, too.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
retold by Marcia Williams.
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, c2007.
ISBN 9780763631970.